Fiction or factumentary?


Bare Ground, by Peter Harris (Picador Africa)

bare ground peter harris

Peter Harris seems to have an instinctive ability to tell a good story.

The lawyer turned writer has produced three books: two non-fiction titles – In a Different Time, and Birth – which read like thrillers, and the new novel, Bare Ground, which reads like a documentary. It’s made up, and yet the tale he tells is so plausible in the current South African context that it feels true, just one you haven’t read in the newspaper yet.

Bare Ground was launched at the Book Lounge recently, and Harris told proprietor Mervyn Sloman he felt this was a novel that needed to be published now, given the pace at which things move in South Africa.

“Some stuff lies beyond fiction, quite frankly. I wanted it to come out during the Zuma presidency – it’s important to tell this story now in our history.”

The story is of a mining company that needs to set up a consortium to give effect to a BEE deal. The boss is wealthy, urbane Max Sinclair, and his right-hand man is one Sifiso Lesibe, a geologist now working in head office.

The way the deal is structured is critical, Max realises. Do they go internally and give it to senior black employees in the company, with some going to black staff, or do they go to an outside consortium. Or should it be a mixture of both? Continue reading

History at the heart of the Man Booker prize winner

george saunders

Acclaimed American short story writer George Saunders has become the second American to win the Man Booker Prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.

The £50 000 (about R850 000) prize was presented to him at a ceremony in London’s Guildhall by the Duchess of Cornwall last night (October 17).

The judges described the book as “utterly original” and “deeply moving”. Continue reading

October 16

rapid fireRapid Fire, by John Maytham (Tafelberg)

Can a vegan eat a fig? Well of course. Except it turns out figs are tricky. Smyrna figs are pollinated in such a way that a female wasp dies inside the fruit. You won’t actually bite into the wasp – her body will be dissolved by acid – but technically the fruit will contain a speck of animal matter and that might put a very strict vegan off.

This is the sort of clever question – and answer – found in the book by John Maytham, who presents the afternoon drive show on Cape Talk radio. Because Maytham is a real know-it-all, he gets people to ring in on air with good questions to see if he and his team can answer them. Prizes are given for interesting rather than just difficult questions.

This is a fun quiz book covering topics from flags to food, from sport to spies. Here’s another question: which American president was the inspiration for a popular toy? Yes – you know this one, really.

The Blessed Girl, by Angela Makholwa (Macmillan)

Bontle Tau is gorgeous, and she knows it. If she had a choice between coming back as Albert Einstein or as Marilyn Monroe, she’d choose Marilyn Monroe every time. Marilyn Monroe was the original blessee, and you can quote Bontle on that.

Bontle likes the fine things in life – the designer shoes, the champagne, the penthouse, the expensive car, the beauty treatments. But all this costs, and she needs to keep her chaps on side, like Papa Jeff, who’s getting just a teeny bit fat; like Teddy, who seems to have messed up a tender business; like Mr Emmanuel, the lovely rich Nigerian; oh, and then there’s Bontle’s soon-to-be ex-husband.

It’s not easy, or as Bontle puts it, keeping all her boyfriends happy and living a fabulous life has its challenges.

This is Angela Makholwa’s fourth novel, following Red Ink, The 30th Candle and Black Widow Society. Makholwa is based in Joburg.

Taking a miracle for granted


The Most Perfect Thing – Inside (and outside) a bird’s egg, by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury)

WE take eggs utterly for granted. There they are, cream or brown or speckled, in their clever natural packaging, waiting to be boiled, fried or beaten.

Yet, seen through the eyes of British ornithologist Tim Birkhead, they are little miracles.

Hen’s eggs, the ones we buy from the supermarket, are unfertilised and unincubated, so we see only a fraction of the miracle they are, he says.

“Our familiarity with the eggs of one species has blinded us to the extraordinary diversity of egg size, shape and structure across the 10 thousand other species of birds that currently exist in the world.”|

Birkhead has made a career studying guillemots, northern hemisphere seabirds that nest on cliffs and lay eggs of an astonishing variety of size and colour.  In fact these eggs were the most popular and sought after for collections because of their variety, beauty and odd, pointy shape. (See the eggs on the cover of the book.) Continue reading

Nobel winner a fan of the BBC

Like millions of people the world over, the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, trusts the BBC.

He was at home in Golders Green in London on Thursday (October 5), about to sit down to brunch, when his agent rang to tell him the good news.

“I thought it was a hoax in this time of fake news and everything,” he said on a Guardian video posted on YouTube.

“So I asked them to check up because I hadn’t heard at all – I thought the normal procedure was that the winner is told first. So I didn’t believe it for a long time.

“Then my publisher phoned. And finally when the BBC phoned, I thought it might be true.”

Ishiguro is probably most famous for his novel The Remains of the Day, for which he won the Booker Prize in 1989, and which was adapted into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in 1993. Continue reading

Story of a war in objects

Review by Vivien Horler

The Anglo-Boer War in 100 Objects, edited by Johan van Zÿl and created by the War Museum of the Boer Republics (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

War might be a ghastly waste of life and a failure of diplomacy, but it does seem to promote extraordinary human ingenuity.

Or, in this context: ’n Boer maak a plan.

You’re a member of a Boer commando in the guerilla phase of the Anglo-Boer War, and it has been decided by a war council of senior Boers, including presidents Paul Kruger and MT Steyn, that the British communication systems must be disrupted.

Your capital cities have been occupied, you have no access to industrial workshops, and you are waging war on the back of a horse. How do you derail the trains and blow up the bridges that the British depend upon?

Captain Henri Slegtkamp, a Dutch-born member of Captain Danie Theron’s Reconnaissance Corps, came up with the idea of a “trein vernieler” or train wrecker. The Boers would place a few sticks of dynamite and part of a Martini-Henry rifle bolt containing a single round under the rail. When a train passed, its weight depressed rail on to the trigger, firing the round into the dynamite and detonating it.

The Brits could be ingenious too. During the siege of Mafeking, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, commander of the British garrison in the town, had limited artillery to hand: seven aging .303 Maxim machine guns and seven artillery pieces. But they also had the Lord Nelson, an old ship’s cannon which they used to fire dynamite grenades at Boer positions.

And where did they find a ship’s cannon in the inland semi-desert town? It was being used as a gatepost. Continue reading

Great October book club suggestions

  • The Anglo-Boer War in 100 Objects (Jonathan Ball Publishers): Richly illustrated, this book, based on artefacts in the War Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein, gives an engaging, accessible and chronological account of the war that left a long shadow over our country. If you are going to read only one book about the Anglo-Boer War, let it be this one.  – A review of this book will appear on this site on Sunday, October 7)
  • In the Days of Rain, by Rebecca Stott (Fourth Estate) Non-fiction about a British family which belonged to a cult called the Exclusive Brethren for several generations. It’s better than you think, beautifully written, and an eye-opener. It’s also fascinating to read how, when the family leave the cult, they feel cast adrift because none of the old certainties apply. Thoroughly recommended. – Find the review under New Books September 5.
  • Gone, by Min Kym (Viking/ Penguin) Non fiction.  Min Kym is a Korean-born British violinist and child prodigy who bought a Stradivarius when she was 21. Playing that violin was what she was made for, she says. But when she was 31, the violin was stolen at Euston Station and she fell apart. The money was the least of her concerns. I can’t say too much more without being a spoiler, but I will add that her partner, Matt, was a toad. A terrific read. Find the review under New Books September 17.
  • Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin (Little, Brown) Fiction. Aviva Grossman from Florida is a promising politics student who secures a job as an intern for a (sexy,charming, married) congressman. She writes a blog about it, including the details (without names) of their sexual relationship. This is an extremely poor decision, and she ends up changing her name to Jane Young and moving to Maine. But secrets on the internet hang around forever. This is a delightful read, but also has some serious things to say. Find the review under New Books, September 30.

A secret life

young jane youngYoung Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin (Little, Brown/ Jonathan Ball)

We’ve all done silly things when we were young and stupid, and mostly we don’t die, nor are we maimed, and we grow up with our reputations more or less intact.

But sometimes our follies are not so easy to shrug off, and this is the theme of this delightful novel by the author of The Collected Works of AJ Fikry.

When the action begins, Aviva Grossman is a 20-year-old student at the University of Miami in Florida, studying politics and Spanish literature.

She gets an unpaid internship in the office of a (sexy, charming, married) Florida congressman, and writes a blog about her experiences. She’s able and smart, but not that smart. The blog is anonymous, and she uses no names, but she goes on writing it even after she and the congressman become lovers. Continue reading

A bookshop’s magic

collected works of aj fikry

Review: Vivien Horler (2014)

The Collected works of AJ Fikry (Little, Brown)*

This is one of those books you put down with a regretful “aaah”.

AJ Fikry runs Island Books on a Massachusetts island, and has stuck up a sign over the door that reads: “No man is an island; every book is a world.”

But in fact AJ has become something of an island; ever since his pregnant wife Nic died in a car crash he has lost his zest for life. Surly to his customers, he spends his evenings drinking himself to sleep. Nothing matters.

He does have one treasure though: a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane. Copies sell for around $400 000, and his plan is to auction it off in a couple of years, close the bookshop and retire. Continue reading

September 26 2017


Sheri just the way I amShéri – Just the way I am, by Shéri Brynard & Colleen Naudé (Lux Verbi)

Not many people with Down Syndrome write their life stories, but Shéri Brynard has. In the foreword co-writer Colleen Naudé says the book is based on Shéri’s own writing, supplemented by Naude’s interviews with her. Shéri is 35, has met Oprah Winfrey, has travelled the world as a motivational speaker, has a diploma in educare from a Bloemfontein FET college, and works at the Lettie Fouché School for mentally challenged children.

The second, shorter part of the book is written by Shéri’s mother Susette Brynard. Susette says she has learned more from Shéri than Shéri ever learned from her. “My child knows about work. Everything is hard work; nothing ever falls into her lap.” Thanks to this determination, Shéri , who is Afrikaans speaking, has remarkable achievements behind her, including being an ambassador for Down Syndrome International, which meant she had to learn to give speeches in English. Jonathan Jansen, former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and a key figure in Shéri’s life, says: “She has defied all odds… Her story inspires and educates at the same time, and makes one’s own struggles pale into insignificance.”