Murder as the temperatures rise

Review: Vivien Horler

The Heron’s Cry, by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)

I am a fan of Ann Cleeves’s detective thrillers, and have been ever since I came across the Shetland series – the books. Then there was the TV series, which I loved – I have a bit of a thing for remote islands – and eventually there was the Vera TV series, a great favourite.

So I was delighted to come across The Heron’s Cry, second in a new series set in North Devon and featuring Detective Matthew Venn. I haven’t read the first one, The Long Call, but it’s received high praise and I have downloaded it on my Kindle.

It’s a hot summer, and tourists are pouring into the pretty seaside towns in the area. Pubs, restaurants and roads are full. But an old working farm up on the hill with views over the fields down to the sea is an oasis of peace. It is where glassblower Eve Yeo  lives and works. Sharing the space is her landlord, and Wes, a musician and creator of quirky pieces of furniture from driftwood.

One hot morning Eve goes into her workshop to find her father, medical doctor Nigel Yeo, dead in a pool of blood. He has been stabbed with a shard of glass.

Continue reading

Brilliant biography of ‘a pain the the arse’


Reviewer: Archie Henderson

A Certain Idea of France: The Life of Charles de Gaulle, by Julian Jackson (Penguin)

World War 2 made Charles de Gaulle. At the time of France’s squalid surrender to Germany in 1940, De Gaulle was an obscure brigadier-general in the French army with some eccentric ideas about tank warfare – ideas that would be used by the invaders during the successful Blitzkrieg campaign and then finally, and perhaps grudgingly, accepted by the victors. Instead of using tanks in dashing, but futile cavalry charges, De Gaulle believed in tanks co-operating with infantry and anti-tank guns.

His theories were dismissed by the French high command, but employed effectively by German generals such as Rommel and Guderian. 

De Gaulle took those ideas with him when he fled France rather than surrender. There is a lot about fighting in Julian Jackson’s brilliant book, but it is the politics that makes it fascinating. I received this book a year ago, soon after it had won a literary prize, and it has taken me that long to finish it. At 959 pages, it is heavy going but seldom boring. There are also passages you revisit because they are so well written you want to relish each word and sentence.

Jackson tries hard to be fair to De Gaulle, and there is a sense of admiration for a man who divided not only his own country, but also those of his allies. No wonder Winston Churchill said (or was alleged to have said of him): “The greatest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.”

The two men were not friends and it would be hard to attach blame. Both could be difficult. Franklin Roosevelt positively loathed De Gaulle and Stalin dismissed him. Only Dwight Eisenhower, as Allied commander, seems to have tried to befriend him. But De Gaulle brought a vital element to the Allied side in World War 2.

With France capitulating and becoming a virtual vassal state of Nazi Germany (the Vichy part that was not occupied until the end of the war), De Gaulle sustained, and personified, French resistance to Germany.

It didn’t start well, however. De Gaulle arrived in Britain with virtually nothing except a few patriotic Frenchmen who has fled their homeland to carry on the fight. De Gaulle believed that Vichy forces in France’s colonies would rally to his side, but few did. In Syria, for example, Britain had to fight a vicious campaign against the French to protect the vital Iraqi oilfields next door.

In Dakar, a small Vichy garrison defied a French invasion by De Gaulle’s Free French Forces, and in the Far East, the Vichy government threw in their lot with the Japanese. The few colonies that rallied to De Gaulle’s side were in the New Hebrides, east of Australia in the Pacific and too far away to make a difference. 

Nevertheless, De Gaulle rallied Frenchmen and some of the colonised to fight on, in North Africa, Italy and finally on home soil where he arrived, triumphantly, in Paris in 1944 to march down the Champs Elysees, all on his own, with rivals and supporters following well behind. It was the single moment when De Gaulle projected himself as the “man who saved France”. 

That’s only halfway through the book. The rest of it is made up political intrigue, dealing with potential mutiny in the army over Algerian independence, surviving assassination attempts (Day of the Jackal being the most famous, if fictious) and not a little compassion. He was devoted to his wife and his Down syndrome daughter. The passages that describe those relationships give a human touch to a man who was considered the biggest pain in the arse by even his friends and allies.


There’s a twist in the middle – but does it work?

Review: Vivien Horler

Wish You Were Here, by Jodi Picoult (Hodder & Stoughton)

Well, I dunno.  I was enjoying this novel until I got to about page 187 and then thought: “Oh for goodness sake.”

I can’t really say much more than that, because that would ruin things. But I was left feeling cheated.

Jodi Picoult is a prolific novelist, and during an interview at the Mount Nelson some years ago she told a group of book reviewers, including me, that she writes by seeing the unspooling of a story in her mind’s eye, rather like watching a video, and then writing it all down.

I’m sure it’s harder than that. She creates difficult, nearly impossible situations between people, and then works to resolve them. The riveting My Sister’s Keeper, for example, tells the story of a couple whose only child develops a terminal disease, and needs a bone marrow transplant.

The parents are told the best donor would be a sibling, so they deliberately have a second child whom they hope will be a match. And success – the little girl is a match. Until, around about the age of 12, the second daughter rebels. Feeling that she was brought into the world to provide spare parts, she announces she is no longer prepared to donate bone marrow cells to her sister, and goes to court against her parents.

But Wish You Were Here is not that novel. It is the first Covid-19 novel I’ve come across, and begins in Manhattan in March 2020 with a couple, Finn and Diana, about to go on holiday to the Galapagos, where Diana is expecting Finn will propose.

But Finn is a hospital doctor, and Covid cases start mounting alarmingly. The night before they are due to fly, Finn’s boss makes it clear that all hands are needed. Finn tells Diana she should go on her own, but he can’t join her.

And so, rather reluctantly, off she goes, eventually arriving on the tiny island of Isabela, not realising she is on the very last ferry in before the island closes for a fortnight.

Fast forward and Diana wakes in Finn’s hospital, having had a serious case of Covid which meant she needed to be on a ventilator. It soon becomes clear she is lucky to be alive, and must now start the long process of rehab, building up her strength and learning to cope again.

In the meantime she has lost her job with the art auctioneers Sotheby’s, as all the staff have been furloughed, and the relationship with Finn doesn’t seem to be as idyllic as before.

I read Wish You Were Here with interest, but I’m not sure Picoult really pulls it off. When you feel you’ve been cheated half way through, you never feel quite the same way about the novel again.

  • The Books Page is taking a brief break and will be back in the New Year. Season’s greetings to you all.


A real palm-sweating thriller

Review: Vivien Horler

Dark Flood, by Deon Meyer ( Hodder & Stoughton)

If I describe this detective thriller as something like Enid Blyton for grownups, I mean no disrespect towards Deon Meyer, one of South Africa’s best-selling authors.

I remember as an eight-year-old reading an adventure book by the British children’s author and my palms beginning to sweat as danger surrounded the hero.

This thriller is exciting, engaging, a good puzzle, and beautifully evokes the wonders of Stellenbosch, with its vineyards, white-gabled houses, and oak-lined streets.

And we’re back with old friends Hawks Captains Benny and Vaughn Cupido trying to do their best in a country drowning in crime and corruption. Continue reading

Never a dull moment for this cook

Review: Myrna Robins

A Sprig of Rosemarie, by Rosemarie Saunders (Print Matters Heritage)

Subtitled “A journey of culinary memories and recipes”, this gastronomic potpourri presents a medley of recipes, each accompanied by Saunders’s personal story of where the dishes were cooked and what occasion she was catering for.

Although this is a slim softback of just over 100 pages, it packs a fine variety of fare, ranging from timeless classics to her adaptations of French, Italian and the odd Greek dish. Thai favourites get a look-in and there’s a delicious story of how footwear was suggested as a design theme for tables of African banquets she was producing for embassy staff and dignatories in Addis Ababa…

Recipes do not list ingredients preceding method, but the two are combined which saves space. The ingredients are printed in bold, so home cooks can collect these quite easily before starting preparation. Continue reading

Shackleton: terror and courage on the ice

Shackleton – a biography, by Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)

A few years ago I had the enormous privilege of travelling to the Antarctic Peninsula from Ushuaia in Argentina. I had always wanted to go to the ice, and rather fancied the idea of over-wintering.

Well, my three weeks on a small cruise ship among islands and icebergs cured me of that notion. It was beautiful, wonderful to visit, to see king penguins and elephant seals, the glowing blue light of old icebergs, great craggy mountains streaked with ice, and even to have a glass of wine with a block of Antarctic ice in it.

But it was cold, the wind howled, and the idea of being in that place for three months of perpetual darkness appalled me. Continue reading

Love and violence leave reader torn

Review: Vivien Horler

The Heart is the Size of a Fist, by PP Fourie (Kwela)

It was only when I sat down to write this review that I noticed below the title on the cover the works: “A novel”.

I had assumed the entire book was a truthful memoir of growing up in a home of violence and addiction. I then googled the book and found an interview Professor PP Fourie gave the SABC about the work, in which he described it as “auto-fiction” and confirmed it was semi-autobiographical.

It certainly is a searing depiction of the life of an Afrikaans child, Paul, whose father is abusive, a drunk, violent to his mother and also emotionally cruel. He says his father mostly ignored him, but would use him as a way of getting at his mother. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for November

Bedside table November

These are among the books that have landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later.

Shackleton – a biography, by Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)

To write about hell, it helps if you have been there, says Sir Ranulph Fiennes in the introduction to this biography of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. And Fiennes certainly has: as he points out, no previous Shackleton biographer has man-hauled a heavy sledge load through the great crevasse fields of the Beardmore Glacier, or walked a thousand miles on poisoned feet. Fiennes say he wrote this book because he often disagreed with statements in the many books and films about Shackleton and his amazing exploits, unparalleled leadership and unflinching courage. The first book I read about Shackleton’s Endurance adventure was South, his own account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 to 1917. It is gripping stuff, even in the formal, rather stuffy language of the time. I am very much looking forward to reading this biography.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for November.

Bewilderment, by Richard Powers (Hutchinson Heinemann)

This novel was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize (won by South Africa’s Damon Galgut). It tells the story of a scientist, Theo Byrne, who has devised a way to search for life on planets light years away. But he is also the father of nine-year-old Richard, clever and funny, but troubled, and who is facing expulsion from school for hitting a friend in the face with a coffee flask. Theo’s options are to put Richard on powerful drugs, or to take him to other planets in a bid to help save the one we have. Powers won the Pulitzer Prize for his previous novel The Overstory, which was also shortlisted for the Booker, prompting Barak Obama to comment: “It changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it… It changed how I see things and that’s always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for November.

The Heron’s Cry, by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)

I love Ann Cleeves’s police procedurals, both the Jimmy Perez series set on the Shetlands, and the Vera Stanhope series set mainly in the North Pennines. And I loved both TV series too. The Heron’s Cry features Cleeves’s new detective, Matthew Venn – who debuted in The Long Call – and is set in North Devon. A group of artists have their idyll ruined by the murder of Dr Nigel Yeo. His daughter Eve is a glass blower, and the murder weapon is a shard of glass from one of her vases. It turns out Eve is a close friend of Venn’s husband, and he has to tread carefully in his investigation. And then another body turns up, killed in a similar way.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for November.

Critical but, Stable, by Angela Makholwa  (Macmillan)

This local novel begins with a man looking at the body of his lover in bed. She was so warm, so full of passion, and now so still. Whom should he call? The ambulance? No, too late. The police? No, never. Her husband? Oh shit. Three families are living the high life in fancy homes, all members of the Khula Society, a social club with investment benefits. But under the glitz things are not what they seem. And now this death may change everything. Angela Makholwa writes gripping psychological thrillers. This novel was first published last year, was longlisted for the Sunday Times/ CNA Fiction Literary Award for 2021, and has now been published in paperback. I do feel the comma in the title is in the wrong place.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for November.

Rise, by Siya Kolisi with Boris Starling (HarperCollins)

Did Siya Kolisi’s yellow card cost the Springboks the match against the Lions at Twickenham on November 20? Maybe it did, but Siya Kolisi has been a Springbok hero, becoming the first black man to captain the team in 128 years and leading SA to victory at the Rugby World Cup in 2019. Yet he grew up in poverty, being born on the last day of apartheid, and spent much of his primary school period in Zwide in the Eastern Cape hungry. He started hanging out with some older boys, drinking, smoking weed and sniffing petrol. And then rugby saved him. He became attached to the African Bombers club, as a junior player, water boy, and odd-job boy.  He attributes his early success to coach Eric Songwiqi, the first positive male role model in his life. At 11 he was good enough to be selected for the Eastern Province Under-12 squad to play at a provincial tournament in Mossel Bay. There he was spotted a teacher at Grey College junior school in Port Elizabeth, won a full scholarship for his next six years of school – and the rest is history. He writes: “A good job for kids from Emsengeni (Primary, his school) was being a taxi driver. For Grey boys, the sky was the limit: they could be lawyers, doctors, businessmen. Even Springboks.”

  • This was one of Exclusive Books’s selected best reads for October.

A Taste for Life – How the Spur legend was born, by Allen Ambor

I once got a job as a waitress at the Golden Spur in Dean Street in Newlands. The first shift was technically “training”, and they paid me R1 (this was a while ago). I never went back – and I never waitressed again. But millions of students do, and it has been a lifeline for them. The Golden Spur was the first in Allen Amber’s empire, opening in 1967, trading until December last year when Covid-19 did for it. This is the inside story of one of Cape Town’s first steakhouses, how franchising took off, how the menu was designed and how Allen Ambor, aged just 26, would tell diners his aunt and uncle were in the kitchen to create the false but reassuring impression it was a family business. He also reveals a few secrets, such as playing the Four Tops’s Reach Out (I’ll be There) at the height of the Saturday night rush. “Customers would chew to the beat,” he confides, “and it helped turn tables.”


She might as well have been burnt at the stake

Review: Beverley Roos-Muller

Ethel Rosenberg: A Cold War Tragedy, by Anne Sebba (Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Jonathan Ball)

Ethel Rosenberg’s story was a cruel, cold war tragedy. She remains the only American woman ever to be executed for a crime other than murder, yet she was innocent; and that continues, rightly, to haunt us.

She was sacrificed in the era of the 1950s anti-Communist and anti-Semitic reign of terror by McCarthyism, not very different to the fear-mongering mob mentality that dominates parts of that country even today.

This powerful book by Anna Sebba covers the Rosenberg story with efficient, chilling clarity. Ethel was born in 1915 in an America full of new immigrants from Europe, many of them Jewish, many of them fleeing pogroms and dictatorships, and yearning for a new world of equality and opportunity. It was not at all unusual, in a world struggling to make sense of World War 1, to look towards a different way of living: to support Communist ideals, whether in Oxford or New York, was neither unusual at the time nor – importantly – was it illegal. Continue reading

Le Carré’s swansong may be one of his best


Review: Archie Henderson

Silverview, by John le Carré (Penguin Random House)

When the Cold War ended, some of his readers wondered if John le Carré would become redundant. But one of the world’s best spy novelists reinvented himself quickly, taking on a variety of villains – from arms dealers to shameless earth polluters.

The conflict between the West and the Muslim world and the disintegration of the Soviet empire became convenient backdrops for books far removed from his masterpieces like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

With Silverview, Le Carré is back in the great game. One of the characters is almost a re-creation of his finest character, George Smiley. Stewart Proctor, a renowned spy hunter in Britain’s Secret Service, even believes he is being cuckolded, just like dear old George. Like many of Le Carré’s themes, this novel is also one of betrayal. Continue reading