You might think you’re one of the good guys, but are you?

Review: Vivien Horler

One of the Good Guys, by Araminta Hall (Macmillan)

One of the Good Guys starts deceptively simply.

Cole has left London for a remote stretch of coast near Brighton (I didn’t know there were remote stretches of coast near Brighton) to outrun his pain.

He has a new job as a wildlife ranger, which comes with a cottage. Cole is a bit of a loner, and this job suits him much better than his previous work in PR.

Cole’s pain is caused by the collapse of his marriage to Mel who was, for six years, the one. They had met on a dating app, and knew immediately they had each found their soulmate. They were so taken with each other that on their first date they both deleted the app in front of each other. Continue reading

‘Only a girl’ didn’t stop the determined Bertha Benz

Review: Vivien Horler

The Woman at the Wheel, by Penny Haw (Sourcebooks)

In 1896, just 10 years after the first horseless carriage was demonstrated in the streets of Mannheim, Germany, by inventor Carl Benz, South African crowds welcomed the automobile – a Benz Vilo – to our shores.

The Velo, short for Velocipede, was a very different vehicle from the original Motorwagen which is depicted on the cover of this fictionalised piece of history.

For one thing it had four wheels, rather than the Motorwagen’s three, and was more powerful, but it still used a type of tiller for steering rather than a steering wheel (invented in France in 1894).

SA’s first Velo was put through its paces on a field in Pretoria before President Paul Kruger, and a century later I was present at the same field when Mercedes-Benz celebrated a century of the marque in the country.

Continue reading

Extraordinary tale of the beginning of the end of tuberculosis

Review: Vivien Horler

The Black Angels – The untold story of the nurses who helped cure tuberculosis, by Maria Smilios (Virago)

During World War II my aunt, who was a munitions worker in her early 20s in Cornwall, contracted tuberculosis.

She was sent to a sanatorium where she and several other women shared a three-walled ward – the fourth wall was open to the elements, all year round.

Bed rest, fresh air and good food – as good as was available in wartime Britain – was the treatment, and after two years she was pronounced cured.

Her fiancé had not hung around, so her engagement was over, and she had lost two years of her 20s, but compared with the horrors described in The Black Angels, it would seem she got off lightly.

TB is still a dread disease and the battle against it is far from over.  HIV has exacerbated the problem, because it is said as many as half the SA population has been infected with TB, but healthy immune systems keep it in check. When immunity is compromised however, such as by HIV, the TB microbes are free to make the patient desperately ill. Continue reading

The punishment for betrayal is living with the knowledge of what you have done

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

The Storm We Made, by Vanessa Chan (Hodder & Stoughton)

In the writing of this debut novel The Storm We Made there is no doubt that Vanessa Chan was greatly influenced by her grandparents’ experiences in Malaysia between 1941 to 1945, when the country was occupied by the Japanese.

She says: “In Malaysia our grandparents love us by not speaking. More specifically, they do not speak about… the period when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Malaya, tossed the British colonisers out and turned a quiet nation into one that was at war with itself.” 

Generally Malaysian grandparents are very chatty – so that silence speaks volumes.

While her research has revealed much of what happened during that time, there is a very personal quality to Chan’s story, almost as if she is laying ghosts in the telling. But this is a fictional account which takes us across 10 years from the British Malaya of 1935 through the Japanese occupation up to 1945. Continue reading

Bedside Table Books for March

Bedside Table March

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. The first four are from Exclusive Books’s top reads for March. Some will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

The Near North, by Ivan Vladislavic (Picador Africa)

Ivan Vladislavic has the extraordinary ability to write about everyday subjects and make them interesting. This new account of life in Johannesburg, by the man who wrote the brilliant Portrait with Keys, opens with a description of the lights going out during an episode of load-shedding.

“In a moment, every room breathed its last: the resigned sighs of electronic devices shutting down.”

There’s a search for candles, but all Vladislavic’s partner can find are tea lights. They’re hungry, but everything in the fridge needs cooking. “Looks like it’s either cornflakes or a restaurant.”

So they go out looking for an open restaurant, but like Riviera, the streets of Rosebank and Saxonwold are dark.

In a blackout, Vladislavic muses, those who can afford such things worry about electric fences, security cameras and burglar alarms that aren’t working; those who can’t worry about walking down unlit streets or having to unlock doors in the dark, or the neighbour knocking over a candle.

Parkview turns out to be on a different grid and the lights are on, but it’s a Monday night and most of the restaurants are closed.

Finally they find a small Italian diner where they and a group of strangers eat, chatty and happy to have also discovered a place that’s open and offering hospitality.

And that’s it, the first chapter in this volume. Nothing much, but we all been there  – and will be again.

The Near North is described as a vivid account of the old mining city in times of crisis, “finding meaning in the everyday and incidental”.

Vladislavic is an award-winning writer of novels, stories and essays, and is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Wits.

The Hidden, by Fiona Snyckers (Macmillan)

It’s been the worst terror attack in the US since 9/11, and the FBI are under enormous pressure to find and arrest the ringleaders. But these people are survivalists, with the ability to lie low in the dense forests of the Pacific North West.

This is the US in a post-Trump world, with a woman president, and domestic terrorism declared a federal crime.

Becca Abrahamson has a secret. While she may seem just another suburban housewife, she has deep ties with survivalist communities, and the FBI believes she is involved in the attack.

Fiona Snyckers, who is based in Johannesburg, has published eight novels, one of which, Lacuna, won the SA Literary Award for best novel in 2020.

SA writer Gus Silber says of The Hidden: “A propulsive and nerve-wracking tale of terror in the American heartland. The Hidden hits home with the urgency of a breaking news bulletin.”

The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder, by C L Miller (Pan Macmillan)

Exclusive Books says this murder novel falls into a similar category to those of Richard Osman’s popular Thursday Murder Club series. Novels about what they call “cosy” crime rarely focus on harsh realities, profanity or violence.

“The murders take place off stage, and are often relatively bloodless (eg poisoning), while sexual activity (if any) between characters is only ever gently implied and never directly addressed.”

A former antiques hunter investigates a suspicious death at an isolated English manor, which sees her back in the ruthless world of tracking down stolen treasures.

In a foreword author C L Miller reveals that before starting to write, she consulted her mother, Judith Miller, a regular expert on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, until her death last year. Miller senior told her daughter that what made antiques valuable was not necessarily their intrinsic value but their provenance, in other words their stories.

And Miller junior said once she had thought about that, this novel began to form in her mind.

Publisher’s Weekly says of this debut novel: “Miller’s winning debut exposes the dark underbelly of the antiques trade. Miller nails the pace and mood of a good mystery on her first try…”

Bounce – How to raise resilient kids and teens, by Naomi Holdt (Macmillan)

KZN-based psychologist and mother Naomi Holdt says there never was a time when rotten lemons weren’t tossed at people. We’ll all be knocked down by foreseen circumstances from time to time, and however much we try to protect them, so will our children.

So the question she sets out to answer in this book is how, despite “these lemon-drenched sucker punches”, can we ensure our kids get back up again?

It can be done, but it starts with the parents (doesn’t everything?). “The little things that you say and do have the power to completely change the trajectory of your child’s life.”

A parent’s role is not to prevent your children from falling, but to let them fall, knowing you are there to support them while they get up again. Because it’s in the struggle that we learn we can.

Bounce is not an academic book full of stats and data – it’s intended to be a workbook. One section lists 20 attributes of parents of resilient children, which points out that these parents tend to be resilient themselves, prioritise themselves and their partnerships, put consistent boundaries in place, prioritise play and fun, can let go, allow their kids to mess up, and are able to say sorry.

It also provides advice for anxious parents, gives tips on childhood depression and resilience, has advice for grieving children, tips for divorced parents and a “how to” guide on boundaries and discipline.

She says it’s impossible to get stuff right all the time, but if parents focus on the relationship first and always, the rest somehow falls into place.

Back Up – Why back pain treatments aren’t working and the new science offering hope, by Liam Mannix (New South/ University of New South Wales Press)

University of Sydney professor Chris Maher says in a foreword to this volume that low back pain is the number one cause of disability, affecting an estimated 540 million people at any point in time. In Australia the problem costs the health system A$4.8 billion annually and is the most common reason why middle-aged Australians retire early.

In this book Australian science journalist Liam Mannix, who, like his father was a chronic back pain sufferer, describes the new science of pain and how we think about it, and says recovery from back pain is within our own control.

The book is the result of years of interviewng experts on back and chronic pain. As many as one in five Australians have chronic pain, ranging from headaches to arthritis and endometriosis.

He looks at the back itself, whether we’re built “wrong”, at common beliefs about our backs that turn out to be plain incorrect (“good posture is important, strengthen your core, lift with a straight back…”) and he talks to people who’ve suffered and experienced the “old science” of back pain.

The second half of the book focuses on the new science, how neuroscience has revolutionised the way scientists think about pain and what that can tell us about sore backs.

 

 

 

Read the back story of the Slow Horses series, created by ‘a laureate of decrepitude’

Review: Archie Henderson

The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron (Baskerville)

Mick Herron likes the private joke. In his latest novel, he has created a character who is said to be an heir to John le Carré –  “one of a long list”. Herron himself could not only be on that list, but near the top of it.

The British spy writer has made his mark with a series of his Slow Horses, MI5 outcasts who are run by a dishevelled, objectionable but very smart Jackson Lamb. It is with Lamb that the Guardian has accurately summed up Herron as “something of a laureate of decrepitude”.

But Herron can also do chic cool. His Diana Tavener, immaculately attired and ice-cold, is chief of MI5 and Lamb’s antithesis. Spy novels have never had such contrasting characters. Continue reading

Stand-out debut novel about the heartbreak of partition in India

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

Under the Tamarind Tree, by Nigar Alam (Bedford Square)

Nigar Alam’s debut novel Under the Tamarind Tree is a rich, graceful narrative spanning more than 50 years, highlighting the tragedies of partition, patriarchy and personal loss. I did not know much about the partition of India and how it came about so this was an entrée into a new culture – one that I enjoyed immensely.

It is 1947 and nine-year-old Rozeena is fleeing with her family to Pakistan. The creation of this country from British India was, for the Muslim community, their chance to have a homeland and a say in government.

The transition was not peaceful, the religious tensions fuelled by the ruling British, and the announcement of the Radcliffe Line, drawn by a man who had never set foot in India, was considered “cruelly negligent”. Continue reading

Turn every goddamned page

Review: Archie Henderson

Working, by Robert  A Caro (Vintage)

Robert Caro is 88 and readers are worried he won’t be around long enough to complete his monumental LBJ biographies. He has already written four, the last having been published in 2012. A fifth and final volume of the 36th US president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is still in the works. He takes about 10 years to write a book, so the final one may be imminent.

Five volumes of a US president who is now largely forgotten by many of us may seem like over-egging, but if you have the time and energy to read them all, I suspect the proof is in the pudding. I have read only volume four, The Passage of Power, which deals with his LBJ’s vice-presidency and ends with John F Kennedy’s assassination. It’s detailed, revealing – and gripping. I hope I’ll be around to read the rest.

But enough about LBJ, Working is about Caro.

Born in New York and a graduate of Princeton, he began his working life as reporter on a local paper in New Jersey before moving to Newsday, a respectable tabloid renowned for investigative journalism. Continue reading

How would we cope if tested in this way?

Review: Vivien Horler

Sisters Under the Rising Sun, by Heather Morris (Zaffre)

My tears came at the line: “It’s time for you to have a break, Sister James, you’ve done your duty; your shift is over.”

To which Nesta James replies to her friend and colleague Vivian Bullwinkel: “It’s been a bloody long shift, Bully, a bloody long one.”

It had lasted three years and seven months, the time the members of the Australian Army Nursing Service were held as prisoners of war of the Japanese in Sumatra, ending on September 11, 1945.

Heather Morris is the author of the best-selling The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Continue reading

Bedside table books for February

These are among the books that landed on my desk in February. The first three are from Exclusive Books’s top reads of the month. Some of the books will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Water, by John Boyne (Doubleday)

I have a weakness for islands, and so the premise of Water appeals. Vanessa Carvin, who is in her 50s, leaves Dublin for a small island off the Irish coast in a form of self-imposed exile.

About the first thing she does is change her name to Willow Hale, her middle name and maiden surname. Then she shaves off most of her hair. She is glad there is no wi-fi or television in her bare little cottage, and after switching the radio on she switches it off a minute later. It’s a rare privilege to be so wilfully ignorant of the world and all its nonsense, she muses.

We learn early on that Willow has a past, one that was often discussed on talk radio. Was she in on it, listeners wonder. Like attracts like, they mutter.

While Willow may have taken herself away, it’s harder to shuck her past, and the “scandals that follow like hunting dogs”. She has to try to figure out if her former husband was really the monster everyone says he is.

And whether she was complicit.

One reviewer says of Water: “…Boyne tells us a story we thought we knew, but strips away the ideology to present a new way of seeing.”

The Women, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

It is California 1966 and Finley McGrath is off to Vietnam, the latest in a line of fighting McGraths. His younger sister Frankie is going to miss him very much.

One day Finely’s friend points out there are no pictures of women heroes on the wall of her father’s study, and tells Frankie women can be heroes too. This has never occurred to Frankie.

She is doing nursing training, and she realises they’re going to need nurses in Vietnam. She could join Finley.

Things don’t work out quite as she’d expected.

The Women is dedicated to “the courageous women who served in Vietnam”, most of them nurses. Author Kristin Hannah says after the war was over, in many instances they went home to a world that didn’t care about their service and or want to hear about their experiences.

“I am proud to have this opportunity to shine a light on their strength, resilience, and grit.”

Fool Me Once, by Harlan Coben (Penguin Books)

Maya Burkett is with her husband Joe in Central Park on a pleasant evening when two men approach and shoot him. Calling for help, Maya flees.

Afterwards, she blames herself. She was, until recently, an army captain with service in Iraq, a markswoman and a helicopter pilot. She is strong and tough, how come she didn’t or couldn’t protect Joe?

After the funeral, Maya’s friend Eileen gives her what she calls a nanny cam. Seeing there is no Joe around any more, and Maya works full time giving flying lessons, Eileen thinks it might be helpful to keep an eye on how the nanny looks after toddler Lily. (Is that even legal?)

And then, one morning, shortly before Joe’s will is read, Maya is idly watching yesterday’s footage while reading Dr Seuss to Lily, when a man appears in the frame – and it’s a man both Maya and Lily know very well: Joe.

That’s as far as I’ve got. But Harlan Coben is a master of the thriller, and other reviews promise that the story only gets better.

The title was first published in 2016 but has been republished to coincide with a 2024 eight-part British TV series made for Netflix and starring Joanna Lumley among others.

Mrs Winterbottom Takes a Gap Year, by Joanna Nell (Hodder & Stoughton/ Jonathan Ball)

Dr and Dr Winterbottom have retired from their practice in an English village after more than 40 years. On the first morning of the rest of their lives, they eat breakfast at the mossy patio table – mossy because largely unused – under a heavy grey sky.

Alan has broken with his tradition of marmalade toast and cooked himself a couple of kippers, nauseating Heather, who settles for muesli. So what are they going to do?

Heather knows the way to get Alan to do what she wants is to present him with a couple of alternatives, one of which will not appeal. “We could get fit,” she says. Pilates, yoga…

Or… go to Greece on holiday.

Alan says he’s done Greece. He spent a month or two in his gap year drinking beer and shagging his way around the Greek archipelago. There’s no rush, they could go next year, he says.

Alan has a better plan. He wants to grow a vegetable garden. Heather points out he hates gardening. Only mowing the lawn and weeding, he counters.

Heather contemplates watching home improvement programmes on the telly every afternoon, “the passage of hours marked only in the boiling and cooling of the kettle”.

This is not going well. After a few ups and downs, Heather comes to a conclusion. She’s going to take a year off, alone, in Greece, a la Shirley Valentine.

Of course, things don’t go quite the way she’s planned.

The Last Trial, by Scott Turow (Macmillan)

Legendary American defence lawyer Sandy Stern is 85 and not well, but he has been persuaded to take on his last criminal trial in defence of his old friend – old in both senses of the word – Kiril Pafko, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine, and a man who has now been charged in a federal racketeering indictment with murder, fraud and insider trading.

Can the charges possibly be based on fact, Stern wonders as the trial progresses. And will Stern ever really know the truth, even if he wins in court?

We are told Stern’s belief in his friend and his belief in the justice system face a terrible test in the courtroom, “where evidence and reality are sometimes worlds apart”.

The Observer said of Scott Turow’s writing: “Grisham might do it more often, but Turow does it much better.” Turow has written 11 bestselling novels, including Presumed Innocent, and his books have been translated into more than 40 languages.

The Last Trial was published in 2020, but I’ve just got my hands on it.

Held, by Anne Michaels (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)

It is 1917 and after a blast John lies on a battlefield. He supposes he’s seriously injured as he can’t feel his legs, and his mind drifts between the present and the past.

Snow is falling thickly, but he doesn’t feel cold, which puzzles him. He wonders if he will know the moment of his death or will it be like night falling?

But John doesn’t die, and three years later he is home, but not whole. He is reunited with Helen, his lover and an artist, and reopens his photography business.

But he discovers the past is very much with him, and ghosts start to appear in his pictures.

This is a story that spans four generations, but it is a slight novel, not a tome, often written in short sections. The writing is beautiful.

Anne Michaels is the author of Fugitive Pieces, which was described by John Berger of the Observer as “the most important book I have read for 40 years”. She has also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Power and Faith – How evangelical churches are quietly shaping our democracy, by Pontsho Pilane (Tafelberg)

In her introduction to this title, Pontsho Pilane says she has always been uncomfortable with the level of dependence the SA government and civil society place on faith-based organisations as conduits into communities and the delivery of social service.

She understands that is because so many people are religious and belong to an institutional faith structure, “but it is particularly worrying in SA because our constitution includes many policies that are contrary to conservative interpretations of the Bible and other religious beliefs”.

The aim of her book is to unpack structural and systemic issues of  Christian evangelism in SA and the “sociopolitical implications that they have and will have on the state of health, human rights and other aspects of our everyday lives as South Africans”.

The book is for the young women who fall prey to evangelical religion, for those “trapped in the clutches of evangelicalism and cannot see a way out… this book is for… churches unaware of how they are tainting our democracy”.

Power and Faith has been declared “Book of the Month” by News24.