Monthly Archives: September 2017

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.”

Camilla reaches the sunlit uplands

the duchess camillaReview: Vivien Horler

The  Duchess – the untold story (William Collins/ Jonathan Ball)


In the late 1960s Camilla Shand, the woman who was to become Prince Charles’s second wife, had a boyfriend called Andrew Parker Bowles.

He was  a “deb’s delight”, the sort of man young upperclass British girls fancied rotten. He was good-looking, charming, a polo player and an officer in the Household Cavalry.

He was fond of Camilla, but then he was fond of a lot of girls. Camilla was determined to marry him. The early years of their relationship marked what journalist and biographer Penny Junor describes as the beginning of “a long torturous romance”, because he couldn’t resist other women, many of them Camilla’s friends.

A young Chilean historian, Lucia Santa Cruz, lived in the flat above Camilla in London’s Belgravia, and felt sorry for her. Santa Cruz happened to know Prince Charles, then 22 and with  no girlfriend, and in 1971 introduced the pair. Continue reading

A bleak view of hope

Review: Vivien Horler

A Man of Good Hope  (Jonathan Ball Publishers) 2014man of good hope



There’s a cooldrink stall on St George’s Mall outside our office, where cans of Coke and Fanta lie in zinc baths full of ice. Cigarettes are also sold there, and people light them from a lighter hanging on a string.

The Somalis who run the stall are busy with customers; I rarely buy from them and for me the stall is simply an obstacle when crossing the mall.

Until I read A Man of Good Hope. Now I wonder how much of their story is mirrored in this book. All around us there are people living their lives, trying to make enough money to support themselves and their families, and most of us have no idea where they have come from, how they got here, and what perils they survived on the way. Continue reading

This week’s new books

overkill james clarkeOverkill – the race to save Africa’s wildlife, by James Clarke (Struik Nature)

In his introduction to this book, environment writer James Clarke says 90% of the world’s largest creatures have disappeared since humans migrated from Africa and fanned out across the world. The one landmass that has kept its giant animals – elephants, rhinos, giraffe – is, ironically Africa, where humans came from. The reason, he says, is that African animals knew very well to keep their distance from humans, something the mammoths and mastodons on other continents did not. It is only in the past couple of hundred years, when humans armed themselves with firearms, that African animal numbers began plummeting. Clarke believes that last year the African wildlife situation reached its lowest ebb, and that now the tide is turning.

tracks & signsInvertebrates of Southern Africa and their Tracks and Signs, by Lee Gutteridge (Jacana)

When people go to game parks and reserves they are generally looking for the big animals, the vertebrates, lions and elephants and eland and rhino. But there is a treasure of other creatures out there, often in your garden, the insects and spiders, the beetles and worms. Wildlife writer and guide Lee Gutteridge says his book is a first, a relatively untouched topic in southern Africa. This could be partly because many invertebrates keep themselves to themselves and live hidden lives, and also because they are so common we take them for granted. Many are of vital importance within the processes of nature, such as pollination, and others are important food sources. This book is richly illustrated, and shows insects as often gorgeous, highly coloured creatures. Others are a little less appealing.

Cape Town mayor’s take on her job

mayor patricia de lilleCape Town mayor Patricia de Lille is launching her book, View from City Hall, this week.

Spokeswoman Zara Nicholson says the book, co-written by Craig Kesson, is her take on her work in the city over the past six years; what it takes to build a leading city government; which major changes have been introduced and why; how she and her mayoral committee have aligned strategy with implementation; and some of the challenges they have faced.

The book is being launched at the Civic Centre tomorrow, September 19.

The unstrung violinist

gone min kymReview: Vivien Horler

Gone – a girl, a violin, a life unstrung  (Viking/ Penguin)


Min Kym was a child prodigy violinist. Born in South Korea, her family moved to London when she was three, where her father worked for Daewoo.

Her older sister was musical, and the two girls would play “duets” together in their bedroom at night, the sister playing on a drawn paper keyboard and Min on a paper violin.

At a very young age Min was given an eight-size violin, harsh and factory made, but she loved it, loved the feel of it, and by the time of her first lesson she had taught herself to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Playing a violin was not simply for Min, it was Min, she writes. Everything about it was easy and natural: “I had found, not only my home and my voice, but my element… I felt like a creature released, alive in herself for the first time.”

Her sister, nine at the time, was a good enough pianist to get into the Purcell School for Young Musicians, Britain’s oldest specialist musical school. Min at seven was too young, but one day while she and her mother were collecting her sister, Min carrying her violin, the headmaster asked her if she could play.

pic of min kymCertainly, she said, and played Bach’s Concerto in A minor. Afterwards the headmaster said he thought he could bend the rules, allowing her to start at the school two years earlier than usual. He would also see if he could provide some financial help.

Things didn’t run entirely smoothly – Min’s dad was posted back to South Korea – and it was some years before Min could take up her place.

She studied with some top teachers including the legendary Ruggiero Ricci at the University of Salzburg, and became a student at the Royal College of Music. She bought her first proper violin, a Carlo Bergonzi, for £250 000, partly funding the purchase with money she had won in a competition. She became a soloist, played with the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy, made a recording. Continue reading

Somewhere on the Border

cuito cuanavaleReview: ARCHIE HENDERSON

Cuito Cuanavale – 12 months of war that transformed a continent (Jonathan Ball)



Former war correspondent Fred Bridgland visited the frontlines of the war in Angola between 1975 and the late ‘80s, travelled with Unita guerrillas through that country, witnessed some of the fighting and interviewed many of those involved. So it’s surprising that the person he considers the hero of the conflict is not a soldier.

“If you were going to choose a hero in all this, it was Chester Crocker,” says Bridgland of the urbane US scholar-diplomat who served as Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1981 to 1989.

Crocker, the architect of the United States’ “constructive engagement” policy with Southern Africa, is credited with toning down the Angolan war, allowing the Cubans and South Africans to leave with dignity, engineering Namibian independence and probably bringing apartheid to an earlier end than expected. In doing so, Crocker had to keep a lot of balls in the air, and then let them down gently. Continue reading

2017 Man Booker shortlist announced

man booker coversThe Man Booker Prize judges have announced the 2017 shortlist of six titles.

They are:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan) (Hamish Hamilton)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)

The judges said the novels, each in its own way, challenged and subtly shifted the reader’s preconceptions about the nature of love, about the experience of time, about questions of identity and even death. Continue reading