Monthly Archives: November 2018

Old flying hand remembers the swashbuckling days in Africa


Cowboys Don’t Fly by John Steed (Reach Publishers)

cowboys don't flyJohn Steed is an old hand of the Africa skies. He knows all there is to know about flying over the continent, the business and the politics, in peace and in war.

Steed, having done basic military training with the Kenya Regiment in the ‘50s before Uhuru, joined the RAF and was accepted as a pupil pilot flying BAC Jet Provosts, which served as the force’s training aircraft for 38 years. He proved a quick learner and a good pilot – until it came to flying in formation, a skill he was unable to master because of bouts of vertigo. Continue reading

Bit of magical realism twists this murder drama

Review: Vivien Horler

Someone Like Me, by MR Carey (Orbit Books/ Jonathan Ball)

someone like meThe cover blurb on this intriguing novel describes it as a psychological thriller; I would say it’s more than that, reaching into the realms of fantasy.

Generally I don’t like fantasy or magical realism, described by the writer Matthew Strecher as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe”.

That more or less sums up Someone Like Me, but it’s an absorbing and often nail-biting read.

Liz Kendall is a nice woman with two children, teenage son Zac and six-year-old Molly. She also has a violently abusive ex-husband Marc, and the pair get into a screaming match when Marc brings the children home late from a weekend with him. Continue reading

Empire, race and some surprises from the royal tour of 1947

last hurrah

The then Princess Elizabeth making a speech to the British empire on her 21st birthday.


The Last Hurrah: South Africa and the Royal Tour of 1947, by Graham Viney (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The results of the 1948 general election, which saw DF Malan’s National Party seize power from Jan Smuts’s United Party, have always been described as shocking and entirely unexpected.

Even Malan was said to be surprised, reports Graham Viney in this thoughtful, nuanced snapshot of a post-war South Africa that was about to disappear into the grip of formal apartheid and nationalism. Continue reading

Great food – and it helps to save the planet too


The South African Vegan Cookbook, by Leozette Roode (Human & Rousseau)

sa vegan cookbookPicking up this vegan cookbook wasn’t exactly a huge leap of faith as I’ve been treading a middle path for almost two decades, embracing vegetarianism with occasional lapses into being a pescetarian.

Eighteen years ago I had my eating epiphany when I bit into a piece of peri-peri chicken and gagged. Rather than the mouth-watering flavours I’d been looking forward to, I vividly tasted the pain of the creature.

“Don’t tell anybody that,” a friend urged after hearing my confession. “They’ll think you weird!” Continue reading

Good reads to go “Ah!” over

Reviews: Vivien Horler

Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger (Corsair)

The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell (Profile Books)

virgil wanderYou know that feeling when you put down a book and say Ah! I was lucky enough to have read two of those in the past week, one fiction, one non-fiction.

They don’t have much in common, but they are both lovely. On second thoughts, maybe they do have something in common: they are both about small towns and a business at the centre of those communities.

Virgil Wander – not a great title, you’re not sure if that’s the name of the book or the name of the author – is the fictional offering. Virgil lives in the declining post-industrial town of Greenstone, Minnesota, on the shores of the vast Lake Superior, where he is both town clerk and the owner of an old moviehouse called the Empress Theater.

The action opens on the day Virgil is coming home from hospital after managing, in the middle of a North American snowstorm, to drive his Pontiac through the safety barrier and into the lake. He is rescued, suffering from concussion and an inability to remember adjectives.

At a loose end Virgil wanders down to the waterfront where he meets a stranger, an elderly kite-flier called Rune. Rune is Norwegian, and has come to Greenstone to find out what he can about the son he has just discovered he fathered on a holiday to the US in his youth.

Rune and his wife were unable to have children, so that the news he did in fact have a son has been a source of great joy. And while the son, Alec, a notable Greenstone baseball player of great local fame, has been killed in a flying accident, his widow and son still live in Greenstone. Suddenly Rune discovers he has a whole American family.

Rune moves in with Virgil, who discovers he has an unexpected passion for kite-flying. So, it turns out, do most people in Greenstone.

But of course it’s not all charming – Greenstone is planning a festival to draw visitors to the town, and the plan is to get one of Greenstone’s famous sons, the filmmaker Adam Leer, to deliver the main address. But Adam Leer is a strange and malevolent man, and no good can come of this.

Not a great deal happens in Virgil Wander, but the characters are wonderful, there’s a love story, and things get distinctly nail-biting at the end. A real Ah! book.

diary of a booksellerThe Diary of a Bookseller, published last year, is a diary of a year in the life of a secondhand bookshop in Scotland’s Wigtown, written by its proprietor Shaun Bythell. Wigtown is Bythell’s home town and, aged about 30 and jobless, he goes to visit his parents to discover the bookshop is for sale. He tells the owner he has no money and the owner retorts: “You don’t need money – what do you think banks are for?”

Less than a year later Bythell takes over the shop, and discovers he should have read a piece by George Orwell published in 1936.

Bookshop Memories rings as true today as it did then, and sounds a salutary warning to anyone as naïve as I was that the world of selling secondhand books is not quite an idyll of sitting in an armchair by a roaring fire with your slipper-clad feet up, smoking a pipe and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall while a stream of charming customers engages you in intelligent conversation, before parting with fistfuls of cash.” Continue reading

New book describes how Mother of the Nation was no saint


Truth, Lies and Alibis – a Winnie Mandela story, by Fred Bridgland (Tafelberg)

truth lies and alibisThere was an immense outpouring of grief when Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died earlier this year. The Mother of the Nation was gone, it was the end of the Mandela era.

Much was said and written about her suffering – and she did suffer – at the hands of the apartheid government and its various agents. Her internal exile, her solitary imprisonment, her single motherhood, her devotion to her jailed husband, the fact she became the face of the Struggle during the years when the liberation movements were banned and its leaders were in prison, meant she was venerated by millions.

Few had the gall or possible poor taste to point out that she had often been anything but a saint. Now barely five months after her death in April, a veteran foreign correspondent has brought it all up again in a new book, and it isn’t a pretty story. Continue reading