Reviews: Vivien Horler (mostly!)
If you need last-minute Christmas present ideas, here are some from both recent book parcels I’ve happily received, and from my best books of the year.
I haven’t read all the latest ones, but they look brilliant (see down at the bottom). Most are non-fiction, my favourite reads, but there are some triffic fiction books too.
Saving a Stranger’s Life, by Anne Biccard (Jacana) is a Joburg private hospital doctor’s account of being on the Covid frontline. The experience is tough and exhausting, but the book is frequently both funny and heartbreaking. Great read.
Death and the After Parties, by Joanne Hichens (Karavan Press) is Hichens’ account of surviving the loss of her mother, her husband, her father and her mother-in-law within about three years (the last three within about three months). It’s a h4ear-breaking time, and this is a book very different f5rom Hichens’ usual police thrillers.
Lost without You, by Vinnie Jones (Seven Dials) recounts Jones’ life as something of a bad boy of English football and now a film star (remember Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels?), and his love for his beloved wife Tanya who died after a six-year battle with cancer. This is his memoir of how he is learning to cope.
The Windsor Diaries 1940-45, by Alathea Fitzalan Howard (Hodder & Stoughton) During their teens British princesses Elizabeth and Margaret had a pleasant social life at Windsor Castle – where the British royal family was based during World War 2 to escape Hitler’s bombs – and aristocrat Alathea Howard was one of their friends. Her diaries describe lunches, dances and fun with the princesses, and her anxieties if she thought they had forgotten her.
The Terrorist Album, by Jacob Dlamini (Harvard University Press) is contemporary history about some of the people who featured in a real album of photographs, distributed by the Special Branch to police stations around South Africa, so that police would know who to look for. All you had to do to get into the album was to have left the country illegally. And once you were in the album you were fair game.
My Mother, My Madness, by Colleen Higgs (deep south) and A Childhood Made Up, by Brent Meersman (Tafelberg) are two memoirs by Cape Town writers on growing up with mothers suffering from various degrees of mental illness. Survivors of even the happiest of childhoods probably all carry some resentments, but the experiences of Higgs and Meersman are in a different terrain. These are thoughtful accounts of great suffering on the part of both mothers and their children.
Goodbye Christopher Robin by Ann Thwaite (Pan) is a much better book than the film of the same name. It is based on Thwaite’s biography of AA Milne (AA Milne: His Life), and is the story of how Milne, a prominent playwright, poet and novelist in the early 20th century, came to write the four children’s books for which he is remembered. In 1952 he wrote: “little thinking/ all my years of pen-and-inking/ Would be almost lost among/ Those four trifles for the young.” More than a half century later, we have to drop the “almost”.
The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper) is a novel based on the Kindertransport – a bid to save Jewish children from the holocaust by getting permission to send them to England. A Dutchwoman, Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, helped around 10 000 children, three quarters of them Jewish, to flee Austria for England before September 3, 1939. Some grew up to be prominent artists, scientists and politicians, and one, Walter Kohn, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1998.This is a compelling page-turner.
Homesick: Why I live in a shed, by Catrina Davies (Quercus) describes how Davies has not bought into the salary culture, instead surfing and writing and playing her cello. This means she tends to be, as she puts it, “skint”. She moves into a shed her father owns (the shed, not the land it is on) and describes her battle to stay there. You’re not allowed to live in sheds in England, but the price of accommodation in that country is prohibitive; as she writes: “If food prices had risen as fast as house prices in the years since I came of age, a chicken would cost (about R1 000).”
Seven Votes: How WW2 changed South Africa forever, by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball) goes back to the South African parliament’s very close vote to enter World War 2 on the side of Britain. With his fine feel for the current readership of South African history, Steyn has taken the vote drama beyond 1939 to the beginning of apartheid and the stirrings of militant black resistance. (Review: Archie Henderson)
Know My Name, by Chanel Miller (Viking/ Penguin) describes what happens when Miller, then 22, went to a party on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California, drank too much and passed out. She was sexually assaulted by a student, and was launched on a three-year ordeal which upended her life, led to the recall of a judge and saw state law changed. As young people we’ve all made mistakes, but mostly we survive unscathed. Miller did not. Gripping.
Unholy Union – When rugby collided with the modern world, by Michael Aylwin with Mark Evans (Constable) Could Covid hasten the takeover of rugby by professionalism? The authors agree that such a development, if it leads to the extinction of community rugby, would deprive the game of its charms – indeed its soul – and turn rugby from a participation sport into a spectator game. (Review: Archie Henderson)
Beast, by Tendai Mtawarira with Andy Capostagno (Macmillan) tells the story of Tendai Mtawarira, better known as the Beast, a kid from Zimbabwe who came to SA to play for the Sharks. How he then became a world-class loosehead prop is the story told by Andy Capostagno, our best rugby commentator on TV and one of the game’s finest writers. (Review: Archie Henderson)
Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – South Africa’s first elected black politician, by Martin Plaut (Jacana). Medically trained in Scotland and married to a white Scottish woman, Abdurahman came home to District Six both to practise as a doctor and to represent his people in the Cape Town City Council and the Cape Provincial Council. His daughter Cissie Gool frequently disparaged him as an “Uncle Tom”, but he was an indefatigable fighter for black people – of all shades – in South Africa between 1904 and his death in 1940.
A Time for Mercy, by John Gresham (Hodder & Stoughton) is a delicious legal thriller that I wanted to gobble up. A teenager shoots his mother’s boyfriend dead, after he has attacked her up again and apparently murdered her. But she’s not dead, and the perpetrator is a popular local cop. Can the teenager beat a death sentence? (Apparently in the US 16-year-olds can be tried as adults.)
Love After Love, by Ingrid Persaud (faber & faber) tells the stories of Betty, her son Solo and Mr Chetan on the island of Trinidad. Betty loves Mr Chetan and she also loves Solo, but her love is thwarted at every turn. A wonderful novel about love and longing in a setting not well known to most English readers.
The Sound of the Hours, by Karen Campbell (Bloomsbury) is a brilliant novel based on the people in a handful of Italian mountain villages before, during and after a devastating World War 2 battle. This is one of those novels that will have you turning back to the first chapter after you’ve finished it to absorb the wicked twist in the tale. A beautiful book.
Loves & Miracles of Pistola, by Hilary Prendini Toffoli (Penguin) is the charming novel based on the true story of how around 100 young Italian men came to settle in South Africa shortly after World War 2, having been recruited by the old SA Railways & Harbours to work as waiters on the country’s mainline trains. After a few years many left to open their own Italian restaurants, introducing South Africans to the delights of Italian cuisine.
Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press) is based on the short life of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, who died of some sort of plague. O’Farrell brilliantly recreates Shakespeare’s life and times, and the love between the playwright and his wild and beautiful wife, who stays behind in Stratford while Shakespeare makes his fame and fortune in London.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate) is the final book in the Mantel trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, right-hand man to Henry VIII. It is a fabulous story, detailed and absorbing. Proximity to the king meant great honour and wealth could come your way, but it also exposed you to great danger as two of Henry’s six wives and Cromwell himself experienced. It failed to win the Booker Prize – as its prequels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies did – but it is a great novel. Read all three in order though.
The Inn at Helsvlakte, by Patricia Schonstein (Penguin) is a strange and wonderful tale, shot through with a sense of fable and mystery, and peopled with a motley bunch of circus men, soldiers, a military uniform designer, a transport ride, a woman farrier, her one-legged lover and a foppish man intent on revenge. It is set around the turn of the 20th century in sort-of Namaqualand, and has a plot that is complicated and intricate, swooping forward and looping back, revealing layers of action, love, beauty and peculiarity. Marvellous.
American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins (Tinder Press) ignited a firestorm of criticism because it was written by an American woman who was telling the fictional story of a Mexican refugee and her young son fleeing to the United States. Latinx people based in the US have excoriated the novel on the grounds of cultural expropriation, but it is a terrific thriller that will have you breathlessly turning each page.
UNREAD BUT INTERESTING
Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) This doorstopper – over 900 pages (are Rowling’s editors being too indulgent?) – has had some bad press because it features a cross-dressing serial killer. It is the fifth Cormoran Strike novel and sees Strike chasing a 40-year-old cold case in Cornwall. Rowling says the fundamental story is based on a real case.
Cop Under Cover, by Johann van Loggerenberg (Jonathan Ball). We’ve all heard of Van Loggerenberg, the dogged SARS investigator who fell foul of the Guptas’ campaign to discredit and derail South Africa’s tax revenue collection service. I haven’t read this one yet, but it looks pretty interesting.
White Tears/ Brown Scars – How white feminism betrays women of colour, by Ruby Hamad (Trapeze) and Sensuous Knowledge – A black feminist approach for everyone, by Minna Salami (ZED). The Hamad book is described by one reviewer as “An essential guide for those who want to be truly intersectional in their feminism”, while the Salami book is referred to as centering on “the black female body and experience at the heart of global feminist discourse”.
50 People who F***ed up South Africa – the lost decade, by Alexander Parker and Tim Richman, with cartoons by Zapiro. This is a sequel to the book of the same title without the caveat of “the lost decade”, and the shout on the cover says: “It took 350 years to come up with the list of shame for the original” book published in 2010, “but it’s taken only 10 more years to come up with the next 50”. They include Bathabile Dlamini, Jessie Duarte and Gwede Mantashe, John Hlophe, Julius Malema, Helen Zille, Iqbal Surve, Gavin Watson and, of course, Jacob Zuma and the Guptas.
United We Are Unstoppable, ed by Akshat Rathi (John Murray). Here’s another list of people, but these are 60 inspiring young ones from around the globe who are saving the world. I’m afraid I haven’t heard of any of them (Greta Thunberg isn’t included). There is a South African, Ruby Sampson, 19, a passionate eco-activist who says: “Don’t let your fear stop you, let it unite and drive you.”
Do the Macorona, by Zapiro (Jacana) and Days of our Lockdown Lives by Stephen Francis & Rico. These welcome annuals may seem to be light relief, but usually provide a sharp and pointed look at our country and the way we live. Hooray for Zapiro and Francis & Rico for telling us like it is, but lightly.