Monthly Archives: March 2022

Brillliant story of a maverick’s fight in World War 2

Review: Vivien Horler

The Postmistress of Paris, by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper)

One of the delights of historical fiction, done well, is the information and insight it gives the reader into the past.

And Med Waite Clayton’s historical fiction is done well, in fact done beautifully. It feels a bit strange referring to a novel about World War 2 as “historical fiction”; I was born just seven years after that war ended, so what does that make me?

But today there are vanishingly few people left who have any memory of that conflict, so a novel like this is our best way of connecting with the events and emotions of that time. (With Putin’s war in Ukraine of course, we could also watch the news.)

In The Postmistress of Paris Clayton returns to Europe, this time under the shadow of pending war, but the story here is very different from the bestselling, prize-winning The Last Train to London, about the rescue of thousands of Jewish children from Vienna in 1939. Continue reading

Bedside table books for March

These were the books that landed on Vivien Horler’s desk this month. Some may be reviewed in full later. The top four are among Exclusive Books’s top choices for March.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson (Michael Joseph)

Black cake is a type of fruitcake made at Christmas in the Caribbean, featuring blackened sugar, dried fruit soaked in red wine and rum, preferably for months, as well as candied citron, vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon. It is reportedly a mission to make. And black cake is a recurring theme in this family saga of love and loss (and a bit of murder) set partly on an unnamed Caribbean island, the UK and eventually in southern California. When Eleanor Bennett dies a widow, she has been estranged from her daughter for eight years. Before the funeral brother and sister are summoned to a lawyer’s office and told their mother’s last wish was for them to hear the truth about where they come from and their family history. This truth is expressed in a recording made by Eleanor over many hours, and it turns the adult children’s world upside down.

I’m halfway through this and loving it.

Serpent Crescent, by Vivian de Klerk (Picador Africa)

The cover blurb is promising: retired English teacher Megan Merton lives in the small Eastern Cape town of Qonda, where the power and water supplies are unreliable and the municipal dump spews noxious fumes. Merton lives in Serpent Crescent, and is very nosy about her neighbours, to the extent she goes through their rubbish. She is also a self-confessed sociopath who believes in administering small secret punishments to people who offend her sense of justice. And she’s decided to write her memoirs.

When a neighbour suffers a stroke and ends up in a care home, Merton gets the keys to her home to keep an eye on it. This gives her a really good chance to snoop. She visits the neighbour in the care home, and over time the two women develop an unlikely relationship.

The cover blurb refers to the book’s hilarity, sharp observations and brilliant acerbic satirical wit, but Merton is such an unpleasant creature the book is hard to read. On page 39 Merton says: “I hope my ‘confessions’, recounting all my own unpleasant stuff, are not becoming unbearable, because I still have a long way to go…”

Oh dear. Presumably she gets her come-uppance eventually, but do I care enough to press on?

The Couple at the Table, by Sophie Hannah (Hodder & Stoughton)

Six couples are staying at an exclusive honeymoon resort when one woman gets a note of warning: “Beware of the couple at the table nearest to yours.” But the tables are equidistant. What can it mean?

Later however Jane Brinkwood is found stabbed twice, and police have no leads. Could it have been Lucy, whose husband William left her for Jane? Could it have been William? Or was it a stranger who broke into the complex? But no one has been picked up on the security cameras.

This looks like fun.


Greenlights – your journal, your journey, by Matthew McConaughey (Headline)

Matthew McConaughey is an Oscar-winning American actor who, a few years ago, took a couple of months off to write a memoir based on diaries and journals he had kept from the age of 14. He described it as a collection of “stories, prayers, poems, people and places and a whole bunch of bumper stickers”, one of which read: “Sometimes the guest list needs to be for one. You.”

It was published in October 2020, debuting  at No 1 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Reviews have been mixed, from “stuffed with vaporous, circular proverbs” to “truly entertaining”.

When I chose this volume from the Exclusive Books top books for March, I hadn’t realised the memoir was two years old. I thought I was getting the memoir – what I got was essentially an empty journal, with handy aphorisms perched on blank pages, such as: “Knowin the truth, seein the truth, tellin the truth are all different experiences. What’s a truth you know, a truth you’ve seen, and a truth you tell? What’s a truth you live by?”

In his introduction to this empty journal, he says his journals helped him to understand who he was now, and who he wanted to be tomorrow. He adds: “This is your journal. This is your story. Write it. Just keep livin.”

Not sure what the Gs at the end of words have done to offend him.

Thrown Among the Bones – My life in fiction, by Patricia Schonstein (African Sun Press)

Acclaimed Cape Town author Patricia Schonstein has ventured away from fiction in this memoir in which she provides the backstory to her seven novels, which include Skyline, about Long Street, The Apothecary’s Daughter, A Quilt of Dreams and the brilliant The Inn at Helsvlakte. The text is accompanied, in the form of endnotes, with brief extracts from the novels.

In an author’s note she writes: “They illustrate how my own life, together with the ficitious worlds I’ve fabricated, correspond with each other, acting as mirrors, allowing deconstruction and reconstruction of real events, in order to fathom the complex arena into which I was born.”

She had some rich material to work from: born to a Jewish Holocaust escapee and an Italian Catholic mother, she ended up being educated in a Dominican convent in what was then Rhodesia.

She writes: “These two great religions would predispose me to seeing life through the eyes of a magic-realist. Their repertoire would alert me to the polarities of Heaven and the Underworld, Light and Dark, Angels and Demons, the Real and the Preposterous.”

This looks fascinating.

Death on the Trans-Siberian Express, by C J Farrington (Constable)

I mentioned this novel last month before I’d read it and now I have. It has a great deal of charm and humour, but I’m afraid I got bogged down in the minutiae of the plot, and I think the plethora of Russian names didn’t help.

But there were two bits that I thought were brilliant, and want to share them.

The first sees the hero, Olga, being driven home on snowy roads by Glazkov, who has been drinking. “But that wasn’t unusual on a Saturday in Kemerovo Province. The joke was that you could spot drunk drivers because they drove in a straight line; the sober ones wove from side to side to avoid the potholes.”

And then in the pub Fyodor the Dreamer ponders which is a better system of dictatorship: a tsar or an all-powerful president. When his drinking mates tell him they don’t need some “hoity-toity ponce in a crown” telling them what to do, he counters: “But that’s exactly what Russians do need.”

Fyodor explains the problem is that presidents are chosen by election, which gives them legitimacy. “Presidents can do anything they like, because it’s the will of the people. But a tsar has to remember … what happened at the House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg, when the Romanovs perished from the Earth. A tsar, in short, has to tread carefully. Can you say the same of our glorious President Putin?”

This was of course written well before the events in the Ukraine.

Thrown Among the Bones, by Patricia Schonstein (African Sun Press)


History hidden in stone

Review: Vivien Horler

Palaces of Stone, by Mike Main & Tom Huffman (Struik Travel & Heritage)

We’ve all heard of the Zimbabwe Ruins, today known as Great Zimbabwe, but who knew there were more than 500 stone palaces across a swathe of Southern Africa, stretching from Botswana to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique?

Mike Main, born in Britain and now living in Gaborone in Botswana, has wandered around Africa for decades. Years ago, through meeting archaeologists in Botswana, notably the late Dr Alec Campbell of the National Museum and Monuments in Gaborone, Dr Catrien van Waarden, and Wits University emeritus archaeology professor Tom Huffman, he became fascinated by the ruins and was determined to find out more.

With his Swedish wife Kerstin Jackson-Main, he set off across the southern continent to record these remarkable stone palaces.

Some are well known, like Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe, and some are barely recognised at all. All are fragile.

  • See also what happened to one of the eight Zimbabwe birds – apparently languishing in Cape Town (below) Continue reading

Festive, Fascinating, Fabulous

Review: Myrna Robins 

Friends. Food. Flavour  – Great South African Recipes, by Michael Olivier with Roelien Immelman (Penguin)

This treasury had its origins more than two decades ago, when Michael and Maddy Olivier presented a buffet-style Cape Table at the Margaret River Wine Festival in Western Australia. The menu reflected a feast of South Africa’s heritage fare which had some ex-pats in tears, said Olivier.

Part of this delectable hardback is given over to those heritage recipes, being Olivier’s workings of traditional dishes with 21st-century treatment, while there is a bigger section of contemporary South African cuisine, sourced from a variety of cooks, bloggers, caterers, food writers and friends, many reflecting family connections to Portugal, Italy and other far-flung places. Continue reading

Sweeping tale of people caught up in history

Review: Vivien Horler
Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim (Oneworld)
Against the dispiriting news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Wikipedia entry on the Korean War of 1950-1953 makes chilling reading.

The countries of Korea, both North and South, are often in the news, the North usually for all the wrong reasons, but I know very little about them. However I’ve learned a bit reading this beautifully written but somewhat slow novel set in the country between 1917, just 10 years after the Japanese occupation, and 1965.

When Japan was defeated in World War 2, the Soviet Union and the United States divided the country into two occupation zones along the 38th parallel, with the zones eventually becoming the countries of North and South Korea.
In 1950 the (North) Korean Peoples Army invaded South Korea, with support from the Soviet Union, while UN and US forces (and soldiers from other Western allies) supported South Korean troops.

Wikipedia says the war saw about three million deaths, and a larger proportion of civilian deaths than in World War 2. It also saw the destruction of virtually all Korea’s major cities.

How will the Ukraine crisis pan out? Impossible to know for now, but the Korean conflict didn’t work out so well for the people of North Korea.
In fact this war is barely mentioned in Beasts of a Little Land, although the effects are described, with a ruined Seoul, cholera outbreaks and general hardship and hunger.

At the centre of the novel are Jade, sold by her family to Miss Silver’s courtesan school in cosmopolitan Pyongyang, and an orphan boy called JungHo, who wants to make something of himself and who finds a mentor in a man fighting for Korea’s liberation from Japan.

Also central to the story are a couple of senior Japanese soldiers, one of whom is relatively decent, and one of whom is a vicious thug. One night he goes to the courtesan school and rapes one of the girls, leaving her pregnant. Silver resolves to send three of the girls, including Jade, to Seoul, to her cousin Dani’s establishment.

There Jade acquires performing skills, and becomes an accomplished actress, admired far and wide. But she remains fond of JungHo, whom she met as a child, and falls in love with a rickshaw driver whose humble occupation belies his family’s illustrious rank.

The Beast of a Little Land is something of a saga and describes how the characters interact and are borne up and buffeted by the history of the first half of the 20th century.

Author Juhea Kim was born in South Korea and moved to the US when she was nine. She heard the stories of her country as a child, but learnt in the US how to write lyrical English. Her descriptions of landscapes and atmosphere are like paintings.

Here’s one paragraph with Jade: “One night I found it hard to sleep. It was the sound of waves crashing. As soon as the sky began to lighten, I went for a walk. The sun was just below the sea and the world was awash in orange and pink. My feet led me to the cliff, and standing there amid the fluttering new grass was a pair of chestnut-coloured wild horses. They stared at me for a long time…”

A beautiful book, carrying with it a timely reminder of the death, destruction and pain wrought by war and revolution.