Monthly Archives: May 2023

Bedside Table for May

Bedside Table for May

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. All are from Exclusive Books’s list of top reads for May. – Vivien Horler

I Am Ella, by Joanne Jowell (Kwela Books)

Ella Blumenthal, a Cape Town centenarian who survived the Holocaust, is the subject of what looks like a remarkable book.

Author Joanne Jowell was approached in 2017 by Blumenthal’s daughter, Evelyn Kaplan, who asked if Jowell could help the family record Blumenthal’s story for her children and grandchildren.

Jowell spent hours interviewing Blumenthal and studying her personal archive of articles, books and pictures. In an interview with the SA Jewish Report, Jowell said of Blumenthal’s holocaust: “Every single survivor story is remarkable and, as Dr Edith Eger puts it, ‘There’s no hierarchy of suffering.’

“But Ella’s story reads like a hit list of Holocaust hot-spots, and her experience in Majdanek of being sent to the gas chambers and then released from that certain death, is unique.”

The Making of Another Motion Picture Masterpiece – A novel, by Tom Hanks (Penguin Random House)

This is not twice Oscar-winner Tom Hanks’s first venture into fiction – his 2017 collection of short stories, Uncommon Types, had reasonable reviews. But this novel might be a step too far.

It’s a novel about the making of a star-studded blockbuster called Knightshade: The Lathe of Firefall, and takes the reader from the 1940s to a counter-culture comic and eventually to a premiere in New York’s Times Square.

Critics have not been particularly kind: The Guardian said it would have been nice to believe the film was a satire when, in fact, “Alarmingly … this tale is deadly serious.”

The New York Times says “You might admire its rah-rah spirit, yet still want to press fast-forward.”

Well, I haven’t read it yet, so am reserving judgment.

The Midnight News, by Jo Baker (Hachette)

This is writer Jo Baker’s second World War 2 novel, the first being A Country Road, A Tree, a fictionalised account of the Irish novelist Samuel Beckett’s experiences with the French Resistance.

The Midnight News follows the experiences of a young Ministry of Information typist whose friends start to disappear mysteriously. during the Blitz in London.

It has attracted excellent reviews, being described as thoroughly absorbing and a tour de force.

Baker, the author of seven novels, is best known for her bestselling Longbourn (2013), a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the Bennet family’s servants.

Go as a River, by Shelley Reed (Penguin Random House)

It is post-World War 2 and 17-year-old Victoria lives on her father’s Colorado peach farm, with her disabled uncle and angry brother. Ever since her mother, aunt and cousin died in a crash five years before, she has kept house, somewhat resentfully.

One day she goes into town with produce and meets a young coal miner with swarthy skin, straight black hair and a beautiful smile. Torie is charmed, having never met anyone like him before. But racism is rife in this mountainous corner of Colorado, and people have little patience with a Native American, nor a white girl who loves one.

Then Torie makes a decision that changes her life. This debut novel looks well worth a read.




Some things in the war in Ukraine have not changed since 1944

Review: Archie Henderson
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor (Penguin)
This is not a new book, having first appeared in 2009, but it has become relevant again after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This war, in spite of its current confined location, has taken on dimensions of World War 2, but with greater ferocity because of the weapons at the disposal of both sides. It is also revealing of the true nature of the Russian war machine, the indiscriminate use of young men employed as cannon fodder.
There is a myth, perpetrated mostly by Russia, that battlefield casualties in the last months of World War 2 were greater on the eastern front than in France. Anthony Beevor, historian and expert on sides of that war, debunks this most effectively in his book on D-Day.
Not that the Russians did not suffer in the defence of their homeland from 1942 and in the great counter-attacks from 1943. But many of those casualties were also inflicted by the Russians themselves – by NKVD troops shooting deserters and slackers out of hand.

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A lot more than a kiss-and-tell

Review: Archie Henderson
The Secret Heart – John le Carré: An intimate memoir, by Suleika Dawson (Mudlark Harper Collins)
It’s easy to dismiss this as another kiss-and-tell, except that it reveals parts of the world’s most famous spy novelist that has his official biographer reaching for the original manuscript to make changes.
Suleika Dawson is a cover name, and a poor one. She was easily unmasked as Sue Dawson, a scholarly and smart editor who worked for an audio book company in the 80s when David Cornwell (she refers to him by his real name throughout) came in to read one of his books.
Dawson’s job was to edit the books down to a three-hour length because at the time it was all that a cassette tape could accommodate.
When he arrives, the staff are in awe of the Great Man, as they refer to him behind his back, and a bit nervous because they’re worried his reading might not be up to his writing. Was he virgo intacta when it comes to reading his own work, Graham Goodwin wonders before the first recording. Certainly not, Cornwell’s agent tells him
It turns out Cornwell is good. In reading Smiley’s People, the first to be recorded, Cornwell didn’t just do Alec Guinness (who is George Smiley in the BBC productions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People), he did it better than Guinness.
Goodwin, “a tall, silver-haired and habitually laid-back gent-about-town”, runs the company that does the recordings. “Fuck me – the bloke can’t half read!” he says after the first session.
Everyone else in the studio is impressed, Dawson too even though he virtually ignores her, although it’s clear he has noticed her. It was hard not to.
At their next meeting, the Great Man invites her to lunch and soon into his bed. “This was sex as I had never encountered it before, the sex I had determinedly pursued all my adult life, the sex I truly believed I had always been enjoying – until then,” she writes.
“This was sex that only the hero and heroine can have; sex for the cameras, sex for the Olympics, sex for the gods.”
OK, so she was smitten. The direct quote is purple, at times she is prolix and at others even irritating, but you forgive her because you sense she’s a nice person, that he is not and that her love will be unrequited.
They apply Moscow rules to the tradecraft of their affair, a term first used by Le Carré in Smiley’s People where strict levels of secrecy and security are employed while operating in enemy territory). They use dead-letter boxes, fallbacks, safe houses and all the Le Carré-isms of spying that have become part of the language.
Did she love him? “I loved and adored David completely and utterly.” But she also suspects he was running her as one of his agents, “a covert relationship” that turned “hazardous secret meetings into encounters of irresistible seduction”.
The book can be read as a love story, a spy story, a tragedy – but it’s more than a kiss-and-tell because the lady can write – as even the Great Man concedes when he reads her letters to him.
He pays her his ultimate compliment: “That one doesn’t go into the shredder, I can tell you.” The reply adds an “I love you, my Sue”, but it lacks conviction.

When moderation is the key to a glass of wine or two

Review: Annamia van den Heever

My Year of Not getting Sh*tfaced – How I tried and failed to give up alcohol and learned the joys of moderation, by Pamela Power (Jonathan Ball)

Script writer and author, Pamela Power, decides never to drink again after she cannot remember how, on Mother’s Day, she fell and hurt herself while dancing drunkenly – and other wild behaviours.

A day or two later she suffers a “severe shame attack” when her “Westcliff Wives” lunch companions remind her what had happened.

After a day of consistent celebratory drinking, Pamela is sh*tfaced, which she describes as: “Off-your-face, dancing on tables, loving everyone, maybe crying, thinking you’re super-sexy, singing into a beer bottle, room spinning, having to put one foot on the floor when you lie down, calling relatives in Australia drunk.”

She decides she does not want to be that person anymore.

Even though she does not need to join the AA, she realises she might be a serial binge drinker who needs to get her booze habits under control. She turns to “quitlit” – books about giving up – including Ruby Warrington’s 2018 book Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.

She is a television scriptwriter and script editor, and also the author of novels Ms Conception and Things Unseen, as well as being co-author of Chasing Marion. She has two adult children and one husband and lives in Johannesburg.

Pamela starts what she calls a “#sobercurious memoir” in which over a year – 367 days to be precise – she documents her attempts to get her booze habits under control, even though “the thought of having to survive social situations/holidays with no booze and cope with drunk people while not being drunk myself is scary”.

The book is an honest, poignant, yet humorous account of the year which coincides with the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Her family faces financial troubles and life in their leafy Johannesburg suburb is hard as she attempts to stay on top of things by taking on a heavy workload while trying to be a supportive mother, wife and friend.

Through her, we experience all the frustration, irritation and surprising benefits of going dry. As she says about the book: “It’s a bit funny and a bit sad.”

We are drawn into her day-to-day ups and downs, her gratitude lists, her bouts of anxiety and insecurity. She reflects honestly on the pressures and exasperations of writing and editing – at the same time – three scripts for television series, a novel and a weekly blog for her husband’s tourism marketing company, which has no income because of the lockdown.

We get to know her family, her thoughts on whether to leave South Africa, the pandemic and “all the shit going down on a daily basis in SA”, including loadshedding.

Pamela meditates, watches motivational TikTok clips and puts wishful thoughts out to the universe.

Her involvement in writing the novel provides light at the end of the tunnel as she hopes it will be a bestseller. She and her co-authors (friends Amy Heydenrych, Qarnita Loxton and Gail Schimmel) are in the final stages completing Chasing Marian, about four strangers who become friends on social media and who have the same goal: to meet internationally renowned Irish author Marian Keyes. The novel was published to local acclaim in March 2022.

Once the year is up Pamela seems to have found a sweet spot between total sobriety and binge drinking: moderation. She has not got shitfaced once. The ending, she says, is “happy for now”.

The twists towards the end will make you happily dizzy

Review: Vivien Horler

Homecoming, by Kate Morton (Mantle)

With the theme of home in this satisfying hulk of a read, I thought perhaps the bird on the cover was a swallow, but no, it’s a fairy wren, a brilliant little blue bird and one of the first Australian birds to be described to the world.

It pops up often in Homecoming, and a carving of one solves one of the myriad secrets in this novel.

It is something of a family saga, and at its centre is the mystery of an appalling family murder.

Homecoming begins as two separate stories which inevitably turn out to be entangled. One is set in 2019, the other in the period leading up to Christmas 1959.

Born in Australia, Jess Turner Bridges has been working as a journalist in London for a decade or two. But her job has fallen through, her long-term relationship has ended, and she is at a worrying loose end.

So when she hears her beloved Australian grandmother Nora has had a fall and is in hospital, Jess doesn’t hesitate to return to Sydney.

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