Monthly Archives: March 2024

The punishment for betrayal is living with the knowledge of what you have done

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

The Storm We Made, by Vanessa Chan (Hodder & Stoughton)

In the writing of this debut novel The Storm We Made there is no doubt that Vanessa Chan was greatly influenced by her grandparents’ experiences in Malaysia between 1941 to 1945, when the country was occupied by the Japanese.

She says: “In Malaysia our grandparents love us by not speaking. More specifically, they do not speak about… the period when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Malaya, tossed the British colonisers out and turned a quiet nation into one that was at war with itself.” 

Generally Malaysian grandparents are very chatty – so that silence speaks volumes.

While her research has revealed much of what happened during that time, there is a very personal quality to Chan’s story, almost as if she is laying ghosts in the telling. But this is a fictional account which takes us across 10 years from the British Malaya of 1935 through the Japanese occupation up to 1945. Continue reading

Bedside Table Books for March

Bedside Table March

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. The first four are from Exclusive Books’s top reads for March. Some will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

The Near North, by Ivan Vladislavic (Picador Africa)

Ivan Vladislavic has the extraordinary ability to write about everyday subjects and make them interesting. This new account of life in Johannesburg, by the man who wrote the brilliant Portrait with Keys, opens with a description of the lights going out during an episode of load-shedding.

“In a moment, every room breathed its last: the resigned sighs of electronic devices shutting down.”

There’s a search for candles, but all Vladislavic’s partner can find are tea lights. They’re hungry, but everything in the fridge needs cooking. “Looks like it’s either cornflakes or a restaurant.”

So they go out looking for an open restaurant, but like Riviera, the streets of Rosebank and Saxonwold are dark.

In a blackout, Vladislavic muses, those who can afford such things worry about electric fences, security cameras and burglar alarms that aren’t working; those who can’t worry about walking down unlit streets or having to unlock doors in the dark, or the neighbour knocking over a candle.

Parkview turns out to be on a different grid and the lights are on, but it’s a Monday night and most of the restaurants are closed.

Finally they find a small Italian diner where they and a group of strangers eat, chatty and happy to have also discovered a place that’s open and offering hospitality.

And that’s it, the first chapter in this volume. Nothing much, but we all been there  – and will be again.

The Near North is described as a vivid account of the old mining city in times of crisis, “finding meaning in the everyday and incidental”.

Vladislavic is an award-winning writer of novels, stories and essays, and is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Wits.

The Hidden, by Fiona Snyckers (Macmillan)

It’s been the worst terror attack in the US since 9/11, and the FBI are under enormous pressure to find and arrest the ringleaders. But these people are survivalists, with the ability to lie low in the dense forests of the Pacific North West.

This is the US in a post-Trump world, with a woman president, and domestic terrorism declared a federal crime.

Becca Abrahamson has a secret. While she may seem just another suburban housewife, she has deep ties with survivalist communities, and the FBI believes she is involved in the attack.

Fiona Snyckers, who is based in Johannesburg, has published eight novels, one of which, Lacuna, won the SA Literary Award for best novel in 2020.

SA writer Gus Silber says of The Hidden: “A propulsive and nerve-wracking tale of terror in the American heartland. The Hidden hits home with the urgency of a breaking news bulletin.”

The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder, by C L Miller (Pan Macmillan)

Exclusive Books says this murder novel falls into a similar category to those of Richard Osman’s popular Thursday Murder Club series. Novels about what they call “cosy” crime rarely focus on harsh realities, profanity or violence.

“The murders take place off stage, and are often relatively bloodless (eg poisoning), while sexual activity (if any) between characters is only ever gently implied and never directly addressed.”

A former antiques hunter investigates a suspicious death at an isolated English manor, which sees her back in the ruthless world of tracking down stolen treasures.

In a foreword author C L Miller reveals that before starting to write, she consulted her mother, Judith Miller, a regular expert on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, until her death last year. Miller senior told her daughter that what made antiques valuable was not necessarily their intrinsic value but their provenance, in other words their stories.

And Miller junior said once she had thought about that, this novel began to form in her mind.

Publisher’s Weekly says of this debut novel: “Miller’s winning debut exposes the dark underbelly of the antiques trade. Miller nails the pace and mood of a good mystery on her first try…”

Bounce – How to raise resilient kids and teens, by Naomi Holdt (Macmillan)

KZN-based psychologist and mother Naomi Holdt says there never was a time when rotten lemons weren’t tossed at people. We’ll all be knocked down by foreseen circumstances from time to time, and however much we try to protect them, so will our children.

So the question she sets out to answer in this book is how, despite “these lemon-drenched sucker punches”, can we ensure our kids get back up again?

It can be done, but it starts with the parents (doesn’t everything?). “The little things that you say and do have the power to completely change the trajectory of your child’s life.”

A parent’s role is not to prevent your children from falling, but to let them fall, knowing you are there to support them while they get up again. Because it’s in the struggle that we learn we can.

Bounce is not an academic book full of stats and data – it’s intended to be a workbook. One section lists 20 attributes of parents of resilient children, which points out that these parents tend to be resilient themselves, prioritise themselves and their partnerships, put consistent boundaries in place, prioritise play and fun, can let go, allow their kids to mess up, and are able to say sorry.

It also provides advice for anxious parents, gives tips on childhood depression and resilience, has advice for grieving children, tips for divorced parents and a “how to” guide on boundaries and discipline.

She says it’s impossible to get stuff right all the time, but if parents focus on the relationship first and always, the rest somehow falls into place.

Back Up – Why back pain treatments aren’t working and the new science offering hope, by Liam Mannix (New South/ University of New South Wales Press)

University of Sydney professor Chris Maher says in a foreword to this volume that low back pain is the number one cause of disability, affecting an estimated 540 million people at any point in time. In Australia the problem costs the health system A$4.8 billion annually and is the most common reason why middle-aged Australians retire early.

In this book Australian science journalist Liam Mannix, who, like his father was a chronic back pain sufferer, describes the new science of pain and how we think about it, and says recovery from back pain is within our own control.

The book is the result of years of interviewng experts on back and chronic pain. As many as one in five Australians have chronic pain, ranging from headaches to arthritis and endometriosis.

He looks at the back itself, whether we’re built “wrong”, at common beliefs about our backs that turn out to be plain incorrect (“good posture is important, strengthen your core, lift with a straight back…”) and he talks to people who’ve suffered and experienced the “old science” of back pain.

The second half of the book focuses on the new science, how neuroscience has revolutionised the way scientists think about pain and what that can tell us about sore backs.




Read the back story of the Slow Horses series, created by ‘a laureate of decrepitude’

Review: Archie Henderson

The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron (Baskerville)

Mick Herron likes the private joke. In his latest novel, he has created a character who is said to be an heir to John le Carré –  “one of a long list”. Herron himself could not only be on that list, but near the top of it.

The British spy writer has made his mark with a series of his Slow Horses, MI5 outcasts who are run by a dishevelled, objectionable but very smart Jackson Lamb. It is with Lamb that the Guardian has accurately summed up Herron as “something of a laureate of decrepitude”.

But Herron can also do chic cool. His Diana Tavener, immaculately attired and ice-cold, is chief of MI5 and Lamb’s antithesis. Spy novels have never had such contrasting characters. Continue reading

Stand-out debut novel about the heartbreak of partition in India

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

Under the Tamarind Tree, by Nigar Alam (Bedford Square)

Nigar Alam’s debut novel Under the Tamarind Tree is a rich, graceful narrative spanning more than 50 years, highlighting the tragedies of partition, patriarchy and personal loss. I did not know much about the partition of India and how it came about so this was an entrée into a new culture – one that I enjoyed immensely.

It is 1947 and nine-year-old Rozeena is fleeing with her family to Pakistan. The creation of this country from British India was, for the Muslim community, their chance to have a homeland and a say in government.

The transition was not peaceful, the religious tensions fuelled by the ruling British, and the announcement of the Radcliffe Line, drawn by a man who had never set foot in India, was considered “cruelly negligent”. Continue reading

Turn every goddamned page

Review: Archie Henderson

Working, by Robert  A Caro (Vintage)

Robert Caro is 88 and readers are worried he won’t be around long enough to complete his monumental LBJ biographies. He has already written four, the last having been published in 2012. A fifth and final volume of the 36th US president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is still in the works. He takes about 10 years to write a book, so the final one may be imminent.

Five volumes of a US president who is now largely forgotten by many of us may seem like over-egging, but if you have the time and energy to read them all, I suspect the proof is in the pudding. I have read only volume four, The Passage of Power, which deals with his LBJ’s vice-presidency and ends with John F Kennedy’s assassination. It’s detailed, revealing – and gripping. I hope I’ll be around to read the rest.

But enough about LBJ, Working is about Caro.

Born in New York and a graduate of Princeton, he began his working life as reporter on a local paper in New Jersey before moving to Newsday, a respectable tabloid renowned for investigative journalism. Continue reading

How would we cope if tested in this way?

Review: Vivien Horler

Sisters Under the Rising Sun, by Heather Morris (Zaffre)

My tears came at the line: “It’s time for you to have a break, Sister James, you’ve done your duty; your shift is over.”

To which Nesta James replies to her friend and colleague Vivian Bullwinkel: “It’s been a bloody long shift, Bully, a bloody long one.”

It had lasted three years and seven months, the time the members of the Australian Army Nursing Service were held as prisoners of war of the Japanese in Sumatra, ending on September 11, 1945.

Heather Morris is the author of the best-selling The Tattooist of Auschwitz. Continue reading