Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Is this absorbing crime thriller worthy of the Man Booker longlist?

Review: Vivien Horler

Snap, by Belinda Bauer (Penguin)

snap bauerIn the British summer of 1988 Marie Wilks, 22, was driving on the M50 motorway when her car broke down.

In a pre-cellphone world, the pregnant Wilks told her 11-year-old sister to wait in the car and watch over her infant son while she headed on foot to the nearest emergency phone. She was gone for what seemed a long time, and eventually the sister picked up the baby and walked along the hard shoulder to look for her.

Police records showed Wilks made the emergency call, but broke off in mid-conversation. The receiver was later found dangling.

A day or two afterwards her body was found below the motorway embankment with stab wounds to the neck. A nightclub bouncer, Eddie Browning, was jailed for life, but acquitted on appeal in April 1974. The case has never been solved. Continue reading

‘That should shut you up!’ – How Barack Obama proposed to Michelle

Review: Vivien Horler

Becoming, by Michelle Obama (Viking/ Penguin)

becoming michellleThere’s a joke that has Barack Obama telling his wife: “I may not be the perfect husband, but you did get to be the wife of the president of the United States.”

“Oh,” replies Michelle, “that was always a given.”

But that’s not how Michelle Obama comes across in this highly readable and absorbing autobiography. She is a self-confessed control freak, often irritable with her husband, and likes everything planned, sorted and organised. But she also tries to live out the motto: “When they go low, we go high”, and it shows.

As an ambitious high school pupil in Chicago’s working class South Side, Michelle told the school counsellor she wanted to go to Princeton, one of the US’s top universities. The counsellor replied: “I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material.” Continue reading

Explorer who put South Africa and its birds on the King’s Map

Review: Vivien Horler

The First Safari: Searching for Francois Levaillant, by Ian Glenn (Jacana)

Francois Levaillant – who he, you ask. Well, one misguided South African journalist wrote that he was a typical stupid 18th century Frenchman who believed all sorts of mad things about Africa, including that there were birds who fucked goats.

Retired UCT academic Ian Glenn wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. The journalist had come across an old English translation of one of Levaillant’s books in which the “s” was printed to look like an “f”.

Glenn writes: “Goatsucker, you idiot, I thought. Caprimulgus. Don’t you know that nightjars used to be thought of as goat suckers because they hung around animal pens to catch the insects there?” Continue reading

Peter Storey’s brand of muscular Christianity helped change South Africa

Review: VIVIEN HORLER

I Beg to Differ: ministry amid the teargas, by Peter Storey (Tafelberg)

i beg to differWhen did the ANC begin its slide from the moral high ground of the struggle?

Peter Storey, former bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and leader of the SA Council of Churches, believes it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it failed to hold Winnie Madikizela Mandela to account for the excesses of the Mandela United Football Club and the death of Stompie Seipei.

Storey was the boss of a central figure in that series of events, the Rev Paul Verryn, a Methodist minister based in Soweto. Storey also took part of the rescue of three boys who had been taken hostage at Madikizela Mandela’s home and seriously assaulted. Seipei, the fourth boy and just 14 years old, died.

Storey refers to having known Madikizela Mandela “at her fearless best, but mixed in with that was anger because of my painful recollection of events when she was at her worst”. The episode was, says Storey, one of the most painful chapters of his life.

In Storey there seems to be little of the kindly suburban minister patting Sunday School School pupils on the head. No, his is a brand of muscular Christianity, fierce, uncompromising and dogged. His legacy includes being chaplain to both Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe on Robben Island, the founder of Lifeline SA and of Gun Free SA.

He was also a committed activist in the struggle, a founder member of the half-forgotten National Peace Accord that did so much to ensure the 1994 elections went ahead, and a friend and associate of Desmond Tutu.

This autobiography of one man is also a biography of South Africa from the time of the visit of the British royal family in 1947 to the calamitous 1948 general election that brought the National Party, the terrible years of apartheid and the damage they caused to a nation, and the dawn of a free South Africa.

Although best known for his ministry at the Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg, Storey was for years the minister at the Buitenkant Street Methodist Church among the people of District Six until that community was broken apart and scattered by the Group Areas Act.

Storey draws his inspiration and his brand of Christianity from the efforts of the founding Methodist ministers John and Charles Wesley in England, particularly Cornwall, in the mid-18th century.

The Wesleys believed in piety but also in charity and justice, and that every single person mattered infinitely to God. This leads, says Storey, to the fundamental question we must ask when faced by fraught social problems: “Does this do honour or violence to the image of God in those whom it impacts? Any political policy – like apartheid – that does such violence is an affront to God.”

This means, he writes, that there is no such thing as churches “interfering in politics” because there is “no area of life beyond God’s moral authority”.

Now you might not go along with this, but these convictions in a strong and committed person can make a difference to a society. They did in Wesley’s time, and they do still today, thanks to the likes of Storey and Tutu.

But the book is not a sermon – it is an often a gripping and occasionally funny description of a life lived in interesting times. Storey tells of an occasion in 1982 when he and Tutu drove to a remote area of the Venda homeland where two Lutheran ministers were reportedly being detained and tortured. The local authorities had no intention of letting the two priests see the tortured men, and told them they were to be deported from Venda immediately.

Ostensibly escorting Storey and Tutu to the border, soldiers drove into thick bush where sub-machineguns were pointed at them and they were told they were to be shot. But then it was over and they were taken to the border.

A shaken Tutu, who was driving, said he and Storey should thank God for saving their lives. He then launched into a prayer of thanksgiving. Storey writes: “I looked at him and saw that not only was he lost in prayer but his eyes were closed. I grabbed the wheel and let him thank God while I ensured that death didn’t get a second shot at us.”

Years later Storey was approached by a military-looking Afrikaner who said he had been a Military Intelligence colonel seconded to the Venda government at the time, and that he had actually given an order for Tutu and Storey to be shot. He said in the event he was glad his order had been ignored and would Storey forgive him?

Bearing in mind Tutu’s premise that when someone confesses one has no choice but to forgive, Storey told the man he did, but was left feeling angry. “I realised I had much to process still.”

In 1964, after a two-year stint with his wife and sons preaching in Australia, Storey had the choice between staying there and coming home to a country where Mandela had recently been jailed for life. They decided to return, but Storey vowed he would live his life in South Africa according to four non-negotiable principles:

  • To be a truth teller and expose the lie of apartheid.
  • To side with the victims of injustice wherever he found them.
  • To seek to be a visible contradiction of the state’s segregation practices.
  • To work in non-violent ways to bring in a new dispensation of justice, equity and peace.

Thank God for South Africa he came home. This is a remarkable book and well worth the read.

  • Read this and other reviews by Vivien Horler on thebookspage.co.za

 

 

 

Old flying hand remembers the swashbuckling days in Africa

Review: ARCHIE HENDERSON

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.

Review: VIVIEN HORLER

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

Review: GEOFF DALGLISH

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

Review: VIVIEN HORLER

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