Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

The biographer strikes back

Review: Vivien Horler

The Secret Life of John le Carré, by Adam Sisman (Profile Books)

Most of us will never have biographies written of our lives, and just as well, judging from the tension and upset between John le Carré and his biographer Adam Sisman.

John le Carré was published in 2015, and at least one reviewer complained there seemed to be a lot the reader was not being told. He was right, because it turned out Le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, had what he called “my own messy private life”, which he did not want made public.

Although the biography was written with Le Carré’s cooperation, it was agreed from the start that it would not be described as “authorised”. Sisman assumes this was so Cornwell could distance himself from it if necessary.

And as time went by he did want to distance himself, to the point that Sisman says Le Carré tried to undermine the work. Continue reading

The tale of a life by a master writer, in her own words

Review: Vivien Horler

A Memoir of my Former Self – A life in writing, by Hilary Mantel (John Murray)

Hilary Mantel was a serious writer, but not above the odd deliciously snide remark.

While we know her for her novels, especially the brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy that raked in two Booker Prizes, she also wrote extensively for newspapers and periodicals, including The Guardian, The Spectator, The New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.

Many of the pieces were film reviews, some of which are included in this volume.

She describes Babette’s Feast as “a perfect film”, adding pointedly: “There may be some people who don’t like it; but they will not be the sort of people you would like to dine with.” Continue reading

Murder, racial injustice, greed and corruption – the extraordinary tale of the Osage people

Review: Vivien Horler

Killers of the Flower Moon – Oil, money, murder and the birth of the FBI, by David Grann (Simon& Schuster)

While few people would condone murder, many might understand how it could be committed in the heat of the moment. But to plan and arrange a series of killings over a number of years, of people who were fond of you, with an eye on the main prize, seems particularly abhorrent.

This is at the centre of an extraordinary tale of greed and utter ruthlessness affecting members of the Native American Osage people in Osage County, Oklahoma, in the early 1920s.

The baddie behind the tale that unfolds in this book is a white man, William Hale, a businessman and cattleman of wide interests, and a respected reserve sheriff. He is considered by many Osage people as a benefactor. Continue reading

It’s snowing, it’s Christmas – and things are not going right

Review: Vivien Horler

Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop, by Jenny Colgan (Sphere/ Jonathan Ball)

Jenny Colgan is a best-selling writer of romantic comedy of whom I had never heard until I read Midnight at the Christmas Bookshop. If this is anything to go by, she’s a delightful writer.

And if you’ve never experienced Christmas in a snowy Edinburgh (I haven’t), this may inspire plans for your festive season this year.

Carmen is 30, unmarried, and working in a struggline bookshop in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Because she earns so little, she is living in a basement room in her lawyer sister’s beautiful house, along with sister Sofia, Sofia’s husband and their four children.

Carmen was in a bit of a bind and asked Sofia if she could stay for a couple of months, but it’s been a year now, and Sofia and her husband are getting fretful. Sofia is about to go back to work after maternity leave, and needs Carmen’s room for a new nanny. Continue reading

This story of a hero, told by a celebrated explorer and former soldier, makes for a great read

Review: Vivien Horler

Lawrence of Arabia, by Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)

Thomas Edward Lawrence was a history graduate with a first from Oxford when he first went to Arabia – in what is now southern Turkey – to supervise a British Museum archaeological dig in Carchemis, an ancient Hittite city.

It was1909 and he was 25. Within four years he was fluent in Arabic as well as a number of dialects, and had travelled far and wide, learning much about Arab customs and earning the respect of differing and often warring tribes.

He might have stayed there at the dig, had World War 1 not broken out in 1914, altering the course of history.

Little did Lawrence know, writes Ranulph Fiennes, that events in Syria would soon change the course of the war, “and the hopes and dreams of an Arab prince and much of the Middle East would rest on his shoulders”. Continue reading

Exploring the subleties, humour and pain of being coloured in SA

Review: Vivien Horler

Coloured – How classification became culture, by Tessa Dooms and Lynsey Ebony Chutel (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Trevor Noah, the South African treasure and winner of an Emmy award this month for The Daily Show, isn’t coloured.

That might surprise most South Africans, black and white, but perhaps not coloureds and almost certainly not Noah himself.

In his book Born a Crime he describes how he is the child of a liaison, illegal at the time, between a Xhosa mother and a (white) Swiss father. He then grew up in Soweto. Continue reading

Truth – the angel you cannot outrun

Review: Vivien Horler

The Little Liar, by Mitch Albom (Sphere)

The Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said once described Palestinians as “the victims of the victims, the refugees of the refugees”.

This was a reference to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and how the establishment of the state of Israel, prompted in part by Western guilt that the Holocaust had happened at all, led to Palestinians losing homes, livelihoods and lives.

The Little Liar, by the renowned Jewish-American writer Mitch Albom, is a Holocaust novel. It focuses on Greek Jews from Salonika (or Thessaloniki) who were rounded up by the Germans in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. Continue reading

A memoir that remind us of what doctors are taught: First, do no harm.

Review: Vivien Horler

Undoctored, by Adam Kay (Trapeze)

Around six years ago a British junior doctor, Adam Kay, wrote a hilarious, poignant and often angry memoir called This is Going to Hurt, based on his experiences with the National Health Service.

He finished the memoir with a letter to the British Health Minister, pointing out the NHS wasn’t made up of hospitals, pharmacies and GP surgeries as much as it was made up of the people who worked there.

And he issued a heartfelt plea: “Be the politician in a generation who changes the stuck record and treats them with an ounce of respect.”

That plea fell on deaf ears. As I write this – on January 5, 2024 – UK junior doctors are on a six-day strike, with their picket-line posters protesting they are overworked and under-paid. Continue reading

If women had been in charge, we might have been driving electric cars for more than a century

Review: Vivien Horler

The Race to the Future – The adventure that accelerated the 20th century, by Kassia St Clair (John Murray/ Jonthan Ball)

In the world’s quest for fewer polluting emissions, electric cars are being touted as the next new best thing. And best they might be – but they’re certainly not new.

As author Kassia St Clair tells us, at the turn of the 20th century around 40% of American automobiles were powered by steam, 38% by electricity and just 22% by petrol, “which had a reputation for being smellier, noisier, less reliable and prone to price fluctuations”. (As we South Africans well know, bracing ourselves on the first Wednesday of every month.)

This is one of hundreds of fascinating facts St Clair has uncovered in this amazing title.

Central to the narrative is the description of the longest, toughest car race or rally ever have been held, from Peking (now Beijing) to Paris in 1907, over around 13 000km on roads that varied from good (although often cobbled for the convenience of horses) in major cities to dirt roads to mule and camel tracks. Continue reading

The scars – physical and mental – a devastating fire leaves behind

Review: Vivien Horler

The Book of Fire, by Christy Lefteri (Manilla Press)

According to Google, the European summer of 2023 saw hundreds of wildfires in Greece, killing at least 28 people and injuring scores of others.

Bone-dry soils, record high temperatures and intense winds were behind the fires, as were people. A government spokesperson, Pavlos Marinakis, said by August 25 officials had arrested 163 people on fire-related charges, including 118 for negligence and 24 for deliberate arson.

But 2023 was just the latest year of wildfires in Greece. In 2018, on the island of Evia, more than 46 000 hectares were burnt, one of the worst wildfires in the country’s history.

In her author’s note at the end of The Book of Fire, Christy Lefteri writes: “Woods and meadows, pine forests, olive groves, beehives and livestock and houses – all gone. The scenes on TV were apocalyptic. Thousands of people fled their homes.”

She felt compelled to write about it. Continue reading