Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Tenderness and the Beast

Review: Archie Henderson

Beast, by Tendai Mtawarira with Andy Capostagno (Macmillan)

Even for those who have played rugby over the years, the front row is the place to avoid. It’s where the grunts of the game live, and terrible stories are told at beer-drinking sessions in the clubhouse about it after games. 

The front row is the front line; it’s where opponents literally knock heads. Once a scrum is set, the exponents on both sides – from the left, the loosehead prop, the hooker and the tighthead – engage in activities that the referee cannot see, not even the television match official with his probing cameras. Punches can be thrown, ears can be bitten, testicles can be kicked, thumbs can be broken. And all of it out of sight. Continue reading

How Hitler misled Chamberlain – and other lies with fatal results

Review: Vivien Horler

Talking to Strangers – What we should know about the people we don’t know, by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane/ Penguin Books)

Malcolm Gladwell is a bestselling, interesting and insightful writer credited with developing the 10 000 hours theory of success: anyone can be an “overnight” winner when they’ve put in the hard work, usually around 10 000 hours of it.

Until Talking to Strangers, I’d read two of his books, The Tipping Point and Outliers, both of which I found fascinating. Actually Talking to Strangers is interesting too, full of striking anecdotes about how strangers tend to misunderstand each other, often with fatal consequences.

A story familiar to most of us is that of the meetings between Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in Germany a year or so before the outbreak of World War 2. Hitler was being increasingly bellicose and, amid fears of war, Chamberlain went to see him to judge whether he was going to be satisfied with annexing Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, or whether he had wider territorial ambitions. Continue reading

Novel of courage to make a life in a narrow society

Review: Vivien Horler
A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier (The Borough Press/ Jonathan Ball)
The deaths of millions of young men in World War I meant a generation of young women was unable to marry and have children.
Society has changed so much since the early 1930s when this novel, by the author of the bestselling Girl with a Pear Earring, is set. We may think our world lacks kindness and tolerance today, but prejudice was rife in middle class England in 1932 and being a “spinster” was a challenge.
Violet Speedwell, born in the last years of the 19th century, loses both a brother and a fiance in the war. In her mid-30s at the start of this novel, she has moved away from her family home in Southampton, Continue reading

Wanted: bodies for our current needs

Review: Vivien Horler
The Body – A guide for occupants, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday)
Sometimes it may be better not to dwell on the inner workings of our bodies.
I mean, do you really want to know this: “Every day, it has been estimated, between one and five of your cells turns cancerous …”
But Bill Bryson follows his statement with the good news: “… and your immune system captures and kills them. Think of that. A couple of dozen times a week … you get the most dreaded disease of our age, and each time your body saves you.”
As you might expect from the author of A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home, this book is packed with facts, most of them interesting. There is, for example, the story of Vitamin D. It is vital to health, helping to build strong bones and teeth, boost the immune system, fight cancer and nourish the heart.
We get it two ways: through sunlight or our diet. But too much sunlight can cause skin cancer. Diet is also problematic: Bryson says to meet Vitamin D needs from food alone, we’d have to eat 15 eggs or about 3kg of cheese a day.
Skin colour helps with the safe absorbtion of sunlight, but the slow evolution of different skin tones only really worked when people stayed put. “Nowadays increased mobility means that lots of people end up in places where sun levels and skin tones don’t get along at all.”
All of this means that around 50% of people around the world are estimated to be Vitamin D deficient for at least part of the year, while in the northern hemisphere it might be up to 90%.
Bryson takes us through our bodies from the outside – skin and hair – to our microbes, the brain, the head, the heart and blood, our body chemistry, bones, walking upright and exercise, immunity, breathing, food and the gut, sleep, sex and procreation, disease and death.
Much of the information is based on trends in Europe and North America, presumably the people who will be buying the book. As a result he says of TB: “It is another disease that we have mostly forgotten…”, which is hardly true for us down at the southern tip of Africa.
But he reminds readers that in fact, with the conquest of smallpox, TB is now the deadliest disease on earth. Around one in three people on the planet carries the bacterium, and some boroughs of London have rates of infection “that nearly match” those of Nigeria or Brazil. And Bryson says with the increase of MDR and XDR strains, “it is entirely possible that we could one day … be facing an epidemic of TB that medicine cannot treat”.
Our bodies are miracles, but not without their problems. Bryson points out that we are the product of three billion years of evolution. “We would all be a lot better off if we could just start afresh and give ourselves bodies built for our … needs – to walk upright without wrecking our knees and backs, to swallow without the heightened risk of choking, to dispense babies as if from a vending machine. But we weren’t built for that.”
This is not one of Bryson’s funny books, and he does go in for quite a few meaningless comparisons, such as: if ocean viruses alone were laid end to end, they would stretch for 10million light years. Huh?
But it is written with his customary light touch and is full of interesting information that just calls out for a friend who will listen patiently as you read snippets out loud.

A memoir of children, lions and trauma

Review: Myrna Robins
Under the Camelthorn Tree – Raising a family among lions, by Kate Nicholls (Jonathan Ball)
Kate Nicholls says this is not an “and I was born” memoir, but rather a series of snapshots of events between 1994 and 2016. Her tale is not assigned to chronological chapters, but moves from Africa to the UK, jumping a decade or more and back again.
It all adds up to an extraordinary stretch of Nicholls’ life, a momentous 22 years during which she brings up her five children in a lion conservation camp in Botswana, is attacked by three men, descends into a mental hellhole fuelled by whisky, and pulls herself out of it slowly, healing helped by her work of home-schooling Russian children in London. Continue reading

Combining crafting and cooking in appealing guise

Review: Myrna Robins
All Fired Up – Vegetarian recipes and reflections fron a country kitchen and pottery, by Nina Shand (Millstone Pottery, McGregor)
Open this intriguing softback and enter the mesmerising world of potters and their wood-fired pots and dishes. Add a garden of locally grown ingredients which, when cooked, will fill those pots with appetising feasts.
The relationship is timeless and as inspiring now as it has been for aeons. It is one that merges seamlessly in this collection of recipes both for fine fare and beautiful glazes, interspersed with tales of a potter’s day, from dawn until dusk – and sometimes on into the night. Continue reading

A race, a donkey with heart, and a lot of humour

Review: Vivien Horler

Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall (Profile Books/ Jonathan Ball)
This is a book about a donkey called Sherman. It’s also about burro racing – racing with donkeys; about the Pennsylvania Amish; treating depression; and how the relationship between people and animals keeps us human.
Because that’s the wonderful thing about Christopher McDougall’s writing: he has an ostensible topic, but then drifts into other areas, thinly related, in a generally fascinating way.
Readers of his bestseller Born to Run will know this. It was about ultramarathon running, a subject many of us have very little interest in. It sat on my bedside table for weeks. Then I picked it up and it was utterly brilliant. It was about a group of Mexican Indians who entered one of the toughest ultra marathons in the world, the Leadville 100, and wearing tyre-sandals, beat everyone else. Continue reading

The yachting dream that turned to nightmare

Review: Vivien Horler

Not Child’s Play, by Dave Muller (MF Books/ Jacana)


Seth Muller’s fifth birthday is a day his parents will never forget.

Living his dream, architect Dave Muller and a friend have spent 10 years building a yacht on which to sail around the world. In the Easter holidays of 1990, Dave, his wife Sandy, Seth and 8-year-old Tammy have sailed north from East London, planning to meet up with a friend on Seth’s birthday in the Bazaruto Islands of Mozambique.

It’s been a pretty good voyage so far, and with Arwen well out to sea, Dave settles down to sleep. He feels content – he’s finally achieved his dream of sailing to a tropical island.

He is woken by a thump, to realise Arwen has run aground on the beach. He starts the engine, but the yacht is heeled over at an angle of 45 degrees, and her prop spins uselessly in the air.

Continue reading

Jackie and Lee were synonymous with glamour, tragedy, and lots and lots of money

Review: Vivien Horler

The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters – the tragic and glamorous lives of Jackie and Lee, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (Harper/ Jonathan Ball)

The reported crudity of the Donald Trump-led White House stands in stark contrast to the style in which Jack and Jackie Kennedy lived their White House years.

Elegance, beauty, appreciation of art and erudition were hallmarks of their lives (with a fair bit of bed-hopping thrown in).

Like Trump, both the Kennedy and Bouvier families were wealthy, although like Trump, Jack’s father Joe Kennedy sen was, according to the American writer Gore Vidal, “exuberantly and successfully a crook”.

Continue reading

Le Carré cashes in rivetingly on resumption of Cold War

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

Agent Running in the Field, by John le Carré (Penguin Random House UK)

Moscow Centre is up and running again, its tentacles stronger and more malicious than ever. Its agent are all over London. It has a US president in its boss’s pocket, has begun to break up a European market alliance and even undermine its greatest enemy, Nato. All the hard work done by George Smiley to turn Moscow Centre’s mastermind Karla and foreshadow the end of communism has been undone in only a few years. No wonder John le Carré is in his element.

Our greatest spy novelist never quire reached the heights of the Karla trilogy once the Cold War ended. With Agent Running in the Field, he might be touching them again. 

Except that Moscow Centre, back to its old brutal efficiency, is less of the story than Le Carré’s usual theme of betrayal, which I hope is not giving too much away in a story that is riveting from beginning to end. Continue reading