Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

A dazzling depiction of Victorian colonial England

Review: Leighan M Renaud

The Fraud, by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton/ Jonathan Ball)

Zadie Smith’s latest novel, The Fraud, is her first foray into the world of historical fiction. The result is a stunning, well-studied examination of Victorian colonial England and some of its inhabitants.

As with other works by Smith, the novel takes a patchwork approach, with several interwoven plots taking place over a period of about 50 years. Centrally placed in the plot is the real-life and bizarre trial of a man claiming to be a Sir Roger Tichborne, thought to have died at sea and heir to a substantial fortune.

The absurd and very long trial, which had people from all communities in 1870s England hooked, is seen in the novel through the eyes of Eliza Touchet, cousin and companion of William Ainsworth, a novelist well known in Victorian England but relatively forgotten today. Continue reading

Saving the world, one child at a time

Review: Vivien Horler

One Life – The true story of Sir Nicholas Winton, by Barbara Winton (Robinson) 

In 1988 an elderly Englishman was presented with a gold ring on which the words “Save one life – save the world” were engraved.

The words come from the Jewish Talmud, and the ring was given to Sir Nicholas Winton to mark the fact that as a young man shortly before World War II he – and others – saved the lives of 669 Czech children, most of them Jewish, from the Nazis.

Winton, while technically Jewish – his mother was born into a German Jewish family – was not observant. In fact he had been baptised and confirmed as an Anglican. Later he became an agnostic. Continue reading

Discovering the last voice of the dead

Review: Vivien Horler

Blood has a Voice – Stories from the autopsy table, by Hestelle van Staden (Tafelberg)

Hestelle van Staden describes herself as a “normal, 40-something-year-old suburban Afrikaans-speaking woman” with two children, and yet she has a job she describes as “not always easy or nice”.

Well, no. She’s a forensic pathologist, and knew from when she was at high school in Pretoria what career she wanted to pursue. She credits Patricia Cornwell and her Kay Scarpetta books for inspiring her. Such was her enthusiasm for her job that on her first day at work she felt “like a kid in a candy store”.

Since then she was performed more than 7 000 autopsies, one of them on the reggae star Lucky Dube, who was shot dead in a hijacking in Johannesburg in 2007. She also testified for the state in the later murder trial. Continue reading

Potsdam: to Stalin the spoils

Review: Archie Henderson

Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe, by Michael Neiberg (Basic Books)

Potsdam, a city 25km south-west of Berlin, is a charming place of palaces, lakes, rivers, and green space with only a quarter of the area inhabited by its 183,000 residents. On a cold, blustery day, Michael Neiberg roamed the city and was enchanted, but also disappointed. 

Neiberg is a military civilian who teaches history at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and for 17 days in the summer of 1945 Potsdam was centre in the history of World War 2. But nowhere could Neiberg find any books about the history of the city and even elsewhere the offerings were meagre. So, he wrote one himself. Continue reading

Just because you CAN do something, should you?

Review: Vivien Horler

The Seventh Son, by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson Heinemann)

If you Google the significance of “the seventh son” in folklore, you find that from the 16th century a seventh son was believed to have psychic powers.

Seth, the boy and young man at the centre of this startling tale, does seem have such powers, but he is an only child and the identity of his father is a mystery. He is however the seventh subject in a bizarre scientific experiment.

At the beginning of this story, set slightly ahead of the present in 2030, Talissa Adam is a young American post-doc who is looking for a job. Her area is the “distant but discoverable human past”.

A Boston institute offers her a post, but there’s a catch – she will have to fund her first year herself. And there is no money for that. Continue reading

Who knows the secrets a mild-mannered neighbour might have?

Review: Vivien Horler

All the Broken Places, by John Boyne (Penguin Books)

Gretel Fernsby is a widow in her 90s, living in a pleasant flat in London’s Mayfair, and leading an ordered life. She keeps herself to herself, has few friends and rarely speaks of her past.

Gretel has a secret, which she has spent all her life trying to hide. She was born in Berlin before the outbreak of World War II, but tells the few people who might need to know that she had grown up in France.

This is because she is “the devil’s daughter”, and even 80 years on she suspects if her past were uncovered, it would be all over the newspapers. Continue reading

How a small Ukrainian town changed the course of the war

Review: Vivien Horler

A Small, Stubborn Town – Life, death and defiance in Ukraine, by Andrew Harding (Ithaka)

In the general noise, politics and statistics of war that we’ve seen lately – in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza – the individual experiences of those involved can be overlooked or lost.

And if you’re used to reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, set in previous wars – World War 2, Korea, Vietnam – you know what happened in the end.

In the case of Ukraine, and now the Middle East, we don’t know how things are going to turn out, which creates additional poignancy.

Andrew Harding, who recently left SA where he had been reporting for BBC News, found himself covering the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and then decided to write a book about one small but possibly pivotal battle near the little southern town of Voznesensk. Continue reading

Sleaze of 1920s Soho at centre of gripping tale

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

Shrines of Gaiety, by Kate Atkinson (Penguin Random House)

The glittering stores of Regent Street are the frontispiece to the sleazier Soho – tucked behind London’s teeming shopping area, and revealing a side of the city that is the heart of entertainment, dope dealing, nightclubs, girls on the beat and the dirty secrets of its residents.

Always an attraction to a tourist, exploring these streets reveals a tawdry, seamy side of a city, constantly awake for pleasure, selling and anything that might take your fancy.

Back in the mid 1920s one of the most notorious of the clubs, ‘43’ on Gerard Street, was owned and run by a Mrs Kate Meyrick who spent not a little of her life doing time for licensing misdemeanors. It is she who is the inspiration behind Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Shrines of Gaiety. Continue reading

If you like lemons, garlic and the high tales of a Greek tavern owner, you’ll enjoy this

Review: Vivien Horler

My Big Fat Greek Taverna – From diplomacy to ouzo, by Costa Ayiotis (Melinda Ferguson Books)

The customer is always right, right?

Except when they’re not. Costa Ayiotis – lawyer, diplomat, once Hout Bay taverna owner, and a man of strong opinions – really tried to believe in his customers, and mostly did, except when he didn’t.

Born in Egypt to a Greek father and a Dutch mother, he grew up in Johannesburg where he studied at Wits. In 1997, after returning from New York where he was a South African diplomat at the United Nations, he came to Hout Bay with his wife and two friends-cum-business-partners, and opened a Greek taverna.

It was the delicious, late-lamented Limonia, just a stone’s-throw from the beach. His father was a great cook and cooked what he says in this memoir were many memorable Greek meals for the family. Continue reading

Leading through tumult – and emerging with dignity

Review: Vivien Horler

Statues and Storms – Leading through change, by Max Price (Tafelberg)

Max Price, the vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, came back from holiday in January 2016, and looked anxiously ahead to the coming year.

He wrote in his diary: “First day back after a wonderful holiday in Plettenberg Bay. For the first time in eight years I said to [my wife] Deborah, ‘I don’t know if I want this job’.”

The year 2015 had been a tumultous one for SA’s universities. It kicked off in early March with student Chumani Maxwele triggering the Rhodes Must Fall movement by throwing faeces on the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT.

Within a month the statue was gone, but that was just the beginning of troubles faced SA universities that year. Rhodes Must Fall segued into the Fees Must Fall movement and the vexed – and expensive – issue of insourcing of certain categories of workers.  Continue reading