Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Five women go hiking in the Australian bush – only four come back

Review: Vivien Horler

Force of Nature, by Jane Harper (Little, Browne)

force of natureEvery aspiring novelist wants to be like Jane Harper.

The British-born Australian journalist decided she wanted to write a novel, but told an interviewer at the Sydney Morning Herald there was a snag: she didn’t know how to. So she signed up for an online novel-writing course in late 2014, and finished her first draft on New Year’s Eve of that year.

Seeking more feedback, she entered it in the unpublished manuscript category of the 2015 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards – and won the $15 000 (about R150 000) prize.

Immediately interested publishers and agents were on to her, and the result was The Dry, a fast-paced and convoluted murder mystery set in a blisteringly hot, drought-stricken small Australian town. Continue reading

Poaching is the sad downside to a collection of heartwarming tales

Review: Vivien Horler

An Elephant in My Kitchen, by Françoise Malby-Anthony with Katja Willemsen (Sidgwick & Jackson/ Pan Macmillan)

elephant in my kitchenWhen you’re on a game drive out in the bush you feel as if you’re a thousand kilometres from civilisation. Just you, trees, a wide sky, perhaps an elephant or an impala in view, and space in every direction.

But the horror of poaching means that in many game reserves this is no longer the case. Thula Thula in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the reserve made famous by elephant whisperer Lawrence Anthony, bristles with hi-tech equipment and heavily armed guards.

As his widow, Françoise Malby-Anthony, writes in this sequel to his bestseller The Elephant Whisperer: “Motion detector beams now pick up the slightest movement. There are infrared night-vision cameras throughout the reserve that track activity and feed information into a cloud-based portal. If a poacher disables a camera, an alarm goes off both on-site and in an external control room.”

Despite this her book is a lovely read, with delightful descriptions of rambunctious hippo, rhino and elephant orphans bouncing around, learning how to swim in children’s paddling pools, mock-charging each other, and snuggling up together on mattresses at night.

And there is no doubt that Anthony, her late husband, would be enormously proud of her for carrying on after his sudden death after a heart attack in March 2012. Françoise was an elegant Parisienne of 33 when she met Anthony in London, and not very much later she was living with him at Thula Thula.

Not long after Françoise arrived, they took on a small herd of rogue elephants who were about to be shot, and Lawrence forged a special relationship with them, which he described in his book The Elephant Whisperer. He was a bold man who was driven by his heart, and shortly after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, he got himself to Baghdad in a wildly dangerous but mostly successful bid to save the surviving animals in Baghdad’s zoo. This adventure led to his wonderful first book, Babylon’s Ark.

When Françoise arrived at Thula Thula 30 years ago, she writes, poaching didn’t really exist. “There were no armed guards, no GPS tracking collars on rhinos, no surveillance drones flying over reserves. Being in the bush was simpler, more primitive and pure.”

As we all know, it’s not like that any more. In 2011 I was fortunate enough to spend a weekend at Thula Thula and interview Anthony on the subject of poaching.

Community outreach was key, he said. “Attitudes are changing – people know that animals and reserves bring in money, and people are saying why should foreigners take our rhino? There’s been a huge change in perceptions, including government perceptions.”

But in fact over the past seven years Françoise has been forced to ratchet up security, employing expensive and heavily armed professional guards to patrol their reserve and their reinforced fences. Drones over the reserve are shot down on sight.

The reserve still has two adult rhinos, Thabo and Ntombi whom we saw in 2011, but they wear GPS collars and are trailed through the bush 24/7 by guards. And since Lawrence’s death a poacher got close enough to Thabo to shoot him, although he survived.

Some years ago Françoise was able to achieve a dream and open a rescue centre on Thula Thula for orphaned animals. The centre was some distance from both Françoise’s home and the reserve lodge, and was staffed by a guard, a guard dog, and a group of young volunteers.

One night early last year in the middle of a storm, the centre was attacked by poachers who tied up the volunteers, and shot two baby rhinos for their horns, at that stage no bigger than a child’s fist. One of the babies died instantly, the other, Impi, survived the dreadful hacking of his face.

When he stared in shock at his attacker, the man put out the little animal’s eyes. Later a vet had to euthanase him.

Friends of the reserve were appalled and responded with donations of money which have been used to intensify security. It is sad to read this in the light of Anthony’s remarks back in 2011. Guns and guards could only do so much, he said, and the true way to fight poaching was to restore communities’ traditional and cultural ties with nature, ties that were destroyed by colonialism and apartheid.

But this approach doesn’t seem to have worked. Françoise writes: “What can you do against men with no fear and nothing to lose, armed to the hilt with shotguns and assault rifles? But if we don’t try, more will die.”

An Elephant in my Kitchen is not a sad book, but like most books on wildlife in Africa, it has some very sad moments. Mostly though, you read in awe about the elephants who came to the Lawrence house the weekend after Anthony died and stood there silently in apparent grief, about the antics of the baby animals, about the enthusiasm and dedication of the many people who work at Thula Thula.

Françoise has found new love, but Thula Thula remains her life. She will never give up, she says, but hold on to the dreams she and Anthony shared.

This is a wonderful book.

*A version of this review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on August 5, 2018

 

 

 

Some politics but more love in fictional story of Eleanor Roosevelt

Review: Vivien Horler

White Houses by Amy Bloom (Granta)

white housesLorena Alice Hickok was a rare thing in the US in the early 1930s, a hard-news woman journalist.

She covered Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election campaign which saw him and his wife Eleanor entering the White House in 1932.

Hickok, who was known to be a lesbian, became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, moving into the White House, which led to her resignation from her reporting job with Associated Press as she was too close to the First Family.

The women travelled together, and wrote each other passionate letters – more than 3 000 letters between the pair are held at the Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in New York State. Continue reading

Where is home for an exile?

Review: Vivien Horler

Always Another Country, by Sisonke Msimang (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

always another countryAs an immigrant, like I am, you are always just a little torn between the country you come from and the country in which you’ve grown up. Which is home?

The Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole says one way of resolving this dilemma is to ask yourself where you’d like to be buried? (He said in that context, Lagos was certainly not home – you’d get no RIP there.)

Sisonke Msimang is the child of exiles. She grew up in Lusaka, Nairobi and in Ottawa in Canada. But home was always South Africa, the place of the dream, where apartheid would be vanquished by heroes in the ANC, and there would be peace and freedom and belonging. The country she imagined as a child was a crucible from which a more dignified and just humanity would emerge.

As we all know, it has not turned out quite like that. Or as Msimang says, today we stand in a country that is free but not just, and she has enormous difficulty accepting this. Continue reading

What’s a soldier to do when the war is over? Head to Baghdad, of course

Review: Vivien Horler

In the Kill Zone – surviving as a private military contractor in Iraq, by Neil Reynolds (Delta Publishers/ Jonathan Ball)

kill zoneNeil Reynolds describes himself as “a military man through and through”. In 1980 he was called up for national service and after basic training was posted to what was known as the “operational area” in Namibia.

He says after his first contact he “was hooked”, and by the end of that year Reynolds had joined Permanent Force, and was serving in the reconnaissance wing of 31 Battalion at Omega in the Caprivi Strip.

After eight years in Caprivi he was transferred back to South Africa. In 1999, five years after the first democratic elections, he took an early retirement package.

He then became one of hundreds of highly trained and skilled soldiers for whom South Africa no longer had any use. And so, like many of his ilk, he opted for private security work. Two years later he was providing security for a diamond mining company in Angola, a job that entailed working on an isolated mine miles from anywhere for six months at a time, allowed a single five-minute phone call home once a week. There was no internet. Continue reading

You can learn a lot when you’re a long way from home – not necessarily what you expected

Review: Vivien Horler

A Long Way from Home, by Peter Carey (faber & faber)

Ilong way from homen the 1950s Australia held a series of punishing motor rallies known as the Redex Reliability Trials which saw teams driving production cars around the continent on the roughest of outback roads.

In the 1955 event there was huge publicity as Australians followed the excitement of the more than 200 teams covering nearly 17 000 km in 18 days. More than half the field failed to finish.

Twice Man Booker Prize winner Peter Carey has used this rally as the framework for a marvellous novel of love and derring do, suffering and enlightenment set in a time when Australia was a far more homogenous society than it is today, in line with its White Australia policy. Continue reading

Thoughtful look at leaving this life when it’s time to go

Review: Vivien Horler

At Close of Day – Reflections, by Karel Schoeman (Protea House of Books)

at close of day

The cover picture is a David Goldblatt photograph titled ‘Sheep farm, near Edenburg, Orange Free State, 16 April 1982

Years ago I read an article in The Guardian newspaper that said something like “old age is terrible – it is much, much worse than you can imagine”.

I was in my early 30s at the time and old age was a long way off, but there was something about the gloomy statement that stayed with me.

And now, finally on the cusp of old age, I have just read Karel Schoeman’s sobering At Close of Day, a book of reflections on age and disintegration and death.

Schoeman, a prolific and award-winning Afrikaans author, updated the manuscript on April 26 last year, when he was 77. Five days later he killed himself.

The book was published in Afrikaans shortly afterwards and has now been translated into English by Elsa Silke. Continue reading

How letters can make history sing – and what will historians of the future do?

Review: Vivien Horler

Last Letter Home, by Rachel Hore (Simon & Schuster)

last letter homeAs recently as 1990 I was still writing and receiving letters, and I have my half of the correspondence to this day. But who prints out and keeps important emails?

Novels based on the discovery of old letters, or on the consequences of a letter that was never delivered, will now need to be relegated to historical fiction.

I suppose Last Letter Home is technically historical fiction, half of it taking place during World War II which is still within living memory, but only just.

There are two narrative threads here, the story of author and historian Briony Wood, set in the present, and her fascination with the lives of a group of people in Norfolk before and during the war. Continue reading

One family’s experience of living in eye of the storm of history

Review: Vivien Horler

Two Sisters – Into the Syrian Jihad, by Asne Seierstad (Virago)

two sistersThe awful news of a deathly attack on worshippers at the Malmesbury mosque on the penultimate night of Ramadaan – apparently by a Somali man – brings closer the world laid bare by Norwegian writer Asne Seierstad in this stark work.

We read the headlines about IS and the devastation of Syria every day, we hear of attacks and beheadings, we see Somali refugees on our streets, but rarely get a glimpse of the human stories behind the news.

Seierstad, a former Norwegian war correspondent whose book The Bookseller of Kabul sold more than two million copies, has detailed one family’s devastation in Two Sisters. It is her non-fiction account of how a pair of teenage sisters, of Somali descent but born and brought up in Oslo, left their family and travelled to Raqqa in Syria to join IS. Continue reading

A member of the ‘SABC Eight’ remembers his father, one of the murdered ‘Cradock Four’

Review: Vivien Horler

My Father Died for This, by Lukhanyo and Abigail Calata (Tafelberg)

lukhanyo calataImagine if you were a three-year-old and this was your first memory.

“Once at the gravesite I remember holding on to my mother’s dress, too afraid of letting go. The up-and-down stamping by toyi-toyiing mourners shook the ground under my feet. I had never felt anything like that before, and I remember being so afraid of the ground collapsing underneath me.”

Despite dredging his memory, Lukhanyo Calata cannot remember a single moment with the father who by all accounts doted on him. Fort Calata, one of the Cradock Four, was murdered by the South African security police in June 1985. His older daughter Dorothy was almost 10, Fort was three, and his younger daughter, Tumani, was not yet born. His wife, Nomonde, was just 26. Continue reading