Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

They also serve – a gripping novel of saving stolen art in WWII

Review: Vivien Horler

The Paris Deception, by Bryn Turnbull (Headline Review)

Many brave people were part of the French Resistance against the Nazis during World War II, risking – and even sacrificing – their lives for the dream of a free France.

Others were involved in less dramatic acts of resistance but which, if discovered, would probably have had much the same outcome.

This is a novel about a group of people connected with the arts who decided to do what they could, in their own fields, to stymie the Germans.

A peripheral character, Rose Valland, was a real person, an art curator at the Paris-based Musee Jeu de Paume, a Resistance operative dedicated to safeguarding France’s cultural heritage. She secretly recorded the movement of priceless works of art, thousands of which were stolen from Jewish and other “untermensch” such as Roma, Communists and Freemasons, and shipped to the Third Reich. Continue reading

Despite crippling MS, this is a praise song to a life well lived

Review: Vivien Horler

Short Circuit – A brief meander through memory – and malady, by John D Phillips (Munster Publishing)

It started with a classified ad in the Cape Argus. A Cape Town couple was looking for a like-minded couple to “swing” with.

My colleague John and I looked at each other in astonishment. We’d heard of swinging, but in Cape Town in the mid-70s? Nah!

We were both young reporters on the Argus, and this looked like a fun story. Could we pass ourselves off as a married couple, respond to the ad and find out more about this kind of thing – with no intention whatsoever of actually having group sex with the other two, or one on one, or each other.

But still, it looked interesting. We got permission from the newsdesk, went through our personal background details so we could sound married, and answered the ad.

Which is how we ended up one evening in the Woodstock Holiday Inn with the couple, he a doctor – or was it a dentist?

The doctor and I went up to a room he’d booked, while John sat downstairs with the wife. It was all a bit awkward, really, because I needed to escape before the doctor got too frisky. Meanwhile John was downstairs comforting the wife, who was in tears, saying none of this had been her idea. Continue reading

Courage and dark humour in the face of World War 2 tyranny

Review: Vivien Horler

My Father’s House, by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)

For decades after World War 2, BBC television had a popular programme called This is Your Life, in which someone who was impressive for one reason or another was surprised on TV with the appearance of people who had been pivotal in their lives.

One of those featured was a former British officer and twice-escaped POW, Major Sam Derry, who found haven in the Vatican – neutral during the war – and who helped organise what was known as the “escape line”.

As cover, Derry took on the role of a clerk in the Church, and was assisted by a senior Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, based in the Vatican. It is said they helped more than 4 000 Jews and POWs escape the clutches of the Gestapo. Continue reading

You don’t have to tell your children all your secrets

Review: Vivien Horler

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury Publishing)

This a story about three sisters in a Michigan cherry orchard, about Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, and the strange time of the lockdown.

Lara and Joe Nelson live on the family farm where they grow cherries, apples, pears and rear goats. Thanks to the lockdown of 2020, the seasonal workers cannot come to help with the harvest – but also thanks to the lockdown, Lara and Joe’s three grown daughters have come home. And there, with everyone’s life on hold (except no one told the cherries) they pick fruit and talk.

The daughters, Emily, Maisie and Nell, have always known their mother was an actress in her day, with a film under her belt and a season of summer stock behind her, in which she played Emily in Our Town.

They’ve also always known that during her summer of acting at Tom Lake, she had a fling with another of the actors, Duke, who much later went on to be a seriously famous Hollywood actor. Continue reading

Unpacking Michelle Obama’s toolbox

Review: Vivien Horler

The Light We Carry – Overcoming in uncertain times, by Michelle Obama (Viking/ Penguin)

If there is one quote associated with former US First Lady Michelle Obama, it is probably: “When they go low, we go high.”

In this, Obama’s second book after her best-selling memoir Becoming, she says whenever she is interviewed or sits down with a new group of people, someone will ask her: “What does it mean to go high?”

She first uttered the sentence at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were running for president. And we know how that turned out. Continue reading

A great, sprawling triumph of a novel

Review: Vivien Horler

The Covenant of Water, by Abraham Verghese (Grove Press UK)

Years ago I was in a book shop trying to decide between three novels, one of which was John Irving’s The World According to Garp.  The bookseller looked at my selection, handed me Garp, and said: “After you’ve read this one you won’t need those.”

I feel a bit that way about The Covenant of Water. It’s a big, long, sprawling triumph of a novel, one in which the author disconcertingly doesn’t hesitate to kill off characters you’ve come to admire and love, and yet there are enough others to keep you going with enthusiasm.

Abraham Verghese’s first novel was the acclaimed and brilliant Cutting for Stone, about a doctor in Africa, which remained on the New York Times bestselling list for two years.

His background is interesting – he was born in Ethiopia to Christian parents from Kerala in India.

After the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, the family left for the US. Later the young Abraham studied medicine in Madras, now Chennai. Following his graduation he returned to the US where he worked in hospitals in Tennessee and Texas. He is currently a professor of medicine at Stanford.

In this novel, which is set in a Christian community in a Kerala in 1900, a 12-year-old child bride arrives terrified at the home of her small-landowner husband, a 40-year-old widower. At first he refuses to marry her, pointing out he already has a child to look after and doesn’t need another.

But the marriage goes ahead and the couple eventually gel, finding love and comfort in each other. The young bride, who soon becomes known as Big Ammachi, bonds with little Jo-Jo, her stepson, who is not that much younger than she, and he with her.

One day Big Ammachi finds a collection of moth-eaten papers that amount to a family tree, and she discovers that in each generation someone dies by drowning. In Kerala you can’t avoid water – what with rivers and canals and the province’s famed backwaters, it is everywhere.

Big Ammachi comes to think of it as the Condition, something that appears to be passed down. Her husband avoids water, and so does Jo-Jo, and yet, years later, her granddaughter Mariamma is a great swimmer.

The novel is rooted in Parambil, the family estate, and explores the links between various family members and the people of different castes who work for them.

But there is a wider world, and interwoven with the story of Parambil is a second story of Digby, a young Glaswegian doctor who joins the Indian medical service during the flagging days of Britain’s colonial project in India. He becomes an expert in hand surgery, a skill that serves him well when working in a leper hospital not far from Parambil.

The novel covers the period from 1900 to 1977, and we see many beloved characters born and die, some peacefully, some not. We follow historical events, World War 2, independence, the coming of electricity to Parambil, and eventually even a hospital.

Big Ammachi’s granddaughter, Mariamma, becomes a doctor who begins to uncover the genetic secrets of the Condition – it turns out it’s a real thing. Standing beside the river she realises: “This is the covenant of water: that  they’re all linked inescapably by their acts of commission and omission, and no one stands alone. She stays there listening to the burbling mantra, the chant that never ceases, repeating its message that all is one.”

Eventually the interwoven threads between the lives of Mariamma and Digby – many years her senior – become clear.

I’ve read reviews that say the novel flags towards the end, but I didn’t think so. The surprises keep coming.

I thought it was brilliant.

  • The Covenant of Water is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads of the month.


Does SA’s way of war work?

Review: Archie Henderson

20 Battles – Searching for an SA way of war, 1913-2013, by Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz (Delta Books)

“In war, prepare for peace; in peace, prepare for war.” It’s one of the more famous quotes from Sun Tzu, general, philosopher, strategist and author of The Art of War, written more than 2,500 years ago.

It applies to many walks of life – especially in the corporate world – but Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz are more interested in its literal meaning.

Both are civilians and also military men. Continue reading

Author weaves his own moving story into the classic Shackleton tale


Review: Vivien Horler

Finding Endurance – Shackleton, my father and a world without end, by Darrel Bristow-Bovey (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Like author Darrel Bristow-Bovey, I’m a Shackleton fan. Some Antarctic polar nuts are Robert Falcon Scott fans – and Scott did actually reach the South Pole, albeit behind the Norwegian Roald Amundsen – but he and his party died on the return journey.

Shackleton never made it to the South Pole, yet his story seems to me the more remarkable one: he and his entire team made it back home, after seeing their ship crushed by the ice and then going through extraordinary privations to survive. Continue reading

You do what you have to do – even when the bombs are falling

Not Without my Dogs, by Kobus Olivier with Hilda van Dyk (Tafelberg)

Kobus Olivier is a cricketer – both player and coach – and his passion for the sport has taken him all around the world. After teaching cricket in Dubai, where he found the heat debilitating, he decided in 2017 he needed a holiday where it was cold, and booked a flight to Kyiv.

In just a week the city stole his heart, and in 2018 Olivier packed up his cases and his little dog Tiekie and moved to Kyiv permanently – well, that was the plan.

He got a job teaching English at a good school and also introduced and taught cricket to schoolchildren. Olivier moved into a 7th floor in a building in Peremohy Ave – the road you would take if you were driving from Belarus to Kyiv. Continue reading

Holocaust: it is our duty to never forget

Review: Vivien Horler

I am Ella – A remarkable story of survival, from Auschwitz to Africa, by Joanne Jowell (Kwela Books)

After the unimaginable horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, losing her family, then incarceration in Majdanek, Auschwitz and eventually Bergen-Belsen, Ella Blumenthal married, came to South Africa and became a wife, mother and businesswoman.

For 40-something years she didn’t speak of her war-time experiences. Her South African husband made it clear he did not want to know, and somewhere in this searing book she says she doubts if he ever knew the names of her six dead siblings.

Then, after his death, she began speaking in public, tentatively at first, dredging up the past. Sometimes, she says, when recounting her experiences, she can hardly believe it all happened to her. Continue reading