Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Earmarked for death

Review: Vivien Horler

The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s insurgents, collaborators and the Security Police, by Jacob Dlamini (Harvard University Press)

To be in the Terrorist Album meant you were fair game.

Those are the words of the notorious apartheid spy Craig Williamson, who was behind the murders of Jeanette Schoon Curtis and Ruth First.

Or as author, academic and former journalist Jacob Dlamini puts it: “To be on its pages was to be marked for death.”

In 1993, a year before the first democratic elections, the apartheid government ordered the destruction of a huge body of state records and documents “in an attempt to remove incriminating evidence and thereby sanitise the history of oppressive rule”, according to the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Much was incinerated in Iscor’s industrial furnaces in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Among the documents burnt were 500 copies of the Terrorism Album, a folder of some 7 000 photographs of people the apartheid government deemed to be “terrorists”. In fact all you had to do to get into the album was to leave South Africa illegally. Copies were sent to police stations all around the country. Continue reading

If you don’t believe you are victim, can you be one?

Review: Vivien Horler

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (HarperCollins/ Jonathan Ball)

In these times of the revelations of the appetites of the likes of Jeffrey Epstein and the #Me Too campaigns, My Dark Vanessa is a tricksy novel to get your head around.

In 2000 fifteen-year-old boarding school pupil Vanessa Wye has a sexual relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher. She is flattered, excited and convinced that she is in love – and is loved in return. But while she doesn’t believe their relationship is wrong, she’s savvy enough to know it has to be a secret.

The dilemma is: is someone a victim if she doesn’t believe she is one? Even 17 years later, as an adult, she still loves Jacob Strane, and doesn’t think he hurt her. And yet…

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The mother who didn’t love back

Review: Vivien Horler

My Mother, My Madness, by Colleen Higgs (deep south)

Very early in this brief journal-based memoir, Colleen Higgs writes: “My whole life has felt like a long deeply unsatisfying love affair with my mother.  She is the beloved who doesn’t love back.”

How hard it must be, to assume the care of a person who is not really interested in you, but demands a lot of you. And Higgs tries to be a dutiful daughter, while running a business – the publishing company Modjaji – and dealing with her not entirely satisfactory husband and her young (entirely satisfactory) daughter.

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Lady Anne Barnard author turns to the history of Jack Tar

Review: Archie Henderson

Sons of Waves: The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail, by Stephen Taylor (Yale)

Stephen Taylor is hardly known in South African literary circles, yet he was born here, trained here as a journalist and worked on the Rand Daily Mail in its glory days. Three of his eight books are about South Africa: Shaka’s Children, the Caliban Shore (about the wreck of the Grosvenor off Pondoland and its castaways) and Defiance (the first full history of Lady Anne Barnard).

More recently he has become, as The Times of London reported this year, “an acclaimed naval historian”. Following his researches on Britain’s naval history, this is the book he has long wanted to write. It’s about a time when Britain began to rule the waves and about the men who enabled that rule: the Jack Tars of the Royal Navy who did the heavy lifting while heroes like Nelson took much of the credit. Continue reading

Blood, love, murder and fable – a wonderful read

Review: Vivien Horler

The Inn at Helsvlakte, by Patricia Schonstein (Penguin)

A platoon of State soldiers rides into the gap between two calcified dunes on the edge of Helsvlakte. Separatists have been spied in the area, and the military authorities in the Capital want them eradicated.

The soldiers are led by Captain Leander Botha Malan, an experienced soldier not expecting a major confrontation, although he is confident he is prepared for one. And then, as they slip into the embrace of the dunes, Malan’s “soldier-marrow” senses something deeply wrong.

He gallops forward to turn the column back, but it is too late. Separatist fighters are positioned on top of the dunes, and they open fire. There is an explosion. “… and then it was just his hammering heart and the acrid, massed smell of terror.” Continue reading

A book to celebrate our chance to buy wine once again


Review: Myrna Robins

WINE + FOOD: The Art of (the) Perfect Pairing, by Fiona McDonald, Vickie de Beer & Charles Russell (Libertas Vineyards and Estates)

With our being allowed to buy wine again from tomorrow, it’s an ideal time to get hold of this book and explore the gentle art of pairing.

Libertas – the name brings to mind the part of Stellenbosch that’s steeped in wine and home to historic giants like Distell, formerly SFW, and venues like the theatre, the slow food market, the choir, concert auditorium – a wonderful mix of culture and wine in a stunning Cape setting.

The original Libertas was one of the oldest farms in the area, established in 1689. Today its name  refers to a group of wine farms and estates that owner Distell recently launched as a separate company of premium wine producers. Continue reading

When a woman finds she’s earning less than the man next to her

Review: Vivien Horler

Equal – A story of women, men & money, by Carrie Gracie (Virago)

In 2013 BBC journalist Carrie Grace was made the corporation’s first China Editor. With the country a rising superpower, the BBC believed its story needed to be reported in depth.

Gracie had worked for the BBC for more than 30 years, had extensive Chinese experience, and spoke fluent Mandarin. She accepted the job on the basis that as the two jobs were on a par, she would be paid the same as the North America Editor.

The BBC is funded by license fees, paid by ordinary Britons for the privilege of listening and watching programmes produced by an organisation whose printed values include: “Trust is the foundation of the BBC; we are independent, impartial and honest.”

But it appeared the BBC was less than transparent when it came to salaries. The government stepped in; under the terms of the corporation’s 2017 Royal Charter, it was obliged to publish all salaries higher than that earned by Britain’s prime minister: £150 000 a year (roughly R2.5million at the time). Continue reading

Post-Boer War story of Deneys Reitz still a delight


Review: Archie Henderson

No Outspan, by Deneys Reitz (The House of Emslie)

If this doesn’t seem new, it’s because it ain’t. Old Deneys Reitz has been around for a long time, most significantly as the chronicler of Commando, the enduring classic of the Boer War, and only slightly less successfully in Adrift on the Open Veld, a combination of his trilogy in one volume by his dedicated publisher Trevor Emslie.

Emslie recently decided to publish the final volume of the trilogy on its own and it will still appeal to a certain generation of readers who remember Reitz fondly from those earlier volumes.

Reitz, with his quaint prose, is still a delight to read. He’s from a different era, now vanished. How he stands up in these times of political correctness is hard to gauge, but we need to remember that he completed his book 77 years ago when things were very different and light was beginning to emerge from the tunnel that was World War 2.

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Forget about being PC – this is a truly page-turning story

Review: Vivien Horler

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins (Tinder Press)

Reviewing the novel American Dirt has been made marginally more difficult by “the firestorm” –  according to the US’s National Public Radio – that erupted when it was published in the United States in January.

It’s the story of a middle-class, bookshop-owning Mexican woman named Lydia whose family is gunned down by a drug cartel in Acapulco. She believes the cartel will come after her and her surviving son, eight-year-old Luca, and so they flee northwards, facing many dangers, towards the assumed safety of the US.

But critics, particularly Latino critics living in the US, have excoriated the book, saying it does not reflect the truth of the immigrant experience and that it uses harmful stereotypes,

One of the most uncompromising critics is Los Angeles Times writer Esmeralda Bermudez, who wrote: “In 17 years of journalism, in interviewing thousands of immigrants, I’ve never come across anyone like American Dirt’s main character.” Continue reading

A Cross to Bear – the tragedy of Fragile X syndrome

Review: Vivien Horler

The Trouble with my Aunt, by Hedi Lampert (Porcupine Press)

Aunty Vi is Granny’s cross to bear, a metaphor that 10-year-old Leah doesn’t entirely understand, but she gets the gist.

Being at a Jewish day school she doesn’t pick up the Christian reference, and imagines the cross as a large X of the sort Leah gets in class if she’s made a spelling mistake. If Aunty Vi is Granny’s cross to bear, then Granny must have made a mistake.

And so it turns out. Aunty Vi is strange – what in 1971 we might have called retarded or even simple. This suited Leah as a very little girl, as Aunty Vi was on her wavelength, but as Leah  grows older she sees that her aunt is not like other people.

One day Amy, Leah’s mother, confides that her mother, Sadie, became pregnant again when Amy was just nine months old and Sadie herself was only 20. She tried to abort the baby, and irreparably damaged her. Hence Sadie’s cross. Continue reading