Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

A moving memoir of joy, pain and boundless love

Review: Vivien Horler

The Year of Facing Fire – a memoir, by Helena Kriel (MF Books Joburg/Jacana)

year of facing fireHelena Kriel gets about. When this memoir begins she has been commissioned to write the screenplay of a 1996 Hollywood film called Kama Sutra, and goes to India to do research.

Many years later she is the founder of Baby Rhino Rescue, an organisation with two sanctuaries that is trying to save rhinos from extinction. She divides her time between Hollywood and South Africa, “is happiest when in the middle of nowhere with just a rhino or hippo for company”,  and according to the cover blurb, “facilitates adventures through India”.

None of which is the focus of this memoir – the focus of this memoir is love.

Kriel comes from an atypical, non-observant Joburg Jewish family. Her father, Dr Kriel, smoked three packs of Camels a day and died of lung cancer. Her mother is a writer, beautiful and tough; her sister lives in a temple in India with her SA-born Indian husband; one brother, the beautiful Evan, 29, is gay, had something of a dissolute youth in clubs but is now a reformed character who is studying with a rabbi; and her second brother dives with sharks in Mozambique. Continue reading

The doctor who travels the world in search of trouble

Review: Vivien Horler

War Doctor – surgery on the front line, by David Nott (Picador)

war doctorHere at the southern tip, caught up in our own news cycles, world dramas like Afghanistan and Libya, Haiti, Bosnia and Syria, seem a long way away.

Sometimes that’s just fine too. Who needs to know about barrel bombs and cluster bombs and what they can do to soft human flesh?

Fortunately for humanity there are people, like London surgeon David Nott, who know only too well the damage bombs do, and try in the face of horrific cruelty to make things better.

Welsh-born Nott works as a general and vascular surgeon attached to several major  London hospitals. But for the past 20 years, for several weeks a year, he goes to places of disaster and war and tries to make a difference. He has worked under the auspices of Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross, the Red Crescent and Syria Relief. Continue reading

Old age is not for sissies

Review: Vivien Horler

Cul-de-Sac– a memoir, by Elsa Joubert (Tafelberg)

cul-de-sacThis poignant memoir, first published in Afrikaans when Elsa Joubert was 95, is an exploration of extreme old age.

It is a time of life, she writes, which almost represents “the laying down of dreams”, where the only road that can be ventured on “with a minimum of anxiety is the road to the past”.

The Afrikaans version, published under the title Spertyd, came out two years ago. Spertyd means deadline; the English term for cul-de-sac is dead end; and the Afrikaans version that we grew up with was “straat loop dood”. Of the various alternatives, cul de sac seems gentlest translation.

Yet old age is not gentle. As the title suggests, you’re not going anywhere. At one point Joubert describes old people as being members of the “last shift”. Life’s options progressively close down.

And yet in the hands of a a writer as accomplished and reflective as Elsa Joubert, her memoir is not discouraging; it is rather a glimpse of another stage of life, if we live long enough to get there. Or as someone once said: old age is what happens if nothing else does. Continue reading

Zimbabwe and the coup that was not a coup – the inside story

 Review: Vivien Horler

Two Weeks in November, by Douglas Rogers (Jonathan Ball)

two weeks in novemberThis is the “astonishing untold story of the operation that toppled Mugabe” in Zimbabwe in November 2017.

I watched the televised Sunday night press conference where the frail old man sat, surrounded by generals and a priest, shuffling his papers and, against all expectations, not resigning as president.

In the previous few days there had been reports of tanks on the streets of Harare – something was going on but, after 37 years in brutal control, Mugabe being toppled in a coup seemed unlikely.

Rhodesian-born Rogers, author of the delightful The Last Resort, about his parents clinging on to their tourist resort near Mutare in the east of the country during the land grabs, says a reported global audience of one billion people watched the press conference on the evening of November 19. Continue reading

André Brink biography may contain just a touch too much information

Review: Vivien Horler

The Love Song of André P Brink, by Leon de Kock (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

love song brinkA three-and-a-half-year undertaking to produce a significant work on groundbreaking South African author André Brink has turned into a marketing nightmare for publishers Jonathan Ball.

The author is Leon de Kock, poet, novelist and professor emeritus in English Studies at the University of Stellenbosch who, apparently overwrought at completing this major book, allegedly called an Observatory restaurant worker the k-word, and then also made sexual advances to a second woman present.

De Kock was arrested and appeared in the Cape Times Magistrate’s Court on May 10 on a charge of crimen injuria. Instead of appearing in triumph at the Franschhoek Literary Festival over the weekend of May 17 to 19, he stayed away. Continue reading

Quest to find a house and the memories of a fading mother

Review: Vivien Horler

The Blackridge House – a memoir, by Julia Martin (Jonathan Ball)

blackridge houseFrom a family home to a retirement flat to a single room to a single bed – this is the trajectory of so many people as they age. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

It was the experience of Elizabeth Madeline Martin, who was born in what was then Natal in 1918 and who died in Cape Town in 2012.

Elizabeth Martin was the mother of Julia Martin, the author of this fine, touching, and beautifully written memoir.

As dementia claimed Elizabeth, her memories drained away. She didn’t remember her husband, she often didn’t remember Julia, frequently confusing her with one of her own long-dead sisters. She told Julia: “My memory is full of blotches, like ink left about and knocked over.”

Continue reading

School supper frikkadels and an image I cannot delete

Review: Vivien Horler

The Messiah’s Dream Machine, by Jennifer Friedman (Tafelberg)

messiah's dream machine
Jennifer Friedman has a way with words. So much so that I may never look at a frikkadel in the same way again.

The Messiah’s Dream Machine is a sequel to her well received Queen of the Free State, about a little Jewish girl growing up in Philippolis, the sleepy Afrikaans town where Laurens van der Post was born.

As far as one can gather there aren’t many Jewish farmers in the Free State, but her family had farms in the Philippolis area, now run by her cousins, and it is clear these spaces are deep in her heart.

This has not however prevented her from emigrating to Australia, where she has acquired her pilot’s licence, bought a Grumman Tiger aircraft and now “flies to the small outback towns and stations around Australia, often just for a lunch date and where the sun is shining”.

Continue reading

A triumph of hope and love over despair – and some tough cliffs

Review: Vivien Horler

The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn (Penguin)

salt pathRaynor and Moth Winn were in their 50s when they decided to walk. Their lives were falling apart and they didn’t know what to do.

So they started to walk, along south-west England’s famed South West Coast, setting out from Minehead in Somerset, and carrying on, across North Devon, round the Cornish Peninsula and Land’s End, and on, eventually, to Poole in Dorset, covering just over 1000km.

And by the time they had completed their trek they had a plan.

Raynor was in her teens when she met Moth, and loved him from the off. They married, had two children, and bought a run-down farm in Wales which they rebuilt and from which they ran holiday lets. Continue reading

Beating a mountain of rock and ice, atoms and stars

Review: Vivien Horler

One Man’s Climb – a journey of trauma, tragedy and triumph on K2, by Adrian Hayes (Pen & Sword)

K2 is not the highest mountain in the world, but unlike Everest, very few people have climbed it.

It is more remote than Everest, which is why it never acquired a local name – the title K2 comes from the Great Trigonometrical Survey of British India, begun in 1802 and finished in 1871.

Italian climber Fosco Maraini referred to K2 as: “Just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no sense to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has all the nakedness of the world before the first man – or the cindered planet after the last.” Continue reading

Chilling tale of murder in Nordic noir thriller

Review: Vivien Horler

The Reckoning, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Hodder)

yrsa Cold, snowy and bleak, the Reykjavik Yrsa Sigurdardottir writes about does not warm the cockles of a reader’s heart.

Yet Iceland is becoming a major tourism draw; according to Wikipedia the industry now contributes upward of 10% of the country’s GNP, and in 2017 the number of foreign visitors exceeded 2 million for the first time. I was one of them, and I was both fascinated and charmed.

The country, which virtually touches the Arctic Circle, could not be more different from South Africa, with its jagged volcanic mountains, its icebergs and its terrifying prices. Cars have heaters but no air-con, the default position of taps is hot and you have to let them run cold, and streets in the capital have underfloor heating – thanks to the wealth of free hot water produced by the country’s natural geysers (geysir is an Icelandic word). Continue reading