Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Defending empire – with millions of deaths

Review: Vivien Horler

Great-Uncle Harry – A tale of war and empire, by Michael Palin (Hutchinson Heinemann)

I’ve never been to the World War I cemeteries of France, but I’ve seen pictures of them. Acres of green grass starred with regular rows of pale crosses. Hundreds and thousands of them, each representing a person, usually young, usually a man, who gave his life for his country.

Who were all those young men, and does anyone today know or care?  Do those rows of graves present a salutary lesson about the vast carnage that can result when countries go to war? Apparently not – in 1939, only 21 years after the guns fell silent, war broke out again in Europe. Continue reading

The demons that can tear at the heart of what seems a successful life

Review: Vivien Horler

Love and Fury – A memoir, by Margie Orford (Jonathan Ball)

Henry Thoreau said: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” I’m sure he would have included women in that, had that been the thinking in 1854 Massachusetts.

We all like to think we’re not one of them, though occasionally it occurs to us we might be. But I never suspected the acclaimed, award-winning and enormously successful crime thriller writer Margie Orford would be of their number.

Yet this memoir reveals her life to have been lived on various levels (as I suppose most of our lives are: the personal, political, professional). And all was clearly not what it seemed.

Continue reading

The young yachtie who followed her star

Review: Vivien Horler

Thinking Up a Hurricane, by Martinique Stilwell (Karavan Press)

We all have an idea of what it takes to get into medical school in South Africa. Years of unrelenting school study, utter determination and brilliant results.

Martinique Stilwell probably developed her determination on the way, but the rest of her gypsy journey was utterly different, and not through choice.

In 1977, when Nicky was seven, her father decided to buy a yacht and sail around the world. He was a Benoni electrician whose experience at sea was minimal, but he didn’t allow his lack expertise to stop him. He was also something of a tyrant, and his family – and the poodle Pepe – had little option but to go along with him. Continue reading

You might think you’re one of the good guys, but are you?

Review: Vivien Horler

One of the Good Guys, by Araminta Hall (Macmillan)

One of the Good Guys starts deceptively simply.

Cole has left London for a remote stretch of coast near Brighton (I didn’t know there were remote stretches of coast near Brighton) to outrun his pain.

He has a new job as a wildlife ranger, which comes with a cottage. Cole is a bit of a loner, and this job suits him much better than his previous work in PR.

Cole’s pain is caused by the collapse of his marriage to Mel who was, for six years, the one. They had met on a dating app, and knew immediately they had each found their soulmate. They were so taken with each other that on their first date they both deleted the app in front of each other. Continue reading

‘Only a girl’ didn’t stop the determined Bertha Benz

Review: Vivien Horler

The Woman at the Wheel, by Penny Haw (Sourcebooks)

In 1896, just 10 years after the first horseless carriage was demonstrated in the streets of Mannheim, Germany, by inventor Carl Benz, South African crowds welcomed the automobile – a Benz Vilo – to our shores.

The Velo, short for Velocipede, was a very different vehicle from the original Motorwagen which is depicted on the cover of this fictionalised piece of history.

For one thing it had four wheels, rather than the Motorwagen’s three, and was more powerful, but it still used a type of tiller for steering rather than a steering wheel (invented in France in 1894).

SA’s first Velo was put through its paces on a field in Pretoria before President Paul Kruger, and a century later I was present at the same field when Mercedes-Benz celebrated a century of the marque in the country.

Continue reading

Extraordinary tale of the beginning of the end of tuberculosis

Review: Vivien Horler

The Black Angels – The untold story of the nurses who helped cure tuberculosis, by Maria Smilios (Virago)

During World War II my aunt, who was a munitions worker in her early 20s in Cornwall, contracted tuberculosis.

She was sent to a sanatorium where she and several other women shared a three-walled ward – the fourth wall was open to the elements, all year round.

Bed rest, fresh air and good food – as good as was available in wartime Britain – was the treatment, and after two years she was pronounced cured.

Her fiancé had not hung around, so her engagement was over, and she had lost two years of her 20s, but compared with the horrors described in The Black Angels, it would seem she got off lightly.

TB is still a dread disease and the battle against it is far from over.  HIV has exacerbated the problem, because it is said as many as half the SA population has been infected with TB, but healthy immune systems keep it in check. When immunity is compromised however, such as by HIV, the TB microbes are free to make the patient desperately ill. Continue reading

The punishment for betrayal is living with the knowledge of what you have done

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

The Storm We Made, by Vanessa Chan (Hodder & Stoughton)

In the writing of this debut novel The Storm We Made there is no doubt that Vanessa Chan was greatly influenced by her grandparents’ experiences in Malaysia between 1941 to 1945, when the country was occupied by the Japanese.

She says: “In Malaysia our grandparents love us by not speaking. More specifically, they do not speak about… the period when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Malaya, tossed the British colonisers out and turned a quiet nation into one that was at war with itself.” 

Generally Malaysian grandparents are very chatty – so that silence speaks volumes.

While her research has revealed much of what happened during that time, there is a very personal quality to Chan’s story, almost as if she is laying ghosts in the telling. But this is a fictional account which takes us across 10 years from the British Malaya of 1935 through the Japanese occupation up to 1945. Continue reading

Read the back story of the Slow Horses series, created by ‘a laureate of decrepitude’

Review: Archie Henderson

The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron (Baskerville)

Mick Herron likes the private joke. In his latest novel, he has created a character who is said to be an heir to John le Carré –  “one of a long list”. Herron himself could not only be on that list, but near the top of it.

The British spy writer has made his mark with a series of his Slow Horses, MI5 outcasts who are run by a dishevelled, objectionable but very smart Jackson Lamb. It is with Lamb that the Guardian has accurately summed up Herron as “something of a laureate of decrepitude”.

But Herron can also do chic cool. His Diana Tavener, immaculately attired and ice-cold, is chief of MI5 and Lamb’s antithesis. Spy novels have never had such contrasting characters. Continue reading

Stand-out debut novel about the heartbreak of partition in India

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

Under the Tamarind Tree, by Nigar Alam (Bedford Square)

Nigar Alam’s debut novel Under the Tamarind Tree is a rich, graceful narrative spanning more than 50 years, highlighting the tragedies of partition, patriarchy and personal loss. I did not know much about the partition of India and how it came about so this was an entrée into a new culture – one that I enjoyed immensely.

It is 1947 and nine-year-old Rozeena is fleeing with her family to Pakistan. The creation of this country from British India was, for the Muslim community, their chance to have a homeland and a say in government.

The transition was not peaceful, the religious tensions fuelled by the ruling British, and the announcement of the Radcliffe Line, drawn by a man who had never set foot in India, was considered “cruelly negligent”. Continue reading

Turn every goddamned page

Review: Archie Henderson

Working, by Robert  A Caro (Vintage)

Robert Caro is 88 and readers are worried he won’t be around long enough to complete his monumental LBJ biographies. He has already written four, the last having been published in 2012. A fifth and final volume of the 36th US president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, is still in the works. He takes about 10 years to write a book, so the final one may be imminent.

Five volumes of a US president who is now largely forgotten by many of us may seem like over-egging, but if you have the time and energy to read them all, I suspect the proof is in the pudding. I have read only volume four, The Passage of Power, which deals with his LBJ’s vice-presidency and ends with John F Kennedy’s assassination. It’s detailed, revealing – and gripping. I hope I’ll be around to read the rest.

But enough about LBJ, Working is about Caro.

Born in New York and a graduate of Princeton, he began his working life as reporter on a local paper in New Jersey before moving to Newsday, a respectable tabloid renowned for investigative journalism. Continue reading