Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Great food – and it helps to save the planet too


The South African Vegan Cookbook, by Leozette Roode (Human & Rousseau)

sa vegan cookbookPicking up this vegan cookbook wasn’t exactly a huge leap of faith as I’ve been treading a middle path for almost two decades, embracing vegetarianism with occasional lapses into being a pescetarian.

Eighteen years ago I had my eating epiphany when I bit into a piece of peri-peri chicken and gagged. Rather than the mouth-watering flavours I’d been looking forward to, I vividly tasted the pain of the creature.

“Don’t tell anybody that,” a friend urged after hearing my confession. “They’ll think you weird!” Continue reading

Good reads to go “Ah!” over

Reviews: Vivien Horler

Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger (Corsair)

The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell (Profile Books)

virgil wanderYou know that feeling when you put down a book and say Ah! I was lucky enough to have read two of those in the past week, one fiction, one non-fiction.

They don’t have much in common, but they are both lovely. On second thoughts, maybe they do have something in common: they are both about small towns and a business at the centre of those communities.

Virgil Wander – not a great title, you’re not sure if that’s the name of the book or the name of the author – is the fictional offering. Virgil lives in the declining post-industrial town of Greenstone, Minnesota, on the shores of the vast Lake Superior, where he is both town clerk and the owner of an old moviehouse called the Empress Theater.

The action opens on the day Virgil is coming home from hospital after managing, in the middle of a North American snowstorm, to drive his Pontiac through the safety barrier and into the lake. He is rescued, suffering from concussion and an inability to remember adjectives.

At a loose end Virgil wanders down to the waterfront where he meets a stranger, an elderly kite-flier called Rune. Rune is Norwegian, and has come to Greenstone to find out what he can about the son he has just discovered he fathered on a holiday to the US in his youth.

Rune and his wife were unable to have children, so that the news he did in fact have a son has been a source of great joy. And while the son, Alec, a notable Greenstone baseball player of great local fame, has been killed in a flying accident, his widow and son still live in Greenstone. Suddenly Rune discovers he has a whole American family.

Rune moves in with Virgil, who discovers he has an unexpected passion for kite-flying. So, it turns out, do most people in Greenstone.

But of course it’s not all charming – Greenstone is planning a festival to draw visitors to the town, and the plan is to get one of Greenstone’s famous sons, the filmmaker Adam Leer, to deliver the main address. But Adam Leer is a strange and malevolent man, and no good can come of this.

Not a great deal happens in Virgil Wander, but the characters are wonderful, there’s a love story, and things get distinctly nail-biting at the end. A real Ah! book.

diary of a booksellerThe Diary of a Bookseller, published last year, is a diary of a year in the life of a secondhand bookshop in Scotland’s Wigtown, written by its proprietor Shaun Bythell. Wigtown is Bythell’s home town and, aged about 30 and jobless, he goes to visit his parents to discover the bookshop is for sale. He tells the owner he has no money and the owner retorts: “You don’t need money – what do you think banks are for?”

Less than a year later Bythell takes over the shop, and discovers he should have read a piece by George Orwell published in 1936.

Bookshop Memories rings as true today as it did then, and sounds a salutary warning to anyone as naïve as I was that the world of selling secondhand books is not quite an idyll of sitting in an armchair by a roaring fire with your slipper-clad feet up, smoking a pipe and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall while a stream of charming customers engages you in intelligent conversation, before parting with fistfuls of cash.” Continue reading

New book describes how Mother of the Nation was no saint


Truth, Lies and Alibis – a Winnie Mandela story, by Fred Bridgland (Tafelberg)

truth lies and alibisThere was an immense outpouring of grief when Winnie Madikizela-Mandela died earlier this year. The Mother of the Nation was gone, it was the end of the Mandela era.

Much was said and written about her suffering – and she did suffer – at the hands of the apartheid government and its various agents. Her internal exile, her solitary imprisonment, her single motherhood, her devotion to her jailed husband, the fact she became the face of the Struggle during the years when the liberation movements were banned and its leaders were in prison, meant she was venerated by millions.

Few had the gall or possible poor taste to point out that she had often been anything but a saint. Now barely five months after her death in April, a veteran foreign correspondent has brought it all up again in a new book, and it isn’t a pretty story. Continue reading

Shane Warne: gifted cricketer, but a thug


No Spin – My Biography, by Shane Warne with Mark Nicholas (Penguin Random House)

shane warneThere is much to admire about Shane Warne, but not much to like.

Shane Warne was a wonderful bowler, a rebel, a bit of a rogue and a gifted cricketer. He is also a petulant bully, a sycophant and a dissembler of note.

Let’s examine his better qualities. He took 708 in Test cricket (ODIs and T20s don’t count for much), he could change the course of a match in a single spell of bowling and he was a star attraction. People came to watch him bowl and watching him bowl was one of the joys of cricket.

He was also a thug. The way he followed up his dismissal of South African opening batsman Andrew Hudson during a Test match at the Wanderers in 1994 crossed the boundary of sportsmanship. In this biography he apologises for the “rage in my eyes and the anger in my body language”. A bit late for that now, mate. Continue reading

Sad and beautiful story of a woman seeking the truth in a life of secrets

Review: Vivien Horler

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart, by Holly Ringland (Pan Books/ Macmillan)

lost flowersVictorian Britons believed in the language of flowers, that messages could be conveyed in a bouquet by the careful selection of blossoms.

As far back as the 16rth century William Shakespeare was having a go, with the immortal line from Hamlet|: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.”

And judging by the number of hits you get if you google “language of flowers”, the idea finds resonance today, although you’d need to be a skilled reader of flowers to interpret a message.

Alice Hart’s early years are isolated, spent with her parents near the Australian coast, where her beloved mother cultivates a garden and often sports unexplained bruises. Continue reading

What Pieter Dirk Uys has to say about Pik, his father and fear

pik and evita


The Echo of a Noise – A memoir of then and now, by Pieter-Dirk Uys (Tafelberg)

Divergent voices have greeted the death of apartheid era foreign minister Pik Botha.

Some have described him as the best of a bad bunch, other have expressed their views considerably more forcefully. And just hours after Botha’s death Adriaan Vlok, former apartheid era law and order minister, described him on Cape Talk as “a visionary”. (Well he would, wouldn’t he?)

Pik Botha gives Evita Bezuidenhout a smacker.

Pieter Dirk Uys, the satirist and alter ego of Evita Bezuidenhout, has just published a new book of memoirs, and he could have had Botha in mind when he wrote about the end of the apartheid.

As World War II wound up, he writes, Adolf  Hitler committed suicide along with several of his general staff.

“When apartheid officially ended in 1994, not a single member of the apartheid government killed themselves. They rushed off to the local Oriental Plaza to get their latest Nelson Mandela ethnic shirts… Continue reading

Teen’s desperate flight through the bush is gritty, brilliant reading

Review: Vivien Horler

The Shepherd’s Hut, by Tim Winton (Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin)

shepherd's hutJaxie Clackton is 15 and a survivor of his father’s inexorable fists.

He lives in a small town in Western Australia where his father is the butcher. His mother is recently dead, but didn’t do much to protect Jaxie when she was alive.

Jaxie is a difficult teen who has had trouble at school and more at home. The day his old life ended sees Jaxie hiding out under the grandstand at the footy oval, waiting for his father to be drunk enough for him to go home safely. He’d come to in the bone crate after yet another beating.

“Bitches all afternoon about what a lazy bludger I am and then makes sure he can’t get any work out of me when there’s most to be doing. No wonder he’s such a success in business,” thinks Jaxie. Continue reading

The story of the trial of Angy Peter for murder is bleak but important

Review: Vivien Horler

The Last Words of Rowan du Preez – Murder and conspiracy on the Cape Flats, by Simone Haysom (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

last words of rowan du preezRowan du Preez, a petty criminal aged 22, was necklaced on October 13, 2012 in bush on the outskirts of Mfuleni. A passerby heard him screaming, saw the fire, and called the police.

The police found Du Preez badly burnt and still screaming, the remains of a tyre smouldering nearby. They asked him who he was, and he told them, adding he had been attacked by Angy Peter and her husband Isaac Mbadu.

Du Preez died shortly afterwards in hospital.

The matter received extensive media coverage for several reasons, probably Continue reading

Negotiating the tricky thicket of love, adoption and race

martina dahlmanns

Martina Dahlmanns on Noordhoek beach with her children, Kal, Nene and Lele.

martina dahlmanns

Review: Vivien Horler

A Person My Colour – Love, adoption and parenting while white, by Marina Dahlmanns (Modjaji Books)

What the subtitle of this absorbing book doesn’t tell you is that Marina Dahlmanns and her husband Alan’s three adopted children are black. The couple made a conscious decision to adopt the first two, a girl and a boy, and the third, half-sister to the second, more or less fell into their laps. Continue reading

BBC’s Test Match Special commentators remembered

Review: Archie Henderson

Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket, by Stephen Fay and David Kynaston (Bloomsbury)

arlott cricketThere have been several golden ages of cricket depending on your preference or prejudice. The one in which John Arlott and EW (Jim) Swanton existed – even helped create – was post World War 2 until about the ‘70s when the Australian media magnate Kerry Packer broke the mould.

Both men were dead by the time Twenty20 cricket became the rage; it probably made them turn in their graves.

Arlott was a policeman who became a poet, then a BBC producer and most famously a BBC cricket commentator. He was a middle-class boy. Swanton was born into privilege, educated at a public school and had a good war, albeit as a prisoner of the Japanese. Arlott’s voice was a West Country Hampshire burr; Swanton’s was posh. Continue reading