Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

An imagined extension of a real past makes for a riveting novel, writes William Saunderson-Meyer of Anton Svensson’s The Sons

Published in the Sunday Times

The Sons
*****
Anton Svensson (Sphere, R295)

Anders Roslund and Stefan Thunberg, authors of The Sons. Picture: Supplied.

 
This powerful epic of a Swedish family whose lives are blighted by crime is riveting. Though this is part of the Made in Sweden series and is following on Svensson’s earlier book The Father - an enormous critical success – it can be read as a stand-alone.

Anton Svensson is the pseudonym of Stefan Thunberg and Anders Roslund. Thunberg is a celebrated screenwriter, responsible for the Wallander television series, based on Henning Mankell’s novels. Roslund is an award-winning investigative journalist and crime writer, who is also half of the Roslund and Hellstrom writing duo, whose books have sold more than five million copies.

The novel takes strands of fact from the past and with aplomb weaves them into a tapestry of what might have happened next. What constitutes the past in The Sons is inspired by the real events that form the basis of The Father.

The impetus for The Father came directly from Thunberg’s life. Though he and his mother lived conventional lives, his father and three brothers moonlighted as Sweden’s most notorious bank robbers. Dubbed the Military Gang for their precision strikes and their readiness to use violence, they netted millions of kronor before being captured.

It was only then that their mother discovered that the apparently successful construction business that the family ran was, in reality, a front. Stefan, though privy to some of their crimes, never participated.

The Sons, which is now fiction and not based on real events, begins with the eldest brother, Leo, being released from prison and trying to reconstitute the gang for one last heist.

Much of the psychological tension comes from the interplay between the innocents of the family and the father, Ivan, and Leo, who take familial loyalty as an absolute given. Failing it being given voluntarily, they are willing to enforce it with unflinching brutality.

Stefan, centre, with his brother Carl and his father, Boris. Picture: Anna-Lena Ahlström.

 
A seminal event in their early lives is when Ivan beats his wife nearly to death, if not for then 14-year-old Leo’s intervention. Leo washes out the blood and explains to his brothers: “What happened here has to stay here. That’s how it works in a family.”

Here is the core of this family’s tragedy: domestic and child abuse, alcoholism, violent crime and terrible secrets. The surprise is not that the family is shattered by a tsunami of pain, but that any of them later manages to pick up the pieces of their lives.

The theme is of the father’s sins being visited upon the sons. Leo’s plan is to steal, for a second time, the millions seized during their arrest, which is now housed in the Stockholm police station.

John Broncks is the detective who put the gang behind bars in the first novel and now suspects Leo of planning another job. But Broncks is to discover that it is his own brother, Sam, also freshly released from prison, who is Leo’s key accomplice.

Broncks is now in a quandary, as he owes his brother an enormous debt – a life-saving intervention that protected Broncks from their abusive father. @TheJaundicedEye

Book details


» read article

Book Bites: 1 July

Published in the Sunday Times

When She Was GoneWhen She Was Gone
***
SA Dunphy, Hachette, R285

David Dunnigan is in turmoil when a shoe belonging to his niece, Beth, is delivered to his doorstep. Thing is, she was wearing the shoes when she was kidnapped 18 years earlier, while she was with him. He has never forgiven himself and that has ruined his relationships and his career as a criminologist. Who left the shoe and why? Is Beth still alive? Dunnigan’s hopes revived, he delves into Dublin’s seedy underworld where his quest takes him to a chilling psychiatric asylum run by a mad shrink and his psychotic sidekick. Then to an Inuit village in frozen Greenland where trafficked slaves are worked to the bone in a fish factory. A thrilling read that takes you to the extremes of human cruelty. Gabriella Bekes @gabrikwa

The Long ForgottenThe Long Forgotten
****
David Whitehouse, Pan Macmillan, R285

A cantankerous professor discovers a black box flight recorder of a plane that went missing 30 years ago, and unlocks a story that spans decades, generations, and continents. A young man named Dove works in an emergency dispatch call centre until he starts getting excruciating headaches that present themselves as flashes of someone else’s memories. Twenty years hence a cleaner by the name of Peter Manyweathers discovers a love letter with a list of rare flowers in a library book, and sets off on a quest for adventure – and love. How do these stories fit into each other? Beautifully intertwined and skilfully crafted, Whitehouse spins a narrative that leaves the reader aching for more. Anna Stroud @annawriter_

The ReckoningThe Reckoning
***
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Hodder & Stoughton, R300

There is something relentlessly grim about Sigurðardóttir’s Icelandic noir novels. The setting is a cold, mostly unfriendly atmosphere of grimy police stations, dimly lit parking garages and a country that is as isolating as it is small and claustrophobic. The characters are unfathomable yet fascinating. This is the second book in the Children’s House series. The detective Huldar and child psychologist Freyja’s careers have both suffered because of the last case they worked on and now they are investigating a chilling case – family secrets and gruesome murders with severed hands and feet found in odd places. Their feelings for each other also complicate matters. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details


» read article

“Kindness is the core of Gail Honeyman’s superb novel.” Russell Clarke reviews Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
*****
Gail Honeyman, HarperCollins, R205

Now available in paperback, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has performed astonishingly well on the bestseller lists, and recently won the Costa Award for a debut novel. And for good reason. Miss Eleanor Oliphant lives an ordinary, if slightly odd, life. Written as a first-person narrative, Eleanor is about to turn 30, lives in a flat in Glasgow and works as an accounts clerk.

She’s someone we all know; she rarely interacts with her colleagues, thinks and speaks with a terribly stiff formality, and sees the world in completely different ways. Eleanor is also routine bound. She works quietly all week, eats the same food. On Friday nights she buys herself a frozen pizza and two bottles of vodka, and avoids the world until Monday morning, when she goes back to work and begins the week again. Not much of a life, really.

It takes a little while to figure Eleanor out – she embodies what has become a standard unreliable narrator (think The Girl on the Train, and then banish the thought entirely). Just when you think you’ve got a grip on her, you realise she’s not the unreliable character you’ve taken her for at all. What reads as eccentricity is in truth Eleanor’s detachment from society, and her slight bewilderment at how other people live. And her detachment is in fact rooted in a loneliness and isolation that’s no fault of her own.

An encounter with Raymond, the IT fellow from her office, and the unfolding of human interactions that arise from this encounter, points the way to the core of Gail Honeyman’s superb novel – kindness. Small acts of human kindness; unthinking, unconditional kindness and the micro-interactions – human touch, thoughtfulness – that make modern life bearable.

Eleanor’s story is about mental illness and isolation, but it is about heart – and it’s also funny and touching without being sappy. Eleanor Oliphant will stay with you for a long time. Russell Clarke @russrussy

Book details


» read article

The box unlocked: there are many similarities in the lives of the author and his main character, writes Michele Magwood of John Hunt’s The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head

Published in the Sunday Times

The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head
*****
John Hunt, Umuzi, R260

John Hunt’s second novel is set in Hillbrow and Berea in 1967. Picture: Joanne Olivier

 
Advertising maestro John Hunt could probably walk to Hillbrow from his gracious Westcliff home, but the distance he has come from his childhood in that suburb is immeasurable. The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head is set in Hillbrow and Berea in 1967, a thronging, multicultural community where streets of tin-roofed houses are being broken down into skips and confident new buildings thrust skywards.

Eleven-year-old Stephen Baxter – known as Phen – lives in a worn Deco block of flats on O’Reilly Road. He’s a watchful, hypervigilant child who is learning “to listen with his eyes”. Phen’s father is dying in his gloomy, book-stuffed bedroom, an erudite and humorous man, looking for all the world like a Spitfire pilot behind his oxygen mask. His thick glasses are held together with sticky tape. “His magnified eyelashes stuck to the lenses like the bent legs of spiders waiting to scurry away.”

As his father slowly deteriorates, Phen must navigate a confusing world where adults speak in riddles and the atmosphere is thick with unspoken meaning. Pre-pubescence is a delicate time. “You can be lost in your Meccano set,” says Hunt, “but you also know that there’s something in the adult world you have to start understanding.”

He has borrowed generously from his childhood for this fine novel, but he prefers to keep the lines between fiction and lived experience blurred. Like Phen, Hunt’s father was terminally ill. Like Phen he would read for hours to his father, classics and adult books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

“Even though you could read the words, adult books had secondary meanings,” says Hunt. Phen has a severe stutter, Hunt was dyslexic, both are – or were – highly sensitive and sensitised boys. “I think the situation made a sensitive boy more sensitive, an aware child more aware,” says Hunt. It was a time of such heightened emotion and anxiety that 50 years on he is able to render the boy with crystalline empathy.

“When these things happen as a boy, in order to cope you keep them in a box. I wanted to go back and unlock the box and it just exploded from there. It was as if it was deep-frozen. It hadn’t gone away.”

Going over an old map of Hillbrow in the ’60s, memories came flowing back. Clarendon Circle, Estoril Books, the cafés and movie house. Wilson’s toffees. Mills Special cigarettes. Ford Cortinas. An immigrant from Florence named Romolo: “He was immediately renamed Romeo in acknowledgement of his tight pants and sleek hair, jet black and shaped in the front like the bonnet of Margaret Wallace’s parents’ Pontiac.”

We are reminded that Hillbrow was always a landing ground for immigrants coming to South Africa. Hunt paints this world with assured impressionistic strokes, and his characters leap off the page: Phen’s grandmother, a doughty Scotswoman, given to observations like “When life turns as black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat, you don’t want a man who’s all bum and parsley”; the school groundsman with shrapnel in his head from the Korean war; the shoving, mocking, almost-hormonal schoolmates and his just-coping mother.

And then there is Heb Thirteen Two, the character around whom the story revolves, an eccentric homeless man who Phen meets in the park. He might, or might not, exist in Phen’s imagination. He might be an unsavoury old hobo or he may be an angel sent to guide a boy through an unbearable time.

While Hunt received warmth and support in his childhood from the neighbourhood adults, “I’d love to have met someone like Heb in the park.”

Instead he is able to look back over the decades and pour the wisdom he needed then into this figure.

His writing is poignant without being sentimental, moving without being mawkish. This is a perceptive, affectionate view of a splintering world through a child’s wide-open eyes. It’s also a homage to the power of books and words to contain and comfort us.

It would seem that Hunt has made a life out of the words he imbibed at his father’s bedside – first as a copywriter and visionary adman (he was a co-founder of TBWA\Hunt Lascaris) – and now as an award-winning playwright and author of two novels. He is a steadfast believer in the value of reading over watching, of pages over screens.

“When you read you engage your brain differently,” he says. “You release a sort of imaginary serotonin. It’s different from when you’re watching something on an Ipad. Between the written word and the reader there’s something in between. You think not just about the characters but about yourself, where you are in the world.” @michelemagwood

Book details


» read article

The links between southwest France and the Cape inspired Kate Mosse’s latest novel, writes Kate Sidley

Published in the Sunday Times


Kate Mosse has a house in Carcassonne, again the setting of a novel. Picture: Supplied

The Burning Chambers
****
Kate Mosse, Mantle, R285

Bestselling author Kate Mosse visited the graveyard in Franschhoek several years ago and felt such a strong sense of the links between the southwest of France and the Cape, the landscape and Huguenot history that, she says, a shiver ran down her spine. It inspired The Burning Chambers.

Readers are plunged into 16th-century France, to a time of bloody strife between Protestants and Catholics, persecution of the Huguenots and the massacre of Toulouse. Like her Languedoc trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel), this novel is set predominantly in Carcassonne.

“All my fiction is inspired by place, by landscape,” she says. Mosse knows the place – she goes there every month to write. When she’s there the history of this fortified medieval city is palpable to her. She’s walked the ancient streets and climbed the towers and seen the sun on the citadel, and this intimate knowledge she bring to The Burning Chambers.

It’s a lot of complex history to wrangle, and Mosse handles it deftly, bringing the setting and its events vividly to life while interweaving the familial and romantic stories. At its heart is a love story, between young Minou Joubert, the daughter of a Catholic bookshop owner, and Piet Reydon, a Dutch-born Protestant convert and supporter of the Protestant army.

Minou receives a mysterious anonymous letter: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. Piet has secrets and a dangerous mission. The characters’ converging storylines are interspersed with extracts from a mysterious diary. The book proceeds with plenty of threads, twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. A priceless religious relic, treachery, torture and murder add to the intrigue.

Mosse’s characters – Minou’s family, the political and religious plotters and planners, and a mysterious and nasty villain – keep us emotionally connected.

“I have an idea of the sort of people I need, and it’s as if I build a set, and the characters start to show themselves. I’m intrigued. ‘Ah, so that’s who you are. I see. And you have red hair.’ It’s like a developing photograph. Sometimes, someone who I thought was a chorus member will say no, she’s a supporting lead. Other times it turns out a character just isn’t up to the job.”

Women’s stories are often at the heart of Mosse’s books. “I like to write about older women,” she says. “They hear more and see more than people realise.”

Mosse points out that certain themes and experiences – prejudice and persecution, family, exile, political power, tolerance, love – are timeless and universal. It’s these that drive the novel.

This novel is the first in a quartet tracing Huguenot history through three centuries. Fans of Mosse’s big, engrossing historical novels will be delight to have three more to look forward to, following the descendants of some of the characters in The Burning Chambers. @KateSidley

Book details


» read article

“I wanted more scope for her … more focus on her virtues and flaws.” Madeline Miller discusses Circe with Diane Awerbuck

Published in the Sunday Times

Circe *****
Madeline Miller Bloomsbury, R295


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Men are pigs. Ask Homer, who wrote in the eighth century BCE about heroic Odysseus trying to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. In The Odyssey Homer devotes two chapters to Circe, a beautiful witch. When Odysseus and his weary sailors land on her island paradise, she turns them into pigs.

But Madeline Miller gives the goddess a makeover in her second brilliant novel, Circe. The great Odysseus gets a taut two chapters, and Circe has to teach herself “the simple mending of the world”.

Miller says she always starts a book with an idea about a character, and waits until she has a strong sense of their voice. Circe, traditionally “a sexy, dangerous witch, a villain, an obstacle to be overcome”, presented a challenge and an opportunity. “I wanted more scope for her,” says Miller, “more focus on her virtues and flaws” than the huge works of literature, such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, allow.

“I have a background in theatre, so I’m always imagining being in her skin, seeing through her eyes, hearing her delivering the monologue. I like it to feel organic. Natural. So it took me a long time to hear her voice.”

Seven years, to be exact. Not quite as long as it took Odysseus to circumnavigate the known and unknown world, but close. Miller sets out to rehabilitate the witch, and concludes that heroism comes in different forms.

Is Circe a feminist character? “Definitely,” says Miller. “I always felt her otherness.” Rejected by her Titan parents, considered a figure of fun by the other nymphs for her soft heart, and exiled to a faraway island, Circe teaches herself magic. She learns through bitter experience to deal both in healing and the darker arts.

Is writing a similar kind of witchcraft? “Absolutely, I recognise that,” says Miller. “It’s research and hard work and making it happen, day after day – but there is also that inexplicable thing that happens. Call it muse or intuition or inspiration, the way your mind shifts. But you also have to keep showing up.”

Miller has always been fascinated by stories. “I remember from the time I was five or so, my mother would read these epic tales to me, and I loved how big and exciting and real they felt. They were intense and adult – there were monsters, and grief and desire and pain and love.” Circe is so compelling because it is pacy but also literary: Miller writes so clearly and with such yearning and wisdom that the book is a spellbinding immersion in a terrifying, believable and satisfying universe.

It is at once familiar and unsettling. “Like the best cover songs,” I suggest, “the ones where the tune or the words are familiar but the singer has elevated it into a completely different experience.” Miller is unconvinced. “It’s not only songs,” she says. “As a writer I’m very conscious of being part of these epic narratives, both ancient and modern – from The Odyssey and The Iliad and all those guys, but also from Tennyson – the traditions established over millennia.”

And Miller’s own voice is utterly distinctive, keen and kind. Circe shows how experience transforms us: nymphs change into sea monsters; rapists morph into pigs; a heartless goddess becomes a selfless parent: “What creature,” Circe asks herself, “lies within me?”

Miller argues that being human is banal and unfair, but also wonderful and terrible. Men may become pigs, but the gods are worse: they are eternal. Mortals can be both heroes and monsters. We get the whole pantheon – grief, and desire, and pain, and love.

Book details


» read article

Book Bites: 3 June

Published in the Sunday Times

Golden Prey
****
John Sandford, Simon & Schuster, R290

Sandford’s novels, featuring the independently wealthy and suave Minnesota detective Lucas Davenport, all have the word Prey in the title. After 28 books, not only the titles but the writing was getting a bit hackneyed. And then, voila! Sandford pulls a rabbit out of a hat. The latest Davenport mystery is back to his pacy, thrilling best as Davenport – now with the US Marshals service – hunts a brace of killers in Mississippi, racing against a mob torturer known as the “Queen of home improvement tools”. The plotting is good, the characterisation of the baddies chillingly convincing. Good to know that old Davenport still has some mileage in his crisply laundered chinos. William Saunderson-Meyer @TheJaundicedEye

You Have to be Gay to Know God
*****
Siya Khumalo, Kwela Books, R255

We’ve all read the stories about how many members of the LGBTQI+ community in South Africa are treated badly because of who they are. And then we go on with our daily lives. Siya Khumalo does something else. His journey of growing up in a Durban township and being gay is narrated in the most perfectly painful way. As he searches for truth in a newly democratic South Africa, Siya’s story is filled with uncompromising and uncomfortable realities that many have never experienced. It’s a narrative we shouldn’t ignore and Siya’s brutally honest writing knocks at our conscience. There is no negotiation in this story. Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

How I Lose You
***
Kate McNaughton, Doubleday, R290

This book is a sob fest. Don’t read it if you are still grieving over a loved one dying. Eva and Adam are married and they go out to a party in London. They have a good time, but the next morning Eva wakes up next to a cold Adam. Only 31 years old, he died in the night from a heart attack. Eva’s grief is palpable. McNaughton then takes us back in time to see how their love developed — a holiday in New York during 9/11, falling in love on a weekend away, fighting about jealousy and meeting each other’s parents. The whole gamut of a relationship. For fans of One Day and The Notebook. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details


» read article

Book Bites: 20 May

Published in the Sunday Times

The Hum of the Sun
*****
Kirsten Miller, Kwela R285

Zuko is eight and his thoughts get stuck in his mouth. He enjoys Cheerios, nature, rhythms, patterns, and the light. With his mother and sister dead, his only guide through life is Ash, his teenage brother. Ash should be in school, but with no money or food, he pins his hopes on finding their father in the city. But it is a long walk for two boys; can he be strong enough to get both himself and Zuko there safely? A beautifully told tale that penetrates the heart. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Little Italian Bakery
****
Valentina Cebeni (Little, Brown, R275)

Food is magic. From candied lemon sweets (little bits of sunshine) to fried bread soaked in orange blossom honey, Elettra has to come to terms with her baking heritage. Her mother Edda is in a coma, and Elettra’s only answer to her family background is a necklace that points her to Titan’s Island, just off the coast of Sardinia where she discovers a group of widows living in a convent. They might have the answer to all her questions. Cebeni’s novel is atmospheric – filled with scents of lemon, cobalt blue skies and hills covered with juniper berries and heather, and most of all, a deep warm feeling of love. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

Book details


» read article

Book Bites: 13 May

Published in the Sunday Times

The Force
****
Don Winslow, Harper Collins, R205

What makes a good cop good at his job? Courage? Intelligence? Bravery, empathy, toughness? Detective Sergeant Denny Malone and his elite team, dealing with drugs, guns and gangs in New York, have all those qualities. What characterises a bad cop? Theft, dishonesty, accepting bribes, violence? Collusion? Murder? He and his team are guilty of all those as well. The Force describes in riveting detail how these contradictions are possible, even inevitable. Malone came from a police family, and joined as a young idealist, determined to do good. In the face of injustice and systematic corruption, he started crossing the line, one step at a time. Eventually caught, Malone is prepared to admit his own crimes, but the Feds want him to betray his friends, his contacts and his mentors. Set against a background of imminent racial conflagration and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is simply excellent. Aubrey Paton

Night Moves
***
Jonathan Kellerman, Headline, R300

Psychologist Alex Delaware is called by his old LAPD pal, Milo Sturgis, to a home in upscale Pacific Palisades. Inside the house is a corpse with no hands, no face and no blood. And a family who are certain they don’t know the victim who appeared in their den while they were out. Night Moves is Kellerman’s 33rd Delaware thriller and, as ever, he delivers sharp prose, intelligent plots and sleazy characters. A solid, enjoyable thriller, the novel’s real strength lies in the relationship and banter between Delaware and Sturgis. That’s really what his fans are after, and Kellerman delivers with class. Russell Clarke @russrussy

Book details


» read article

Savagely funny but serious, cynical and sanguine and whippingly plotted – Michele Magwood reviews Mick Herron’s fifth novel featuring the greedy gaseous lunk, Jackson Lamb

Published in the Sunday Times

London Rules
*****
Mick Herron, John Murray, R295

One of the authors I’m most looking forward to meeting at the Franschhoek Literary Festival next week is Mick Herron. The British writer has been quietly turning out a series of spy novels that have built something of a cult following. With London Rules, his fifth, it looks like he’s reached the tipping point onto the mainstream radar.

The plain cover of the book obscures a rare combination of wit, plot, affecting writing and vivid characterisation. It is savagely funny but serious, cynical and sanguine and whippingly plotted, veering from small human vignettes to huge public events.

Jackson Lamb is the axis of the series, a great greedy gaseous lunk who lives on Chinese takeaways and tumblers of Scotch. He’s a washed up Cold War operative who has been shut out of MI5 and put in charge of a band of disgraced spies, the so-called “slow horses”. They are stabled in a decaying building called Slough House where they eke out their days sifting through statistics and drinking weak tea.

There’s Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, who Lamb teases by pouring her drinks; River Cartwright, scion of a legendary MI5 family who screwed up spectacularly; Shirley Dander is a cokehead with anger problems; Louisa Guy is paralysed by grief for her dead partner; and JK Coe is a psychologist with post-traumatic stress disorder, who hides under a hoodie with buds in his ears. And then there is the deliciously awful Roddy Ho, genius hacker and delusional narcissist.

When a terrorist cell erupts into a string of attacks, evidence points to Ho having unwittingly passed information to his girlfriend. And so the slow horses are dragged reluctantly into the action, because the first of the London Rules, as everybody knows, is Cover Your Arse.

Herron presents a sharply contemporary view of the UK that at times borders on libel: the populist Brexiteer politician (and secret cross-dresser) Dennis Gimball and his harpy columnist wife, Dodie; the Muslim politician Zafar Jaffrey, in the running to be mayor of the West Midlands, who has some worrying cohorts, and a vain and weak prime minister concerned only with his image.

As the terrorists strike again and again, the intelligence services get help – almost by accident – from the farcically inept Slough Housers.

Their bickering is blistering but it’s Lamb who gets the best lines. He asks Louisa for an educated guess; when she replies he barks, “I said educated. That guess left school at 15 for a job at Asda.”

Lamb turns to Coe: “You’re the one who gets panic attacks, right? Behind you! Just kidding.” He compares ethical behaviour to “a vajazzle on a nun. Pretty to picture, but who really benefits?”

Padding through the action, and lifting the book to another plane is some arresting description of the hours of the day passing.

“In some parts of the world dawn arrives with rosy fingers, to smooth away the creases left by night. But on Aldersgate Street … it comes wearing safe-cracker’s gloves, so as not to leave prints on windowsills and doorknobs; it squints through keyholes, sizes up locks, and generally cases the joint ahead of approaching day.”

Herron has, of course, been compared to John le Carré and Graham Greene but he is entirely, subversively, unique. @michelemagwood

Book details


» read article