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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

“O’Farrell reminds us how vulnerable we all are” – Michele Magwood reviews Maggie O’Farrell’s remarkable memoir

Published in the Sunday Times

I Am, I Am, I Am
Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press, R305

If you are interested in how writers are formed, the conditions and experiences that shaped their proclivity, you’ll want to read this remarkable memoir.
Maggie O’Farrell is a superb novelist. Her books such as The Hand That First Held Mine and Instructions For A Heatwave are luminous in their perceptiveness and humanity. She is a truly gifted storyteller.

Consider then the eight-year-old O’Farrell near paralysed by encephalitis: “I become a listener, a witness. I glance from the faces of my parents, standing on one side of my bed, to those of the doctors, standing on the other. I learn to be alert to nuance, to inflexions of brows, to minute alterations in facial expressions, to the setting together of teeth, the gripping of fists, to my parents effortful, watery smiles. I search for meaning in the gaps between words, between questions, in the hesitations before the doctors’ answers.”

At one stage she overhears a nurse outside her room saying “Hush, there’s a little girl dying in there.”

No wonder O’Farrell is so acutely observant of the world and of character.

I Am, I Am, I Am is subtitled “Seventeen Brushes With Death” and chronicles the occasions when the author has come close to dying. There is an escape from a murderer on a deserted hillside, and an attack by a mugger in Chile. She nearly dies of amoebic dysentery in China and again in the labour ward when she suffers a haemorrhage. She has almost drowned twice.

She may have survived these appalling incidents, but cruelly, she and her family still face death constantly. Her eight-year-old daughter suffers from extreme allergic reactions and regularly goes into anaphylactic shock.

O’Farrell reminds us how vulnerable we are, how thin the membrane between life and death, and yet this wise book is a celebration, a lesson in living. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

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Book Bites: 14 January

Published in the Sunday Times

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore
Matthew Sullivan, Cornerstone, R290

Prepare to be thrust into the life of Lydia Smith, a clerk at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, as she is plunged into shock, confusion and mystery by an unfortunate discovery during the late shift – a regular customer has killed himself. The suicide forces her to confront a traumatic childhood memory. The plot is complex and puzzling from the get-go and, in the best way, becomes even more so, until ultimately everything links together in a wonderful net of sense and epiphany. Sullivan’s writing is exceptional, and it flows naturally between the past and present and culminates in an absolutely enthralling novel. – Jessica Evans

The Mitford Murders
Jessica Fellowes, Little Brown, R275

Fellowes, who has written the Downton Abbey official companion books, has started a new mystery series, The Mitford Murders. The story is inspired by the unsolved 1920 murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of the original Nightingale, on a Brighton-bound train. But in the land of fiction, anything can happen, including an 18-year-old nursery maid and the 16-year-old daughter of a lord turning into sleuths. It is a gentlewoman’s mystery, where the society of pearls and furs collides with the realm of washerwomen and gamblers. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation
Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, HarperCollins, R270

With all that is happening in Israel, this collection of essays is more important and urgent than ever. Written from inside the territories illegally occupied by Israel, the essays are glimpses into a water-restricted, violent world that finds creative solutions to the problems forced upon Palestinians. Whether it is the story of the soapmaker, the NGO that serves as a utility company or the parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement, each essay looks unflinchingly at life in Palestine and the occupied territories. No light reading, but its clarity and honesty make it as compelling as it is authentic. – Zoe Hinis @ZoeHinis

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“I do believe our nation is scarred by violence” – Rehana Rossouw discusses the issues addressed in New Times

Published in the Sunday Times

New TimesNew Times
Rehana Rossouw
Jacana, R250

Rehana Rossouw follows her award-winning novel, What Will People Say?, with the riveting New Times. Set in 1995, on the cusp of the rugby World Cup, the story revolves around political reporter Aaliyah (Ali), a woman whose faith is at odds with her sexuality.

Rossouw explains that even today, things are not easy for women in Ali’s position: “Muslim lesbians living openly are still very thin on the ground, despite there being mosques for gay people started after 1994. The country has made massive progress … but this has not filtered through in many communities in the grip of patriarchy.”

Ali’s inner tug-of-war does not hold her back in the newsroom. Tenacious and driven, she is chasing one exclusive story lead after another. It is a whirlwind of sources, deadlines, and office politics, a setting that Rossouw knows all too well, having worked as a journalist for over 30 years. That didn’t, however, make Ali’s story easy to write: “I started writing a book about a young woman whose father had died and who was struggling to cope as the head of the household. Three chapters in, my father died and the post-traumatic stress disorder I have been battling with for decades – as a result of the violence I witnessed as a young reporter – hit me hard and long.”

Mental health, violence, and PTSD thread through the narrative, from the newsroom, to Ali’s mother, to Ali herself. “I do believe our nation is scarred by violence,” Rossouw says. But while New Times may be set in the past, it is also a caution to the new generation. Rossouw explains, “The book was started in a fit of anger with the #FeesMustFall activists who blithely believed that their violence was justified because they had to ensure we all understood that Mandela was a sell-out. I wanted to warn them that violence is not a toy and could cause lasting damage.”

The well-drawn characters are damaged – whether an Afrikaans ex-military man turned sports reporter, a gay HIV/Aids activist, or Nelson Mandela’s right-hand man. But these broken souls all have one thing in common: Ali’s family table. This everyday piece of furniture pulls together a sense of community, responsibility and strength. The descriptions of the food throughout the book are so vivid that the smell of home cooking practically rises from the pages.

“The Malay community in Bo-Kaap made a massive contribution to early South African identity with their food,” Rossouw says. “Everyone knows koeksisters and bobotie and all of their sweets. Because the slaves that made up the Malay community had no roots they could pass down generations, their food showed that they were a fusion of Malay, Indonesian, Javanese and Indian people.”

But even a good meal cannot stop the déjà vu when reading about the HIV/Aids crisis in 1995. Yes, ARVs are now available, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that over seven million South Africans are living with the disease, according to UNAIDS data. Nor does it mean the old players in the HIV/Aids denialism have disappeared. “It is astounding that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma considered herself presidential material when she supported the development of Virodene, a toxic industrial solvent, as an ‘Aids cure’,” Rossouw says.

But she is far from giving up: “I am fighting all over again as a novelist.” – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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“Good, skilful, dirty fun” – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Joseph Kanon’s Defectors

Published in The Witness

DefectorsMaybe it’s because anything seems better than the present, or perhaps the excitingly glamorous art of spying has now been reduced to a slew of dubious “intelligence” reports and fake news, but there’s a lot of fictional nostalgia for the Cold War.

It was ugly, depressing and horrible to endure, but it still makes for great spy thrillers.

This time, it’s Joseph Kanon (Los Alamos, The Good German, Leaving Berlin) who is trawling in the murky waters of the 1960s.

Back in 1949, charming, clever Frank Weeks, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and a leading spook at the CIA was exposed as a Russian spy, and escaped to Moscow, where he and his wife become part of the ex-pat community of British and American traitors, loathed by those they betrayed and not trusted by their new masters.

But in 1961, Frank is given permission to write a memoir explaining his actions, or at least the bits of them the Russians want explained.

His brother Simon, who had been an unwitting source of some of the secrets Frank took to Russia, is now a New York publisher and is invited to fly to Moscow and work with Frank on the manuscript.

As a boy and young man, Simon worshipped his elder brother, but there is now a bitter history, and their reunion is fraught.

Still, a chance to reconnect with Frank’s wife, with whom Simon once had a brief fling, a bit of Russian sight-seeing, a trip to the Bolshoi and so on have their attractions, and glimpses of other high profile spies, both real (Guy Burgess) and fictional, have been laid on, along with the prospect of a bestseller at the end of the process.

But this is the Cold War, and nothing and no-one is quite what they seem on the surface.

As Frank draws Simon into a web of intrigue, the latter catches glimpses of other schemes and forces at play.

Spying is an amoral trade: collateral damage will occur and to those involved, will not matter all that much. The reader needs to concentrate as the tension builds, the complexities increase and the levels of duplicity deepen to a violent and shattering conclusion. Good, skilful, dirty fun. – Margaret von Klemperer

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‘A playful, highly imaginative, irreverent version of the Trojan War’ – Moira Lovell reviews Jane Fox’s The Unofficial Odyssey

Published in The Witness

Many writers have found inspiration for their own work in the great epics – The Iliad and The Odyssey – attributed to Homer. Not least among these, in recent years, have been Elizabeth Cook (Achilles, 2001), Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, 2005), Peter Ackroyd (The Fall of Troy, 2007), David Malouf (Ransom, 2009) and Madeline Miller, with her award-winning The Song of Achilles (2011). Now, South African writer, Jane Fox, presents The Unofficial Odyssey, a playful, highly imaginative, irreverent version of the Trojan War and its aftermath, based on her reading of Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and on the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides.

While the arc of the famous narrative is evident – from the abduction of Helen of Sparta to the trickery of the Wooden Horse and Odysseus’ subsequent perilous, decade-long voyage home to Ithaca – and while the major protagonists are featured, Fox’s focus is on Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and her women friends, left at home when the men sail for Troy.

Penelope’s closest friend and former lover, Sappho, is, like her namesake, something of a poet, and, in the absence of the men and of any news of the progress of the war, she suggests that the women – and the resident bard, Phemius – compose stories that reflect the possible development of events. Each of the women will be responsible for an instalment and will position herself in the narrative. Phemius will make a contribution and is responsible for committing the work to papyrus.

Each of the women bears the name of a female protagonist in the original saga, so that when she tells her imagined instalment, she is, in fact, reflecting, to some extent, the part she plays in the original.

The assembled Ithacan women include Iphigenia (named after the hapless daughter of Agamemnon); Cassandra (whose namesake is the prophetic Trojan princess to whom no one listens); Circe (named after the beguiling enchantress whom Odysseus encounters on the island of Aeaea); Calypso (the equally beguiling nymph with whom Odysseus spends seven years on the island of Ogygia); and Nausicaa (the Phaeacian princess who rescues Odysseus when he is shipwrecked on her father’s island).

In addition to the contributions of these women, Penelope herself, Sappho, Laertes (the elderly father of Odysseus) and Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) are given voice in their own chapters. Thus the imagined sequence of events unfolding beyond Ithaca is revealed, along with developments at home: Telemachus grows into a young man during his father’s protracted absence; there is the death of Odysseus’ mother; the invasion of Odysseus’ home by increasing numbers of loutish suitors (whom Fox dubs ‘refugees’); and Penelope’s famously duplicitous weaving of a shroud for Laertes. Even Odysseus’ dog, Argos, makes intermittent appearances and contributes to the poignancy of the conclusion.

Told in a jaunty, colloquial style and with considerable imaginative chutzpah, Fox’s novel is a light-hearted view of the origins of the famous texts. The Unofficial Odyssey is an elegant publication, coffee-table rather than bookshelf size, with striking illustrations by Ronel Wheeler.

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Book Bites (3 December)

Published in the Sunday Times

My Absolute DarlingMy Absolute Darling
Gabriel Tallent, HarperCollins, R250

It wasn’t the repulsive violence of this novel that defeated me. By now everyone knows that it features incest between a father and his 14-year-old daughter. It was never going to be a comfortable read, but judging by the euphoric reviews one expected something trenchant and thought-provoking. Instead the characters are straight out of central casting — ghastly gun-toting father spouting undigested philosophy before raping his daughter; she the tough tomboy with little interiority; kindly grandfather, caring-but-puzzled teacher. Tallent ladles on description with a palette knife, perhaps in an attempt to lift it to the heights of “literary fiction”, but ultimately it’s a hollow, crassly prurient book. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

The Dying Game
Asa Avdic, Penguin Books, R295

Set in 2037, a faceless government coldly manipulates its citizens into overworking at the expense of their personal lives. The central character is Anna Francis, emotionally damaged from a mission on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. On her return to Stockholm she is promised freedom if she completes one final mission – a high-pressure exercise to test the character of citizens being vetted for a top-secret intelligence post. Anna must travel to an island with an alcoholic colonel, a shallow TV host, one of Sweden’s richest men, a hyper-sensitive HR specialist and a key figure from her past who she thought she’d never encounter again. On the first night she will fake her death then monitor the reactions of the candidates. This well-paced Scandi Noir will certainly keep most readers captivated until the final chilling scene. – Efemia Chela @efemiachela

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic
Alice Hoffman, Simon & Schuster, R285

Hoffman’s prequel to her bestseller Practical Magic is the delightful backstory of the magical Owens sisters’ eccentric aunts, Jet and Frances, and their mysterious brother Vincent. It’s late ’50s New York and the three children are brought up in a strictly no magic house by their parents. But their power cannot be harnessed and when they find out who they are, disaster happens. They realise they can’t love without consequences due to an ancestral curse. A fantastical tale of doomed love. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Jürgen Schadeberg’s memoir gives us insights into his career as one of SA’s premiere photographers, writes Nadine Dreyer

Published in the Sunday Times

Dolly Rathebe posing on a mine dump. ©Jürgen Schadeberg

The Way I See ItThe Way I See It
Jürgen Schadeberg
Picador Africa, R310

Jürgen Schadeberg grew up in Berlin during World War 2. His mother had a rather elastic interpretation of parental responsibilities, to say the least. While the model-actress flitted from one romantic intrigue to the next, young Jurgen was left to navigate the horrors of war on his own. It’s tempting to conclude that the quick-witted instincts a youth requires to dodge fanatical Nazis, murderous Russians, terrifying bombings and looming starvation were excellent training for the cruel, dystopian world of apartheid South Africa.

Whatever the truth, the Drum photographer fell down the rabbit hole into an adventure that would see him document some of the most important moments in South Africa’s history and the characters that shaped it.

In his dry, understated style Schadeberg reveals the anecdotes behind some of his iconic photographs.

At Drum, Schadeberg worked closely with Henry Nxumalo, the pioneer of investigative journalism in South Africa. Their most famous exposé was the notorious potato farms in Bethal where workers were treated like slaves. The background to this assignment was the murder of a farm labourer in 1929. A farmer had been found guilty of hanging the man by his feet from a tree and flogging him to death. More than two decades later nothing had changed.

Nxumalo went undercover as a labourer and Schadeberg had to track him down (his German accent was a handy weapon against suspicious Afrikaners). Eventually he traced Nxumalo to the potato fields on Sonneblom farm in the Bethal district. There the “boss boy” was cracking his whip while weary workers stooped to gather the crop. Schadeberg surreptitiously snapped photographs with his telephoto lens until Nxumalo dropped his basket and ran to the car.

Schadeberg covered many political moments. At the ANC conference in 1951 he encountered Nelson Mandela, a young charismatic leader tipped for great things. He hired a small plane to cover the funeral of the victims of the Sharpeville massacre.

On a lighter note there’s the day he got arrested with Dolly Rathebe on a mine dump.

After looking for a Johannesburg backdrop that would resemble a beach, the bikini-clad bombshell posed for him on top of a dump. After finishing the shoot they were accosted by four cops accusing them of contravening the notorious Immorality Act.

Wat doen jy hier, seuntjie?” a sergeant demanded.

He then turned to Rathebe: “Ek wil jou broek sien!

After lifting her dress to show she was in fact wearing panties, Rathebe was thrown in the back of a pick-up van. (Schadeberg was pushed into a police car.)

At the police station a cop lectured him: “We don’t mix with these people. You should know, as a German, they are different.”

Drum proprietor Jim Bailey was pathologically loath to hand out money, despite being one of the wealthiest men on the continent. He’d leave his poorly paid subordinates to pick up the tab for a night’s binge drinking with township mafia bosses. Editor Anthony Sampson was a Jeykll and Hyde character – and his Mr Hyde side could be horribly creepy (read the book).

The Drum world was full of characters who still loom large today. Driving with the magazine’s music editor Todd Matshikiza was a terrifying experience because he was so short he almost disappeared behind the wheel of his Morris Minor. The two of them hung out with Kippie Moeketsi in an underworld where “gangsters danced with guns and knives and thought gambling, shooting and stabbing were normal”.

Abnormal times that produced both the best and the worst.

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A tough, nuanced read that raises uncomfortable topics – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Joyce Carol Oates’s A Book of American Martyrs

Published in The Witness

A Book of American MartyrsI must admit this novel was neither easy to read nor to review. Both subject matter and Joyce Carol Oates’s way of handling it can make a reader somewhat queasy, but there is no doubt that its 736 pages (American writers are remarkably keen on having their readers in for the long haul) are a formidable achievement.

The story opens in 1999 in the American midwest, when Luther Dunphy, a fundamentalist Christian and hardline pro-life activist, shoots dead Dr Gus Voorhees and his bodyguard outside the abortion clinic where Voorhees works.

The first part of the book is narrated by Dunphy, and Oates is too skilled a writer to make him a one-dimensional hate figure. You may not like him, or what he stands for, but by the time he is sentenced to death, you have a certain understanding of him. And his execution reminded me forcibly of The Green Mile, the only film I have ever walked out of, unable to stomach the electric chair scene. If nothing else, A Book of American Martyrs makes a compelling argument, if one is needed, for the abolition of the death penalty.

Voorhees, Dunphy’s victim and polar opposite is no saint either. He represents another brand of fanaticism, one that is prepared to sacrifice pretty well anything for his crusading ideals and whose outward calm rationality hides a terrifying ruthlessness. He and Dunphy are the martyrs, seeking their own martyrdom.

However, the main thrust of Oates’s book is the effect of the two deaths on the two families, particularly the wives of the men and their daughters, both entering adolescence at the time of the killings. The stories are told through a variety of voices, ranging from an impersonal third person narrator to first person sections and verbatim transcripts of interviews and trials.

Both the Voorhees and Dunphy families are destroyed, and the latter part of the book deals with Naomi Voorhees and Dawn Dunphy as they both, in very different ways, struggle to find their own paths to survival, and to deal with the legacy forced upon them by their fathers. One, who becomes a documentary film maker, may be educated, clever and articulate while the other – an exploited and vicious woman boxer – is barely literate and hardly able to function in society, but their lives are intertwined for ever.

A Book of American Martyrs raises all kinds of uncomfortable topics – religious fundamentalism, the abortion debate, gun crime and the death penalty. It is particularly pertinent at this time, calling up issues that are currently fracturing American society and that of other places as well. The telling is complex and nuanced but, as I said at the outset, it is a tough read. Oates is one of those writers – an ever-expanding list – who are regularly tipped for a Nobel prize, though whether she ever will or ought to win is another matter. But this book should do her chances no harm. – Margaret von Klemperer

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Book Bites: 26 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Dan Brown, Bantam Press, R320

Fast-paced, action-packed, relentlessly informative, Origin is a riveting read from start to end. Dan Brown’s famous character, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, is back to unravel yet another mystery with the potential to upend the entire world. Only this time he has the Spanish military, royal palace and Catholic Church hot on his heels, not to mention an anonymous hacker who’s always five steps ahead. Langdon’s friend and former student, the brilliant futurist Edmond Kirsch, makes a fascinating scientific discovery, one that provides unequivocal answers to two age-old questions: “Where do we come from? Where are we going?” On the eve of his announcement, dark forces intervene to quash his discovery and Langdon finds himself in a mad race to Barcelona, with the alluring future queen of Spain by his side. Brown blends science, technology, art and religion in a story that entertains and mystifies. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

Home Fire
Kamila Shamsie, Bloomsbury, R290

Antigone, the Greek tragedy, is artfully reimagined in our modern world in this 2017 Man Booker longlisted novel. Two sisters lose their brother Parvaiz to their father’s jihadist past. Isma flees to America and makes friends with Eamonn, the son of the British Home Secretary. When Eamonn returns to the UK, he visits the younger sister, Aneeka, delivering a packet of M&Ms from Isma. Thus, the families of the sisters and Eamonn become tangled as personal choices, beliefs and grief is dragged into the political landscape. A timely read that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Boy Who Saw
Simon Toyne, HarperCollins, R285

The brilliant Solomon Creed is a paranoid schizophrenic with no memory of his past: the only clue is his beautifully made jacket, with the name of the tailor, Josef Engel, on the lapel. Creed tracks down the tailor, but the old man has been tortured to death. It seems likely that his murder is linked to his granddaughter Marie Claude’s research into the Holocaust and The Tailors’ Camp, a concentration camp from which Engel was one of only four survivors. Creed, Marie Claude and her son Leo journey through France to find the survivors – and learn something about Creed’s past – before the rest of the tailors are killed, along with the answers. – Aubrey Paton

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Book Bites: 19 November

Published in the Sunday Times

Tin Man
Sarah Winman, Tinder Press, R275

This is one of those books that lures you in gently, and then grabs your heart and won’t let go. The book follows the intense friendship and love between two men, Ellis and Michael, from the age of 11 until one of their deaths. Set against the backdrop of Oxford and the gay scene in London in the ’90s, it is alternately idyllic and terrifying, as Aids takes so many young lives. It’s a heartbreaking, beautiful read, and one that will stay with me for a long time. – Bridget McNulty @bridgetmcnulty

The Fall of the ANC Continues: What next?
Prince Mashele & Mzukisi Qobo, Picador Africa, R175

Reading this book, one is left thinking that the struggle movement will be dead come the 2019 elections. The governing party has allowed and promoted greed, corruption and self-enrichment. According to the authors, as it falls the ANC will also take all of its wings down with it – the Women’s League, the Youth League and the tripartite alliance: Cosatu and the SACP. The authors say that if a survey were to be conducted on whether the ANC is corrupt, most honest citizens would probably answer yes. “This answer stems from what people see. Meetings of ANC structures increasingly look like luxury car shows. Those who live in the rural areas and who are bused to conferences must wonder which ANC they belong to that is so indifferent to their own conditions and yet so generous to the cadres who live in the cities.” – Khanyi Ndabeni

Secrets in Death
JD Robb, Little Brown, R275

When you get to book 45 in the series, you’d think it was time to pack up all those worn characters. Yet Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her mononymous hubby Roarke still have their loyal following. It’s not bad dipping into one again although some parts feel hackneyed. Ruthless gossip star Larinda Mars is murdered at a bar in New York. There’s a long list of suspects – all of whom were blackmailed by Mars. Eve finds it tough to narrow down the list but, thank goodness, Roarke once again has enough time to help her out. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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