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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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

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“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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Book Bites: 6 May

Published in the Sunday Times

Clockwork City
****
Paul Crilley, Hodder & Stoughton, R315

This is Scottish writer Crilley’s latest engrossing supernatural-procedural. The story that started in his debut Poison City continues as low-grade magician Gideon Tau (aka London) and his demonic sidekick dog (aka Dog) are once again tasked to save the world. Haunted by the kidnapping of his daughter, London can’t stop tugging at the threads of her disappearance. His investigation takes him and Dog from Durban to London and into the magical world of Faerie. The colourful cast of characters includes Armitage the chocoholic revenant, and alcoholic Fae-enthusiast Callum Winters. Then there’s also Mother London, Queen Rat and a cast of bad guys wanting to eat them. Clockwork City is hilarious, terrifying and wonderfully imaginative. Anna Stroud @annawriter_

DictatorlandDictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa
*****
Paul Kenyon, Head of Zeus, R315

The plunder of Africa by a handful of elite leaders has seen the continent stripped of its beauty and we are rapidly losing what is left of its natural resources to the corrupt. This is the story of the men who stole Africa. The dictators who have cut their land and people off from the world, forcing them into poverty, and yet they live fine lives many only dream of. Paul Kenyon has a beautiful way with words and this book will leave you haunted. How is it possible that this magnificent land of ours has been lost? More importantly, is there any hope? Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

The Cutting Edge
The Cutting Edge
***
Jeffery Deaver, Hodder & Stoughton, R295

My relationship with Lincoln Rhymes and Amelia Sachs is complicated. I still love them as a power couple investigating convoluted murder cases but I feel that most of the magic and chemistry is gone. It’s time to move on. Deaver still manages to deliver the expected quantum of thrills and twists and turnabouts but it’s all so very meh – although you do learn reams about diamonds. Rhymes and Sachs have to find a killer targeting happily engaged couples – their love is hated by the killer. Or is it? Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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“An enigmatic examination of shifting taste and permissiveness – social and personal.” Russell Clarke reviews Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair

Published in the Sunday Times

The Sparsholt Affair
***
Alan Hollinghurst, Picador, R330

Divided into five fairly distinct, yet linked sections, each with its own set of characters, time-frame and worldview, Hollinghurst’s newest novel is as enigmatic as the author. A self-professed loner who secludes himself for long periods while writing, The Sparsholt Affair is only his sixth novel in nearly 30 years.

Part one introduces us to Oxford in 1940, when David Sparsholt arrives at the university for a single term before embarking on a military career. His arrival causes commotion, owing to his outstanding beauty and physical prowess, particularly among a group of friends who first spy David exercising in his rooms. Engaged to Connie, Sparsholt becomes a preoccupation for this group of gay men (though they wouldn’t have called themselves that in the ’40s). David is clearly not unaware of his beauty, nor entirely impervious to the approaches of his admirers.

Part two fast-forwards to 1966, a year before homosexuality is decriminalised in Britain, where we meet our new narrator, Johnny – David’s son. Young Johnny is obsessed with a French exchange student placed with the Sparsholts, Bastien, and spends much time frustrated by Bastien’s beauty and disregard for Johnny’s existence. Another family is holidaying with the Sparsholts, and it is soon clear there is an affair between David and his male colleague, to which their wives are not oblivious.

Parts three and four move the action into London in the ’70s and ’80s, and Johnny’s burgeoning life as a painter and his discovery of an increasingly open gay life. Also revealed is David’s involvement, in 1967, in the eponymous Sparsholt Affair. Hollinghurst never fully reveals the detail of the scandal, but it appears to haunt David who retreats into an ever-more conservative world, and marries his secretary after his marriage to Connie, Johnny’s mother, ends. Even more problematically, the scandal haunts Johnny, whose family name never fails to raise eyebrows, even decades later. After all, books were written about the scandal. Johnny, if it isn’t clear by now, is also gay.

The final part of the novel introduces us to Johnny’s daughter, and moves the narrative fully into the 21st century, replete with hook-up apps, online porn, and more freedom.

The Sparsholt Affair is impossible to categorise with any neatness. The five-part structure, which begins with a certain formality, falls away so that by the end it is a far looser book than that which one had begun reading.

Hollinghurst’s power lies in his ability to see the fine details of lives, and his understanding and layering of the broad sweep of history and human change over that. The Sparsholt Affair is an examination of shifting taste and permissiveness – social and personal. It’s difficult to decide whether the book is enjoyable or not, peopled by so many characters and covering so many years. Perhaps the uncertainty is Hollinghurst’s intention. Russell Clarke @russrussy

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Different voices: prominent feminists write about what feminism means to them and what they would like to see, in SA and globally, writes Tiah Beautement

Published in the Sunday Times

Clockwise from top left: Pumla Dineo Gqola, Michelle Hattingh, Helen Moffett, Gugulethu Mhlungu, Rebecca Davis, Dela Gwala, Ferial Haffajee and Jen Thorpe. (Pictures supplied.)

 

Feminism Is
*****
Edited by Jen Thorpe, Kwela, R250

‘If we’re going to talk about feminism, we need to understand that the term has different meanings, for different people, in different contexts – and that’s okay,” writes Aaisha Dadi Patel. Patel is one of 31 contributors in Feminism Is, including notable names such as Gugulethu Mhlungu, Rebecca Davis, Ferial Haffajee, Nomalanga Mkhize, and Helen Moffett.

The book is the brainchild of Jen Thorpe and serendipitously comes at a time when #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are now leaning into much-needed conversations.

The project was sparked by “Talking Feminism”, an event at the 2016 Open Book Festival, featuring Thorpe along with Mohale Mashigo, Yewande Omotoso, Pumla Dineo Gqola and Nnedi Okorafor.

The collection is a glimpse into the wider conversations that encompass feminism, including raising boys, climate change, race, class, womanism, feminism in a Muslim context, gender, social media, language, diet, Donald Trump, dating, and South Africa’s Department of Women. As to the latter, Thorpe writes: “Since 2014, when the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities was dissolved, and reconstituted as the Department of Women, the engagement with women’s issues (outside of the financial requirements such as quarterly reporting) in parliament has decreased rather than increased.”

Now, with the recent appointment of Bathabile Dlamini to the department, Thorpe adds: “What I would like to see is a women’s ministry that leads on women’s empowerment and the promotion of human rights for women. It’s my opinion that at a national level there is room for rethinking the way we address women’s issues and whether the Ministry of Women should be the only department that takes on the role of promoting women’s interests. I’d really like to see the uptake of promoting human rights for women across all departments.”

Feminism Is delves into how the contributors came to feminism. Dela Gwala writes: “Rape made me a feminist,” and Michelle Hattingh writes: “Feminism carved itself into my flesh.” Gabeba Baderoon and Genna Gardini turned to poetry to formulate their thoughts and feelings on the subject. Gardini says: “Poetry gave me a space to learn how to speak and think about politics. Through it I began to slowly tease out my understandings of feminism and intersectionality, to try to explain what I thought.”

What the collection does best is show that feminism is a diverse movement, and this means feminists must be respectful both on and off social media while listening to each other as the movement evolves and progresses.

In one of the most thought-provoking essays in the book, B Camminga reveals how interaction with Thorpe challenged and changed the initial direction of Feminism Is, leading it to become a collection composed of South African human beings, not just women. Camminga’s essay goes on to challenge readers to understand that gender is a social construct. The writer never reveals gender identity in the essay, due to the core belief: “Feminism is for every single body.” Camminga further argues: “The political task of feminism is to eradicate gender.” Regardless of whether you agree with Camminga’s views, the essay alone is worth the price of the book. @ms_tiahmarie

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Book Bites: 29 April

Published in the Sunday Times

A Book of American Martyrs
****
Joyce Carol Oates, HarperCollins, R290

Who the martyrs in this book are is not entirely clear. Although it initially seems that the narrative centres on the dividing line between pro-choice and pro-life, Oates adeptly teases out the complexities. The plot is driven by the murder of Gus Voorhees, a doctor providing abortions in Muskagee Falls, Ohio. The perpetrator, Luther Dunphee, believes he has been chosen by God to “defend the defenceless”. With Voorhees dead and Dunphee imprisoned, the wives and children of these men are rendered widowed, a single parent and fatherless: martyrs. An interrogation of grief, courage, religious fundamentalism, abortion and family relations, this is one of Oates’s finest creations. Chantelle Gray @CGrayvH

The Tattooist of Auschwitz
*****
Heather Morris, Zaffre, R270

Based on the true story of Lale and Gita Soklov, Slovakian Jews who survived Auschwitz and finally made Australia their home. One of the most horrific symbols in the Nazi death camps was the blue numbered tattoos. Lale was given the job of tattooing prisoners marked for survival. With a rare amount of freedom, he bargained his way through the camps and tried to help the imprisoned. His courage and determination to survive is already powerful, but add in meeting the love of his life in the camp, Gita, who was waiting to be tattooed, and you’ve got a book that will likely make your best reads list. Jessica Levitt @Jesslevitt

Bitter
****
Francesca Jakobi, Orion, R295

It’s 1969 and Gilda has worn white and a net veil to her son Reuben’s nuptials – symbolic of the toxic relationship she has with him. Then you get to know the complex Gilda; how she was unceremoniously sent to boarding school in England by her unfeeling German parents. The chapters are short between past and present and Jakobi’s imagery transports you from bombed London streets to the anything-goes vibes at the end of the swinging ’60s, from the severe colours of war to the colourful dresses and freedom of the flyaway bob. You get to know why Gilda left Reuben, why she is stalking his wife, and why she is so alone. A terrifying and poignant portrait of a lonely woman. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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