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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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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Jim Crace’s brilliant The Melody explores loss, ageing, greed and gentrification, writes Paige Nick

Published in the Sunday Times

The Melody *****
Jim Crace, Picador, R285

After his Booker-nominated Harvest (2013), Jim Crace was never going to write another novel – until three things happened. The first was at a literary festival in India, in a luxury hotel where high walls and security kept the world out, except at night when animals and humans fed loudly from the bins next door.

The second was a year later, in Malta, when Crace stayed on a promenade built for sun seekers in the 1800s. But now the buildings cast it into shade, except where an early Victorian house, badly in need of repair, had survived. Just one storey high, the sun got through and locals gathered in that little moving square of sunshine. This conflict between the built and natural world lives in all Crace’s work.

So Crace collapsed India into Malta and Malta into the Mediterranean as The Melody started to form in his head.

The third thing happened years ago while writing a short story for The Devil’s Larder (2001). In story No 60, a character named Tambar appears in just one sentence. Crace liked that the musician’s name sounded like “tambourine”, but later came to dislike it. So before the American edition came out he renamed him Alfred Busi.

And so Busi is The Melody’s lead; a famous singer coming to terms with retirement and his wife’s death. One night a lonely Busi is attacked by what could either be a wild animal or a feral child stealing food from his pantry. The attack spins the town folk into panic and Busi’s nephew, a developer, uses the crisis to further his own agenda as they wage war on whatever or whoever is living in the forest. The novel explores loss, ageing, greed and gentrification, as well as the refugee crisis and xenophobia.

Crace is the master of allegorical novels, set in no particular time or place. What The Melody lacks in fast-paced plot it makes up for with Crace’s superb lyrical style. And though the reader may not be able to pinpoint when this brilliant book is set, that doesn’t make it less of a novel for our times. @paigen

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Book Bites: 22 April

Published in the Sunday Times

The Last RomeoThe Last Romeo
****
Justin Myers, Piatkus, R285

What would you get if you were to combine Adrian Mole and almost any Marian Keyes novel? Justin Myers’s brilliant debut novel and its lead, James. James is at a crossroads. He’s 34, gay, has broken up with his toxic boyfriend, and isn’t loving his job making up celebrity gossip for a hot London rag mag. He starts online dating and blogging about his encounters using the nom de plume of “Romeo”. The idea is simple; James dates and then blogs anonymously about the encounters. If a date is rude to him, it’s open season. But if he meets someone who turns out to be The One, he’ll give up the blog. James meets a series of weird/gross/hot men and the results are hilarious, sad and mostly true to life. Then he meets a closeted Olympian and his drunken blog post about the encounter sends Romeo’s social media profile through the roof, and all hell breaks loose. The Last Romeo is sharp, witty and combines a good laugh with touching sincerity. Russell Clarke @russrussy

Woman of State
***
Simon Berthon, HarperCollins, R295

Maire McCartney, a moderate Belfast Catholic, was persuaded by her extremist boyfriend to be part of a honey-trap, the seduction of a British policeman who would be blackmailed into betraying British operatives. Except the policeman was murdered, and Maire forced to flee, assume a new identity, and move to England where she becomes a human-rights lawyer, and eventually Minister of State for Security. What of her past though? Berthon presents an enthralling and believable tale of love, loyalty, and death. Aubrey Paton

The Boy Made Of Snow
****
Chloe Mayer, Orion, R295

It is 1944. Annabel is left alone to look after her son, Daniel, while her husband is away at war. The connection between the pair is fragile, due to Annabel having never fully recovered from her postpartum depression. They do, however, share a love of fairy tales. Like sweet magic, a German PoW enters their lives; yet well-read readers know that the original fairy stories are dark and harrowing. Artfully, Mayer has woven the shadows of the Snow Queen into the narrative, creating a story that will haunt long after the final pages are read. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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“His Michael K has to stand on his own. And he manages to do just that.” Lorraine Sithole reviews Nthikeng Mohlele’s Michael K

Published in the Sunday Times

Michael K
****
Nthikeng Mohlele, Picador Africa, R220

Nthikeng Mohlele is brave to bring out a book under the heavy shadow of JM Coetzee’s classic The Life And Times Of Michael K. His Michael K has to stand on his own. And he manages to do just that. Mohlele writes his story beautifully with a tactile sensuality. He arranges words, sentences and paragraphs like a gifted composer.

The book begins with Miles, the narrator. We are then transported to Dust Island where Miles meets Michael K, who has nothing but the rags on his body, a few seeds, a bent spoon and a string.

Miles spends 31 months on the island, hoping that being with Michael K will awaken his inner poet. In those months, he is fascinated by Michael K’s harmonious existence with nature. No more than two words are exchanged between them, and Michael K remains an enigma to Miles as he lives a life devoid of earthly trappings.

Miles leaves Dust Island following a tragic event. He settles in Johannesburg with the intention of writing poetry, a quest he hopes will get him to live on the periphery of life. Miles soon discovers that, unlike Michael K, he cannot exist merely by the soil.

Miles becomes consumed by Michael K. He questions, prods and dissects Michael K’s existence. How does a man grow into an adult having not touched and experienced carnal pleasures? A shot of good whisky? A great piece of steak? Having not voted? Not participated in a protest?

Michael K survived wars and deprivation but came out with his soul well on the other side. Maybe, just maybe, Miles thinks, we are not fully living because of the societal, economic, political and cultural pressures. Maybe Michael K was the answer to a life of true freedom for he was beholden to no one. To nothing.

As in his previous novels Rusty Bell and Pleasure, Mohlele writes with an orchestral precision about the nature of pleasure and existence. Lorraine Sithole @LS3841

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“An excellent novel about the issue of comfort women” – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Mary Lynn’s Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum

Published in the Witness: 12/04/2017

White Chrysanthemum
Mary Lynn Bracht, Chatto & Windus

THE issue of “comfort women”, kidnapped by Japanese forces from Korea and China and forced into prostitution for the use of their soldiers is one that has simmered shamefully along since the end of the Second World War.

Neither the Japanese nor the Korean governments have shown sufficient willingness to confront the issue, let alone insist on a genuine apology or reparations from the Japanese side. It has taken determination by the surviving women themselves – now very few – and other activists to drag this horrible episode into the light. They erected a bronze statue of a comfort woman, the Statue of Peace, in Seoul opposite the Japanese embassy: the Japanese demand its removal as the precursor to any kind of admission or apology.

Mary Lynn Bracht, a Korean-American, has taken the subject of comfort women for her very impressive debut novel.

The politics and history of Japan, Korea, China, Manchuria and Mongolia are little known in the West, and make a fascinating and elegantly illuminated backdrop for the stories of two sisters, Hana and Emi. They live on the island of Jeju off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula and are the daughters of a haenyeo, one of the women who dive for fish and crustaceans. Even under Japanese occupation, it was a powerful, matriarchal society, now sadly reduced to little more than a tourist attraction.

Bracht’s novel is told in alternating chapters by Hana and Emi. Hana’s are set in 1943, the year in which, as a young woman diver, she rushed out of the sea in an effort to save her little sister from a Japanese soldier she saw approaching. She did save Emi, but was herself taken captive and removed to a life of abuse and rape at a military brothel in Mongolia. Emi’s story is set in 2011 when she is an elderly woman, consumed by guilt that her sister vanished while protecting her and still desperately trying to find her, or at least discover where she went and what was her fate.

Perhaps Bracht is guilty of striving a little too hard for a sense of closure, if not exactly a happy ending to a story that ended badly for the estimated two hundred thousand women taken into slavery and for those left behind, but this is fiction and in White Chrysanthemum, she has created two powerful and unforgettable characters. And shone a spotlight not only onto an episode that should never be forgotten but onto the plight of women and girls in all theatres of war. An excellent novel.

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Book Bites (8 April)

Published in the Sunday Times

Darwin Comes To Town *****
Menno Schilthuizen, Quercus, R315

This book started many conversations: with my children, husband, his co-workers and friends. It contains observations on how animals and plants are evolving and adapting to urban landscapes. There are crows that have alarm systems for approaching hunters, catfish that have figured out how to catch pigeons, mosquitoes that have evolved different varieties for different tunnels of London’s Underground, and Sendai crows who, in Japan, use slow-moving traffic as their nutcrackers. Fascinating. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

After the Fire ****
Henning Mankell, Harvill Secker, R280

Mankell is famous for his thrillers featuring the melancholy Wallander, but this is the last book he wrote before his death in 2015 – and it’s different. It is not about crime, nor is it thrilling. It is, however, vastly compelling. This is the elegiacally written story of Fredrik Welin, a doctor who retired in disgrace to the family home on an island in the Swedish archipelago. Old age is starting to bite and Welin has few friends. As in a Greek tragedy he loses everything when his home is destroyed in a fire the police suspect him of setting. He endures a grim winter of discontent, but does not give up. Others die, or leave, but he continues until spring brings warmth and new hope. It is a fitting epilogue to Mankell’s oeuvre. Aubrey Paton

Year One ****
Nora Roberts, Little Brown, R295

There’s romance but it’s a smidgen compared to how broad Roberts goes in her latest endeavour – a trilogy of post-apocalyptic fiction. An untreatable flu has spread. Originating as a curse in Scotland on a magical rock where a bird’s blood released it, two billion people were subsequently infected. Now survivors have to leave the cities where The Raiders — a group intent on looting, raping and murdering – rule. The good survivors have to find solace but it’s not just The Raiders out to get them. The government is taking them against their will, and the evil of the dark forces – witches and wizards – has been increased by the curse. It’s incredibly entertaining. Most horribly, book two is out only in December. Boo. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Toll of madness, redemption of love – Michele Magwood reviews Zack McDermott’s Gorilla and the Bird

Published in the Sunday Times

Gorilla and the Bird: A Memoir of Madness and a Mother’s Love
*****
Zack McDermott, Piatkus, R315

This book is one of the gems of the year, the true story of a young man who suffers a catastrophic psychotic break and his sliding, slipping climb to normality.

Zack McDermott was a promising public defender in New York, an idealistic man raised working class in Wichita, Kansas, “a baloney sandwich throw from the trailer park”. His mother nicknamed him Gorilla as he was barrel-chested and hirsute. He calls her The Bird because of the small, avian movements she makes with her head. The Bird taught high-school English to the roughest students, gathering “any thug, gang-banger, ex-con or other members of the discard pile” around their dining-room table every afternoon for extra lessons.

It was understandable that he would want to become a lawyer defending “the dregs, the cast-offs, the addicts and the Uncle Eddies”. Uncle Eddie, it turns out, was institutionalised for schizophrenia.

So mental illness is in the family gene pool, but in Zack’s case it has manifested as Bipolar 1 disease.

Pitched straight into the gutting system in New York, he soon feels overwhelmed by the responsibility of his job and the hopelessness of his abject clients.

At the same time he is doing some fairly crazed stand-up comedy at night. He’s smoking dope, not sleeping, not eating. And one morning he steps out into the city believing he is being filmed, Truman-style for a real-life documentary. We want to avert our eyes as he careens through the day, until he ends up shirtless and shoeless on a subway platform, sobbing. From there he is transported by police to the pysch ward, deep in psychosis. Only the Bird can rescue him.

Seeing it from the inside, bipolar is utterly terrifying, and Zack’s struggle – he has more breakdowns – is deeply affecting. But the story belongs to the big-hearted Bird, too, for her determination to not let go of him. @michelemagwood

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