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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Death, dining and dynamic women – here’s what Andrew Donaldson read this week

PACK PADKOS WHEN INVITED FOR DINNER AT 1600 PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE

Years ago, in the mid-1990s, I was fortunate enough to meet (in a B&B in Melville, Johannesburg, of all places) Martha Gellhorn, one of the 20th century’s greatest war correspondents. I’d long been an admirer of her books; in particular View From the Ground, The Face of War (both Granta) and The Trouble I’ve Seen (Eland Publishing). All highly recommended.

Gellhorn was then old and frail, and I was warned not to ask about Ernest Hemingway, which seemed absurd. She may have been his third wife, but her own accomplishments were legion; having covered every major conflict from the Spanish Civil War through to the wars in Central America in the mid-1980s, it perhaps would have been more apposite to ask Hemingway about her.

Gellhorn and Hemingway are just two of the myriad characters that pop up in food historian Laura Shapiro’s fascinating What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories (Fourth Estate).

The pair had been invited to the Franklin D Roosevelt’s White House for dinner in 1937. It was a first for Hemingway, and he was greatly surprised Gellhorn wolfed down three sandwiches on the way there. “When you’re invited to a meal at the White House,” she told him, “eat before you go.”

Sage advice. Contemporary presidential menus were horrific. Hemingway complained of “rainwater soup” and a “cake some admirer had sent in. An enthusiastic but unskilled admirer.”

The Roosevelts didn’t have to tolerate such fare. But Eleanor Roosevelt perversely insisted on employing one Henrietta Nesbitt, an exceptionally untalented cook and housekeeper whose reign of terror at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue included mayonnaise dyed green. Why? It was how she got back at her philandering husband. Revenge was served up to three times a day, hot or cold, and tasteless. It does all seem Raold Dahl-ish, doesn’t it?

The other women in Shapiro’s book are Eva Braun, Helen Gurley Brown, Rosa Lewis, Dorothy Wordsworth and Barbara Pym. What’s the link between them all? Absolutely nothing.

The first ever words, incidentally, uttered by Braun to Adolf Hitler were apparently: “Guten appetit!” She had just served Bavarian sausage to a vegetarian.

CRASH COURSE

Most of us want to die in our beds at home, surrounded by loved ones and creature comforts. Instead, most of us will die in hospitals. Cheery stuff, I know. But nothing is more certain than death, or more bewildering and strange. In recent years, there’s been heaps of books by writers who’ve scrutinised their final days: Oliver Sacks, Christopher Hitchens, Jenny Diski and Atul Gawande, among others.

Yet two new books – From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (W&N) by Caitlin Doughty, and With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial (William Collins) by Kathryn Mannix – seem to make the point that, although it’s easier to live longer these days, it is becoming more difficult to die well.

Mannix is a palliative doctor, or “deathwife”, as she refers to herself. She spends her days with the terminally ill and their families. To her, death is something that visits families slowly, over months and years, and while much of her work is medical and diagnostic, she also crucially helps those who are dying and their loved ones to find ways of dealing with the final, great event.

Once you’re gone, well, that’s when Doughty takes over. A rather boisterous American mortician, she earned a reputation for telling it like it is with her first book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. (Crematorium work, obviously.)

Her From Here to Eternity is an oddly cheerful travel book, and she relishes those rituals from various cultures around the word – from Mexico’s Day of the Dead to the breaking of bodies in Tibet so they may be more easily consumed by vultures – that openly acknowledge death’s enormity.

IN PASSING

Rest in peace, then, Peter Mayle, who died last week at 78. The retired advertising executive whose 1989 bestseller, A Year in Provence, started a major trend in memoir and travel writing. Mayle, who started his writing career in his 30s with sex-education books for children, had moved to France in 1987 with the aim of renovating an 18th-century farmhouse and writing a novel. Hassles with the former interfered with the latter, and so his agent convinced him to drop the novel and write about the distractions instead.

THE BOTTOM LINE

“I want to be the last girl in the world with a story like mine.” – The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State by Nadia Murad (Tim Duggan Books)

Book details

View From the Ground

 
 
 

The Face of War

 
 
 

The Trouble I've Seen

 
 
 

What She Ate

 
 
 

From Here to Eternity

 
 
 

With the End in Mind

 
 
 

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

 
 
 

A Year in Provence

 
 
 

The Last Girl


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Mike Procter’s autobiography a witty, concise read on the events that shaped his life after his storied career as a player, writes Khanyiso Tshwaku

Published in the Sunday Times

By Khanyiso Tshwaku

Caught in the MiddleCaught in the Middle
***
Mike Procter, Pitch Publishing, R370

The title of Mike Procter’s autobiography Caught in the Middle is an apt one considering he found himself at the centre of two of cricket’s hairiest moments in the mid-2000s. Those events were the “ball tampering” Oval 2006 test match between Pakistan and England and the infamous “Monkeygate” New Year’s test between Australia and India in Sydney in 2008.

On both occasions, he was the match referee. After those acrimonious tests, the International Cricket Council changed the rules to ensure certain infractions were dealt with at a level higher than that of a match referee.

In the 2006 encounter, the Pakistan team led by Inzamam-ul-Haq refused to come out after tea on the fourth day after being accused by the abrasive and controversial Australian umpire Darrell Hair of altering the condition of the match ball.

The 2008 issue centred around Indian offspinner Harbhajan Singh racially abusing Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds, who is of West Indian descent, by calling him a monkey.

These two moments are the centre of the well-crafted 239-page book, which focuses on Procter’s career as referee rather than player.

Procter said the incidents in London and Sydney changed his outlook on the game.

“The Darrell Hair thing was part and parcel of cricket. It was very unusual but that’s something you’d expect to see in cricket once in a while, but the Harbhajan Singh one, I would’ve preferred not to deal with that one,” Procter said.

It’s a book that can be devoured easily, thanks to Lungani Zama’s brevity and Procter’s witty but concise tone. With this book being Procter’s third, it was a smart move to speak less about his storied career as a player – cut short by anti-apartheid sanctions – and focus more on the events that shaped his life afterwards.

It’s worth remembering he was South African cricket’s first post-isolation coach, from 1991 to 1994, a tenure that included the five-run win over Australia in Sydney in 1994. – Khanyiso Tshwaku @kaymorizm

Book details

  • Caught in the Middle: Monkeygate, Politics and Other Hairy Issues; the Autobiography of Mike Procter by Mike Procter, Lungani Zama
    EAN: 9781785312168
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Book Bites: 21 January

Published in the Sunday Times

100 Nasty Women of History
****
Hannah Jewell, Hodder & Stoughton, R315

Every feminist and generally decent person felt a severe pang of disappointment when Trump won the US elections. Hannah Jewell wrote 100 Nasty Women of History in retaliation for his calling Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman”. Open this book and learn the names and stories of some of history’s coolest “nasty” women – like the most successful pirate ever, or some of the many brilliant female poets forgotten over time. Be pleasantly surprised by the number of factors in today’s everyday life that have been shaped by women, like the technology used for Wi-Fi or the numbering system of 1, 2, 3. This light-hearted collection of brief biographies provides, in very crude language and colloquialisms, a small bit of justice every feminist needs. – Jessica Evans

I’ll Take the Sunny Side
****
Gordon Forbes, Bookstorm, R290

Gordon Forbes is best known for his tennis memoir A Handful of Summers, which decades on is still in print. In this new book he returns to the international tennis circuit of yesteryear, but he adds much more. Forbes belongs to a distinguished lunch club that meets once a month and includes such friends as the historian Charles van Onselen, columnist James Clarke and the author Richard Steyn. All are men of letters, all are of a certain age, and they ruminate and crack wise about politics, growing old and sport. From discussing the oysters on the buffet table, to the unseemly yowls of women tennis players to the best boots for the Otter Trail, this is a charming memoir of full lives and friendship. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Future Home of the Living God
****
Louise Erdrich, Corsair, R295

Louise Erdrich has created a chilling dystopian thriller. In the spirit of The Handmaid’s Tale, women’s bodies are the central theme as Cedar and her family attempt to hide her pregnancy. Evolution has stalled, reversed, genetically malfunctioned, creating religious fervour and a national state of emergency. Women are being torn from their families, held captive, while the survival rate for birthing mothers plummets. This is a new beginning, where your friends may be your enemies, your postman a spy, and women are drafted in and forced to incubate embryos from a different age. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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Andrew Donaldson on Heinrich Gerlach’s “lost” fictional account of the Battle of Stalingrad, Sue Grafton’s passing, and Michael Wolff’s inside look at the sentient naartjie’s presidency

BACKSTORY’S MAKE FOR THE BEST STORIES

Breakout at StalingradSOMETIMES the story behind the publication of a novel can be even more extraordinary than the novel itself. This is certainly the case with Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad (Apollo), which is now published in English for the first time after being “lost” for 70 years. This is the original version of Gerlach’s 1957 classic of post-war literature, The Forsaken Army, an epic, fictionalised account of the battle of Stalingrad from the invading Germans’ point of view.

The 30-year-old Gerlach, an academic, was drafted as a reservist into the Wehrmacht in 1939, and in November 1942 was one of the 300 000 troops trapped by the Red Army outside Stalingrad. When the Germans surrendered in February 1943, only 91 000 remained. Gerlach, severely wounded, was one of them.

As a Soviet prisoner, he worked on an anti-Nazi newspaper, Free Germany. For this he was tried in absentia by the Nazis who sentenced him to death. He also worked on his novel, convinced the Soviets would allow its publication. They confiscated it instead. In 1950, the Soviets offered Gerlach his freedom – if he spied for them. He refused, but then changed his mind when he realised that failing to cooperate would result in a 25-year prison sentence. He was put on a train to Berlin where he was to meet his East German spymasters.

Fortunately, his train arrived hours early. The platform was empty. Gerlich hopped off and caught a local train to the western sector. In West Germany, he returned to teaching – and started afresh with his novel, taking a course in hypnosis to recall the contents of his confiscated manuscript. That 600-page manuscript, untouched for decades, was found in a Moscow archive in 2012 by Carsten Gansel, a researcher working on an unrelated project.

According to the London Sunday Times the differences between the two versions are instructive. “Where The Forsaken Army is almost thematically analytical, emphasising the deliberate betrayal of the army by Hitler and the Nazi leadership, the original Breakout at Stalingrad is more obviously built of viscerally immediate experiences.”

CRIMES & MISDEMEANOURS

Farewell, then, to Sue Grafton, author of the alphabetically titled detective series that began in 1982 with A Is for Alibi who passed away last month at 77.

The series’ female protagonist was introduced thus: “My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind.”

The latest in the series, Y Is For Yesterday (Mantle) was published in August last year. At the time of her death, Grafton had been battling with a final, Z Is for Zero.

Grafton’s daughter, Jamie Clark, has said that it would not be completed. Her mother, she wrote on the author’s website, “would never allow a ghost writer to write in her name. Because of all of those things, and out of the deep abiding love and respect for our dear sweet Sue, as far as we in the family are concerned, the alphabet now ends at Y.”

EVEN IN WESTERN EUROPE? YES, EVEN IN WESTERN EUROPE. . .

Fire and FuryDid you know Donald Trump pronounced Xi Jinping’s name as “Ex-ee”, and had to be reprogrammed to think of the Chinese president as a woman so that he would be able to pronounce “She” when they met? True story, apparently.

By now, most of us are familiar with the contents of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Little, Brown); its revelations about the childlike nonentity now sometimes resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that made pre-publication headlines are now old news.

Reviews have been mixed. Most of his detractors have accused Wolff of unethical journalism. All those off-the-record comments from Steve Bannon, the most indiscreet of the author’s informants, now on-the-record? As critic Peter Conrad put it in The Observer, Wolff’s observation that Trump is “a symbol of the media’s self-loathing” is an indictment that applies to Wolff in particular.

Conrad does have a particularly elegant turn of phrase. “Fire and Fury,” he writes, “also gives the lowdown on the lacquered trompe-l’oeil that is Trump’s hairdo, with those tinted tendrils combed over a cranium that is totally bald and resonantly empty. But beyond such acts of exposure, what makes the book significant is its sly, hilarious portrait of a hollow man, into the black hole of whose needy, greedy ego the whole world has virtually vanished…”

Fire and the Fury has however found favour in North Korea. According to the country’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper, run by the ruling Workers’ Party, “The anti-Trump book is sweeping all over the world so Trump is being massively humiliated world-wide… Voices calling for the impeachment of Trump are on the rise not only in the United States but also abroad. Since the book was published, it has triggered a debate on whether Trump is qualified to be president, even in Western Europe.”


THE BOTTOM LINE

“Factory manufacture robs us of a special something: contemplation.” – Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts by Alexander Langlands (WW Norton & Company)

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“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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