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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Rewriting history: Tinyiko Maluleke reviews Robert Harris’s Munich

Published in the Sunday Times

There’s no changing the fact of World War 2, but Robert Harris gives us an intriguing reinterpretation, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.

Munich
Robert Harris, Hutchinson, R295
*****

“Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination … re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture.”
 
 
For three decades, it seems that Robert Harris has been harbouring a fascination with the historical Munich Agreement of September 30 1938 – some would say an obsession. In our telephonic interview, Harris chuckled when I put this to him, but his response was measured. “I may not have felt it with the same intensity throughout that period, but I have been interested in this subject for a long time.”

The backstory is the beginnings of World War 2. After annexing Austria, Hitler demanded parts of Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement was signed to facilitate this. After Hitler received his piece of Czechoslovakia, Neville Chamberlain (UK) and Édouard Daladier (France) hoped a catastrophic war had been averted. However, a year later, Hitler invaded Poland and plunged the world into war.

With Munich, Harris enters the fray from the unconventional angle of fiction. “Fiction allowed me to deploy my tools of imagination. It offered me the possibility of re-inserting the story of Munich into popular culture,” he says.

There are real and fictional characters, but it is the latter who provide the clearest lens through which we can see “what really happened”. Two fictional characters in their late 20s — Hugh Legat, one of Chamberlain’s private secretaries, and Paul Hartmann, a German diplomat – are the chief literary poles around which the narrative revolves. Through Legat and Hartmann, Harris guides the reader into the inner circle. Through their observations, as well as their unlimited access to the German Führer and the British prime minister, the reader sees, hears, tastes, smells and feels the looming war.

Given their pivotal role in the narrative, were Legat and Hartmann entirely fictional? “Strictly speaking, yes, they are. But there were enough real people like them in the late 1930s, aspects of whose biographies I used to construct these two and other characters.”

Harris’s refined ability to reconstruct setting, to recreate a sense of place and time, and his knack for the creation of believable characters, enable him to tease fiction out of history. In Munich, fiction dances with non-fiction, sucking the reader deeper into a breathtaking literary mirage.

The Hitler of Harris’s novel is neither pleased with himself nor sure of himself, before and after signing the Munich Agreement. He feels outplayed, outmanoeuvred and belittled by Chamberlain. Similarly, Harris’s Chamberlain is imbued with more grace, depth and integrity than many history books suggest. Only time will tell if Harris has done enough to rid him of the Pontius Pilate-like role assigned to him in the popular imagination.

I ask Harris what he wants his readers to feel or know after they have read the book. After speaking briefly about the precariousness of facile notions about the “politics of appeasement”, he said: “Above all else, I would like my readers to feel entertained.”

Few writers can blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction as masterfully and as delightfully as Harris does in Munich. The reader must be warned: this book will be hard to put down. – @ProfTinyiko

Munich

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Book Bites: 22 October

Published in the Sunday Times

A Gap in the HedgeA Gap in the Hedge
Johan Vlok Louw, Umuzi, R230
***
Amnesia is a strange thing. How do you remember how to drive a car or make a casserole but you can’t remember what your own name is? In this novel it sometimes feels as if Johan Vlok Louw is leading us up the garden path as Karl gets closer to knowing who he is. The only clues to guide him are an old grey Ford, and a taste for Coke, whisky and Paul Revere cigarettes. As he proceeds, step by step, through his sleazy, bewildering world, you are either drawn along through curiosity or, if you are less indulgent, you leave him to his own devices. – Yvonne Fontyn

The Floating Theatre
The Floating Theatre
Martha Conway, Zaffre Publishing, R295
*****
When the steamer she is travelling on sinks, May Bedloe finds herself, for the first time, in charge of her own destiny. Joining a travelling theatre on the Ohio river, the divides between North and South and between freedom and slavery become apparent and divisive and May is drawn against her will into a dangerous war. She begins to realise that everyone makes a choice and those choices come with costs that can be hard to bear. The book starts off a little slowly, but May is captivating as she stumbles through her discovery of the complexities of life. A beautiful coming-of-age novel. – Jem Glendinning @jemathome

Did You See Melody?
Did You See Melody?
Sophie Hannah, Hodder & Stoughton, R275
*****
Hannah easily transports you to sunny Arizona, to the Swallowtail – a sprawling resort spa with luxury three-bedroomed casitas surrounded by swaying cacti, sparkling pools and seemingly super-friendly staff. There’s an underlying atmosphere of menace and a group of dubious folks (residents, staff, police, and a talkshow host) – all with some sort of agenda. One of the twists is that there is no murder per se, rather a supposedly murdered girl named Melody who has been spotted by the unwitting heroine, Cara Burrows. Burrows herself has things to resolve as she has just run away from her husband and two kids in the UK. This novel works best as a binge read – Hannah is such an accomplished storyteller that solving the mystery of Melody becomes urgent. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt
 

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On evil’s own trail: Michele Magwood reviews Retribution Road

Published in the Sunday Times

Retribution RoadRetribution Road
Antonin Varenne, MacLehose Press
****

Don’t be put off by the cowboy on the cover and the words “adventure story”. This is no cartoon Wild West tale, although guns are slung and whisky is drunk in quantity. Antonin Varenne is a French author who has won several prestigious awards in France for his noir novels. Here he travels back to the 19th century, where we meet the British mercenary Arthur Bowman, one of the East India Company’s private army of some 300 000 soldiers. He’s a vicious killer and a charismatic leader, but a mission in Burma ends up with his company captured and tortured.

Bowman barely survives and returns to the slums of London where he sinks into alcohol and opium addiction. When a corpse turns up bearing the same markings of torture that he suffered in Burma, he sets off to hunt the killer, convinced it is one of his men.

Bowman trails the man to America and follows his tracks across the vast young country. It is a pacy, vivid tale that moves at rapid speed for 500 pages and twists and turns like a thriller. Varenne breathes extraordinary life into history, from the junks on a Burmese river, to the Great Stink of London when the Thames dried up, to the gold mines of Colorado and virgin ranches of the Sierra Nevada. He captures the creak and suffocation of stagecoaches, the terror of working women protesters shot in New York, the tedium of sea crossings and the blinding vistas of the New World.

It is an intriguing blend of quest tale, detective story, Western and war drama, with an unusual love interest stirred in – but underneath it all are serious questions about the nature of courage and honour, and whether an evil man can ever be redeemed. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

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Jacket Notes: Leopold Scholtz on why he had to tell the stories of the Charlie Squadron in Ratels on the Lomba

Published in the Sunday Times

Ratels on the LombaRatels on the Lomba
Leopold Scholtz Jonathan Ball Publishers

In certain respects, the Border War has been to many South Africans an embarrassing conflict that is best ignored. But, of course, the war is part of our history and will not simply fade away. At the end of 1987, a group of national servicemen who fought in Operation Moduler – the SADF’s campaign in southeastern Angola to aid UNITA against an Angolan offensive – were demobilised. This happened after three months in which boredom alternated with tension, fear of death and blood.

These men were let go with almost no psychological treatment. In addition, it happened after they were involved in the biggest conventional pitched battles on the African continent after the demise of the German Afrika Korps in May 1943, in which they all but obliterated an entire Angolan brigade.

They were told not to talk about what they had experienced. Besides, how do you explain the extreme violence which has scarred your psyche for life?

Having been cut off for decades after demobilisation, the men of one such unit, Charlie Squadron of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, started making contact with each other again. Many of them had known alcohol and drugs intimately. Psychologically, many were shattered.

In 2014 they held a reunion in Bloemfontein. And out came tumbling all the stories, the hardship, the fear they shared. It was a weekend of catharsis.

There the idea started: What they went through should be documented for posterity. Some of the men had never even spoken to their wives and children about their war experiences.

One Monday in 2014, I received an e-mail from Captain (ret.) PJ Cloete, who had been the officer commanding Charlie Squadron. Would I be interested in writing a book about his unit?

I prevaricated at first. But the more I dug into the matter, the more the grassroots experiences of the 84 men in the unit fascinated me. Here you had a collection of young white men, mostly 19 years old, who had to grow up extremely fast to survive a situation where it is literally a question of kill or be killed.

But their experiences were, in effect, denied by society and criminalised. They had lost their voice. That was the purpose of my book – to give these men, now nearing their 50s, their voices back.

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Q&A with Jack Higgins

Published in the Sunday Times

The Midnight BellThe Midnight Bell
Jack Higgins, HarperCollins

Which book changed your life?
As a child, Oliver Twist and in my teens, The Great Gatsby made me think I had to be a writer.

What music helps you write?
All types of music.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
Exploring wrecks at depths in the Virgin Islands when researching U-boats.

Do you keep a diary?
No, but I do keep a day book which is different because it handles truth and can’t be escaped.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?
As a child, Errol Flynn. Saw his Robin Hood lately and it was still wonderful with Claude Rains as King John.

Which words do you most overuse?
Others would have to tell.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
The Harry Potter series.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
Quite a bit of what Winston Churchill wrote, covering the nature of war and the bravery of ordinary human beings.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?
Frederick Forsyth, Agatha Christie and Alistair MacLean, a genuine friend who gave me great encouragement.

Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?
No, I stop reading a book if it is boring the hell out of me!

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A copy of The Distant Summer, written by my eldest daughter, Sarah Patterson, when she was 15. A World War 2 story set in a village in England close to a Lancaster bomber station where a 16-year-old vicar’s daughter falls in love with a young rear gunner whose burned hands have ruined his future. A heartbreaking, wonderful book. You’ll cry.

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Harry Hole is back with more bleakness: William Saunderson-Meyer reviews the latest Jo Nesbo – The Thirst

Published in the Sunday Times

The ThirstThe Thirst
Jo Nesbo, Harvill Secker
*****

It’s been four years since we last saw Harry Hole, the conflicted but brilliant Oslo detective. Now he is back in harness, chasing a particularly vicious serial killer.

It’s not what Harry had wanted. He had found himself a comfortable new niche, imparting his wisdom to the next generation at the police academy. It was meant to be a restorative change of pace.

As the pressure had eased, so too had Harry’s nightmares. The night-time visits from the murder victims and their demonic killers were less frequent and intense.

The low-stress job was only part of the explanation. The main reason was Rakel, his new wife, and the unexpected blessing of a love he had never expected to find.

Then the killings had started, all women who were using a dating app. The public was terrified, as details of the killer’s gruesome methods leaked. The media was going berserk and the politically ambitious head of the Oslo police had to use a bit of professional blackmail to compel the reluctant Harry to join the investigation.

The Thirst is Nesbo at his bleakest best. The plot is tantalisingly intricate, the characters finely drawn.

Harry, as in the previous 10 novels in the series, is satisfyingly complex. Perhaps sometimes too complex for comfort, as when he reflects upon the different ways he has of awakening.

One is waking alone, which may be accompanied by a sense of freedom, or by an awareness of what everyone’s life really is: a journey to lonely death. Then there are variations of awakening with angst.

The rarest, for Harry, is awaking with a feeling of contentment. “This ridiculous happiness … was a new type of waking up for Harry Hole.”

Needless to say, the thirst threatens to destroy Harry’s new happiness forever. – William Saunderson-Meyer @TheJaundicedEye

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Builds like a Highveld storm: Shelagh Foster reviews Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg

Fiona Melrose populates the suburb with a diverse cast and shows the common thread between us, writes Shelagh Foster for the Sunday Times

JohannesburgJohannesburg
Fiona Melrose, Little Brown
****

In Midwinter, Fiona Melrose captured readers with her extraordinary talent for dialogue and her deep compassion for her characters. Reading Johannesburg, you realise how she does it. Johannesburg is set in one day, in one area of the city – Houghton. Gin – or Virginia – has arrived from New York to host an 80th birthday party for her mother Neve. They are both self-contained, tightly wound women who have never quite connected, and who can’t help hurting each other.

Mercy, Neve’s domestic worker, is a warm-hearted observer, keeper of peace and order in the Houghton home situated on the same street as the Nelson Mandela residence. Mercy will shortly be going back to her home for the December holidays and would prefer more time to attend to her own preparations.

Dudu works at a neighbouring house. She is tired. Tired of picking up after her careless employers, tired from caring for her homeless and hurt brother, September.

Peter hovers on the periphery, longing to connect with Gin, the woman who has always refused his love. Juno, Neve’s little dog, potters under feet and shrubbery, unwittingly awaiting its essential role in the unrolling drama. Other characters enter and leave, adding depth and colour. They are all entirely real.

The day is the day on which Mandela’s death is announced. Mourners gather at the residence while Gin, planning the perfect birthday dinner just down the road, fights her inner demons. She would rather be at home in her artist’s studio than here, in her mother’s house; she would rather be anywhere.

Gin is an easy-to-admire-from-a-distance woman. Not exactly likeable, but as Melrose peels back her layers, you can see both her strength and fragility, her need to hide her inner self.

While Gin is clearly the protagonist, the story truly belongs to September; an old man of 38 who has been bowed by a deformity and shattered by a crime of Marikana-esque proportions. His home is an abandoned garden; his bed, boxes and bags; his food brought to him by his beloved protector, Dudu; his last shreds of sanity held together by string, a protest placard and a determination to see wrong recognised and justice done.

At first glance, September is “other”, the smelly and annoying beggar at the intersection; but as Melrose sculpts his life you realise he is not other, he is a man, a brother and son, a being of broken dreams and promises – just like everyone else.

This is Melrose’s magic. She doesn’t enter her characters, she is them and they are her. She writes with a universal truth: that we are all one, that the only things that separate us are our fears and delusions.

It is no easy task to tell a story through so many different characters, each with their own perspective and voice. Melrose seems to do it with ease, making what could be a complicated and tricky read, a riveting page-turner.

Her beautiful language and extraordinary grasp of mood and pace allow the story to build like the approach of a Highveld storm, heavy with both promise and menace. – @ShelaghFoster1

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Book Bites: 1 October 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

King Kong  King Kong: Our Knot of Time and Music
Pat Williams, Portobello Books
****
Award-winning author Pat Williams documents the jazz opera King Kong. The musical is centred on heavyweight ’50s boxing champion Ezekiel Dlamini. Hailed as the unbeatable champ of those days, Dlamini was said to be dangerous, as William writes: “He would fight someone in the ring and then invite them to come outside and fight again on the street.” Fame turned to infamy when he was sentenced to 12 years in prison for killing his girlfriend. He later committed suicide, drowning himself in the prison dam. According to Williams it was thanks to King Kong that jazz legends like Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela found fame, and it was where Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu met and fell in love. Williams also describes the impact the opera had on her and on the show’s original cast. – Khanyi Ndabeni

The MayflyThe Mayfly
James Hazel, Bonnier Zaffre
***
A paint-by-numbers thriller that starts off with too much exposition but relaxes into a character-driven narrative. Protagonist Charlie Priest is large, handsome and clever, with more than the required number of flaws. Once a detective inspector, Priest left the police to start a legal firm for a handful of high-end corporate clients in London. As a result he is loathed by most of his former colleagues, one of whom happens to be his ex-wife. He suffers from bouts of dissociative disorder during which he cannot communicate, although it’s hard to see how his appalling social skills could get any worse. And then there’s his brother, a convicted serial killer with whom Priest plays Holmes-and-Watson observation games during visits to the psychiatric prison ward. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

A Jihad for LoveA Jihad For Love
Mohamed El Bachiri with David Van Reybrouck, Head of Zeus
****
“Life no longer tastes the same to me, but the setting sun is still glorious,” writes Bachiri after his wife, Loubna Lafquiri, was murdered on 22 March 2016 in a terrorist bombing in Brussels. Bachiri’s raw grief seeps through the pages of this tiny book that is part poetry, part memoir, and part tribute. This varied collection comes together as an overall plea to the world to cease reacting with hate and to fight for love. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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A crisis but cosy: Jennifer Platt reviews the new Marian Keyes The Break

Published in the Sunday Times

The BreakThe Break
Marian Keyes, Michael Joseph
****

Gemütlichkeit. It’s a German word that describes being in a state of absolute comfort. Where your entire being is wrapped in the softest blanket and the warmth is outside and inside your heart, there’s your family surrounding you and there’s laughter, tenderness and love. That’s what it’s like dipping into the new Marian Keyes. A familiar, hugging warmth.

This time, it’s not the beloved Walsh family of her first major hit novels. It’s another Irish family in Dublin – the O’Connells. Specifically Amy, whose husband of 17 years, Hugh, wants to take a six-month break from their marriage to go backpacking around Southeast Asia and “ride” anyone that he fancies.

Amy is devastated. Her safety net of her marriage is no longer there but she feels that he needs to go.

What we start realising is that both she and Hugh were not happy. He can’t get over the death of his father and Amy feels that she does everything for everyone else and neglects herself. And there’s also what she might have done a few months ago that could contribute to Hugh’s needing a break.

As per usual, there’s a serious subject wrapped up in plenty of wisecracks, family drama, sex and the Keyes twist – an emotional “ah-ha” moment. Another Keyes to treasure. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Book Bites: 24 September 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

Let Go My HandLet Go My Hand
Edward Docx
, Picador
****
Larry Lasker is dying. Louis, his youngest son, is taking him in a camper van on the kind of road trip they enjoyed as a young family. Except that this time, the destination is Switzerland, to Dignitas, to discuss ending Larry’s life. Lou’s two half-brothers join them, and together they rifle through the baggage of their collective past. It all sounds rather bleak, but in fact, while it’s poignant, the novel is often funny. It is thoughtful and inquisitive – how could it not be, in the shadow of death? – but it wears its philosophy lightly, with surprising and enjoyable detours through matters of love, duty, family and the big question, how to live and how to die. Perhaps as these men do, enjoying the simple pleasures of food and wine, music, connection and companionship – on their way to the inevitable end. – Kate Sidley @KateSidley

Operation RelentlessOperation Relentless
Damien Lewis, Quercus
****
Lewis’s latest book raises interesting questions about “The Merchant of Death” Viktor Bout, labelled as such due to his infamy as a global arms dealer. Was Bout simply a shrewd businessman who flew anything and everything, or was he indeed a Lord of War? And if so how did he obtain US government contracts to bring freight to Iraq? Lewis takes us on the mesmerising journey of Bout’s rise and fall – culminating in a 25-year sentence following a US Drug Enforcement Agency sting operation. Operation Relentless reads like a James Bond thriller yet it is also an intense look at one of the world’s most reviled personalities. – Guy Martin

Bad SeedsBad Seeds
Jassy Mackenzie, Umuzi
****
Fans of PI Jade de Jong will be delighted their kick-butt heroine is back. The security of a nuclear research centre in Joburg is under threat and Jade is called to investigate. But fate places her in the company of the No1 suspect. As the body count climbs, Jade finds herself running for her life alongside a potentially deadly criminal. Fans will adore Jade’s emotional arc along with the plot twists. But do not fear, crime fans, if you have not read earlier books in the series. Bad Seeds is a page-turner that can stand alone and be enjoyed by all who love thrillers. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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