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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

There is a sadness in the story, but also humour – Margaret von Klemperer reviews The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head

Published in the Witness (25/06/2018)

Set in the then all-white suburb of Hillbrow in 1967, John Hunt’s novel is a moving evocation of a difficult and different childhood. While the setting might seem strange to those who know Hillbrow in its current manifestation, Hunt’s fine descriptive writing makes it an important and evocative backdrop to the story. But centre stage is occupied by 11 year old Phen.

His real name is Stephen, but he is a stutterer who has more trouble with the letter “S” than any other, so Phen at least offers him a chance to articulate his name. Teased at school by peers and teachers alike, his life is tough. And to compound his problems, his father is dying, slowly and painfully.

His one solace is to get Phen to read to him after school, taking the child into the worlds of Hemingway, Truman Capote and John le Carré, adding colour to the Cold War fantasy games Phen plays in the park while walking his dog. But eventually even his father deserts him in favour of a new-fangled reel to reel tape-deck and non-stuttering audio books.

Feeling sad and supplanted, he befriends a hobo in the park, who tells Phen his name is Heb Thirteen Two, something Phen will eventually decode with surprising consequences which at one point take the reader into what feels like fantasy. But that’s not what it is.

Writing from the standpoint of a child is extraordinarily difficult to do successfully. Hunt makes Phen completely believable, neither too cute nor improbably knowing, as he deals with the tragedy of his father’s impending death and observes with the clear eye of pre-adolescence the behaviour of the adults who surround him. There is sadness in the story, but also humour – Phen’s turn as a tree in the class production of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream is hilarious.

But despite his problems with speech, Phen’s reading has taught him the power of words and given him a love of books. And once he has worked out what Heb Thirteen Two’s name might mean, a new dimension of comfort is added to his life, though Hunt avoids the obvious and the cliched. The ending of the book is deeply moving but the reader can be filled with hope for Phen’s future.

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Not always a comfortable read, but a fascinating exploration of two people – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives

Published in the Witness: 23 May 2018

In the Garden of the Fugitives
Ceridwen Dovey

CERIDWEN Dovey was born in South Africa, raised in South Africa and Australia, studied in America and now lives in Australia. The relevance of all this is that one of the main characters in this fascinating and complex novel follows the same path. So the author, as she traces Vita’s emotional difficulties with this inheritance, knows of what she writes.

Dovey has chosen to hark back to one of the earliest novel forms in the Western canon – an epistolary story, one written in the form of letters, which are now updated to emails.

The two correspondents are Vita, who lives in the Australian town of Mudgee, and Royce, who during Vita’s years studying in America was a Svengali-like figure who gave her a scholarship from his wealthy foundation but expected favours in return. He is now dying and, in opening the correspondence, proclaims a “craven need for absolution” both from Vita and from his dead love, Kitty Lushington, in whose name he set up the foundation.

One of the questions in any first-person novel – and this one has two first persons – is how far can you trust the narrator? As Royce and Vita set out their lives both before and after their estrangement, they often seem to be writing past each other rather than to each other. It is a clever way of building up their history, allowing the observer (the reader) to guess at hidden things, referred to obliquely.

Royce’s first love, long before he met Vita, was Kitty, an archaeologist working in the ruins of Pompeii. She was in love with her older Italian mentor, and tolerated and used the dog-like devotion of Royce. But we know from an early stage in the book that Kitty died young, though only at the end do we almost discover how.
Vita studied anthropology and film making in America. After graduating, she returned to the South Africa of her childhood, where she faced the rootlessness of the perpetual exile along with the white liberal guilt and angst that stifled her creativity to a crippling extent. Dovey cleverly juxtaposes these anxieties with those of the archaeologists who are trying to recreate not just a long vanished civilisation but the agony of its death throes.

In the Garden of the Fugitives is not always a comfortable read, but it is a fascinating exploration of two people, neither wholly likeable but both deserving of some of our sympathy, as they reveal themselves not just to each other but to themselves. Dovey deserves the plaudits she has received as an up and coming force in fiction.

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Oprah’s Book Club and the Wall Street Journal give Sally Andrew’s Karoo novel the thumbs up

Sally Andrew

Recipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria MysteryRecipes for Love and Murder: A Tannie Maria Mystery by Sally Andrew – one of Umuzi’s biggest books of 2015 – got two very special stamps of approval over the festive season.

Oprah’s Book Club, which is renowned for its recommendations and sales-driving power, included the Karoo novel on her list of “16 Books To Start 2016 Right”. In the short review, written by Leigh Haber for O, the Oprah Magazine, the Tannie Maria mystery is praised for being entrancing, comforting and delectable.

Read the review:

If you, too, were entranced by Precious Ramotswe, the Botswanan protagonist of Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling sleuth series, get ready for Tannie Maria van Harten. In Recipes for Love and Murder, the delectable debut novel by South African Sally Andrews, Tannie Maria – like Precious – has a heart made of marshmallow and a nose for crime solving. But the most powerful weapons in Tannie Maria’s arsenal may be her delicately flavored curries, her homemade apricot jams, and her perfect buttermilk chocolate cake, which she uses to disarm friend and foe alike. Mouth-watering descriptions of food and landscapes delivered in an Afrikaans patois produce a distinctly new kind of tea cozy, one just right for curling up on a cold winter afternoon while daydreaming about the heat of the African sun.

The Wall Street Journal chose Recipes for Love and Murder as one of the “Best Mystery” books of 2015, including it in their top 10 in that category:


In a year with several exciting first novels, South African author Sally Andrew pretty much takes the crown with her appealing debut. The middle-aged Tannie (“Auntie”) Maria, a half-Afrikaans, half-English widow writing an advice and cooking column for the rural Klein Karoo Gazette, is the book’s delightful narrator. Tannie regards food as “medicine for the body and heart,” but it can no longer help one of her readers, an abused wife found murdered in her home. With the help of a young reporter colleague, Tannie Maria hunts the ingredients that went into this hometown tragedy. The exotic locale, the lovely patois and the heroine’s unique sensibility make Ms. Andrew’s “Recipes” a blue-ribbon winner.

About the book

This delightful book, the first in a planned series, introduces readers to Tannie Maria: 50-something, short and soft (perhaps a bit too soft in the wrong places) with brown curls and untidy Afrikaans. She is also the agony aunt for the local paper, the Klein Karoo Gazette. One day, her life takes a sinister turn when a woman in the area is murdered and she becomes entangled in the investigation … to the intense irritation of a handsome local policeman.

But what else will this amateur detective uncover in a small town marinated in secrets?

Warm, poignant and entertaining, Andrew’s delightful hero blends together intrigue, romance and cooking in this irresistible new mystery, complete with a few mouthwatering recipes.

Read more about this fantastic novel:


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16 Days of Activism and South African Contemporary Fiction

Glowfly DanceWhat About MeeraMy Children Have FacesBirdseyeSister Moon

By Jennifer Crocker

Every year from 25 November, for 16 days, South Africa highlights activism against gender violence, and every year comments are made in the media about how this campaign does not make any real difference to those who have the very fabric of their lives torn apart by domestic violence, because we are told that we have more to fear from those we know than from strangers – a sober thought indeed.

In addition to using just 16 days to highlight this scourge, there are other ways in which people are creating awareness of the fragility of many people’s lives as a result of domestic violence. One is through literature, music, theatre and the arts. From time immemorial authors, philosophers and commentators have written about the issues around them, often weaving entertainment with harsh realities into what become cautionary tales. For many of us, the messages that resonate most are those conveyed through stories.

The South African publishing industry appears to be on the cusp of taking the publishing world by storm, with publishers pushing the boundaries and bravely bringing books to the reading market that stir the conscience.

A number of novels have been published that tackle the issue of domestic violence and abuse – bearing in mind that abuse is not always only physical, it also does not only affect women (although women are most often its victims), and almost universally it causes a sense of shame.

When novelists bring these stories out into the scrutiny of the light, and allow themselves the freedom of created characters to portray the horrors that are perpetuated on a daily basis, not just for 16 days of a year, we are drawn into stories that are as captivating as they are instructive. Discussions that follow from the reading of these books often allow those who have suffered – or continue to suffer – from abuse to share their experiences in a safe place for the first time.

Glowfly DanceGlowfly Dance by Jade Gibson (Umuzi, 2015) is one such book. Gibson begins the novel by setting up a perfect storm, and introducing the destruction of the life of a young girl, Mai, the voice through which the story is told. Mai lives with her mother and sister Amy. She is a happy little girl. She doesn’t know who her father is, but she has her mother and her quirky grandfather. The family is not rich in monetary terms, but they have flowers and games and love. When her mother meets Rashid, this all changes; Rashid, with his red car, is an abuser of children and women. Through the beauty of the writing Gibson shows us how a happy – if unusual – family is decimated by one man’s cruelty. How cunning and coercion can make you flee your happy place and put you on the bottom rung of society. It’s a brilliant and brave book, and carries across the message that violence in a family does only one thing: it destroys hope. And hope, once broken, is lost. Rashid is one of those men we will remember long after we have put down Gibson’s book; he’ll remain in our memories as the man who stole innocence in a whirlwind of cruelty and pain.

What About MeeraWhat About Meera (Umuzi, 2015) tells the story of a young woman who is happy in her life in rural KwaZulu-Natal, until she is forced to marry a man of status, a doctor. Her loveless marriage becomes a thing of entrapment and horror. Meera flees her life with him, but is judged and becomes a shame to her family. Events spiral out of control when she travels to Dublin and does a stupid and dangerous thing from a place of desperation. The book is essentially about the loss of innocence through neglect and cruelty. In a case of life imitating art, author ZP Dala was attacked after a literary festival in Durban, apparently by a group of men who took offence to her support of Salman Rushdie, and hit her in the face with a brick. One is tempted to think that the real world may intersect with the imagined world, for violence was done to a novelist by those wielding power. And abuse is about violence and exerting power over others. What About Meera also addresses the fact that the survivors of domestic abuse are often also victims of abuse within the wider family unit, either wittingly, to keep up appearances, or unwittingly, because they refuse to see what is happening.

My Children Have FacesIn Carol Campbell’s book My Children Have Faces (Umuzi , 2013), we are taken to the edges of suffering in the Karoo, where a family has fled to escape the brutality of Miskiet, a murderer and a rapist who lives in the small town they have left. When Muis’s husband takes his ragged family back to the town, Miskiet is waiting for them. He sees Muis as a “dried out whore” but he has not forgotten her. While he still has the power to strike fear into her, he does not have enough power to stop her from doing the one thing she wants to do: get identity documents for her children so that they have a chance in life. It’s a wonderfully crafted tale spun from a composite group of people the author came to know in a little Karoo town. Muis has power, but it comes at great cost. It is price she is prepared to pay, but one that no person should be asked to pay.

BirdseyeSister MoonMáire Fisher broke our hearts in her novel Birdseye (Umuzi, 2014), where violence perpetuated against little boys shows the ugly face of almost random violence, while in Kirsten Miller’s Sister Moon (Umuzi, 2104) the reader is confronted by familial complicity where the sexual abuse of a young girl is ignored because of financial dependency on the perpetrator. The shockwaves of the abuse reverberate through the family for decades.
Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” It has a ring of truth to it, because heaven knows we need as many ways as possible to address the horrible truth that lies behind violence and abuse. And not just for 16 days, but every day. There is a reason that text in books is always referred to in the present tense: it exists as a reality when a book is both closed and open. By opening up the reality of abuse and exposing it through literature, another arrow is added to the quiver exposing it in all its horror. Thank goodness we have authors who do that for us.

The 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign runs from 25 November to 10 December 2106.

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We Tell Stories About Ourselves That We Can Live With – Bridget Pitt Chats to Andrea van Wyk (Podcast)

Notes From the Lost Property DepartmentBridget Pitt recently spoke to Andrea van Wyk about her new book, Notes From the Lost Property Department. She said it is a book about memory, injury and rediscovery of self. It’s also a book about forgiveness, particularly between mother and daughter.

Notes From the Lost Property Department deals with the onslaught of dementia and hidden family secrets. In her research, Pitt found that “every brain injury is very individual”. In the book, she reflects on the complicated relationship between a mother and a daughter and “how we construct ourselves for the other person”.

“You’re always in a way telling stories about yourself to each other that you can live with,” Pitt said, adding that this is particularly telling when you’re trying to protect yourself and each other from a devastating secret.

Listen to the podcast:

Read Van Wyk’s review of Notes From the Lost Property Department:

Notes from the Lost Property Department is a funny and quirky story about family, but also a tender and absorbing look at brain injury. It’s an examination of identity, of what makes a person what she is, and about her place in the world.

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George RR Martin Thinks You Should Read Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersLauren Beukes Broken Monsters has been reviewed by none other than George RR Martin, superstar author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series that spawned Game of Thrones, one of the most popular television programmes ever created.

Martin included Beukes’ latest book on his list of nine “recent science fiction and fantasy recommendations”.

Beukes’ tweeted her elation:


* * * * *

Read what Martin had to say about Broken Monsters:

Martin’s Verdict: “Set amidst the urban decay of contemporary Detroit, this one has a vivid sense of place and a colorful and interesting cast of characters, but it gets very strange at the end, where the Lovecraftian elements come to the fore… I found it an engrossing read all the same, and I will be looking forward to whatever Lauren Beukes does next. She’s a major, major talent.”

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John Maytham: Beverly Rycroft's A Slim, Green Silence is Written With a Poet's Sensibility

A Slim, Green SilenceCapeTalk’s John Maytham recently reviewed A Slim, Green Silence – the debut novel by award-winning poet Beverly Rycroft – calling it a “delicious” book.

Rycroft captures and describes the small Eastern Cape town of Scheeperstown “beautifully”, says Maytham, and transports the reader to the rural area in question. He gives a breakdown of the story and says, in closing:

“It’s written with a poet’s sensibility, and it’s just a joy to read.”

Maytham’s discussion of A Slim, Green Silence starts at 3:10. Listen to the podcast:


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Art-Movie-Book on The Space Between the Space Between by John Hunt: Read This Book!

The Space Between the Space BetweenThe Space Between the Space Between by John Hunt was launched in Johannesburg recently at the Circa Gallery in Rosebank. Art-Movie-Book attended the affair and took some magnificent photos of the author and guests and has offered a raving review of the novel.

“I want to stand on the rooftops and shout from the top of my lungs: READ THIS BOOK SOUTH AFRICA!!! It is clever, funny and cool; everything a brilliant piece of fiction should be! But more than that, it is the beginning of a roadmap to a better South Africa,” the reviewer writes on their site.

Visit Art-Movie-Book to view the images:



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The Guardian Sums up Critical Reception to Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius by John Carlin

Chase Your ShadowThe Guardian has done a round-up of the critical reception to John Carlin’s latest book, Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius.

The British investigative journalist spent months working behind the scenes of the Oscar Pistorius trial to find the story behind the story. What was Pistorius’ intention that night when he pulled the trigger and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, through the bathroom door?

The Guardian has aggregated reviews by Matthew Syed for the UK Times, Justice Malala for The Sunday Times and Harriet Alexander for the Daily Telegraph.

Read the article:

Justice Malala pointed out in the Sunday Times that the author ‘is a highly respected former foreign correspondent in South Africa, who has already written the book that became the 2009 film Invictus”. His book is “unavoidably dull” when it recounts the trial day by day, but “Where the court reporting does come alive is when Pistorius takes the stand and is subjected to cross-examination. Here, it reads like a taut courtroom drama.”

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French Reviews of Killer Country by Mike Nicol (They Like It a Lot!)

PaybackKiller CountryBlack Heart

Killer Country, the second book in Mike Nicol‘s Revenge Trilogy, was published in French in September 2014 by Ombres Noires, translated by Estelle Roudet. It was very well received, with positive reviews in respected publications.


Encore du Noir, a blog dedicated to crime fiction, says that this thriller comes highly recommended, and notes that they really like the brutal way in which Nicol paints the realities of South Africa – a country where everybody pretends to have left the past behind.

Grab your French lover and have him/her read this article for you, or, if you must, do a quick Google translate to get the gist of it:

Deuxième volet de la trilogie annoncée par l’auteur, Killer Country emmène donc dorénavant le lecteur en terrain connu[1] après La dette. Et les héros, Pylon et Mace, ancien combattants de la Cause chargés des basses œuvres et trafiquants d’armes reconvertis dans la sécurité pour touristes aisés et hommes d’affaires, tout comme leur ennemie jurée Sheemina February, qui a eu le malheur de passer entre leurs mains du temps où ils combattaient dans la clandestinité, sont maintenant bien campés.

Quatre Sans Quatres, a literary online magazine, praises Nicol’s brutal honesty about the flaws of his country, noting that his raw, direct approach and rich language makes this a powerful novel. “The story is complex, passionate, violent, of course, but without ever being over the top,” writes the French Nicol enthusiast.

“A thriller jam-packed with good qualities and music, with everything you need to delight fans of the genre and seduce those looking for action and a change of scenery.”

If you can, read the article (or simply scroll down and listen to some of the tracks Nicol used in the book):

L’histoire est multiple, passionnante, violente, évidemment, mais sans en faire trop. Mike Nicol relate, il n’amplifie pas à plaisir. L’intrigue, rudement bien menée, pleine de fausses pistes, d’hypocrisie, de jeux dangereux garde toute sa vitalité et son suspense jusqu’à la dernière page d’un roman très bien traduit.

Un thriller bourré de qualités et de musique avec tout ce qu’il faut pour ravir les amateurs du genre et séduire ceux qui cherchent de l’action et du dépaysement.

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