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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Beautifully written and thoroughly enjoyable – Margaret von Klemperer reviews Maya Fowler’s Patagonia

Published in the Witness: 10/09/2018

On the title page of Patagonia the novel is subtitled “A Fugue”, a piece of music introduced by one voice or instrument and taken up by others, and that is exactly how Maya Fowler’s excellent tale is structured.

Tertius de Klerk is an incompetent university lecturer whose career has stalled, and whose marriage to the feisty Alta seems to be zooming towards the rocks. Whatever he tries to do is doomed as, hapless and inarticulate, he totters from one minor disaster to another – until the day he gets drunk and falls into bed with a student.

The ensuing catastrophe is bigger than anything he could have imagined.

Tertius is not the quickest thinker you will ever meet in fiction, but in a panic he decides to head for Patagonia, the remote South American region where various Boers headed after the Anglo-Boer war, hankering for wide open spaces and no British bullies. He has some remote, unknown relatives there, and maybe they will help him – or at least shelter him.

The next character we meet, back in the early 19th Century, is Basjan, Tertius’s great-grandfather, also escaping to Patagonia, though not for quite the same reasons as the other travellers he is with: he has plenty to hide.

And then we encounter the other two voices in this fugue -– Tertius’s wife Alta who has no intention of letting her errant husband off lightly and is in hot pursuit of him and Salome, tough, desperate and pregnant who is hunting down Basjan. The men are running away while the women are on a quest. Perhaps Patagonia stands as a metaphor, for an escape on the one hand, a hunt on the other.

But that makes the novel sound altogether too serious.

Fowler writes beautifully – her descriptions of the four journeys and the empty aridity of the southern tip of South America are riveting, while Tertius’s encounter with his cousin Alejo who lives on a remote dilapidated farm and speaks a deliciously fractured language is hilarious.

There are serious themes in Patagonia that will stay with the reader, leaving things to ponder after the book is closed, but the rake’s progress of the four main characters on their disparate journeys is hugely entertaining. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

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Humour, history and tragedy intertwine in Karin Brynard’s complex and captivating Homeland, writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Witness: 27/08/2018

Karin Brynard (translated by Linde Dietrich)
Penguin Books

ORIGINALLY published in Afrikaans as Tuisland, Homeland comes with a weight of expectation. Karin Brynard’s previous crime novels (Weeping Waters and Our Fathers) were superb and her main character, Captain Albertus Beeslaar, is an endearing if grumpy hero.

At the opening of Homeland, Beeslaar has made the momentous decision to quit the police, move back to Johannesburg to be with Gerda and his infant daughter and take a better paid job with a security company. But his boss General Mogale, who is even grumpier than Beeslaar, has one final job for him in the Kalahari: allegations of police brutality are being made after an elder in the San community was found dead shortly after his release from custody, and there is about to be a big political rally in the area. Things are sensitive and need speedy handling, not least to silence the whispers of witchcraft that are spreading.

As always with Brynard, there are other strands to the story. In a smart lodge, one of the staff sees a German tourist interfering with a small, silent local child, and does the only thing she can think of to stop him – she hits him, hard. Afraid he is dead, she takes the child and goes on the run. And then the German’s body goes missing. Mogale dispatches Colonel Koeskoes Mentoor to deal with that case.

Next, the policeman Beeslaar is investigating for brutality gets himself killed. Mentoor, who had what she hoped was a secret affair with the dead man, is convinced she knows the identity of the killer, but Beeslaar is less sure. Theirs is not going to be a relationship made in heaven and Mentoor has no inhibitions about pulling rank and doesn’t take well to criticism.

Brynard is skilled at putting her finger on issues of importance. Here she plunges the reader into matters of race, land, history, crooked policemen and the curious anomaly that is the town of Orania. She highlights the divisions within the San community over land – which groups want it for what reasons – and their culture and its appropriation by both locals and foreigners for profit which seems unlikely to filter back to the community.

There is humour, tragedy and action in this complex and lengthy novel. Characters are properly fleshed out, and engage the readers’ sympathies, even when we can see their flaws. Brynard once again proves that her contribution to South African writing is the thinking person’s crime novel. Long may she continue to provide it.

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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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