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Thriller and crime fan Samantha Bartlett reviews two recent crime novels – one with a ghostly feel.

MurderMurder 101

Faye Kellerman

Harper Collins

ISBN: 9780062326355

Samantha Bartlett

Faye Kellerman has kept readers engaged with the life and crimes of Detective Peter Decker for 28 years in more than 20 books, each one a best-seller.

Now in his 60s, Decker has retired from the LAPD and moved to the police department of university town Greenbury in upstate New York, where he plans to spend his time breaking up drunken student brawls and rescuing cats from trees.

But the theft of Tiffany panels soon leads to two brutal murders and with a green partner with attitude problems and no other real detectives to back him up, Decker is forced to rope in his long-suffering wife Rina to help with the investigation.

Murder 101 will be satisfying for Decker fans, but not ideal to introduce his character and complex relationships to a first-time reader. If you’re keen to explore the series, start earlier and work your way towards this book – it’ll make a lot more sense that way.

Her Last Whisperwhisper

Karen Robards

Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN: 978-0-8041-7826-6

Samantha Bartlett

This is the third in the Dr Charlotte Stone series and this time she’s on the trail of the “Cinderella Killer”, a charming psychopath who kills young women and may have taken FBI agent Lena Kaminsky’s sister.

Stone has a very clinical outlook and is an expert in the psychology of serial killers, but at the same time she is a ghost whisperer and has a spirit love interest in Michael Garland – who may or may not himself be a serial killer.

While Robards has clearly developed a huge following for the Stone series, it’s difficult to reconcile a paranormal mystery with a serial killer plot line, and a “ghost lover” competing with a flesh and blood male and causing such emotional angst. It feels like there are two books fighting in one dust jacket and neither of them is winning. – Samantha Bartlett

QUICK REVIEW: Tokoloshe Song


Karina Szczurek reviews two recent books with alternate realities.

TokolosheTokoloshe Song

Andrew Salomon


ISBN: 9781415207017

REVIEWER: Karina Szczurek

Just when he thought that his life is going to be all peace and quiet after giving up a career as a lawyer to restore old boats, Richard is called in for an emergency at the shelter for mistreated tokoloshes where he volunteers. There he meets Lun. After a false start, they become friends and embark on a roller-coaster adventure which takes them across the country to Nieu Bethesda and back in search of the grain of truth at the heart of an ancient myth. They receive assistance from Emily and Sindiwe, midwives of a secret order. Hot on their heels are a ruthless drug lord and a world-class assassin.

I’m not a fantasy fan, but I have enjoyed some of Salomon’s award-winning short fiction. Tokoloshe Song is his debut novel for adults and is as delightful and entertaining as his stories.

StationElevenHCUS2Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel


ISBN: 9780385353304

REVIEWER: Karina Szczurek

Within a short period of time a lethal flu wipes out 99% of the world’s population. Civilisation as we know it grinds to an abrupt halt. Station Eleven tells the story of a handful of survivors of the mayhem which ensues. At its centre is the resourceful Kirsten of the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare.

Spanning a few decades before and after the collapse, Mandel draws a bleak picture of humanity, but the darkness is penetrated by flashes of light and goodwill. Creativity, art, self-expression pave the way to society’s precarious rebirth as the individual characters realise how strongly the drive to be remembered is anchored within them. A thrilling page-turner which is simultaneously though-provoking and entertaining, Station Eleven is being deservedly compared to the likes of Margaret Atwood. This is speculative fiction at its best.

REVIEW: Outline



Rachel Cusk

Faber & Faber

ISBN-13: 978-0374228347

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

There is little evidence of the narrator of this story of stories. The reader knows that she is a woman, a writer, a writing coach, divorced and that she has two sons. These things are revealed piecemeal and through conversations with the people she meets on a trip to Athens to teach a writing course.

That which is revealed about the writer are the things we glean about her from her choice of conversations she includes, but also through the very few questions her conversations partners throw her way sometimes. The book is a string of story pearls, each pearl added by the people she encounters, from her neighbour on the plane, to the friends she meets in Athens, to the people who attend her writing class.

In unlikely expositions, each tells her about him or herself in a series of conversations she has with them. Unlikely, because however open any person is to listening, it is doubtful that strangers will dissect happenings in their personal lives – not the great dramas, though there are plenty of those too, but the prosaic moments that lead to insight and revelation – to a complete stranger.

In order to enjoy the book, it is necessary to suspend one’s disbelief and, like the narrator, simply sit back and listen. If you can overcome what feels like a glitch in the writer’s expectation of the reader’s sense of what is possible, then this work will reward you on every page.

This is Cusk’s eighth novel. She has also written three non-fiction works, two of which – A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and aftermath – elicited such bitter criticism, it is quite astonishing that she finds the courage to continue.

To be clear: the criticism is not of her ability to write. Cusk is a very good writer. The criticism is against her particular form of memoir, which has been called exploitative and cold. I have no such criticism against her. I find her intellect too sharp, her questioning too pertinent and her expositions too layered to get sucked into conversations about “how dare she”. She must dare. Writers of her calibre must dare and dare and dare the reader to go towards conversations and concerns that are mostly hidden behind veils of righteousness. Cusk is fearless in this and, I am glad, uncowed by the outcries of her pseudo-liberal critics.

Her last book, Aftermath, chronicled her divorce, but it was not a dirty laundry book and exposed very little of the intimate machinations of one marriage and its ending. Instead, she brings a classical eye to modern conundrums around feminism and equality.

Here, although Outline is fiction, she gives voice to a fraction of the nuances, blemishes, quiet joys and teachings of human relations. Most of the people with whom the narrator comes into contact, end up speaking about their relationships – with marriage partners, children and extended family, sometimes with animals, learning or the arts – and they are not afraid to air their dirty laundry. Interestingly, while they voice their irritations with others, the main thrust of their disclosures are deeply personal and cast them at times in a somewhat queasy light, though one’s judgment is held in check because they are so recognisably, poignantly human in their fallibilities.

While telling a story in which a woman recounts life with an incorrigible dog – which she admits to ending up beating– the  woman says “I became aware of this feeling of having deserted my own life … and I was suddenly filled with the most extraordinary sense of existence as a secret pain, an inner torment it was impossible to share with others, who asked you to attend to them while remaining oblivious to what was inside you”.

These sorts of observations – that plunge into the darkest pools of the crisis of living amongst people in a state of impenetrable singularity – make this novel a rewarding and subtly cerebral pleasure.


Boekredakteurs kies hulle beste vir die jaar

afr fiksie collage

Ek’s baie agter met Afrikaanse fiksie hierdie jaar. Toe doen ek ‘n lui ding en vra al die Afrikaanse joernaliste wat met boeke te doen het om hulle aanbevelings te gee sodat ek my krismislysie kan klaar skryf.


afr fiksie collageHerman Lategan

Skrywerjoernalis van Seepunt en outeur van die bundel Binnekring Van Spookasems.

Kamphoer, deur Francois Smith, is een van die beste boeke wat ek in Afrikaans die afgelope paar jaar gelees het. Myns insiens is dit is selfs beter as van die top internasionale Engelse literêre werke wat ek die onlangse dekade onder oë gehad het.

Dis ‘n verskriklike storie oor verkragting, verlies, oorlog, en wat dit is om ʼn weerlose mens en brose vrou in hierdie ongure omstandighede te wees. Een wat deur geweld, emosioneel en fisies, platgeslaan is, maar weer kon opstaan.

Hoe kan ʼn man dit skryf? Hoe kan ʼn man homself in die hart van ʼn vrou plaas? Maklik (en dis ʼn woord wat hier met wrang ironie gebruik word). Francois Smith skryf (as ʼn Afrikaanse man) met ʼn soveel deernis en patos oor ʼn vrou wat barbaars behandel is deur mans, omdat sy eie vrou (in die regte lewe) vermoor is.

Ek wil nie veel meer vertel nie, gaan lees die boek self, maar dis ʼn werk wat nog oor ʼn honderd jaar by ons breekbare menswees, en ons eie sin vir wat reg en verkeer is gaan aanklank vind. Ja, die lewe is hel, en die letterkunde laat ons opkyk na die hemel. Soos hier.

Murray La Vita

Profiel- en rubriekskrywer van Die Burger

Die magnificent Kaar deur Marlene van Niekerk en Antjie Krog se Mede-Wete.

Naomi Meyer


Ek is inhoudsbestuurder van LitNet en hanteer ook dié webwerf se boekresensies. Dis heerlik en ook frustrerend – mens is geneig om die splinternuwe boeke na die resensente te jaag en dan eerste omtrent die boek te lees as wat mens noodwendig die kans kry om die boek self te lees.

Die twee Afrikaanse boeke van 2014 wat ek nog nie gelees het nie maar wat uitstaan as die moet-lees-boeke van die jaar is Kamphoer deur Francois Smith en Buys deur Willem Anker. Dié twee boeke lê reg vir my om oor die Kerstyd te lees. Die twee boeke wat ek egter wel vanjaar gelees het en ‘n groot indruk op my gemaak het was Winelands, wealth and work, saamgestel deur Kees van der Waal en Donker spoor deur Martin Steyn.

Winelands, wealth and work (UKZN Press): Dié (niefiksie) boek handel oor omstandighede in die wynlande, vertel die narratiewe van plaaswerker en boer, handel oor die tydsame geweld van eeuelange armoede, maar deel ook verhale van hoop. Hier is ‘n onderhoud met die samesteller: http://www.litnet.co.za/Article/onderhoud-winelands-wealth-and-work-transformations-in-the-dwars-river-valley-stellenbos

Donnay Torr

Redakteur van Taalgenoot en Hoezit!

Ek het twee Afrikaanse boeke wat vanjaar vir my uitstaan.

1000 Stories oor Johannesburg: ‘n Stadsroman deur Harry Kalmer (Queillerie)

Die boek is enduit boeiend, ‘n liefdesbrief aan Johannesburg wat ‘n mens inspireer om weg te sink in sy verhale en geskiedenis, goed of sleg. Kalmer se woorde leef, en die boek se trefkrag, vir my, lê veral in die emosies en gewaarwordinge wat die aanwakker. Dit is ‘n absolute gunsteling.

Binnekring van Spookasems: stories oor die lewe – Herman Lategan, saamgetel deur Amanda Botha (Jonathan Ball). Sjoe, ek het nie woorde vir hierdie boek nie. Ek ween elke keer as ek dit oopmaak om nog ‘n stukkie te lees – en nie noodwendig van hartseer nie.

Herman is ‘n fyn waarnemer van die menslike kondisie, ‘n kampioen vir die randfigure en sy gebruik en verstaan van Afrikaans is so mooi dat ek sommer depressief raak oor my eie vermoëns. Dit is ‘n wonderlike boek.

afr boeke collageNelia Richter

Assistentredakteur van Landbouweekblad, en boekeredakteur van Rapport in Weekliks

Roman: Kamphoer van Francois Smith. Dit was ook ’n groot jaar vir die Afrikaanse digkuns: Breyten Breytenbach se Vyf-en-veertig skemeraandsange en Antjie Krog se Mede-wete is van die sterkste digbundels wat verskyn het.

Valsrivier van Dominique Botha in 2013, een van die sterkste debuutromans van die afgelope dekade, het niemand kon dink nog ’n sterk debuut sou so gou daarop volg nie. Dit het wel gebeur: Francois Smith se Kamphoer. Dis ’n sensitiewe boek, oor ’n sensitiewe onderwerp. Smith se boek neem ’n geskiedkundige gegewe, Susan Nell se wrede verkragting in ’n konsentrasiekamp gedurende die Anglo-Boereoorlog. Die meesleurende beskrywing van die Vrystaatse landskap bevestig net dat van die land se grootste skrywers wortels hier het.

Melvyn Minnaar

Vryskutskrywer – kuns, kultuur en wyn

My stem is vir Nagmusiek van Stephanus Muller.

‘n Merkwaardige publikasie. Nie net ‘n huldeblyk aan Arnold van Wyk en sy musiek nie, ‘n ordening van sy oeuvre en beligting daarvan, maar ‘n tour de force wat betref metafiksie. Die problematiek van biografie driftig verbeel en verwoord, maar veral ‘n werk wat gelees wil word. Waarna jy smag om Van Wyk se musiek te hoor.

Helené Prinsloo

Adjunkredakteur: Books LIVE

Tussen boeke het ek heeltyd teruggekeer na die digbundel Solank verlange die sweep swaai deur Danie Marais. Iets omtrent die pretensielose eerlikheid en absolute toeganklikheid van sy verse het my keer op keer getref. Ook, diegene aan wie ek van dié verse voorgelê het, het saamgestem: Marais ontknoop ‘n spesifieke, onpeilbare emosie.

Ilse Salzwedel

Aanbieder en vervaardiger: Skrywers en Boeke by RSG

Woensdagaande tussen 20h00 en 21h00 op RSG, 100 tot 104 FM  – of luister aanlyn

Hoewel Valsrivier rondom die einde van 2013 gepubliseer is, het ek dit eers vroeg in 2014 gelees. Wat ʼn wonderlike boek! Ek het – soos alle boekwurms – ʼn “afsnypunt” in ʼn boek. Voor ek by daardie punt kom, moet ʼn skrywer my intrek, anders wil ek nie verder lees nie. So many books, so little time…) Gewoonlik is dit 10 bladsye, dalk 20 as ek goeie goed oor die boek gehoor/gelees het. Maar Dominique Botha het my aandag teen die helfte van bladsy een al ten volle gehad. Dit was ʼn kombinasie van die atmosfeer wat sy in die eerste paar paragrawe van kinderdialoog geskep het, en ragfyn woordspel, soos in die volgende sin: “Snags fladder die motte met bleek vlerkies teen die kartondeksel en lê stringe eiers soos snoere hekelkraletjies.” Soos ʼn honger leser het ek agter elke goedgekose woord aan gelees terwyl Valsrivier se mense soos familie geword het. Die boek verdien beslis elke prys wat dit verower het.

Dan wil ek ook noem dat ek vanjaar uitgeboul was met die gehalte van Afrikaanse misdaadfiksie. Afrikaanse uitgewers soos LAPA en die NB-groep kan hulself gerus op die skouer klop met die oes van skrywers wat in hierdie genres publiseer. Dis lankal nie net meer Deon Meyer en Chris Karsten wat naelbyt-speurverhale kan skryf nie. Ek kan ʼn hele paar boeke aanbeveel: Sondeboek (Irma Venter) Kopskoot (Rudi van Rensburg), Dubbelspel (Wilna Adriaanse), Die 13e kaart (Madeleine Rust), Donker Spoor (Martin Steyn) en Waar boosheid broei (Peet Venter). Al hierdie skrywers ken hul werk, en kan kers vashou by talle internasionale misdaadskrywers.

Elna van der Merwe

Herskrywer by Huisgenoot, YOU en DRUM en Huisgenoot-boekeredakteur

Dis swaar om net een boek te noem, want dit voel soos om een van jou kinders uit te sonder as jou witbroodjie. Maar laat dit dan Ester deur Kerneels Breytenbach wees. Dis ‘n lieflike liefdesverhaal vermeng met spioenasie, seks en stoomlokomotiewe. Dié Ester is so warm sy kan treinspore laat smelt…



REVIEW: Synapse



Antjie Krog

Human & Rousseau

ISBN: 9780798167901

Karina Magdalena Szczurek

Reading Antjie Krog’s latest volume of poetry translated into English, Synapse (Mede-wete in Afrikaans), I was faced with an old personal dilemma: How much hard work is too much in order to reach that moment where meaning and aesthetic pleasure reveal themselves to you as a poetry reader? I don’t have an adequate answer. Perhaps everyone’s threshold is different anyway. In the end all you have is your very individual frame of reference.

In any poetry volume you will find poems which will immediately speak to you. Others will require a specific key to unlock a feeling of appreciation. Rereading, research, or exploration of context will eventually reward your effort. Some poems will forever remain inaccessible no matter the amount of goodwill you put in. And then there will be those which will simply leave you cold. The poems in Synapse fit into all these categories.

The volume is divided into two parts: The Yard and Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing. The first part opens with a series of epigraphs which are followed by thirteen poems, all focused on the images of the yard and the farm. These I find the strongest and most captivating in the book. In the epigraphs we are introduced to spaces in which the land and its ownership take centre stage and gender roles are clearly defined. The poems speak of the death of a patriarch, familial roots which reach into a troubled past, grief, guilt, race relations, and the ancient questions of owning and belonging.

As the poem 11. fossilised tree trunk makes clear, everything is connected, embedded, echoed throughout history. And yet, everything changes: “after all the years we gurgle (the only outlasting ones) / burdened with the dying light and bloodsick with heritage / : the new ones prepare to enter the yard” (13. old yard). At the heart of one’s relationship with the land are beauty and language: “places that could always snap my skeleton into language / coil me into voices bore into my entrails / expose a certain wholeness of belonging as my deepest tongue / tear chorales and something like discord from my brain” (6. live the myth).

This is the kind of poetry that leaves one gasping for air, which opens up new spaces in one’s understanding and feeling about the past and everyday reality in this country.

The Yard continues with poems which grapple with morality and reconciliation.The idea of interconnectedness is challenged in hold your ear to the tear in the skin of my country where already the format of the poem signals separate spheres of understanding the concept of forgiveness. The words of the speaker of the first section, Cynthia Ngewu, who testified in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the murder of her son, one of the Gugulethu Seven, cascade onto the page like a waterfall. The neat couplets which follow represent an ordered attempt to understand the motives and worldviews of the officer who was involved in the killing. In the end, we are told, “it was futile to try to weave interconnectedness into / the concrete bunker that lives inside Mr Barnard’s whiteness”.

The bleakness of moving beyond such divisions is captured in miracle where South Africa’s relatively peaceful liberation is juxtaposed with present-day, all-consuming greed and violence: “we have become the prey of ourselves caught up / in ethnic avarice and total incapacity for vision”.

More intimate poems about ageing, memory, grand-motherhood, domesticity, or the I-you constellation of lovers reveal the wonders of the world along deeper philosophical questions about our capabilities and responsibilities. The tone ranges from sombre to light-hearted. Krog is one of the few poets out there who can smuggle Skype, wifi, the Internet and memory sticks into poetry and make them look as if they almost belonged. Also, when she swears, she makes it count.

The poem convivium astounds with its breadth: “what use my caress in the breath-earthed night if a centre- / less universe opens space in the nonexistent for dark / matter to overpower a few broken beads of light?” The poem, like the human body at the core of its universe, “tuneforks such abundance”.

Apart from a handful of exceptions, especially the Lament on the death of Mandela, the latter part of the volume, specifically the obfuscated Four Efforts in Linguistic Synapse Tracing left me baffled. The tightness and clarity of the preceding poems dissolved in musings where it became more and more difficult to follow the poet on her journey. The academic in me insisted I persevere and come to grips with the pieces, but the Sunday morning reader just wanted to return to the earlier poems in the collection or open another book.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in December 2014.

QUICK REVIEW: Lamentation



CJ Sansom


ISBN: 9781447260257

Karin Schimke

This is the sixth in Sansom’s Tudor detective series and neither his eye for historical detail, his knack for plot nor his empathy for his lawyer detective, the hunchback Matthew Shardlake, have diminished.

King Henry VIII is now an obese and wobbly man, barely able to walk two steps by himself, but his rule of terror remains. He is married to his sixth (and last) wife Catherine Parr, but even she isn’t free of the terror. She’s got herself into a pickle – quite innocently – of which the consequence could be burning at the stake. She needs her old friend Shardlake to help.

The plotting and grasping, the subterfuge and power struggles, the abject poverty and filth, the shocking wealth and wastages at court, the general ignorance (sound familiar, South Africa?) all remain, for me, the most fascinating aspect of the Shardlake series.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in December 2014.

REVIEW: Malignant


malignant coverMALIGNANT: How Cancer Becomes Us

Lochlan Jain

University of California Press

ISBN: 9708520276574

REVIEW: Dawn Garisch

Lochlan Jain is a cancer survivor. She is also an anthropologist living in the USA. Malignant is in part the personal story of what she aptly terms ‘living in prognosis’ after the ordeal of misdiagnosis and subsequent treatment for breast cancer. The book is also her detailed investigation of our profoundly diseased society.

Nearly half of all Americans will be diagnosed with an invasive cancer. The time lag between exposure to carcinogens and diagnosis makes pinpointing exact causes difficult, other than overt instances, e.g. smoking and lung cancer, asbestos exposure and mesothelioma. Many known and unregulated carcinogens are in our food, plastics, dyes and water. Fallout from war, even from medical treatments, add to risk. Modern life evolves in a soup of hormones and chemicals, driven by our quest for youth, fertility, fast food, easy travel, gizmos and wealth. There is a massive price to pay, and the cost is often born by those who do not benefit.

Jain unearths disturbing information, e.g. companies who make both carcinogen-containing products and chemotherapy drugs. Stating she doesn’t believe there is evil intent, Jain remarks that the way to make a fortune is to give cancer to someone who has health insurance, and then test, monitor and treat her for the rest of her life.

Jain’s personal narrative informs and enhances her research. Her ability to present her emotional turmoil, vulnerability, and even humour, as she finds herself ensnared by the big machine of what she terms ‘the medical industry’, is a thread that holds together an appalling story of the cover-ups and collusion between capital fearful of mass claims, the legal system that is too costly for individuals to seek redress, the health professionals who ask too few questions about causation, and the government agencies that are unwilling to regulate hazards.

There are no easy answers to the questions she poses. Malignant lifts the lid off cancer, showing it to be largely uncontrollable, unknowable, endemic to our culture, metastasising into every aspect of life on earth, from our economic system to traces of lead found in Arctic ice. We are paying too high a price for our way of life, and we need to know this.

Malignant is essential reading for anyone involved in cancer care, who is affected by cancer, or who might contract the illness. Going by the stats, that’s pretty much everyone.

  • Dawn Garisch, GP and author of Eloquent Body, Modjaji (2012)


Yes p

Yes pYes Please

Amy Poehler

ISBN: 9780062268341


Karin Schimke

Reading this well-known American comedienne and actress’s “middle-of-the-road” autobiography is like being on a road trip with someone who is so much fun you can’t believe your luck. But it’s a longish road trip and every now and again you think you wonder if you can keep up the merriment. Then she says something so random, so funny and so oddly wisely that you think “What a lucky one I am to be on a road trip with Amy Poehler!”

If you’re a fan of Poehler’s wild improv, mad-cap comedy, her down-to-earth bordering-on-brassy personality, you’ll love Yes Please.

If you don’t know who she is, you’ll probably still like it. It’s nothing if not entertaining.

Poehler is self-deprecating, can laugh at herself and the world, and is not afraid to be vulnerable. Also, the book’s full of fascinating behind-the-scenes bits about famous people.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in December 2014.

REVIEW: The Alphabet Of The Birds


The-Alphabet-of-Birds-_-RGB-300x460The Alphabet of Birds

SJ Naudé


ISBN: 9781415207130

REVIEW: Melvyn Minnaar

For those familiar with the Afrikaans version that appeared in 2011 – and won acclaim and awards – one of the pleasures of this roman à tiroirs is the precision of the translation (a rewrite, more accurately) in echoing the nuances of the original.

While the settings and tone of Naude’s seven haunting inter-linking stories have, what Damon Galgut, in a pointed introduction to the book, calls a “cosmopolitan gloss”, all are anchored in that particular starkness that Afrikaans sometimes shares with the outer edges of society and characters of our country.

It’s a language that harbours a particular emotional grittiness – such as J.M Coetzee brought so energetically to his first books, and provides the vivid graphics for Marlene van Niekerk’s fine novels.

Naude uses it in polished translation to densely weave the melancholic line of displacement/alienation that runs through all these stories. The glimpses of, and Afrikaans names are also a subtextual meditation on those speakers’ place in a much changed world and the country of today.

Often his mastery of words opens up possibilities beyond the obvious and foregrounded narrative. The reader is drawn into the telling of the tales as they unfold, unlocking meaning in sentences, negotiating time frames and the evolution of the plot, finding deep delight in the passion of prose.

This is Joschka, a baker’s assistant, and ‘alternative lover’ of the worldly, high-flying expatriate narrator, a banker in London: “He has hands that are capable of anything. Hands that start shaping each day when it breaks. Hands that track the shape of whichever body may be at hand that day. Hands that knead and mould dough.”

This poetic erotic charge focuses the central clash of personalities, places and philosophies in the story of ‘A Master from Germany’. The ironies of homelessness are at tipping point here.

This tension is the edge where all the central characters find themselves as they weave in and out of the first person, main narrative that frames the book so neatly.

Most are travellers, returning to places that are now different and challenging. Street-smart in the foreign worlds they’ve explored, their old homes, past histories, become demanding testing ground, throwing up existential questions.

Sex had its place and provided pleasure in the diaspora, but is neutered in the home-coming. Cancer is a thread through three pieces, a theme of creeping despair. Ironically, that unfolding of bleakness and the highly personal provide a key to some form of understanding, if not resolution.

The latter, as the book’s title suggests, is in the domain of the birds. Birds are referenced in casual encounters throughout the stories, detail in the décor, often as markers of frustration.

Theirs is language that we don’t understand, but yearn to know. Ancient and poetic metaphor of the unknown, inaccessible logic and the mysterious, Naudé elegantly activates this mythical framework in contemplation of the human condition.

The Alphabet of the Birds is a marvellously dense book and rewarding for that. Layers unfold as references (names, for example, are highly charged) reveal themselves and connections fall into place. Personal histories are stylishly pieced together in jigsaws of time.

Yet while the stories point to loss, if not inexorable tragedy, Naudé has composed such beautiful, honed prose that it drives you passionately and cerebrally from page to page, from story to story. The darkness of the unanswered questions is lit by the vividness of words.

His characters will ring in memory – often for the simplest, briefest detail ascribed to them and their actions.

There’s Sandrien, in the brilliant first story ‘Van’, who self-destructs in a relentless pursuit of redemption in the moral chaos of modern South Africa. Mrs Nyathi, who appears in this tale, and again later, is a colourful, cigar-smoking matron-hotelier. Sam is a freewheeling man of the new South Africa, and of the dance. Ondien is a musician-singer in search of herself as a cultural being deep in the alienated country.

They are people that could only inhabit or come from contemporary South Africa. They carry in person, philosophy and actions the complicated social issues of this land, which makes Naudé’s book also an open-ended morality tale.

When it appeared in Afrikaans in 2011, Naudé was widely praised as an exciting new voice. Many reviewers made particular reference to the fact that it should not be limited to that language. And so it has come about – brilliantly.



















Paulo Coelho


ISBN-13: 978-1101874080

Shirley de Kock Gueller

Although easy to read, Adultery leaves you wanting a little more. A depressed but happily married successful and rather self-indulgent Swiss journalist seeks just that, seeing herself as lonely in a rich and rewarding life. In aiming for more, she stands to take down those she loves.  When she meets an old beau, who is now a successful politician, and embarks on a delusional and disillusioning quest for a love, you wonder if her men are right when they tell her she needs a therapist for her depression.

Confusing lust and aggressive sex with what she perceives as romantic love, she undergoes an epiphany while paragliding above Interlaken and finds all is right with her world, husband and children.

If Coehlo’s life remains the primary source of inspiration for his books,I am somewhat at a lost where this fits in.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in December 2014.