Book Reviews: Basket Guide, Or First Response To Kim Jong-Il

January 27, 2020

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Sky Guide: Africa South by Auke Slotegraaf & Ian Glass
Dudu’s Basket by Dianne Stewart and Elizabeth Pulles
Be Bright by Anita Potgieter
A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer
First  Response by Stephen Leather
Risen by Angela Hunt
Sky Guide: Africa South is a slim volume that is both an almanac – detailing rising and setting times for both sun and moon, as well as the postions of the planets relative to each other and all such other measurable minutia – and a guide book to the many wonders of the night sky, from planet to comets and meteors. It’s an excellent resource, giving readers a concise but coherent introduction to astronomy as a science, be it at hobby level or in a more serious academic sense. As the title suggests, these charts and the advice given are relevant only to star-seekers in southern Africa, but the principles the authors (and the scientists and observers behind the information) have gathered will stand readers in good stead wherever they are in the world. This is a small investment that could yield life-long enjoyment in a new niche. – BD
The gentleness of this short tale for children belies the depth of tradition it touches on. The idea for Dudu’s Basket is based on a Zulu proverb that says that the first basket made by a young weaver must not be used for food, the thinking being that if the creation is kept close and becomes a part of its maker’s life, they’ll have less reason to start making another one and the craft will stagnate and die out. Dudu is taught this by her uncle, who urges her to sell the first basket she makes. Dianne Stewart’s narrative then traces the progress of the basket as it changes hands in various KwaZulu-Natal communities, and marks Dudu’s progress to the next step in her trade. Elizabeth Pulles’ lovely watercolours help cement the tone of the piece – never forceful, and quietly redolent of the spaces described in the text. A great early reader for South African youngsters. – BD
It’s possible for kids to make progress on one or another academic front via specific activities they might do on a day to day basis – interacting with tablets, doing their schoolwork and so on. Be Bright, full of exercises pitched at the Grade 1 to 3 level, is an excellent bridge to another level for either children not quite taking to the curriculum at school or those really enjoying that work and wanting something to keep their minds busy in their downtime (those kids do exist…). The exercises are mostly maths-based, though there are also some language development tools, and it’s possible to tailor a programme for your own child based on their areas of weakness that might help them close a troublesome gap. It’s also the sort of thing that can be taken along on a long car drive or to a doctor’s appointment when time will need to be filled and something more edifying than Candy Crush would come in handy. – BD
Pick A Kim Jong-Il Production up and it looks like a work of fiction, its gaudy cover suggesting a strange Eastern version of The Producers. Its synopsis suggests that it’s fiction, hypothesising a situation so outlandish that it couldn’t possibly be true. And author Paul Fischer’s preliminary notes concede that, despite his best investigative efforts, he can’t be 100% sure that at least some of the story he tells is not true. And yet, for all intents and purposes, this is a true story, and it’s astonishing. Perhaps the most important character is the enigma that is North Korea, a fairytale dreamed up, in prodigious detail, by Kim Il-Sung, the country’s first Supreme Leader, and his son Kim Jong-Il, the self-styled Dear Leader and Beloved General. References to what the country is like behind the demilitarised zone that splits it from South Korea and the endless propaganda perpetuated by its media are few and far between, and most readers (that is, those who have not otherwise made a study of the territory) will be floored by the revelations in these pages. The Kims’ fantasy kingdom is so bizarre that it’s impossible not to be awed by the scale of their vision and so desperately mired in despair that you’ll regularly feel tearful on behalf of its inhabitants. Descriptions of the country and its politics are, to some degree, incidental. The central story deals with the kidnapping – at the orders of Kim Jong-Il – of South Korea’s most famous actress (Choi Eun-Hee) and most successful film director (Shin Sang-Ok), who are also husband and wife. Jong-Il, as his father’s Minister Of Propaganda, realised that North Korea’s skills shortage in the area of filmmaking – a major passion of his – meant that the work put out by the state run film industry was always going to be second-rate and thus poor propaganda. Apparently immune to irony, he felt that the best way to solve this was to mastermind a crime that ruined the lives of two people who were internationally respected storytellers, and furthermore to expect their commitment to his cause, and to work to produce better work on behalf of North Korea. The audacity of this plot was breathtaking – though not on a par with the nation-crippling meddling by the Soviet Union and United States that split Korea into two along an arbitrary boundary after the Second World War, when the country was still reeling from a brutal Japanese occupation. Fischer’s account of that process is typically entertaining to read – he shows throughout the book that history is fascinating, and should be approached with the expectation of having horizons widened. At the same time, he is able to give the story’s protagonists depth and personality – no small feat when he has only a few eyewitness perspectives to work with. It’s possible to feel Choi and Shin’s fear and frustration while also being frustrated by some of their actions; or to find yourself believing, based on a minor incident here and there, that Jong-Il might actually be a reasonable sort who had more than his own material interests at heart. This book is captivating, bewildering, funny, scary, worrying and – throughout – superbly written. Fischer may at some point uncover one or two more details if he is able to find supplementary sources, but he has already achieved something special – a documentary page-turner that will make you question, and respect, what humans are capable of. – BD
In First  Response an ISIS hostage attack in which a number of public sites are simultaneously targeted, brings London to a standstill. The book gives a detailed account of police action, security measures, combining a number of instances, planning and finally resolving the drama. The plot is stretched and leaves you wondering how the protagonists are going to get out of this one. It’s interesting to get insight into the many practical, humanitarian and political issues that are involved in a major attack of this kind. – DB
Angela Hunt, a formidable author, goes slightly off-piste with this novel based on the eponymous movie. With compelling titles of her own, it may seem strange that she  would submit to the constraints of interpreting someone else’s script, however, it quickly becomes apparent that she has more than sufficient flexibility to create and captivate despite an existing framework. Previous viewing of the film version of Risen is definitely no reason to eschew the book, as it contains not only a whole other protagonist who was omitted from the movie due to time constraints, but also clever and intriguing small details that create satisfying layers within the main storyline. There is excellent fidelity to the biblical narrative which inspired Risen, as well as  historically accurate insight into the characters of a Roman Tribune called Clavius and a disenfranchised but courageous Jewish woman called Rachel. Following the twists and turns from the Crucifixion of Christ through his Resurrection and Ascension, this is a worthwhile and strong read. – KD
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