Book Reviews: Soil And Minecraft, Or Quiet Heartbreaker In The Alhambra Theatre

October 20, 2020

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Dying To Live by Michael Stanley

Soil by Jamie Kornegay

Minecraft: Guide To Exploration by Stephanie Milton

Heartbreaker: Christiaan Barnard And The First Heart Transplant by James-Brent Styan

The Alhambra Theatre Complex: Celebrating 20 Years by Alan Swerdlow and Tracey Saunders

The Quiet Side Of Passion by Alexander McCall Smith



Dying To Live is set in Botswana and it is part of the Detective Kubu series. Kubu is, as anyone who reads the best crime fiction from Africa will know, an endearing, highly intelligent and dedicated officer, with an considerable appetite for less than healthy foods, and also a good family man. An elderly Bushman is murdered and his body is stolen from the morgue. A witchdoctor goes missing, and then a visitor from Minneapolis with scientific interests. Also, a Chinese minor dies of malaria and her body is hastily shipped to Qingdao in China. There seems little connection between the deaths. Threads of rhino horn smuggling, witchcraft and traditional medicine are intertwined with the narrative. Some extraordinary personalities play their roles – Kubu of course, but also his assistant, Samantha Khama. Ian MacGregor (state pathologist), and Constable Ixau (Bushman tracker), are key figures in the chase. A sub-plot involves the family of Kubu, his wife, his daughter, and his adoptive daughter, who is suffering from AIDS. This book is written by two men who know Africa and who help us read Botswana at many different levels, with folklore, tradition, modernity and a belief in dark magic; and who have the ability to write a story that’s credible, convincing and altogether engrossing. – RH


It’s desperately rare (thanks for nothing, publisher marketing departments) for the shoutline on a cover to accurately and concisely describe the tone and feel of a book. However, in Soil’s case, “The Coen Brothers meets Crime And Punishment – with a Mississippi twist” is about as appropriate as it’s possible to get. The combined claustrophobia, paranoia and fear and loathing of those references pulses through this debut novel, propelled by Jamie Kornegay’s brisk, bristling prose. The central narrative concerns Jay Mize, a thoughtful young farmer with an eye on the big picture and the new techniques that will help humankind continue to grow food sustainably. His unconventional ideas and unwillingness to follow the crowd place him under constant pressure, making both his professional life and personal relationships almost untenable. For a man under such strain, the addition of an unexpected corpse to his situation all but pushes him over the edge. Kornegay sets his tale in the US’ small-town Deep South alongside a river in flood – a place where anyone might suspect that at least some of the people and much of the environment would constitute some sort of threat. He keeps his cast small, adding to the smothering tone of the whole affair, but also allowing readers to become intimate with all the characters and make their own (often confounded) predictions as to who might do what as the story unfolds. He gives his creations a stab at redemption, but keeps it dangling just out of reach, meaning that readers’ emotions are likewise manipulated, though they will be happy to submit to such treatment to see how Mize navigates the awful mess he finds himself in. Taut and gritty. – BD


Minecraft: Guide To Exploration explains the different landscapes and which animals fit in it where. It also tells you about the different animals and mobs if you play different modes, as well as about light and objects. It tells you how to mine, make a house and make a farm in Exploration mode (also known as Survival mode). I enjoyed this very well. – Bethany Dennill


It is a little over 50 years ago that Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant operation in December 1967. Although biographical, James-Brent Styan’s Heartbreaker also provides a fascinating social history. The operation was performed just over a year after the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd. Apartheid was at its apogee. Barnard, the son of a backwoodsman from the Knysna forest, and proud of his roots, spoke with an unmistakably Afrikaans accent. He exploded on to the world’s stage at a time when the politics of white South Africans were viewed with disdain, disapproval and disgust by almost everyone else. He has remained a perpetually controversial figure. In many ways, Barnard was like the biblical David: superbly talented, flawed and complex. Therein may lie the explanation for the interest that he has invoked both then and now. The depth of his medical knowledge was profound. As a surgeon he was, despite being dogged by arthritis, unquestionably in the first rank. His good looks were devastatingly attractive to women. He took almost maximum advantage of the fact.  His bedroom conquests make Hollywood scoundrels seem like distinguished directors of choral music. Even before he became famous, Barnard had revealed a penchant for plucking the wild flowers of feminine beauty, rather than merely admiring them. The emotional cost not only for the women involved but also for himself was large. The tragedy of his love affair with Barbara Zoellner would have packed an amphitheatre in ancient Greece. Barnard adored being in the private company of famous and beautiful women like Princesses Grace and Diana, Indira Gandhi, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. This notwithstanding, he was deeply moved by his audience with Pope Paul VI. The two men got along surprisingly well, their meeting extending much past the appointed schedule by reason of their deep discussions not only over the potential of medical science to change the human condition for the better but also its huge challenges. The moral issues presented by medical technology are immense. Barnard understood this to the very tips of his arthritic fingers. There are too many small, unrecorded episodes of kindness and decency for Barnard’s caring and compassion to have been contrived. The complications in Barnard’s private life were not confined to his three wives. They affected his relationships with his children too. In 1984, Barnard’s son André, then a talented young doctor, was found dead in his bath, a syringe lying on the floor. At the inquest, the magistrate returned a verdict that the death had been caused by accident. But why had the bathroom door been locked? The incident tormented Barnard. He also became estranged from his quieter younger brother, Marius. Politics presents many a precipice for all but the most adroit. Although naturally charming, with a gift for publicity and self-promotion, Barnard was not a natural politician. Given his life and times, he could not avoid politics. The evidence is compelling that Barnard was not an ideological racist. As a student, he had even flirted with communism. He used his influence to help people like Bram Fischer, Robert Sobukwe and Breyten Breytenbach. Unfortunately, both at home and abroad, he often came across as an apologist for apartheid. Barnard was far too intelligent to subscribe to the then widely prevalent caricature of white South Africans. It irked him. As a result, he over compensated and made the big mistake in argument: he overstated his case. It seems he also enjoyed the flattery and attentions of people like Pik Botha. As in his private life, it would have been better if in politics, Barnard had followed the example of Marius’ commitment to democracy and transformation. Styan’s first book was published in 2015. It dealt with the Eskom crisis. Here we have a talented writer, who chooses his topics with excellent timing. Even with a life like Barnard’s, there is so much that one forgets that a memorial like this rewards the read. – NW


Cities, and the flow of life and culture between their different facets, change over time. For theatre lovers, that means the regular loss and creation of venues where productions can be staged, reputations built and communities formed. But while those venues exist, they are epicentres of creativity, passion and entertainment, as well as more amorphous ephemera like hope, inspiration and insight. The Alhambra Theatre Complex was a hub for all of those things and a major reason to head to Doornfontein, one of the older parts of Johannesburg, in the Eighties and Nineties. This volume is a printed documentary of those years, including scores of newspaper clippings, production pictures; behind-the-scenes revelations about many of the productions mounted there over the years and affectionate profiles of the most prominent of the personalities whose work helped bring the venue to prominence. It’s a wonderful chunk of nostalgia for anyone fortunate enough to have spent time at the Alhambra, whether as a performer, technician or audience member. It’s also a suggestion that, though it describes a time when there were fewer distractions for potential ticket buyers (no social media and so on), there is – intrinsically – a capacity in people to be drawn to theatre, to stories and to artists, even if that is in a different place (the impresario behind the Alhambra, Pieter Toerien, opened a new theatre in the Montecasino centre in Fourways once the Alhambra closed, allowing easy access to his productions to a new audience in a quickly developing area). What is perhaps saddest about this look back at a wonderful place and era (artistically speaking, at any rate) is the reminder of how engaged popular media was with the arts at the time, and how much that mattered in terms of educating audiences and encouraging them to go to shows and to develop conversations about them. That is now gone, or at least hugely diluted, and the challenges to maintaining a culture in which theatre plays a vibrant and important role in terms of both entertainment and in facilitating valuable interpretations of our world are ever greater. In that regard, this memento arouses a touch more melancholy than it otherwise might have, but in its way, that’s encouragement to keep working, to be part of creating a new Alhambra, and another after that, and another after that. A keepsake that motivates. – BD


The Quiet Side Of Passion is a delightful, light-hearted and yet profoundly intelligent novel in the Isabel Dalhousie series. For the as-yet uninformed Isabel is a philosopher and editor of The Review Of Applied Ethics, a serious publication. She is also the fortunate heir to a beautiful Edinburgh house, the means to sustain her household, including a rather younger musician husband and their small sons, a housekeeper and also to give help and support to a niece who runs a delicatessen. The means, but not the necessary time, which persuades her to hire an au pair from Italy, an exuberant and competent girl who appears to be a solution to her problems. She also recruits a bright young researcher to help her with the journal. The story is a merry chase, interspersed with deep and careful discussions involving high principles. As philosopher, mother, wife, employer and editor, Isabel finds herself at odds with the local Head of the Department of Philosophy, an unlovely man named Lettuce; is confronted by an unsavoury man in a seedy neighborhood; becomes involved with the mother of a child at the same nursery school as her son; and discovers that an acquaintance of good reputation is being swindled. You do not have to have read any other novel In the series, but I warrant you will be searching them out once you have read this. – RH

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