By ROB HOFMEYR, BRUCE DENNILL & LISA WITEPSKI
Fever by Deon Meyer
Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Agent Running In The Field by John le Carre
Bibby’s Kitchen by Dianne Bibby
Dirt Road by James Kelman
African Daydreams by Colin Nott
This is a substantial novel, beautifully translated from the original Afrikaans, engrossing, entertaining and surprising in its twists and turns. A father and his 13-year old son are making a journey from the Witwatersrand to Vanderkloof, a town on the banks of a river in the Free State. It’s no ordinary journey, as they are constantly on the alert for feral dogs and gangs on motorcycles. They are travelling through a country which has lost almost every living human being to a strange and lethal infection. They find petrol where they can from deserted pumps and scavenge for food in derelict shops. They are seeking to establish a new community, a community of survivors, where Nico Storm believes there is the best chance of growing crops, having a ready source of water and building defences. It is a story of human interactions, the challenges of differing belief systems, the politics of power and ambition, questions of leadership and governance and above all of human survival through technical skills and scientific knowledge, adaptation, courage, cooperation and firearms. The new settlement faces threats from marauding gangs, from clashing personalities, and from human selfishness. Nico Storm emerges as a man of extraordinary wisdom and grace. His son is a loyal, resourceful, tough warrior. There are many brilliant stories of personalities who is this new world have lost their former bases, status and histories, and must now live differently. There is a cataclysmic split in the community with a charismatic pastor leading his flock to a new settlement. After the mysterious death of his father, Willem Storm is driven to find an explanation. The answer, when he finds it, seems likely to tear him apart. Fever is a brilliant read – long, but for me the best of the year. – RH
Norse Mythology is an interesting project; the re-telling of several famous Norse myths – and no, not (this time) as part of the Marvel cinematic universe – by a writer much loved for his ability to add a mythical aspect to his often dark and disturbing fantasy tales. Gaiman’s name and reputation add an accessibility to a cultural phenomenon that might not otherwise appear on the radar of many Western readers (regardless of the aforementioned Marvel movies). And his commitment to communicating the feel and detail of the original stories puts across not only their complexity but also the total, gonzo hubris of the gods – Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya and all the rest of them – and the bizarre and/or terrifying nature of their enemies. It’s interesting to note that the more monstrously over-the-top aspects of some of the narratives feel valid and reasonable in this context – as part of ancient legends – where they might not in a contemporary writer’s (Gaiman included) output, even if that material was very clearly fantasy. Norse Mythology involves a wonderful storyteller relating ageless yarns – a satisfying combination.
John Le Carre back in the field of espionage: a resurgence of the tensions between the “Great Powers” of the Cold War era, the same self-interested deceit in Whitehall, the same hunger for power, the same duplicity. Yet all this comes out in new and engaging plots and counter-plots, the twisted tale of a man who after various duties abroad is torn between duty and a desire for domestic quiet. Nat is in early middle-age, extremely fit, devoted to sport, Honorary Secretary of the Athleticus Club in Battersea and the reigning club champion at badminton. He is married to Prue, partner in a long-established firm of solicitors, herself primarily engaged in pro bono cases. Relaxing in the precincts of the club he is approached by an awkward young man, a new member, who is desperately eager to play badminton against him. So begins the story of a series of close-run matches played principally on Mondays. This is, however, also the story of Nat and Prue, and the married life of a husband who is an agent and a bright, self-assured and understanding wife. Let us say that there are pressures on both. It is also the story of an agent’s career, from recruitment to this moment in history. Trump reigns in Washington. The Russians are using the influx of refugees to less than noble ends. The Service is a branch of government which does not offer knighthoods and so the brilliant and dedicated seek rewards which are unfathomable to the uninitiated. Nat is asked to take on the running of the Haven, which in his estimation is a London-based dumping ground for resettled defectors and fifth-rate informants on the skids. It might have offered a compromise between domesticity and an active life as an agent, but that is not to be the case. Nat is back in the field, back behind the Rusted Curtain, fighting for his career and his life. Little is as it seems, and even his badminton is in question. Agent Running In The Field is a brilliant piece of Le Carre. Read it you must. – RH
Ah, Bibby’s Kitchen. It seems almost a tragedy to sacrifice its beautiful pages to sauce slops and stains – but sadly, it’s doomed to be used often and with great enjoyment. In case you haven’t heard of her, Dianne Bibby is one of South Africa’s best loved food bloggers; the force behind a droolicious website crammed with recipes that have a distinctly ‘now’ feel – think fuss-free, quick, and full of bold flavours, often with a touch of the Middle East. This cookbook is no different. Almost too pretty to be relegated to a kitchen shelf, you may well be tempted to keep it as a coffee table book instead. As for the recipes – here you’ll find fantastic ideas for everything from indulgent breakfasts to baking your own bread, show-off dinner party fare and lazy Sunday evening suppers. The chipotle Mexican beans with chorizo has already become a favourite with my family (deemed ‘restaurant-worthy’), and I can’t wait to make the shakshuka, my absolute best breakfast, which Dianne has reinvented with a dollop of foaming sesame butter and the zing of harissa. – LW
James Kelman is well-known – and revered in some quarters – for combining a stylised writing approach (not dissimilar to Cormac McCarthy, in that it is largely stripped of embellishment, including many of the expected punctuation marks) with a narrative perspective that allows readers to see and feel the everyday minutia of his character’s view of the world they’re in. Dirt Road follows a father and son from a Scottish island to the American South, where they are to stay with family for a while. Both men are reeling from the loss of two family members – their wife/mother, and their daughter/sister – in short order. They have their own ways of processing their grief, and they are struggling to connect at all – never mind offering each other genuine solace. The culture shock that comes with interacting with different communities, particularly for Murdo, the son, whose first time it is in the States both further complicates their relationship and opens up the younger traveller’s scope of understanding of a number of complex issues. These different journeys – physical and emotion – make for a multi-layered study of grief, culture and the characters, Murdo in particular. The density of Kelman’s approach does make his story a rich tapestry, but it also slows the pace right down, meaning that it takes the better part of 400 pages for not very much to happen, meaningful as it may be. That tepid tempo may prove to much for impatient readers, particularly when the story as a whole feels like a single episode in a wider chronicle.
Colin Nott is the son of the late Graham Nott, an important figure in conservation in Rhodesia-then-Zimbabwe. He is one of those exceptional people who was born, educated and made a career for himself in that country so full of promise and now clouded with disappointment, and who has emigrated to Australia, along with his wife and daughter. I say this upfront, because the loss of this young couple gives a depth and sadness to the book and its magnificent account of conservation in Zimbabwe. After a gruelling two years at the Mushandike Natural Resources College, qualified as a conservation officer, he began his career with National Parks. His first posting was to the Matopos, where he gained experience of the war on rhino poachers. He was soon immersed in anti-poaching action, with extraordinary risks, thrills, humour and camaraderie. This characterises the whole of his time with Parks. African Daydreams is a book written by a man who reflects deeply and feels passionately about conservation, the history of the country and its people, and who made the best contribution he could. He and his wife lived fully, meeting the many challenges with dedication and as a partnership. The changing political landscape brought about a move from Parks to the tourist sector, and here for a time he flourished. With the closing down of international travel, safaris were simply no longer sustainable. Sadly and reluctantly, they migrated. He has given us a wealth of insight into every aspect of conservation in Zimbabwe. His account is rich with personalities, and sad with losses, including the death of his father from cancer. The book is a delight to read: the enthusiasm for the bush, the fierce battles to protect the game, the personal adventures, some close to being fatal, the delights of looking after difficult clients and the human drama of a little family. Throughout the accounts are underpinned with historical notes and explanations of geology and geography, not didactic, but giving depth to the narrative. The title is inappropriate. This is not daydreaming, but tough, real and enormously interesting. – RH[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]Blogger.
It’s a term that’s almost spat out, like a condition you might catch if you discuss it for too long. As media platforms go, blogs are often classed somewhere between penis enlargement flyers pasted onto suburban dustbins and first-time press releases written by a greenstick intern at a local public relations firm (for the record, the former is better written).
This may be because the worst of them are little more than plagiarised scrapbooks, cobbled-together cut-and-pasting that collects six or seven dozen followers invited via the creator’s Facebook page. Flush with notoriety, these bloggers then venture into “writing” – because they have their own website now, you know – supplementing the cribbed material with insightful paragraphs exclusively beginning with the phrase, “I was invited to …” and ensuring that the name of the event, the brand of booze on offer and the PR contact on whose list they’ve found themselves are all repeated, tagged and complimented at least four or five times each.
That formula ensures smiley face emoticon responses and triple exclamation marks in enthusiastic follow-up emails from whoever is paid to punt the clients that were mentioned in conjunction with whatever clichéd superlatives that particular blogger specialises in. Someone gets praised: they enjoy the feeling, so they invite the blogger to the next event they’re holding, beginning a cycle of sycophancy that sees the blogger becoming more popular as their readers perceive them to be more important, with advertisers responding by spending money on their platforms. In a cynical, short-sighted way, that makes sense: a product is guaranteed an endorsement, therefore the endorser is guaranteed a reward.
And so a bunch of people enjoy a happy beginning, and perhaps even a happy middle. There won’t be a happy ending because readers are fickle and because there’s only so far you can stretch a dearth of any sort of useful knowledge. The reproduced press releases will be available on the sites of the companies that issued them in the first place and a new crowd with lovely fresh clichés will be attending events and turning the heads of marketing executives seeking more glorious hashtags. And when that new crop of bloggers fade into obscurity, readers, advertisers, clients and publicists will, if they have any sense, seek something that is, if nothing else, more permanent and, ideally, of value.
In this latter context there exist bloggers who write well and with insight, either for passion or for a living, and who exist in that particular digital space as a result of a number of practical concerns. It’s likely that their chosen niche either doesn’t exist in print or broadcast form or that, if it is there, they are not able to get or keep a job in that sector due to the available remunerations. Or, particularly in the case of writers with considerable experience, it may be the case that, due to a profound dissatisfaction with the state of either the quality of coverage of the topics they’re interested in or the commitment to carrying content about those topics on the part of larger and perhaps more traditional platforms, the only way they see to get the stories they feel are important published at an acceptable standard is to do it themselves.
Now of course there is, when considering these more worthwhile blogs, a range of quality and of perspective on the part of the writer or – and here it’s possible to consider that the term might be accurate – journalist responsible for the content. And it’s almost guaranteed that the subject matter, if not the way it is written about or the opinions voiced, will be replicated in many cases.
But that is, and has always been, the case when considering why to get news on a topic of interest from a particular source of any type. Newspapers and magazines have and continue to sell their own version of what matters, differentiated by the insight evident in the editorial, the quality with which news is reported or the astuteness with which a point of view is expressed.
It is self-evident that this range – and the potential for quality – is available online now, and from solo operators rather than corporates. And that compact scale can and should work in favour of marketers and advertisers looking to benefit from an association with a skilled blogger, one who is interested in research, balance, ethics and excellence. In this relationship, the integrity – which should be an attractive quality in a reporter, critic or prospective business partner – of the blogger can be monitored easily. The value of what they do – commercial, abstract or otherwise – can be more accurately calculated than is the case with a larger entity that has more facets. And real partnerships, based on shared vision rather than superficial intersections of commercial interest, can be built up because a single journalist or critic or whatever label most accurately applies can be held accountable in terms of the role they play.
It shouldn’t be a swear-word, or a synonym for “spirited amateur”. Very often, that person has done a better job covering whatever field they occupy than the associated mainstream professionals, and the readers who know this have long stopped investing in the products those professionals work on. If that is the case, but the blogger’s online platforms is still being dismissed for not fitting an old-fashioned formula that is provably ineffective, the wisdom of those making a call on where to invest going forward is suspect. Standards are crucial, but those standards are increasingly being met outside of bustling newsrooms, broadcast studios and other conglomerates, where a single hard-working individual is able to create something of equal or superior quality to the efforts of large teams, governed by boards and committees.
If a blogger, in creating a quality product, has done their research, but you, in forming an opinion about such platforms, haven’t done yours, you have no place sneering at their efforts. Pay attention. It’ll pay dividends.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_widget_sidebar sidebar_id=”default_sidebar”][/vc_column][/vc_row]