From adventurous love to what home really means


  • The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black (Mantle)

Those not in the know about Benjamin Black would be forgiven for thinking the coincidence of black in the title and in the author’s surname too good to be true. Or a trick, not very clever, by the marketing department. It’s even cleverer, though.

Black is the Booker-winning literary novelist John Banville, who created his “investigator”, a forensic surgeon, and set the series in Dublin in the 1950s. Banville & Black prompted an approach from the executors of Raymond Chandler’s estate with a proposal to revive Chandler’s great, hard-boiled private eye Philip Marlowe.

It was an honour and a challenge that Banville/Black rose to. The result is very much like Chandler: beautiful women, powerful families and the dark belly of Los Angeles in the 1950s. And what a Chandleresque opening paragraph, the first line of which reads: “It was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving.” Convinced? I hope so.

Young adult

  • The Finisher by David Baldacci (Macmillan Children’s Books)

Does the man write almost 24 hours a day? Not satisfied with The Target (Pan Macmillan, April) and two forthcoming books, The Hit (Pan Macmillan, October) and King and Maxwell (Pan Macmillan, November), Baldacci ventures into the ultra-lucrative teen/Young Adult (YA) market with a fantasy about how a bequest changes a teenage girl’s life.

Vega receives a strange map and a ring — gadgetry that all YA and fantasy fans know betokens adventure and travel through both time and space. Sure enough, Vega comes upon a brave new world outside the confines of Wormwood Village and we’re off.

It is possible, or even likely, that The Finisher will emulate the breakneck success of Baldacci’s 27 novels for adults, because he knows how to carry a story, if not to write a memorable line.

South African fiction

  • Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary by Jenny Hobbs (Umuzi)

Twenty-five years after it heralded the arrival of a significant South African novelist, Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary has been reissued.

To me it has always seemed an offence that Jenny Hobbs’s novel, one of the great South African works of the 1980s, had been allowed to go out of print. Thanks to Umuzi, then, for making this South African classic available to generations of new readers.

Those coming to the book anew will find that there is much in it to chime with the famously wise opening line of LP Hartley’s beloved novel The Go-Between (1953): “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

In the Hobbs, the past is 1983 and the foreign countries are Lesotho — and South Africa. Rose, a teacher, and Jake, a poet and activist, fled the latter for the former. They cannot live and love together because of South Africa’s odious race laws.

What happens to them in a Lesotho village sets off the thoughts and hopes that animate this novel and make it not only a poignant reminder of terrible times, but also a call for hope and renewal in the strange days of South Africa circa 2014.

  • October by Zoe Wicomb (Umuzi)

She has not lived in her South African homeland for many years, but Zoe Wicomb has lost none of her roots to country and countryside. From Glasgow, where she is emeritus professor at the University of Strathclyde, Wicomb looks back over the Atlantic to Namaqualand and also into her adopted home, Scotland, in a powerful novel about family.

Many of the tropes and narrative tricks of the family saga are here, from the seemingly obligatory dark secret to a call home that cannot be denied. It’s difficult not to imagine some of Wicomb in the protagonist Mercia’s yearnings for home and thoughts from abroad, but fiction is fiction.

Besides, this is literary fiction of a high order that some might be tempted to say is a classic-in-waiting about what home really means.


  • An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (Hutchinson)

Robert Harris began his best-selling career with the gripping alternative history Fatherland (Germany won World War II), took us through the real-life, historically true, cracking of Nazi codes in Enigma, speculated on Stalin’s son surviving in Archangel and then went back to his classical Cambridge roots in Pompeii, Imperium and Lustrum.

In the beguilingly named An Officer and a Spy, Harris revisits the notorious Dreyfus affair of the 1890s in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted as a spy and sent to solitary confinement on Devil’s Island. The officer of the title is Georges Picquart, who becomes convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence and of the existence of a massive state-sponsored cover-up.

Narrated by Picquart, the novel moves along well enough, but the first-person is often jarring and Harris seems less comfortable with Dreyfus, Picquart and France of the 1890s than with Cicero and republican Rome. But it’s worth persevering because the book does fulfil the promise of its blurb: “ … an intelligence agency gone rogue, justice corrupted in the name of national security … and the age-old instinct of those in power to cover up their crimes.” Sound familiar?

  • Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood (Picador)

There were four Mrs Hemingways; Ernest was a demanding man and husband. The great master of the simple declarative sentence declared his passion and temporary, ever expiring love for a succession of remarkable women. Naomi Wolf charts the marriages and affairs (almost always simultaneous) and goes some way to explaining how it was that four such strong, independent women could have sacrificed so much for so little.

Being a lover and wife to Papa Hemingway was not unknown territory. Lovers and wives had a fair idea of the unruly passions and brutal deceits that they were likely to suffer. And still they let themselves be lured by Hemingway.

The great writer, the great hunter, the big-game fisherman, the larger-than-life lover: he is here, but so too, for once, are the women: well-rounded characters, not ciphers. Wood uses vignettes, moving from Antibes to Paris to Havana to Key West to Ketchum, Idaho (yes, Ketchum, Idaho) to tell a mesmerising story of a serial seducer and the intelligent women who let themselves be taken in by the bravado and the bluster.

And by the fear, as Wood reminds us in the closing page on Martha Gellhorn, the great war correspondent and very fine writer: “And despite the vitriol that will come to pass between them, she will remember the old bear with his paws sunk into the garbage, talking to her of fear.”

Children’s fiction

  • Dogtective William and the Poachers by Elizabeth Wasserman, illustrated by Chris Venter (Tafelberg)

This is the third outing for Dogtective William and his side kick Alex. This time round they are sniffing out the poachers who are killing rhinos on Aunt Lulu’s bushveld farm.

Adults who take a peek at this book for nine- to 11-year-olds might find the humour around so serious and anguishing a subject a little awkward to take, but they aren’t the intended readership of youngsters, who will learn something about a tragically topical issue.

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