Sunday, September 03, 2006

'My Father’s Orchid ' (Rayda Jacobs)

Rayda Jacobs’ writing has a gloriously filmic quality. In My Father’s Orchid, we see the metal window frames and unplastered walls on Calendula Road in Bridgetown, smell the cabbage bredie and mince frikkadels, taste the slap chips and Lunch Bars.

We hear Uncle James’s voice loud and slurry on the microphone singing Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ – and experience some of the most intimate idiosyncrasies of life in the Cape Flats.

We become acquainted with Hüd: named after a Muslim prophet, raised as a Christian and part of two vibrant, vivid, totally different families:

“If Mr Johnson was his father…then she was his grandmother. But she was nothing…like his other grandmother who would’ve flung her arms around him and planted a fat kiss on his cheek by this time. Aunt Galiema took her leave as quietly and as mysteriously as she had come.”

My Father’s Orchid has been touted as a novel about social class and religion – but for me, it’s a novel about families and the complex casts of characters that make and break them.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

'The Hard Way' (Lee Child)

A cup of tea. A hot bath. A piece of chocolate cake. You know, things that are consistently good. Not ground-breaking. Not jaw-dropping. Just comfortable, reliable and deeply satisfying.

Like Lee Child’s latest thriller: The Hard Way. Another up-to-par Jack Reacher delight, complete with secret agencies, kidnap and ransom, snipers and cheap throwbacks to the army days.

It’s all there. Even Jack’s inexplicably sexy ‘no strings’ approach to absolutely everything, including clothing, women and the ubiquitous cup of coffee.

For me, Lee Child’s finest literary quality is his constancy; his uniform skill. His second finest is his pared-down prose, which offers sufficient clarity of plot, crispness of dialogue and dimension of character for the story to tell itself.

If you’re already a Reacher-phile, forget what you’re doing, buy this book and turn off your phone for a couple of hours. You deserve it.

If you’re not, but you appreciate the escapist American thriller, start with The Hard Way – you’ll be a Reacher-phile soon enough.

‘The Waking’ (TM Jenkins)

I’m not a fan of science fiction. I’m sceptical of novels set in the not-too-distant future, and more sceptical of novels set in the distant future. When I saw that The Waking, a medical thriller, was partly set in ‘Arizona, 2070’, it nearly put me off altogether.

But I’m glad I persevered, because this book is riveting – especially for a sceptic. Not only intelligent, challenging and highly original, TM Jenkins’ debut novel is also an utter page-turner.

We’re on the brink of a real fuel crisis, with the threat of global warming beating down stronger every day, and The Waking combines our damaged world with Frankenstein’s old innovation, cryonic preservation, to take us to a place that is terrifying in its plausibility.

This novel has ‘bestseller’ scrawled all over it, because it is paced like The Da Vinci Code, with research that is just as good and controversy that is just as credible. For me, it goes one better: it is extremely well-written and disturbing down to the very last line.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

'The Martha Rules' (Martha Stewart)

I must admit to being extremely sceptical about Martha Stewart’s The Martha Rules: 10 Essentials for Achieving Success as you Start, Build or Manage a Business.

What could this woman, fresh out of a federal prison and famous for apron strings that are stylishly tied to the kitchen sink, possibly know about dog-eat-dog business?
Silly, short-sighted me.

I was hooked from page four, where Martha explains that “[i]n the freelance world, you start every day at zero”, and the insights got better from there.

The Martha Rules
offers 10 must-haves for entrepreneurial success, from the obvious ones like passion and an innovative idea, to the less self-evident ‘Teach so you can learn’ and ‘Make it beautiful’.

Along the way, the book also explains vision statements, encourages quality service, advocates superb personnel, advances promotional techniques and unpacks calculated risk-taking; each chapter peppered with celeb anecdotes, case studies and Martha-isms like “The journey begins in the mirror”.

I wouldn’t recommend The Martha Rules for hard-nosed businessmen keen on Robert Kiyosaki-style wisdom, but if you’re an ‘entrepreneuse’ – a female fire-starter – who’d like a solid grounding in how to get your Big Idea off the ground, take Mama Martha as your mentor.

'Dirty Blonde' (Lisa Scottoline)

Anything set in a courtroom and I’m an easy target. Particularly if the protagonist sits atop the dias and offers witty insights into what goes on behind closed courtroom doors.

Lisa Scottoline’s Dirty Blonde heroine, Cate Fante, is such a protagonist. But she’s also a real person, with all of the petty insecurities, fragile relationships, big dilemmas and ugly secrets common to real people.

Cate’s pretty, smart, successful and plagued with a dangerous sexual compulsion. And when both plaintiff and defendant in one of her high-profile trials are found dead, her life is ripped open for public scrutiny.

Fighting to keep it together, Cate is forced to brave the muddy waters of entertainment law, where human crocodiles await her.

Be warned: this is not Great Literature. Dirty Blonde offers minimal challenge and few surprises. What is remarkable, though, is the subtlety with which Scottoline develops her plot and characters, and the pace and personalities that result.

If you’re looking for a good escapist read, this is it.

'Where the Heart is' (Marita van der Vyver)

Marita van der Vyver’s Where the Heart is is like a pretty cake tin filled with slices of life. And I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a book (or indeed, a cake) this much.

With delicious tales about realities that resonate with everyone, like renovations, strikes and the quest for food colouring, the book offers a taste of life in Provence.

It is also full of unexpected humour. When I read this little gem, my shoulders shook with such uncontrollable mirth that I woke the sleeping man at my side:

“In French Alain is pronounced Aláng, Thomas is Tommah and Hugo is Ighó. Try and explain that to your uncle in Upington. My friend Koos gave up after three days and started calling Alain Elaine. Alain still calls Koos Quees.”

Formerly Die Hart van ons Huis, Where the Heart is doesn’t read like a translation – instead featuring beautiful English flavoured with whimsical Joanne Harris-type ingredients.

Not only a delightful book to read, it’s a wonderful book to own.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

'The Gypsy Madonna' (Santa Montefiore)

The Gypsy Madonna is Chocolat meets Chateau Ella meets The Property of a Lady.

Santa Montefiore’s sixth novel gives us Mischa – six years old, clever, shy, and cruelly sidelined by his insular
Bordeaux village for having a soldier father who was a ‘Boche’, a German.

Hiding behind ferns, in doorways and under tables, Mischa spies on and befriends the colourful guests at the chateau in which Maman works after the war. The women adore him but he never says a word, until the dashing Coyote arrives to transform the lives of mother and son.

Then, The Gypsy Madonna takes another turn entirely: into Mischa’s adult life. Into intrigue and heirlooms, secrets and memories, tragedy and awakening. And the author unveils the Titian masterpiece that is the novel’s provenance.

This is a simply glorious book. But beware: the back cover blurb does it absolutely no justice.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' (John Boyne)

The inside sleeve of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas reads thus: “Usually we give some clues about the book on the jacket, but in this case we think that would spoil the reading of the book. We think it is important that you start to read without knowing what it is about.”

Ever seen such a blurb? Intrigued, I couldn’t help but grab the little book. And as soon as I started to read it, it knocked my literary socks off. I can’t tell you what it’s about, though, because that would ruin everything.

So let me say this: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has been short-listed for the Ottakar's Children's Book Prize. It is deserving of this and other accolades, for it is superb, but it isn’t a children’s book.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a fable, along the lines of Antoine de St Exupery's life-changing The Little Prince – and just as good. Try not to go another day without reading it.

'Out to Score' (Mike Nicol & Joanne Hichens)

We’ve been deprived for too long – devouring novels that meander down the Sunset Strip; that cower in Central Park. We’ve consumed local colour not our own.

But Out to Score, the gritty collaboration by Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens, gives us Cape Town. Real and ugly and familiar and breathtaking.

Nicol says that Cape Town has “become a character… because [it] has reached its puberty, and because [it] is the most complex city in the country… given to such emotional trauma…and to such dangerous beauty”.

Setting notwithstanding, Out to Score is a solid crime thriller with insights into perlemoen poaching (and its sharks, above and below sea-level).

Although I found the plot threads tricky to follow and the bad guys hard to spot, the story is ably held together by protagonists Mullet and Vincent: tongue-in-cheek stereotypes made real by their superb dialogue.

Buy it. You'll discover what a treat it is to read "the Green Point mile" and "a block past Giovanni's", and to know what the author sees.

Friday, February 24, 2006

'Blood Royal' (Harold Robbins)

The premise seemed so bizarre that I couldn’t help myself: a novel, inspired by the tempestuous life of Princess Diana, that relates Di’s story verbatim (stair-case, bulimia, Camilla) and culminates in her shooting Prince Charles? Was this a joke?

Afraid not. Harold Robbins – deceased since 1997 – has collaborated post-humously with Junius Podrug to produce a quasi-true tale of love, infidelity and revenge. Their resulting Blood Royal is sleazy-cheese-meets-royal-bio-meets-legal-thriller, with lots of gratuitous sex.

But here’s a plot synopsis; you decide. The philandering Charles torments Diana until she can take no more. She kills him and, charged with murder, recruits Marlowe James: defense sensation, media firebrand, femme fatale. In the case of Regina v Princess of Wales, Marlowe brings her fail-safe ‘abuse defense’ into battle against the Crown.

Intriguing, yes, but I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to get all the way through it. So let me say this: If you enjoy Jackie Collins and you’re no purist, Blood Royal may just make you salivate.

'The Moonlit Cage' (Linda Holeman)

Chadari-draped Muslims are to current fiction what ornamental geishas were to 90s novels and, in a post-Taliban literary arena, Afghani is the flavour of the moment.

From The Bookseller of Kabul to The Kite Runner, readers are walking Kabul’s streets, exploring Jalalabad’s markets and climbing the Hindu Kush.

In The Moonlit Cage, Linda Holeman gives us Darya, a young Afghani. Too independent for her own good and too ‘wicked’ for her 1850s village, she is cursed by her father’s wife, shunned by her frightened community and locked into a fraudulent, brutal marriage.

But when Darya flees to Victorian London to save her own life, she finds it as unforgiving as the stark landscape of her origin: “I was overcome with deep, painful grief for all of us, for our women’s lives filled with…never-ending loss, a need to be loved and yet having it slide away.”

The Moonlit Cage is not unusual in a genre packed with similar plots, but it is richly textured, magnificently written and filled with imaginative characters. I’d even read it again.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

'Eats Shoots & Leaves' (Lynne Truss)

Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots & Leaves has sold 3 million copies worldwide. And that’s just the hard-cover version! Which suggests that there are more punctuation sticklers out there than you’d think.

An unrepentant stickler myself, I shrieked when I spotted her new soft-cover version. It has a ‘Punctuation Repair Kit’ made up of bold black stickers: 24 commas, 4 full stops, and a glorious assortment of colons (normal and semi) and marks (exclamation and question).

Truss urges thus: “Sticklers unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion... Maybe we won’t change the world, but at least we’ll feel better. …at the same time, [don’t get] punched on the nose, or arrested for damage to private property.”

With delicious chapters including ‘The Seventh Sense’; ‘The Tractable Apostrophe’; ‘That’ll Do, Comma’; and ‘Cutting a Dash’, Truss continues (in this usefully handbag-sized edition) to elevate punctuation to the level it deserves: that of life or death. God bless her.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

'Charles & Camilla: Portrait of a Love Affair' (Gyles Brandreth)

Gyles Brandreth is a prolific writer, having penned two novels, several non-fiction titles, five children’s books and five plays. He’s written two autobiographies, so he must be (or consider himself) an interesting fellow.

He’s also an accomplished biographer, with Dan Leno, John Gielgud, and Queen Elizabeth among his subjects. This is why I was intrigued by Charles & Camilla: Portrait of a Love Affair, positioned as “the definitive account of one of the most extraordinary love stories of our time”.

If Brandreth had immortalised Queen Liz, and she’d more or less approved, surely he’d tread carefully in his portrait of two individuals so battered by the media? And would his tread be so careful as to straddle the biographical fence?

Yes. It would.

Portrait begins with an engaging preface and a clever prologue, using extracts from a Brandreth diary kept in the run-up to the Charles/Camilla nuptials. It promises readers “the secret” of their thirty-four year relationship and an exploration of how a horsey home-wrecker morphs into the Princess Consort. Delicious.

But Portrait goes downhill from there – into chapters of ancient inter-marriage and royal muddle, peppered with parallels between Charles/Camilla and Royals/Their Mistresses Through The Ages. The best part (dare I admit this publicly?) is the transcript of ‘that telephone conversation’, which gives astonishing insights into both personalities.

If you’re a Royalist, buy it. If not, just pick it up and turn to page 258.

P.S Brandreth is right in his assertion that Camilla is actually rather pretty these days.

Monday, January 09, 2006

'Gentlemen & Players' (Joanne Harris)

It’s not France, food and magic. It’s not chocolate-scented passion, nor the timelessness of mother-daughter love. This time, it is chalk dust and paper planes; Latin lessons and green playing fields; practical jokes and crime, both petty and serious. But it tastes just as good.

Set within the sprawling mellowed stone of St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen & Players is a classic closed society ‘whodunnit’, driven by dramatic irony and skeletons in the stock-cupboard. And for the reader, it is nose-buried-deep-in-the-pages delight.

Gentlemen has two narrators: the gruff romantic and veteran Latin master, Roy Straitley, and the faceless impostor, ‘Mole’, bent on crumbling St. Oswald's to its very foundations. Amidst proliferating vermin, weird traditions, staff-room idiosyncrasy and sudden death, the story unfolds – a hugely enjoyable lesson on the consequences of envy and elitism.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

'Witness to Aids' (Edwin Cameron)

No-one seemed to want to read it. It’d been on the ‘Book Review’ shelf for ages, I was told. I grabbed it.

Edwin Cameron’s Witness to Aids is beautifully written, truthfully related and extremely (heartbreakingly) frank. No heaviness. No self-pity. Witness is also a gripping piece of history since Cameron, a Justice of the Supreme Court of Appeal, is South Africa’s only public office bearer to have publicised his HIV status.

“…[T]he act of speaking addressed – for me at least – that unspoken shame at the core of so much Aids discrimination…”

As a memoir, Witness is a moving account of Cameron's introduction to anti-retroviral drugs, which took a man battling to breathe and made him a climber of Table Mountain. As an analysis, it brilliantly explores crucial issues: stigma, Aids denialism, the role played by international pharmaceutical companies, the efforts of the Treatment Action Campaign and the monstrous mix of "race, sex, death and Africa".

Cameron's career – not his HIV status – makes him uniquely qualified to examine South Africa's response to Aids, increasingly depicted as a human rights issue for the estimated five million infected South Africans. This is why Witness should top every South African’s ‘required reading’ list: it is perhaps the most palatable, most sincere, most thought-provoking printed exploration of the Aids virus out there.

'Breakfast with Tiffany' (Edwin John Wintle)

I picked the book from the ‘To Be Reviewed’ pile out of sheer ego. Wouldn’t you, if it had your name on the cover?

And the gods were smiling down on me that day, because Breakfast with Tiffany is a life-altering read. I abandoned work for two solid days to devour it.

Positioned as ‘An Uncle’s Memoir’, Breakfast relates the tumultuous co-habitation of Eddy and Tiffany. The former is a quirky gay guy in his 40s, complete with crazy-but-stylish social circle and OCD inclinations. The latter is his troubled, talented, adorable teenage niece – sent to inflict her tantrums on Uncle Eddy for a few years, since the folks back home can’t take her anymore.

Breakfast with Tiffany does for 2000s literature what The Prince of Tides did in the 80s, with similar touching nuances, descriptive richness and a bit of heartbreak. And its truth, complemented by passing references to Manhattan post-9/11 and the war on Iraq, makes the ride ever sweeter. My prediction: it’s the next big thing.

'The Divide' (Nicholas Evans)

From the author of The Horse Whisperer, I expected brilliance. An evocative, multi-layered masterpiece that, if it didn’t bring tears, would yield at least a significant lump. It’s been ten years since Nicholas Evans’ catalytic first novel and four years since his last. I expected a novel worth waiting for.

The Divide isn’t bad. In fact, it’s a compelling story once you get into it and the main characters are deliciously real. There’s also a strong sub-plot centred on the divide between men and women; as Evans puts it, “…what happens when, over the years, they change in different ways and their needs and hopes, their passions and yearnings diverge”.

But the tale of pretty privileged Abbie Cooper – wanted for acts of eco-terrorism, missing for months and found dead on a frozen mountain by a couple of skiers – is no Grace McLean, equine tragedy and human pain. The Divide didn’t weave the same web around me; didn’t convey hurt and healing with the same ugly beauty.

It’s a good read, disappointing only because it comes from a writer I assumed to be great.

'Salem Falls' (Jodi Picoult)

Jodi Picoult is the ‘new big thing’. Having established herself with My Sister’s Keeper as the queen of family, relationships and love, garnished with a slice of ethical dilemma, she’s thrilled the literary public.

Bookclubs countrywide are salivating over their tea and melktert, and book publishers are frantically re-jacketing, re-printing and re-launching.

But many don’t know that Picoult’s been around for a while. She’s a big thing, sure, but she isn’t new. In fact, she’s written twelve books. My Sister’s Keeper was number 11.

Salem Falls (number eight) is interesting - unveiling the darkness of modern-day witchcraft, the consequences of lies and empty malice, and the heartbreak of damaged people who find love and then lose it.

We meet Jack St Bride, a former teacher, forced to admit to an ugly crime he didn’t commit and to submit to a prison term he didn’t deserve. Eight months later, Jack’s a free man. But he’s different, troubled, hollow. And as he tries to build a new life in a small town, four teenage witches design a game in which Jack is the straw man.

"Think how powerful you felt tonight, healing someone. And then imagine how powerful you'd feel if you could ruin someone's life."

Salem Falls lacks the gasp factor of My Sister’s Keeper and its plot, barring the Wiccan element, is a little passé. But considering that the former came first and that Picoult appears to be getting better with each novel, it’s a good solid read.

'Spud' (John van de Ruit)

Positioned as “a wickedly funny novel” that will “make you roll around on the carpet laughing hysterically, gasping for air and begging for mercy…”, Spud is a collection of teenage diary entries.

Stop! Don’t you dare raise your eyebrows, nauseous at the prospect of digesting the horny ramblings of another insipid Adrian Mole! For Spud is brilliant. I didn’t quite fling myself a-carpet, clutching my sides, but I did smile, snigger and chuckle – and for me, that’s literary hysteria.

Spud is John Milton, aged 13: pre-pubescent teenager extraordinaire, first-year boarding school pupil, diarist, cricketer, singer/actor, aspirant freedom fighter, would-be stud, son to crazy parents and grandson to senile old bat. Spud is also the dorm-mate of an assortment of freaks so jaw-droppingly insane that the mind simply boggles – and that boarding school begins to sound alarmingly like Hell.

Over the course of a turbulent school year, Spud sneaks us into his life, recounting his unusual exploits and describing his 1990s environment with delicious South African flavour. He introduces us to his truly dysfunctional (horrifyingly realistic) family, his deeply disturbed (but vivid) posse of teachers and his cruel, mean, bloodthirsty (quite sweet, really) peers.

I adored every second of reading Spud, ignored family and friends while I did so and fell to my knees at the finish to thank the Good Lord for not subjecting me to boarding school. Buy it!

'Jane Fonda: My Life So Far' (Jane Fonda)

How silly of me! To read Jane Fonda’s My Life So Far so close on the jolly, teetering heels of Goldie Hawn’s A Lotus Grows in the Mud!

Both are autobiographical tomes by grande dames of similar Hollywood provenance. Both feature thoughtfully posed cover photographs and almost-smiles. Both tell fascinating stories. Both are deliciously frank.

But Goldie’s is motivational. Spiritual. Sage. Jane’s is a little mean. A little nasty. A little self-congratulating. And while I pored over Lotus during a weekend away, ignoring friends, food and conversation, I couldn’t finish My Life. It felt too long.

So as not to undermine it entirely, I will tell you that My Life appears to have two selling points.

One, it exposes the interesting roots of Hanoi Jane’s controversial political beliefs; her stand against the Vietnam War and the "two minute lapse of sanity" when she was photographed sitting at a North Vietnam anti-aircraft gun site.

Two, it is a poignant comment on marriage, specifically on the fact that all three of Fonda's marriages made her suffer. A remarkable admission from a strong woman whose public life never portrayed her as a victim of patriarchy.

My Life’s myriad black and white photographs are also quite divine.

'The Power of the Dog' (Don Winslow)

Save my soul from the sword,
My love from the power of the dog. (Psalm 22)

Ian Rankin positions Don Winslow as a writer “so good you almost want to keep him to yourself”. But much as it pains me to disagree with Rankin, I don’t want to keep Don Winslow to myself. His The Power of the Dog, a blistering fictional indictment of America's war on drugs, just didn’t grab me. It might grab you, if you like this sort of thing.

Know at the outset that this is a book in which graphic detail illustrates the gruesome torture visited on victims of the drug war. Know that horrific, almost clinical, images often detract from the plot. And if that doesn’t bother you, read on.

Art Keller is a half-Anglo, Half-Mexican DEA agent who sometimes breaks the rules, handling much of his business outside the purview of government agencies. Adan Barrera is a political untouchable; a sleek charmer who calmly ravages a country's economy in pursuit of profit.

Between them, there’s thirty years of double-crossing, duplicity and the desperate need for vengeance. There’s also a line-up of the usual suspects in any story about illegal drugs – Italian mobsters, Irish mobsters, assorted hitmen, beautiful hookers, corrupt cops and politicians.

'The Devil’s Feather' (Minette Walters)

Bestselling author Minette Walters has, with her last four novels, edged into a kind of socio-criminal fiction writing, interweaving strong social commentary and psychological insight with scene, sequel and dialogue.

Her latest, The Devil’s Feather, takes this tendency to a new level. Superbly crafted and strikingly written, the story comments on welfare, elderly abuse, suicide, panic attacks, relationships, lies and power. It is also pleasingly peppered with allusions to recent news: al-Qaeda’s charismatic Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, prisoner abuse by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib jail and land acquisitions by Mugabe’s ZANU-PF.

Carrie Burns is a rebellious Reuters correspondent, of Zimbabwean origin, reporting on the wars in Sierra Leone and Iraq. Suspecting a local sadist of serial murder, she ruffles bureaucratic feathers - leading said sadist to abduct her. Carrie is caged, degraded, tortured and then, unexpectedly released. She flees to England, where she finds herself hiding in a countrified Dorset community with its own ugly secrets.

The Devil’s Feather is typical of Walters in its use of voice, but unusually global in its setting. I predict that it will satisfy both devoted Walters-philes and readers who are new to her work. It is absolutely gripping.

'Straight into Darkness' (Faye Kellerman)

Many commentators on Faye Kellerman are put off by her inclusion of “religious stuff” in the popular Peter Decker police procedural series. I like the religious stuff, because it offers an unusual perspective and an interesting range of settings.

More than that, I like it because it’s Jewish writing by a Jewish writer who doesn’t conform to type: rattling on about Nazi Germany, its unprecedented evil and the social consequences of same fifty years later. As a reader, I’m tired of World War Two. There’ll only ever be one Diary of Anne Frank.

So, the moment I scanned the blurb for Kellerman’s new thriller, Straight Into Darkness, I knew I wouldn’t be able to wrap myself round it. Call me predictable. Call me boring. But I like Decker. You, on the other hand, might love this novel – if you’re WWII-inclined.

Straight Into Darkness is set in 1920s Munich, when Hitler's web is widening and his Nazis becoming increasingly influential. Homicide detective Axel Berg is trailing a serial killer. He’s not particularly interested in politics but, as his investigation attracts the attention of politicians and assorted hate-mongers, Berg realises the horror of what the Nazis are planning if they ever take power.

Finding himself twisted up in intrigue and surrounded by potential enemies, he watches Munich slip further into turmoil, overrun by political factions and the rise of a megalomaniac. And amidst the chaos, Berg doesn’t even know who he’s looking for.

'A Lesser Evil' (Lesley Pearse)

Lesley Pearse typically pens ‘surviving-against-all-odds’ novels, about beautiful, talented (but poor) young women whose fathers, stepfathers or guardians abuse them until they flee, penniless, into scary streets. Eventually, after torturous travail, they a) achieve superb careers or b) become famous. Either way, they meet the men of their dreams and live blissfully ever after. The End.

With A Lesser Evil, Pearse injects touches of both Martina Cole and Minette Walters into her work, constructing a strong social commentary hidden behind a rather vacuous tale. Fifi and Dan Reynolds are an earnest young pair (surviving against all odds, of course) who move into a squalid London street to escape her snooty parents and find that the members of their impoverished new community are up to no good.

Fifi and Dan’s characters are inescapably two-dimensional; their neighbours and families little more than stereotypes. However, as the watery plot thickens into stew and the issues grow darker, it’s fairly easy to become entangled in the drama; to hold thumbs that the fluffy protagonists will prevail and a) achieve superb careers or b) become famous.

I’d recommend A Lesser Evil to fans of Pearse, Cole or Walters and make the following serving suggestion: sunshine, sunglasses, lounger, umbrella, beach/pool.

'Prickle Your Fancy Toooo' (Yvonne Cook & Gaynor Spolidoro)

For a devoted linguist, there’s little more mouth-watering than a minor malapropism; little more ticklish than a troublesome translation. Indeed, I’ve had many a satisfying chuckle at ‘insinuendo’ (innuendo), ‘parrot-phrase’ (paraphrase) and ‘live detective test’ (lie detector test). I’ve even laughed out loud at the notion of a translated sign in a Paris hotel reading, “Please leave your values at the front desk.”

But Prickle Your Fancy Toooo isn’t the wickedly witty collection of bite-sized guffaws I’d expected. It relies heavily on spelling errors (‘trimazzinis – tramezzinis’; ‘callslaw’ – ‘coleslaw’; ‘vunrable’ – ‘vulnerable’) – the kind that are funny when children make them and depressing when educated adults do. It also features extracts from expired e-forwards: “Why are they called ‘buildings’ when they are already finished? Shouldn’t they be called ‘builts’?”

I was hoping for sophisticated stuff, along the lines of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, and I was rather disappointed.

Prickle did prickle my smiling muscles in two respects: its ‘Out of the mouths…’ compilation of kiddie error is utterly delightful (“My brother is an asthmatical who also suffers from haysneezer.”) and its ‘Commentary bloopers’ are funny, because they sound as if someone, somewhere really said them (“There have been injuries and deaths in boxing – but none of them serious.” and “I owe a lot to my parents – especially my mother and father.”).

In short, this one’s a cute stocking-filler – good for a laugh if you, or the owner of the stocking, are not too snobby a linguist.

'The Real Diana' (Lady Colin Campbell)

It’s like a tabloid: sleazy, sexy and scandalous. But written by a Lady. A real Lady, with palace connections and loads of sources ‘close to the Princess’. These sources – and the fact that the book boasts some credible theories about Diana’s complex personality, public life, secret lovers and untimely death – collectively rescue The Real Diana from utter sensationalism. I was glued.

Unauthorised Diana bios are everywhere right now, which would be problematic for this biography if not for the author’s unique relationship with the Princess. Positioned as a ‘Royal insider’, Lady Colin Campbell has a jaw-dropping inside track, gleaned from meetings and conversations with the high-brow Royal higher-end and with Diana herself.

Beginning with the snooty Spencer origins and Diana’s turbulent teenage-hood, The Real Diana places the Princess against the backdrop of an uncertain courtship, a glorious white wedding, a looming palace (‘Buck House’), a rickety marriage, an ugly separation, an acrimonious divorce, a flurry of tumultuous love affairs, a tragic car accident in a Paris tunnel and the resulting ribbons of swirling conspiracy.

Diana comes across as extremely unstable and Charles, as a stoic and stiff-upper-lipped coper. Which makes for a pleasant change, if you’re not a total Diana-phile. I’m not; I found the biography fascinating. My only gripe is that there are no glossy pics. You know, the kind we routinely scan for when flipping through biographies of famous people. But The Real Diana is certainly a lip-smacker. I loved it.

'Mind Maps For Kids' (Tony Buzan)

If I didn’t know better, I’d think Tony Buzan was a kid himself. He doesn’t write for kids; he speaks to them. With great respect. None of that dreary, patronising stuff fed to little minds by big egos.

Buzan’s Mind Maps for kids is an innovative introduction to mind mapping for the youthful uninitiated. Containing easily digestible tips for increasing motivation, enhancing memory and concentration, absorbing facts and figures and improving results, it’s a user-friendly delight.

As an educational writer, I know how tricky it is to enlighten kids without boring them to tears. Buzan uses clever gimmicks to circumvent this: memorable examples, a stimulating register, loads of white space, clever and relevant visuals, jokes and teasers, and a step-by-step guide to juggling (which warms up both sides of the brain).

Mind Maps has only two drawbacks.

One is the target audience. The book is “suitable for ages 7-14”, but it would work better for readers between 10 and 16. Particularly in the South African context. Our learners are largely unfamiliar with mind mapping and the realities of English as a second language make Mind Maps a fitting read.

The other downside is the quality of the mind maps used as examples. They’re too ‘good’. Too professional. And this could intimidate first-time mind mappers. I’d like to see real-life maps; created perhaps by the “Master Mind Mapper” kids mentioned under ‘Acknowledgments’. Crooked lines. Stick figures. Simple structures. Better for breaking down defences and creating the impression that “I could do that!”

On the whole, a superb book.

'No Such Thing As Over-Exposure: The Life and Celebrity Of Donald Trump' (Robert Slater)

It’s a Trump-fest. So if you love Donald Trump; if you’re enamoured of his ego; if you’re impressed by his gilt-edged storeys and stories; if his bouffant fills you with warm fuzzies; and if the words “You’re Fired” lift the hairs on your forearms – read it now.

But if you don’t want to know who wins The Apprentice II (which has yet to grace South Africa’s reality-saturated screens), don’t venture near the last chapter.

Robert Slater’s No Such Thing As Over-Exposure: The Life And Celebrity Of Donald Trump is no bounty of beautifully-expressed prose, no artful literary masterpiece. It’s a rave review of Trump, written by a best-selling business biographer who writes like a sleep-starved Wall Street journo. Hastily.

Still, No Such Thing is an in-depth, behind-closed-doors look at The (deeply charismatic and highly complex) Donald. It tells of his flights of fancy and flipflops of failure. It unpacks his wild motivations and unearths his weird methodologies.

Covering Trump’s upbringing (fascinating!), his education (unexpected), his entrepreneurship (bumpy but brave), his idiosyncrasies (extensive) and his celebrity (well-deserved), the memoir is an enlightening read. With the added bonus that it’s possibly the only Trump memoir not penned by Trump himself.

'Fantastic: The Life of Arnold Schwarzenegger' (Laurence Leamer)

Born in the bucolic Austrian village of Thal, many miles from anywhere, Arnold Schwarzenegger went on to become a body-building champ, an action movie star, a Kennedy husband and The Governator: the Republican governor of California.

Yes, it’s a true Hollywood tale, this one.

Painting Arnie as a cultural and political icon, Laurence Leamer’s Fantastic offers jaw-dropping insights into the sweaty, sneakily strategic world of professional body-building; the promise, pretense and power that is Hollywood film-making; and the snakes ‘n ladders of electoral campaigning – with Arnie injecting guttural insights at every turn.

Leamer, a prominent Kennedy biographer, has a real inside track. But his opus, albeit fascinating and meticulously researched, is hardly objective. Arnie is charismatic and complex, but he’s no Kennedy; no “man who could change the face of politics in America”. It’s also a flight of biographical fancy to term a good action hero “the biggest movie star in the world”.

Nonetheless, Fantastic is a satisfying read. And Arnie, although he comes across dof, could teach us all a thing or two about self-marketing. In which he’s a pro to rival even Trump.