Category Archives: BOOK REVIEWS

THE RED BOOK ENGINE


Midway through our Open Garden viewing in Elgin, we stopped at Peregrine Farmstall for lunch. Tramping around gardens left us with an urgent need for refuelling and Peregrine was the perfect place. The Farmstall is renowned for its pies and when I’d finished my big Springbok pie, I could quite see why . It was crammed full of spicy meat, the flaky pastry was light and golden , just like you hope it will be, and seldom is! In short: the perfect pie.
After lunch we wandered into the garden for a smoke break, and to my surprise, this is what I found.

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(Thanks to Nina Ganci for the photos)
Burning books? Oh, the horror! My mind immediately zoomed to Ray Bradbury’s classic SF novel Fahrenheit 451. The curious title refers to the temperature at which paper will burn, and the novel is a dystopian fantasy about a world where books are regarded as dangerous. There’s a special police unit which hunts them down and burns them. *

 

I strolled around the big vehicle , which has been retro fitted to serve as a Book Truck , a shop on wheels, stocked with current popular fiction, a large selection of kids’ books, and a small non-fiction section.

 

I looked around for the stallholder and found Christy . There we are in the header pic. We got chatting and I discovered she loves books, particularly literary fiction and historical fiction.
Christy told me that the mobile Burning Books project is an offshoot of her bookstore in Grabouw: Liberty Books.

 

Would you believe she saw an ad in Gumtree for a classic imported 1955 Green Goddess fire engine – which goes to prove you can buy and sell practically anything on Gumtree! Only snag was it was situated in Dannhauser, a former coal mining town in the Northwest of Kwa Zulu Province. A tad under 1500 kms away from Grabouw. But, where there’s a will etc … Luckily Christy’s husband is a classic car fundi/expert and engineer, who was able to do the conversion of the truck from fire engine to bookstore.  After the refit, at the end of June this year, they parked the truck in the Peregrine Farmstall garden. Due to its success, it hasn’t moved since!

 

I asked Christy about her choice of name for her project. Apart from the fact that she enjoys alliteration, hence the name, she said :
“Because a fire truck is a vehicle designed to rescue people and property from burning I thought it was fitting to name my bookstore, housed in a fire truck, “Burning Books”. Repressive regimes throughout history have been “Burning Books” and destroying them to attempt to contain the spread of dangerous ideas. Obviously, this is antithetical to what I’m doing: buying books from charity shops (thereby saving them from the destruction of pulping), in order to release second hand books back into the world, giving them another chance of life. “
A noble vision, from my book fanatic’s point of view, and a delicious irony in the name, don’t you think?

What booklover doesn’t fantasize about owning their own Bookstore? And then to own a happy red book truck – that’s gotta be the bright red cherry on top!

 

* Footnote: I hesitated before adding the following grim footnote to an upbeat post, but nevertheless, it’s important current issue in our country, regarding the freedom of the Press, and the need to prevent State censorship. Not to forget protecting our citizen’s Right to Freedom of Speech. I need to connect the dots between these ideas and the present uproar in South Africa about the publication of The President’s Keepers – Those Keeping Zuma In Power And Out Of Prison (Paperback) – Jacques Pauw. His expose has rattled the cages of the corrupt and powerful, and Pauw has been threatened by our State Security Agency . Naturally the enormous publicity has caused the book to sell out. More irony. Banning books is a relic of our bad old apartheid past, and must never be tolerated again.
https://www.timeslive.co.za/politics/2017-11-11-ive-got-more-dirt-on-ssa-
https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/nzimande-sacp-like-jacques-p

 

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MY NEW BOOK-THEMED BLOG


 

I subscribe to a number of WordPress blogs about books and reading,  and after enjoying them for several years, it finally dawned on me that maybe I should identify the book-related material in my  own blog  and start a second blog, devoted to books. Ping! Lightbulb flash.

So: I’m happy to announce the launch of THE BOOKSMITH BLOG  http://thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com .  Thanks again to WordPress.com for their blogging platform.  They really do make blogging easy for  wrinkly writers like yours truly. I hope you visit my new blog, even if you’re not an official Booknut like me.  If all else fails, it has quite a funny header pic.

Despatches from Timbuktu  will continue to act as my electronic soapbox where I comment on modern life, South Africa, social trends, my travels around the Western Cape and Cape Town, plus  anything else that might  attract my butterfly attention.

And not to overlook the fact that Despatches From Timbuktu  is  the one place where Chocolat can express her displeasure at my poor performance as her Personal Assistant. Sorry, Chocolat,  but you have no idea how much work building a new blog entails . I promise there’ll be fish for supper tonight. How’s that for an apology?

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THE TEMPTING LIBRARY BUMPER BOOK SALE


As is well known, I need more books in my house like I need the proverbial hole in my head, but nonetheless, I succumbed. After all, I’m doing a good deed by adding to Library funds, aren’t I? My book buying, on this occasion is a public good deed. So stop raising your eyebrows, and rolling your eyes. Yes – I did eat my Kryptonite for breakfast  – I can see you from here.

I had wonderful success on the Oldies But Goldies Table. A banquet of tattered treasures, old and battered, and costing R2 or R5 each. How could I resist? This is what I carted home:

Biggles & the Black Peril – Capt W E Johns  – boys’ adventures (see review below)

A Book of Poetry – W.M. Smythe   – dipped into;all those classic poems I should have read and didn’t; but  I can see this one is going to make its way back to the Library Sale tables.

The Bonfire of the Vanities  –  Tom Wolfe – still brooding heavily in my TBR pile.

Thus far I have only read Biggles and the Black Peril  by Capt W E Johns.  What a nostalgia fest!  I read as many of the Biggles books  as I could get my hands on when I was somewhere between the age of 9 and 12 years old.  I loved them.

Reading a Biggles book some 65 years later I polished off the book speedily.  They tend to be short on pages and even shorter on plot, but I say! What adventure, what thrills – chasing the baddies and/or being chased by the baddies (chief baddy in this epic is called Blackbeard – of course he is; and no, he’s not a pirate he’s a devious scheming Russian Up To No Good on British soil – the cheek of it!).

Flying all over Northern Europe in pursuit of the baddies in a flying boat – have you ever heard of such an aircraft? If you were born 1960 onwards, then probably not.  The page containing the publication date has been torn out of my battered copy, but the references are post-WWII , so I assume  the book was published in the late 1940s or early 1950s.

It’s all good clean fun, and the chaps are strong-jawed and courageous. The heroic Major Bigglesworth dramatically exclaims at intervals:”Hark! I hear an approaching machine!” I promise you, he does. “Hark!” – isn’t this delicious?  You can see him cupping his ear for the drone of the engine, while he turns his noble profile skywards and keenly scans the skies for the enemy aircraft. Wonderful. They don’t make heroes like this any more.

Our modern heroes rely heavily on Armageddon style weaponry and electronic wizardry, not to mention jaw dropping supernatural powers. Not so the brave band of Major  Biggles & Co. No no. Not for them. It was all down to courage, grit, determination, pluck and jolly good dash of luck thrown in. My vote goes to Biggles and not to Batman. You think I’m too old fashioned and hopelessly out of touch? Hard cheese,  dear reader.

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THE SEED COLLECTORS by Scarlett Thomas


Book Review

One of those novels with a large, confusing cast of people who are all related, but in complex ways.  Even the Family Tree before the prologue, and the amended Family Tree after the Epilogue, didn’t help much.  I’m not sure I ever really grasped who’s who at this zoo – or maybe I should say greenhouse.

To describe the novel as a Family Saga is true, I suppose, but it is by no means your run-of-the-mill FamSaga. Because much of the narrative is chopped into small, and sometimes even tiny, sections, the story skips merrily to and fro, thus adding to the dense thicket of the plot. Using a plant simile is entirely in keeping with the novel; the family surname is Gardener and there is a Family Tradition of naming progeny with whimsical botanical names like Quince, or Oleander, or Holly – you get the idea.

Most of the men are either deeply unpleasant or tiresomely  ineffectual. We are party to their graphic sexual fantasies. Yuck. Some of the women are just plain awful: anorexic pre-teen tennis fiend, Holly and her drunken shopaholic Mum, Bryony, for example. My favourite female character was 75 year old  Granny Beatrix, who has discovered the thrill of the Internet Stock Exchange Trading and on-line porn.

So: there’s a rich compost of participants mixed into a seething brew of botany, incest (between consenting adults, let me hasten to add),transcendentalism, New Age Celeb hideout,  psychotropics, deadly poisonous seeds, Lost Islands, the Outer Hebrides which are not THE Lost Islands, but have a connection.  You’ll have to read the book to find out.

An outstanding feature of the novel  are the 3 or 4 pages of superb writing, where Scarlett Thomas takes us into the consciousness of a stoned Robin Redbreast, inventing a brilliant bird style vocabulary to convey the bird’s feelings and experiences. And it does not result in a series of disconnected, hectic tweets.  For me, these pages justified reading the book.

Altogether one of the most unusual novels I’ve read in a while. Recommended.

 

 

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RAZOR GIRL by CARL HIAASEN


 

Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

 

Book Review

I’m not crazy about crime novels. The bleak Scandi crime novels leave me stone cold – well, they would, wouldn’t they? All that snow, ice and long dark winters are bound to produce that effect. Obviously.

And the Pathologist-cum-detective genre make me queasy. If I’d wanted to minutely investigate human anatomy I would have studied medicine. Which I chose not to do. Probably last on my Career Choice list.

Therefore, it is with a sigh of relief that I dive into the sun kissed frolicsome  pages of Carl Hiaasen’s novels. Any novel set in Florida is allowed to have the word frolicsome  in the review – sun, sand, bikinis, East Coast winter fugitives, retirees, oranges, hurricanes … clearly the setting is bound to be jollier than sub-Arctic Norway.

In Hiaasen’s semi-mythical world of the Florida Keys, there is a profusion of criminal low-life:  scammers, insurance fraudsters,  adulterers, gold-diggers, (all that sand encourages the pests), drunks, burglars, weed pushers, cold beers, rattling palm leaves, the Mafia, crooked property agents, lawyers (a.k.a. scum of the earth in Hiaasen’s world), muscular heavies, fishing and more cold beers, disgraced but noble ex-detectives, mistresses, car-crashes … it’s all fun, fun and more fun still.  Oh – last one: the odd murder or two, but that’s in passing. And the deceased deserved it anyway.

Hiaasen’s latest romp has the added entertainment of a truly terrible red-necked TV Reality Show , the patriarch of which sorry series is the catalyst for a seemingly never-ending chain of events involving a deranged, semi-brain dead fan of said dreadful TV garbage,  abduction, kidnap, ransom;  the TV show’s   scheming  Agents and Execs, their private jets, suspect contracts, deals and deception,  etc. etc. And the cherry on  top is that Hiaasen is laugh-out-loud FUNNY. Yes, you heard me. In a crime novel, nogal* .

If you think I’ve given the plot away, relax: I haven’t. The plot in Hiaasen’s latest criminal caper has so many wonderful colourful stories tangled up like nylon fishing line, that I couldn’t possibly be writing a spoiler.

Thank heavens for Mr Carl Hiaasen, and his cheerful, clever crime novels.  He’s a prize-winning journalist with a regular column in the Miami Herald ; a born and bred Floridan, still resident in that sunny State. I suspect many of the outrageous incidents and  bizarre characters in his fiction originate from  his  life as a  working journalist. You can’t make up some of the incidents in his novels,  you really can’t.

Thank you, Mr Hiaasen, from a jaded reader. Thank you for a marvellous series of novels that provide pages of sparkling entertainment. In fact, now that I think about it, I do believe I am going to start collecting his crime novels. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading  Hiaasen, do not wait another minute, run  to your nearest Library &/or book shop. Start reading. Immediately.  Enjoy!

*nogal – South Africanism =  yet.

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FROM LONGFELLOW TO LONGMIRE


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While tidying my bookshelves, I found  my copy of the poet, H W Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Donkey’s years ago, when I was probably between the ages of 5 and 9 , my Mother introduced me to Hiawatha. My Mum enjoyed poetry, and had a copy of the book. She read aloud to me, and I loved the rhythmic sing-song cadence of the poem, especially the lines:

On the shores of Gitche Gumee,

      Of the shining Big-Sea water.

Stood Nokomis, the old woman,

Pointing with her finger westward,

O’er the water pointing westward,

To the purple clouds of sunset.

For years I mistakenly thought the poem was written in rhyming couplets, but after re-reading, I discover it is not. In fact, the metre of Hiawatha is borrowed from a Finnish collection of poems that Longfellow had studied. The lines are unrhymed … notwithstanding this, the lines have a simple flowing rhythm.  This explanation is from the introduction by D C Browning, to my 1960 J M Dent & Sons (London) edition, in The Children’s Illustrated Classics series.

I picked up my copy 6 years ago, while on a tour to Matjiesfontein, of all places! Matjiesfontein is a tiny, quaint , restored Victorian village in the middle of the South African Karoo. The little village came to prominence  during the Anglo Boer War, but these days it is a prime tourist destination for history buffs, and travellers seeking a jolly good lunch en route up the N1 to Johannesburg. In the souvenir shop there were two bookcases, which I dived into, and to my joy, there was Hiawatha.

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The paper jacket is remarkably intact, given that the book was published in 1960. Insects have nibbled a few holes in the jacket, but all in all, for a 50+ year old book, it’s not bad. The pages are foxed, and there’s a musty smell, despite my airing the book in the sun on a  windy Cape summer’s day.

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It’s a ‘proper book’ in that it has a hardcover, which has a repeat woodblock print pattern of an Indian brave in feathered war bonnet on the inside.  And best of all: there are two-colour line drawings on every page of the text, drawn by Joan  Kiddell-Monroe.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Kiddell-Monroe. As you can see from the photos in this post, the drawings are simple and elegant.

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I think it must have been my early introduction to Hiawatha that led to my interest in the American West. Which was odd, considering I was a child with a British Colonial heritage and lifestyle, growing up in Central Africa. Or possibly it was the influence of the exciting black and white spaghetti Westerns that I was very occasionally taken to see; but only if I’d been good.

In my teen years I devoured every single Western that Zane Grey wrote – and he wrote over 90 of them*. I loved every page. Men were men, and women were glad of it. The horses were magnificent and the villains were real baddies. Nothing complicated. You knew where you were. Right would triumph after tests and trials, and the lone ranger would ride off into the sunset. *His book sales numbered 40 million ! (thanks, Wikipedia).

My Western phase petered out after my Zane Grey teens, but was revived with gusto with the advent of Sheriff Walt Longmire onto our TV screens about 4 years ago. This time we were looking at the modern West – murder and robberies, Indians on The Rez (reservation) gambling casinos, domestic dramas,  and Lou Diamond Philips as the impassive Standing Bear, sidekick and  friend of said Sheriff.  I’m hooked all over again.

Quite what H W Longfellow (an American poet and academic in the Victorian era) would make of the modern shenanigans in the West, I shudder to think. No more exploits of hunting, fishing, physical prowess, warring,  battling with the winds,  wooing the fair Minnehahha . Modern Westerns are much grittier, and far less mythical.  It looks as if childhood discoveries  through poetry have influenced me at different stages of my life. I’m glad Mum introduced me to Hiawatha!

 

 

 

 

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BOOKISH VOWS, PROMISES & OPTIMISM


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January 1st has no sooner  dawned than hordes of eager, hollow eyed bibliophiles a.k.a. book-nerds or read-a-holics, whatever you want to call us, are blearily tapping out their hopes, and dreams for 2017 onto their blogs. It’s infectious. I, too, am about to unleash my modest  To Do Reading Vow  List into the Blogosphere.

I’m fully aware that not all my followers are book addicts.  We’re a vast, myopic tribe , populating bookstore, Libraries and the dusty corners of the Web while other folk are  busy  working, playing, socialising, exercising (we’ve dimly heard of this strange activity), sleeping , etc, while the Book Tribe has its collective nose buried firmly in a book, or is adding to its TBR list (To be Read). Turns out many dedicated readers are keen list makers. We have to be, you see.  So many books, so little time, groaning shelves of our latest purchases – we need to try to establish some control over our addiction.

I’ve been surfing the many Bookish Blogs to which I subscribe (how do I ever find time to read real live books? It’s tough, but I make the effort) and I’m amazed at the plethora of tasks that readers set themselves . For example, during the coming year they promise to :

  • Read more than 100 books (last year they only managed 70 odd, and are mortified)
  • Enter a minimum of three Reading Challenges by 31 December
  • Join a Ulysses (James Joyce) Reading Group (no thanks: pass on this one)
  • Only read novels written by women
  • Read national literature for 365 days e.g. Australian, South African
  • Read translated novels and nothing else for a year
  • Restrict their reading to Award Winning Novels

And so it goes.  I’m alternately impressed and depressed by the tasks readers set themselves.

My own goals are much more modest.  Hesitantly I publish my own feeble promises:

#1        Read 12 books from my TBR pile by 15 December. It’s only one a month. Easy.

#2        Read 2 books a week. I’m aiming for that Gold Star 100.

#3        Not to buy any new books between now and 31 March. My credit card has smoke coming out of it. This should probably be in #1 slot.

#4        Watch less TV.

And that’s enough to be getting along with. Bye for now – back to my current book.

P.S. Don’t you love my Book Brick?  Painted by Steve, at the Milnerton Library, Cape Town.

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MY 2016 READING YEAR


 I haven’t ticked as many books off my TBR list as I’d hoped, only 9 out of 12. More effort required  in 2017. And my  cataract op slowed me down somewhat, but this said, here are  the highlights  of my 2016 reading year.  Looking forward to your comments.

BEST READ OF THE YEAR

The Tsar of Love and Techno – Anthony Marra 

BEST SOUTH AFRICAN NOVEL

Recipes for Love & Murder – Sally Andrew 

BEST TRAVEL BOOK

Lost on Planet China – J. Maarten Troost 

BEST CLASSIC

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov 

BEST SUSPENSE

The Martian – Andy Weir 

BEST BIOGRAPHY

The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf 

 BEST WAR MEMOIR/HISTORY

The Call of the  Litany Bird – Sue Gibbs

(Surviving the Rhodesian Bush War)

 

BEST TRANSLATED NOVEL

From the Mouth of the Whale  – Sjon

BEST SPECULATIVE FICTION

Station Eleven – Emily Mandel 

BEST SHORT STORIES

Brief Encounters with Che Guevarra – Ben Fountain

FUNNIEST NOVEL

A  Match for Dr Koekentapp – Allan Kaye

 

MOST UNUSUAL CRIME NOVEL

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

MOST UNUSUAL MEMOIR

The Undertaker’s Daughter – Kate Mayfield

MOST UNUSUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY

South of Nirvana – Sue Randall

 

TERRIFIC READS

Between the Woods & the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor  (beautiful prose)

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff  (modern life & marriage)

The Penguin Lessons – Tom Michell (fresh & quirky)

Unaccompanied Women – June Juska  (memoir)

The Shaman in Stilettoes – Anna Hunt (memoir)

The Mouseproof Kitchen –  Saira Shah  (contemporary novel)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE EVERYTHING STORE – JEFF BEZOS AND THE AGE OF AMAZON – Brad Stone


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 the pic is titled “Jeff Bezos iconic laugh

 

A fascinating account  of visionary entrepreneur /business tycoon/tyrant Jeff Bezos  and the birth and rapid growth of Amazon over the last 17 years..

JB emerges as the manic visionary who practically invented on-line shopping.  His business mantras (known as Jeffisms by his acolytes) are: Frugality and Customer Satisfaction. Incidentally, he’s clearly  the Boss from Hell, I would hate to work for Amazon. Apparently the company is renowned for burnouts and rapid departures. Hardly surprising, given Amazon’s meteoric growth since 1995. Squads of talented, bright people have worked for JB and contributed to Amazon’s success.

I thought Amazon.com was just a book retailer but they’ve morphed from their original concept literally into an Everything Store : clothing/ tools /jewellery/baby supplies/ DVDs – you name it, riding roughshod over competitors en route.  Because of their mega sized operation they can play the long game, waging a war of attrition with ever decreasing prices until their smaller competitors roll over and die or sell out to the giant. JBs vision led his company into development of the Kindle, space travel , the smartphone, and cloud storage for computer data. It’s worth following the Wikipedia link here to read more detail about amazon.com .  http://Jeff Bezos. http://amazon.com  

Bezos seemingly does not understand the meaning of words like boundaries and limits. Having taken Amazon so far, one wonders what he can possibly dream up next? Is there anything left to visualize?  Personally, I wish he’d turn his laser-gaze on to a cure for the common cold.  He’d certainly make another gazillion dollars if he did.  Apparently JB is not motivated by money or a flashy lifestyle – Brad Stone shows a man who values his family’s privacy and lives a relatively modest life.  Stone’s engrossing  book is  crammed with facts, figures, history, fascinating anecdotes. That’s why I chose the photo above, because apparently Bezos has an iconic laugh.

You don’t have to be an MBA student to read and appreciate the book – I certainly am not, but I  read every page with great interest and enjoyment. Highly recommended.

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THE CALL OF THE LITANY BIRD – Surviving the Zimbabwe Bush War – Susan Gibbs


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The book is an account of events in the  Nymandhlovu farming district,  southern Matabeleland,  Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) 1977 to 1983/4, written by farmer’s  wife, Susan Gibbs.

Sue Gibbs loved the farm, the bush and Rhodesia – this comes through clearly on every page, but in the end President Robert Mugabe’s  genocidal attacks against the  Nedbele, and their leader Joshua Nkomo,  plus the crimes of dissidents, who stayed in the bush after Independence and were nothing more than bandits,  committing farm murders and ambushes –  made life on the farm too dangerous.  Despite having the Agric Alert radio system, and despite PATU (Police Anti-Terrorism Unit) and the Army being on hand – despite living in wired enclosures, despite carrying sidearms and driving around in bombproof vehicles on account of the landmines:  the slaughter of farmers continued. In the end, these factors drove the Gibbs (and many other farmers) away from their farms, the land and the people they loved. And I need to emphasize that the phrase  people they loved refers not only to their friends and families, but also to long-time  loyal farm workers and servants.

On a very personal note: I lived in Bulawayo  during the 1970s, and worked for a time at the Matabeleland Farmers’ Co-op and came into daily contact with many of the farmers mentioned in her book, including her husband Tim Gibbs.  The sunburnt, hard-working men and women came into the Co-op on their weekly visits to town, to collect machinery spares, veterinary products, building supplies, seed and fertiliser, plus an enormous range of other items necessary to maintain a farm in the Rhodesian bush.

Our family had a close friend who ran a cattle ranch in the Shangani District, so I could relate to Susan Gibb’s  account of farm life in Rhodesia – the lovely gardens, the servants, the animals, the snake stories, the floods of visitors.  Rhodesian farmers were  generous, hospitable  folk, always ready to offer a meal, or a weekend on the farm, out in the bush.

On the one hand the book is a lovely read in the  nostalgic “when-we” category. On the other, an exposure of black atrocities against white farmers, and their black farm workers, in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. There was enormous suffering all round in the farming community.

I hope Susan Gibb’s  book receives wide recognition for an honest account of the attrition.

 

 

 

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