A nonagenarian debut, cat tales, a con artist and chillis


A nonagenarian debut, cat tales, a con artist and chillis

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH follows his nose and curiosity and tells us which books are not to be missed.


THE big problem with a 90-year-old's debut novel is that it might very well be dazzling. You know the chances that the author will enrich your life with a second book are extremely slim. Just imagine what the literary world would have looked like if only one novel had appeared from the pens of Lee Child, Agatha Christie or Georges Simenon.

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Michael Caine has been one of the biggest names in the film industry since the Sixties. On March 14 he will turn 91. Deadly Game is a suspense story about the search for a box of enriched uranium that falls into the hands of people with evil plans, and one semi-eccentric British detective who has to make sure this doesn't happen.

I did not have high expectations of the book. What could the super-celeb offer us? A collection of clichés from the hundreds of scripts he's read over the years or a pastiche of the best scenes from his films?

Plus, I was afraid my admiration for him as an actor would prevail and cloud my judgement — and then in the back of my mind there was also the suspicion that he did what Bill Clinton did and gave a story to an actual writer who then did the hard work.

Caine says he mostly wrote the book on his iPad in bed (he doesn't move so easily any more). The title was first If You Don't Want to Die but his publishers made him rewrite the manuscript a few times and give it a shorter title.

Reading Deadly Game was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Yes, it's somewhat old-fashioned in style but the story is hot. The detective Caine created, Harry Taylor, is a real presence. After years of experience of character study, Caine has what it takes to grow his subjects into perfectly believable people. Full-bodied.

Taylor is a detective with unorthodox methods and a razor-sharp mind. Caine's description of the action isn't free of cliché but his dialogue and gradual revealing of backstories are first-rate. He sometimes lets the story evolve in a slightly laconic vein but it progresses increasingly rapidly and suspensefully. Faster than you can say Ipcress File, Taylor finds out there is also a more modern Russian scumbag on the scene.

The plot moves along fairly predictable lines, Netflix-style. But it pulls you in, and for an interesting reason. The narrative voice and vocabulary are those of Michael Caine, delivered with the same kind of nonchalance with which we have heard him speak on the The Graham Norton Show or in several interviews with Michael Parkinson, or in the more than 130 films in which he has starred. As you read, that voice is constantly present; you can hear him saying the words, feel the writer getting into character.

This, of course, raises the suspicion that Caine may have dictated the book before he started working on transcriptions.

Whatever the case, my ultimate feeling was that Deadly Game is a much better book than most first attempts by younger writers. In a surprising way, Caine's first novel is one his admirers will love to remember. I should be ashamed of my cynicism.

Deadly Game by Michael Caine was published by Hodder & Stoughton and costs R537 at Exclusive Books.

Seven stories of varying length, and with one common denominator — a cat as a central figure. Cats, as any cat owner knows, are the real bosses of our lives. They arrive on earth with an innate wisdom. Our lives with them are actually a process of wisdom and insight gained with our cats as silent guides. I can never use the word “gratitude" without thinking about your cats.

Hiro Arikawa's stories are memorable because the people in them have weaknesses that are peculiar to people. Lack of self-confidence, incomprehension, short-sightedness, selfishness, things like that. I realise there's something soulful about Arikawa's people, and his cats don't do anything substantially wrong, ever, but it's impossible not to be deeply affected by most of these stories.

Japanese culture is foreign to me and Arikawa unlocks it for the Western eye. On the other hand, you must own or have owned one to understand cat culture. Then you'll flick away a tear with me at the end of the title story when a lapsed cat lover returns to his pet's deathbed. If you are not a cat lover, I am sorry for you, give it a miss.

Goodbye Cat by Hiro Arikawa was published by Transworld and costs R295 at Exclusive Books.

It's not the best time to read a story of a Jew turned Nazi during the Holocaust, and his lifelong attempt to fix things. Mitch Albom, however, is not a writer you can simply ignore just because the events in Gaza and The Hague have convinced you that the dividing line between arrogance and lies is very fine.

The Little Liar reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces, only the starting point is more negative. Eleven-year-old Nico Krispis convinces his fellow Jews at a Greek station to board the trains to Auschwitz because they go to a “better place". All at the urging of a Nazi, Udo Graf.

Ultimately, Albom shows that while revenge is the only way to make the truth prevail, one must be armed with love to walk the path. There is a lot of confidence trickery in the story, as Nico seeks love and correction. Aptly, the book ends as one would expect from a story that also sweeps through Hollywood — first tears, then a deep inner smile.

The Little Liar by Mitch Albom was published by Little, Brown and costs R430 at Exclusive Books.

Those old enough to remember the 1970 movie They Call Me Trinity will remember that there is nothing as enchanting and magical as watching cowboys eat Mexican bean stew. For a long time I wondered how to make it, even tried it, but all my efforts flopped. In this book, I came across the recipe for frijoles charros in tomato sauce. With a flat-topped pot and willing helpers who kept me company by the coals for three hours, we managed the real thing. You eat yourself into the next day.

The rest of the recipes are for adventurers looking for a mouth on fire and exotic sauces for ribs, fish, chicken and pork. There are delicious ideas with maize that would make ex-minister Ben Schoeman weep; you cook mealie cobs with with the leaves on over coals; also, many semi-vegetarian recipes. The only problem is that you have to use your imagination and make adjustments. Mexico has more variants of chillies than you could imagine.

Asada by Bricia Lopez was published by Abrams and costs R806 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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