Like aircraft, guns and perky breasts? Then this one’s for you

Review: David Bristow

Fly Away, A Sopwith Jones Adventure by Alan Haller (Self-published)

This is not the usual fare for this page but it deserves a few words, for a few reasons.

The first is that it is essentially fun, a racy adventure yarn in the vein of James Bond – not so much the current re-iterations but the older ones of the 1960s and 70s.

Another is that we, and the book, do not take ourselves too seriously lest we all bore one another to death (as I seem so often these days to be trying not to offend anyone).

This book might well offend some people, should they read it, but it probably won’t, because they won’t. Not from the cover anyway, which shows an airplane flying over lovey-dovey couple all in sunset hues.

It’s mostly about airplanes, or one specific airplane, and the hero guy who made it, Sopwith Jones. If you get the reference to vintage planes you are likely the kind of person who will read it.

Briefly, Sopwith converts an old Cessna “brick” to solar power in a hanger down in Port Alfred, and then everyone and their corrupt dog wants in on the spoils. So Sopwith bolts, in short solar-powered hops, across Africa to England. But his troubles follow him. Big troubles, James Bond style, where you have to suspend your disbelief to go with the flow.

Although the aircraft is state-of-the-art, the tone and style of the book itself is curiously old fashioned. Kind of like a cross between early Wilbur Smith and Boy’s Own magazine. We suspect that is the author’s own world view, but we cannot be sure it is not crafted that way for nostalgic effect (I fancy the former).

The leading female cast member, the only one who gets any substantial screen time, has shapely breasts (referred to quite a few times), and is ready to fall in love and into bed with the hero almost at the drop of a torque wrench. She’s also a jet fighter pilot, so what’s not to love?

There is lots of racy stuff about flying, and aircraft carriers and guns, for people who like that kind of stuff. Some recent elections in the US inform us that the percentage of women to men who do like that kind of stuff, and/or the men who do, is about evens with those who don’t. My best was the T-shirt fairly rent asunder by a tremendously breasted woman with the slogan “I love toxic masculinity”. So there it is: it takes all types to spin a propeller.

Another thing about the book that warrants discussion among we bibliophiles is that it was not issued by a mainstream publisher. The author knocked on all the doors, like so many of us before, but no bone was offered. So he decided to walk the lonely the “pay to publish” path.

I once tried that route and got my wallet singed but not much more. In conclusion, I would say don’t try that one at home. And I say lonely, because once you have delivered your manuscript and paid the fee, the relationship is pretty much over just as it’s begun.

The thing about books, as much as with bricks or bread, is that they are easier to make than they are to sell. And the Lord and the Devil know they aren’t easy to make.

The “paid for” people will give you a good looking product, well edited, good looking cover, all professional looking, but they’ll do diddley squat to sell it for you. That’s your job and, you soon find, it’s the really hard part.

Generally it’s better all round, and cheaper, to self-publish in the Amazon-Kindle model, and then throw whatever resources you have at marketing and getting it reviewed by calling in every favour you were ever owed. Haller reckons he has several more yarns to tell and sell in the Sopwith Jones series, and I’ll be interested to see how he goes about it.

Final word is that this book will make a soaring gift for anyone who has a penchant for airplanes, aircraft carriers, guns and perky breasts. We’d probably be surprised to find out how many do.



Courage and grit: one man’s quest to save SA’s rhino

Review: Vivien Horler

Rhino War – A general’s bold strategy in the Kruger National Park, by Johan Jooste with Tony Park (Macmillan)

News of the death of Timbavati head ranger Anton Mzimba on Tuesday resonated more with me than it might have had I not just finished this book.

Mzimba, described as a rhino warrior who had worked at Timbavati for 25 years, was shot outside his home in Acornhoek, Mpumalanga. Tributes poured in, including from the UK’s Prince William, and Helping Rhinos, a UK and US-based rhino charity.

A statement from Timbavati said: “Those …working with him will know how he dedicated his life to what he believed in, fighting for a species which has no voice of its own.”

Having read of Johan Jooste’s fight against rhino poaching in the Kruger National Park, I am sure he is devastated by the news. Continue reading

Bedside Table for July

These books have landed on my desk in the past few weeks. The first four are from Exclusive Books’ top 25 reads for July. Some will be reviewed in full later.

Rhino War, by Major General (Ret) Johan Jooste with Tony Park (Pan Macmillan)

What attracted me to this book was the name of the co-author, Tony Park, author of 19 thrillers set in Africa and a former Australian soldier. So I was pretty sure Rhino Wars would read well, and it does.

In 2012 Johan Jooste, a retired SA general, was taken on by SANparks in a bid to change the Kruger Park rangers into a paramilitary force to turn the tide on the tsunami of rhino poaching.

Traditionally rangers kept an eye on the animals, mended fences, got rid of alien plants and manned the park gates. But the scale of poaching at the time meant rangers were spending something like 95% of their time going after poachers. Something radical had to be done if rhinos were to survive as a species.

And so in came Jooste, with a wealth of military and organisatioal experience to turn things around. It wasn’t easy: many were suspicious of his apartheid SA military baggage, he was in his 60s, his rangers were angry at their treatment by SANparks, and the rhinos were still dying.

I’ve not got very far into this book yet, but it has certainly caught my attention.

The Twyford Code, by Janice Hallett (Viper)

In her acknowledgements Janice Hallett says it is entirely due to the fact Enid Blyton fell out of favour as a children’s author that she became a reader. “If no one had sent their Famous Five books to the 3rd Northolt Scout jumble sale in the 1970s, I would never have picked them up and taken them back to a home with no other books in it…”

This is a strange whodunnit – really strange and occasionally ridiculous – which has at its centre a late famous children’s author called Edith Twyford (Enid Blyton/Edith Twyford, geddit?). Years later schoolboy Steven Smith finds a copy of one of her books with its margins full of strange markings and notes. He shows the book to his teacher, Miss Iles, who is convinced that the story is an elaborate code to revealing some of Britain’s wartime secrets.

Miss Iles takes a small group of children, including Steven, on a trip to see Twyford’s home in Dorset, and during the trip she disappears, an event that haunts all the children for years.

Steven falls in with a bad crowd, and eventually serves time for murder. After his release he decides to find out what happened to Miss Iles, and believes his original copy of the book holds the key. But Steven isn’t the only one looking for the book, and the others are really nasty pieces of work.

I kept wanting to put The Twyford Code down, but was intrigued despite myself. I read it to the remarkable twist at the end.

This Rebel Heart, by Katherine Locke (Alfred A Knopf)

This looks like a magnificent novel, set in the Communist Hungary of the 1950s. Csilla lives in Budapest, beside the Duna River. The river helped keep the family safe during the Holocaust, but afterwards, when the Russians came, the Communists seized power and Csilla’s parents were murdered by the secret police. She did not understand then how her father had been behind the destruction of other families.

Now Csilla is planning to leave Hungary, but as she is about to go her parents are exonerated of their crimes. This leads to protests across the city, and even talk of a revolution.

Should she stay and help fight for what she believes in, or go and put her past behind her?

In a review of This Rebel Heart, the author Rosalyn Eves says: “A moving, magical story that asks hard questions: how do we love imperfect people and places? What is the cost of change – and complacency?”

Questions that might well resonate with many South Africans.

Bloomsbury Girls, by Natalie Jenner (Allison & Busby Ltd)

This is not yet another novel about the Bloomsbury Group – it’s about a London bookshop called Bloomsbury Books, and three of the women who work there.

It’s an old shop and has always been run by men, but after the devastation of World War II things have been shaken up a bit.

The cover blurb says: “One bookshop.  Fifty-one rules.  Three women who break them all.”

As the women do their thing, they interact with literary figures of the day, such as Daphne du Maurier, Samuel Beckett and Peggy Guggenheim.

One shout on the cover promises that fans of 84 Charing Cross Road “will be delighted”. I think it looks great.

Booth, by Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail/ Jonathan Ball)

Booth is by the author of the bestseller We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which was a fascinating and entertaining novel with an extraordinary twist.

Booth is historical fiction, and the Booth of the title is John Wilkes, who famously shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s theatre in Washington DC on April 14 1865, days after the end of the American Civil War.

Much earlier in the century Junius Booth, an English Shakespearean actor, brought his flower seller bride to a log cabin on a farm in Maryland, where she spent most of her time either pregnant or breast-feeding, while Junius was on the road or on the stage.

There were 10 children in all, of whom six survived to adulthood, and all had to learn how to emerge from the power of their domineering father.  John Wilkes, a Confederate sympathiser who also became an actor, chose his own way and changed the course of American history.

This novel has been described as Karen Joy Fowler’s finest, and one that is a “devastating meditation on how the USA arrived at this troubled point in its present history…”

Elon Musk – Risking it all, by Michael Vlismas (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

It was Buzz Lightyear who said: “To infinity, and beyond,” the line that echoed through author Michael Vlismas’s head during the writing of this book.

In a shout on the cover by celebrated SA journalist Toby Shapshak, he asks: “How did a bullied, introverted Pretoria schoolboy become the world’s richest person and arguably humanity’s greatest change agent? Vlismas’s extensively researched biography does a great job of unwrapping Elon Musk’s remarkable life story.”

With his achievements of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX and his current fight with Twitter, Musk is hardly ever out of the headlines. While without doubt he’s a brilliantly inventive man, he often seems to be cloth-eared and cheerfully ignorant of others’ sensibilities. Maybe that’s the source of what makes him outstanding, if occasionally something of a buffoon.

Witnessing – From the Rwandan tragedy to healing in South Africa, by Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase (Kwela)

In December 2006 Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase was in Cape Town for a Christmas gathering of Mandela-Rhodes scholarship holders to meet Nelson Mandela.

It would be hard to imagine he was the same person as the 14-year-old Kigali schoolboy who watched as a soldier pointed his gun at his mother, preparing to shoot.

In this book he describes his ghastly experiences during the genocide in Rwanda, his preparations to flee to Canada, losing all his money and ending up as a car guard in Durban.

He was determined to get on, though, enrolled at university and won the Mandela-Rhodes Scholarship.

He is now the founder and director of PEM Afurika, a management consulting company that aims to make businesses more human for staff, customers and other stakeholders.

This is his story.




‘Motions of the soul’ to beat the odds on Everest

Review: Vivien Horler

The Moth and the Mountain – A true story of love, war and Everest, by Ed Caesar (Penguin Books)

There is something magnificent about the doomed man at the centre of this book, the Englishman Maurice Wilson.

In the early 1930s, Wilson decided to be the first man to summit Everest. And he planned to do it alone, unsupported and without oxygen.

His idea was to fly from the UK to Tibet to the base of the highest mountain in the world, and then climb it.

The fact he had never climbed a mountain, had never flown an aircraft, and that Tibet was barred to foreigners, did not deter him.

He had seen hardship in his life. In April 1918, sixteen years before he reached Everest, he had been a 20-year-old officer with the 1/5 West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own) at the battle of Wytschaete – known to British troops as White Sheet. Continue reading

Rich novel explores the lives and fears of the sons of fighters

Review: Vivien Horler

The Long Road from Kandahar, by Sara MacDonald (HarperCollins)

This novel is dedicated to the men and women who fought in Britain’s Operation Herrick, Afghanistan, between 2002 and 2014.

Operation Herrick was the code name for the British military operations in Afghanistan in that period. More than 450 British military personnel died and untold more were injured.

And of course that was just on the British side.

The war between the West and the Taliban is the strong backdrop to this story, but the main narrative centres on an unlikely friendship between two young boys, Finn, whose family roots are in England’s Cornwall, and Raza, who lives in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Continue reading

The reviled British bureaucrat who helped shape South Africa

Review: Archie Henderson

Milner: Last of the Empire Builders, by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball)

It’s tempting to compare the South Africa of 1902 (not yet a united state) with the country almost a hundred years later in 1994. In both cases the people had emerged from traumatic events: in the first from war and in the second from apartheid.

In both cases, the nation was in need of urgent repair; there had been physical and human devastation across the land. When the Boer War (South African War, Anglo-Boer War) ended, the earth had been scorched and thousands of women and children confined to unsanitary camps where disease killed tens of thousands. Many thousands of black people also died in British camps. At the end of apartheid, millions who had been denied their basic rights, and forced into urban and rural ghettoes needed to be uplifted and granted equality and the illusion of freedom. Continue reading

‘I want to die like a dog’

Review: Vivien Horler

The Price of Mercy – a fight for the right to die with dignity, by Sean Davison (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

It is fitting to start this review with a Tutu quote, as his name comes up many times in Sean Davison’s book, usually as a source of comfort and inspiration.

Davison certainly needed the comfort because he faced a strong likelihood of getting three life sentences for murder, but I think the necessary inspiration came from his own resolution.

In the epilogue to this moving and gripping memoir he says, in an echo of Tutu’s words: “I could have chosen to do nothing, but doing nothing is in fact doing something – it is choosing to turn a blind eye and thereby condoning the suffering.”

Davison is a UWC professor of biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape, and the man who famously helped his terminally ill mother die in New Zealand in 2010. There he was convicted of assisted suicide and given five months’ house arrest. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for June

Here are a few of the books that have landed on my desk in the past month.  Some will be reviewed in full later. All but the first book, Holding my Breath, and the last, The Price of Mercy, are among Exclusive Books’ top 25 best reads for June.

Holding my Breath – Further exploits of an ER Doctor, by Anne Biccard (Jacana)

The furore around the letter by paediatrician Tim de Maayer about the situation at the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital has underscored the appalling conditions in which doctors and patients often find themselves in public sector hospitals.

After his cri de coeur open letter he was suspended, later reinstated and it now appears disciplinary action against him is continuing.

Last week another doctor, Dr Aayesha Soni, published an article in the Daily Maverick in which she wrote: “Being a doctor demands incredible emotional resilience and fortitude, as you serve people at their most vulnerable of times.

“Being a doctor in the South African public healthcare sector often means that the emotional reserve required is amplified tenfold.”

She went on: “What is happening at Rahima Moosa hospital isn’t isolated to that hospital — it is a problem that has metastasised throughout the healthcare system in South Africa.

“When people like Dr De Maayer and Professor Ebrahim Variawa come bravely forward to point out the glaring deficiencies in one of the basic building blocks of our society, their pleas should be heard with earnestness.

“What they say is a representation of what most — if not all — doctors in the public healthcare system experience and feel.”

Reading about the experiences of Dr Anne Biccard, an emergency room doctor in a private hospital in Johannesburg, is rough enough — so it’s hard to gauge the horror of conditions in many state hospitals.

This is Biccard’s second book ­— her first, Saving a Stranger’s Life, came out at Christmas 2020 and chronicled the first nine months of the pandemic in South Africa.

This second volume also details the pandemic, but much else besides.

Even in the relatively well-heeled private sector, doctors are worked to breaking point, and various waves of Covid make life very much tougher.

Biccard’s narrative describes cases after case, some bizarre — like the male patient who reported his right nipple had slipped into his armpit, although it was back where it should have been when Biccard examined him — some amazing, and some frankly funny.

She also has a way with words. She writes about the 70-year-old woman with bleached blond hair, breast implants and an overall tan, who “looks like a pickled Barbie doll, and is about as responsive…

“I wonder why so many unconscious people seem to be arriving in the Emergency Department recently. It is like a sardine run of semi-dead people.”

But she makes it clear that being a hospital doctor is hard and emotionally draining.

If you’re interested in what life is like for just one doctor, Holding my Breath is a great read.

My Fourth Time, We Drowned, by Sally Hayden (4th Estate)

This book’s arresting title would stop most people. Then you look at the back cover and see no less a writer and journalist than Christina Lamb, chief foreign correspondent of the London Sunday Times saying of My Fourth Time: “A veritable masterclass in journalism… The most riveting, detailed and damning account ever written on the deadliest of migration routes.”

It is about the experiences of refugees looking for a safe new home in Europe, as well as “negligence of NGOs and corruption within the UN; the economics of the 21st century slave trade, the EU’s bankrolling of Libyan militias; the trials of people smugglers…”

Sally Haden works as the Africa correspondent for the Irish Times, and in 2019 was one of Forbes “30 under 30” media figures in Europe.

I suspect this will be a tough read, but the shouts on the cover could not endorse it too highly. Irish writer Sally Rooney described the book as “the most important work of contemporary reporting I have ever read”.

Trespasses, by Louise Kennedy (Bloomsbury)

I’ve just started reading this one, set in Belfast in the Troubles. Early on there’s a reference to the Dubliners song The Town I Loved so Well, and so I found it on YouTube and read and listened and had a thoroughly pleasant Irish hour.

Cushla, a schoolteacher, meets an older man in the pub her family owns, and is immediately drawn to him. But he’s Protestant and married, she’s Catholic and you sense trouble is on the way. In the meantime she discovers wryly that her eight-year-old pupils’ vocabulary includes words like booby trap, petrol bomb, gelignite and internment.

You sense things will not go well.

Finding Me, by Viola Davis (Coronet)

I had never heard of Viola Davis until this book arrived. Clearly I’m in a minority. She has risen to the top of the American film, TV and stage acting profession, having won an Oscar, a Primetime Emmy and two Tonys, becoming the first African-American to achieve this.

Her background, growing up in Central Falls, Rhode Island, was appalling. She was one of six children, and her father regularly beat her mother in drunken rages. There was no money, often no food, and in the vicious New England winters usually no heating and often no water. She said she and her siblings usually smelt of pee. There were plenty of rats.

School was a relief, even if the children’s smell made other children shun them. There was food and heat and a lot to engage a bright mind.

But for years she felt she was an outsider, that no one saw her. This is a remarkable story.

The Long Road from Kandahar, by Sara MacDonald (HarperCollins)

It is 2007 in the Swat Valley, Pakistan, and Raza, who is supposed to be minding the family’s goats, is firing his wooden gun at the hordes of infidels who have invaded his country. He can’t wait to join the Taliban like his big brothers. But his father has other ideas.

Meanwhile British soldier Ben is on a military base in Lashgar Gah in Helmand Provincie, Afghanistan, wondering if he will survive the war to get home to his family in Cornwall. And his young son Finn is worrying about the state of his parents’ marriage.

Finn goes to stay with his grandma, Ben’s mum, and somehow there Raza and Fin’s worlds collide. They form an unlikely friendship — but can it last?

In writing this novel Sarah MacDonald has drawn on her experiences as a British army wife, a year spent in north Pakistan and her love for Cornwall. This is her eighth book.

The Price of Mercy — A fight for the right to die with dignity, by Sean Davison (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Professor Sean Davison doesn’t need much introduction in South Africa. Born a Kiwi, he is a professor in the department of biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape, and famously the man who helped four terminally ill people, including his own mother, to die with dignity. He is also a founder member of the pro-euthanasia Dignity SA.

In the past week he was freed from five years’ house-arrest after being convicted in the Western Cape High Court of three counts of murder. This memoir describes how he felt when he was arrested, facing the prospect of three life sentences,  how he and his family coped with his house arrest, and the morality of helping desperately ill people to die.

In his foreword, Philip Nitschke, the founder and director of Exit International, says Davison is warm, trusting and kind. But “make no mistake, this is a man of cold steel rail determination”. He adds: “We all deserve a good death. The state must do better than hanging well-intentioned good men like Sean Davsion out to dry.”


Under one cover – 50 parks in five countries

Review: Myrna Robins

Stuarts’ Field Guide to National Parks and Game Reserves, by Chris and Mathilde Stuart (Struik Nature)

It’s safari season and adventurous travellers can, for the first time, pack a single guide that offers a wealth of information for exploring the diverse parks and reserves of Africa’s ‘middle belt’ – Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.

While this vast region is home to well-known destinations like the Victoria Falls and Okavango Delta, and includes many famous conservation areas like Etosha, Chobe, Mana Pools, Hwange and Kafue, there are vast stretches of lesser-known territories for which this guide is not just handy, but pretty essential.

After a large regional map and an introductory overview of the current conservation status of the region, we find country-by-country information on the natural history that covers landscapes, geology, vegetation, climate and animals that survive and thrive. Continue reading

Courage and motivation can change the world

Review: Vivien Horler

Freezing Order, by Bill Browder (Simon & Schuster)

London-based financier Bill Browder is an extraordinary man. While he is wealthy enough to have a comfortable business life in London, with family holidays in Switzerland and Aspen, Colorado – which he does – he has chosen a different path.

He fights against corruption in Russia and other places, and in the process has made an enemy of Vladimir Putin. As people including Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, as well as Alexander Litvinenko know to their cost, living in Britain is no protection against Putin’s murderous agents.

And yet he keeps on. When he was an 11-year-old in Chicago some big boys stole his flute, and against his mother’s wishes he testified in court against them. That firm sense of doing right in the face of wrong has stayed with him, guiding his life and probably endangering it. And yet he keeps on.

In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, Browder graduated from Stanford Business School and less than 10 years later moved to Moscow to set up a hedge fund called the Hermitage Fund. He recognised there were great opportunities to make money in Russia. Continue reading