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

Fresh perspectives on a crucial part of our history

Review: Vivien Horler

The Boer War in Colour – volume 1, conventional war, 1899-1900, by Tinus le Roux (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

The cover photograph in this remarkable volume is a detail of a picture of six Boer soldiers of the Kroonstad Commando, led by Commandant Coen Nel, centre.

Its sharpness and detail is extraordinary, taken from a 120-year-old glass plate. It is not clear to me who snapped the shutter, but it is marked “Boer Officers, 1900”, and was probably the work of the Lund brothers, who travelled with the commandos to the battlefront.

This picture, as it appears here, is the work of Boer War enthusiast Nico Moolman, who used a custom-made scanner to capture the image.

Author and fellow Boer War enthusiast Tinus le Roux describes it as one of the best quality images of the Boers.

There are thousands of Boer War pictures, many of them taken on the battlefield but almost always behind the lines – the tripod-mounted cameras were large and heavy, the exposure time was relatively long, and these facts would have made a photographer a target for enemy fire if he had tried to capture front-line action.

Other pictures were taken in studios, often of family groups who posed before setting out for war.

The pictures as such are not what makes this book stand out – it is the fact they have been “colourised”, to use the technical term. The process has come a long way from the hand-tinted pictures proudly shown off by grandparents in the 1950s.

Today it is done digitally with the help of computer software. Le Roux, who worked for Denel for many years as a design engineer in rocket motor development, writes that he was intrigued when, around 2010, colourists started publishing soloured historical black-and-white images, many of them focusing on the two world wars.

Major General Sir Edward Woodgate, commander of British troops at Spion Kop, who was killed in the battle.

“I was intrigued by how these often-monotonous images suddenly came to life when colour was added. I decided then and there I also wanted to master this art.”

He got in touch with British amateur historian and digital colourist Doug Banks, who guided him and referred him to various online video tutorials.

Le Roux, whose grandfather, a prisoner of war in India whose farmhouse near Belfast was torched by British soldiers, grew up fascinated by Boer War history, and so decided as a budding colourist to focus on this conflict.

In 2014 he created the Facebook page Boer War Colourised Photographs and started sharing the pictures he had worked on. By the time of writing he had more than 28 000 followers, and they were asking for a book of colourised images. Continue reading

Straight, brave – and hilarious

Review: Vivien Horler

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday)

I fried a lamb chop the other day. And I remembered Elizabeth Zott’s advice on how to fry a steak.

“After you’ve rubbed both sides of your steak with a halved clove of fresh garlic, sprinkle both sides of the meat with sodium chloride and piperine. Then, when you notice the butter foaming, place the steak in the pan. Be sure and wait till the butter foams. Foam indicates that the butter’s water content has boiled away. This is critical. Because now the steak can cook in lipids rather than absorb H2O.”

My lamb chop was delicious.

It is the early 1960s, and Elizabeth Zott is a chemist. But as a result of a series of extraordinary – and mundane – attitudes and acts of male chauvinism, she finds herself presenting a TV cookery show Supper at Six. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for May

These are among the books that landed on my desk in May. Some will be reviewed in full later.

Exclusive Books’ top titles for May include a rich selection of books by South African writers, ranging from essays from Haji Mohamed to the latest novels by Mike Nicol and Sarah Lotz and a book of short stories, set in Joburg’s Eldorado Park, by Terry-Ann Adams. Then there are The Boer War in Colour, Richard Steyn’s latest biography Milner, Genius by Bruce Whitfield in which he looks at the stories of amazing individuals, companies and industries, and Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim’s memoir Beyond Fear.

Here’s the Thing, by Haji Mohamed Dawjee (Macmillan)

On a Saturday when my first grandson was three weeks old, my son announced to his wife he was planning to have “an Eric-free day”. She looked at him levelly and told him that wasn’t how it worked.

In this collection of essays, with topics ranging from a letter to her late father to the joys or otherwise of freelance writing and the lessons tennis can teach you, Dawjee writes an acidly hilarious  piece about how no one discusses the horrors of a new baby. Or as she says (and I’m sure my son would agree): “…there is a significant part of you that is filled with… well, at times, regret, confusion and doubt”. She adds: “You may think it’s a tiny body so it will be a small shock – but it is in fact a huge shock; one you are never supposed to talk about…” You are basically not allowed to say: “What the fuck have we done?” She writes that Baby is not a Cabbage Patch doll, content to sit in a rocker while you go about your day. No, “Baby is a seven-month-old who needs to do something but can’t really do anything”. I think I need to introduce my son to Dawjee.

Hammerman – A walking shadow, by Mike Nicol (Umuzi)

I love a new Mike Nicol crime thriller – and this one looks to have everything his fans have come to appreciate. Apparently “hammerman” is a term used by the Cape Town underworld for a hired killer. In this case Hammerman, aka AJ, aka Colonel Andre Jacobs, or “No shit Jacobs” to his subordinates, is waiting on Rondebosch Common for a meeting with a woman. Who’s planning to kill him.

Bodies turn up all over – in the Strandfontein dunes, outside parliament, in a beach house, in a hotel room. Private investigator Fish Pescado discovers that it all ties back to the murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986.

Looks like a winner.

Impossible, by Sarah Lotz (HarperCollins Publishers)

Impossible is a love story, which starts with crossed emails, and then blossoms. Bee has a company repurposing wedding dresses. She tends to swipe right and never knows if a date will end up as Oh Hell No, Maybe or Shag. Nick is an editor who seems to be married. But they sense an immediate connection and agree to meet under the clock at Euston station.

And then the plot twists and sends us off on a weird, weird journey.

Is this relationship doomed? It certainly seems to be. And yet… One reviewer said: “I blinked and I was 50 pages in. It’s breathtakingly good, it has blockbuster movie written all over it.”

Looks a lot of fun.

White Chalk, by Terry-Ann Adams (Jacana)

The loves and losses of young Eldos people are the theme of this collection of stories. It’s full of vernacular, humour and real-life bitchiness, like Robyn, who goes to the matric dance as an Indian bridegroom, complete with turban, because she wants to be “extra afshowerig”.

And then there’s Laurelle, the belle, who plans to be the Beyonce of the banquet, but who is upstaged by Shanice at the After the After Party, whose boyfriend plays first-team rugby and is gebou aan to hou.

My Mess is a Bit of a Life –Adventures in anxiety, by Georgia Pritchett (faber)

I thought this was going to be a comedy novel but discovered no, it’s a memoir. Georgia Pritchett is a hugely successful British comedy and drama writer with the likes of Succession and Miranda under her belt. She’s won five Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Bafta. So what’s she got to be anxious about?

Well, of course anxiety doesn’t necessarily recognise success. Or you could be anxious about losing that success. Or losing your writing touch. I don’t know.

But having scanned a few pages of this hilarious but dead-pan account, I’d say it’s certainly worth reading. And from her earliest years she had things to worry about. “When I was little I used to think that sheep were clouds that had fallen to earth. On cloudy days I used to worry that I would be squashed by a sheep.”

The No Show, by Beth O’Leary (Quercus)

On the same day, which happens to be Valentine’s Day, three women have set up dates with Joseph Carter. Siobhan is supposed to be having breakfast with him, Miranda’s having lunch and Jane is taking him to an engagement party. But he doesn’t turn up to any of them.

One reviewer described The No Show as “a truly brilliant book. It’s clever and intriguing…” Well I dunno about that, but it would seem to be easy to get into.




Warm and big-hearted, this novel is a delight

Review: Vivien Horler

Love Marriage, by Monica Ali (Virago)

Some books you read through a sense of duty, others you read for fun but can easily put aside, and some fully engage you so that each time you return to them it is with interest and joy.

Love Marriage, in which Monica Ali once again explores the theme of Muslim minorities in Britain among other topics, was one of those, a novel that engrossed me.

Yasmin Ghorami and her fiance Joe Sangster, both young London doctors, are planning their wedding. Yasmin’s parents, immigrants from India, seem not too bothered that she is marrying a non-Muslim, and Joe’s writer mother Harriet, wealthy, an outspoken feminist and force of nature, seems positively to welcome the prospect of a “mixed” marriage.

Yasmin believes the fact her parents, back in India, had a love marriage, is behind the fact they seem to welcome Joe into the family. Continue reading

Fishy tales of V&A aquarium director’s extraordinary life

  • Review: David Bristow

Crazy: Adventures of a marine biologist, by Patrick Garratt (New Voices, Cape Town)

There’s a picture in this book of three guys on a beach somewhere, with a caption telling us they are “research fishing” – if ever there was an oxymoron.

But then, as the author advises us on the back cover, to “find your passion, ignore the doomsayers, follow your dream and know your purpose”. Continue reading

Beating Doubt to fulfil the dream

Review: Vivien Horler

The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers, by Finuala Dowling (Kwela Books)

At least crocodiles tend to be drowsy in cold weather.

These are the words of comfort Paddy Dowling’s best man whispers to him at the altar as news arrives that Paddy’s former lover, the crocodile tamer Koringa, has arrived – with reptile – to disrupt his wedding.

The story of this moment becomes part of much-repeated family lore, a narrative Finuala Dowling unpicks in this fictionalised biography of her father, a flawed, damaged yet brilliant man who never quite achieves his dreams.

Paddy’s father held him just once, during World War 1, before being sent off to Europe where he was killed. The family are relatively wealthy, but Paddy’s mother is not a nurturer, and he becomes an anxious yet hopeful little boy, close only to his sister.

In his early teens Paddy, a boarder at a Catholic school in England, is sent to France in his summer holidays to improve his French. There he happens to fall in with a circus troupe which includes Koringa, billed as the only female fakir in the world.

The first time he sees her she is sitting on the back of  circus trailer, her crocodile – actually an alligator because they’re smaller and easier to train – in her lap. Knowing he is watching her, she pulls open the reptile’s jaws and puts her head in its mouth.

Paddy is smitten, and so begins a largely one-sided love affair that dominates the first half of his life.

After various adventures Paddy comes to South Africa shortly after the outbreak of World War 2 and serves as a sapper in the Eighth Army in Egypt and Italy. The tension-filled horrors of disarming mines fuel his life-long nightmares.

But in Cape Town after the war he meets Vandy, an actress, beautiful, strong-willed and glamorous, a woman who chats to her mother in Latin and who like Paddy, longs to write. They discover, to their mutual delight, they both want babies and will write their opuses while the babies are asleep.

Of course it doesn’t quite turn out that way.

Interwoven with Paddy’s story are extracts from Vandy’s journal, and fragments from the writer’s diary which amount to something of a master class on novel writing. The impression is created that the titular novelist, Gina, who has a hated job in a call centre, is writing her first book. But we know The Man who Loved Crocodile Tamers is Finuala Dowling’s sixth novel, so she has form and insights to offer.

Doubt, “that elegant, worldly bitch with her you-can’t-do-this sneer”, plagues her. Is she over-writing? She knows she has a story, but is there a novel here at all? And then she tells herself to return to first principles: “Arrive late, leave early. If it doesn’t move the story along, give insight into the character or provide beauty or humour, delete. Know the difference between baffling your reader and telling her too much.”

And then there is Dowling’s ability to conjure a sense of place. This novel ranges from the UK, France, wartime Egypt and Italy, to Cape Town where characters walk along the Sea Point promenade, buy fruit from the sellers in their tent at East Beach in Muizenberg, go swimming at Surfer’s Corner and listen to winter’s north-wester rattling the windows of the house in Kalk Bay.

This is a rich, textured novel and possibly Dowling’s best to date.

Continue reading

Local crime thriller describes terror up the Amazon

Review: David Bristow

The Shining Path – a Bernie Bernard crime thriller, by Monty Roodt (Meteoric Publishers)

The cover shout tells us this book is “… a riot of great thriller writing. Hold tight!”* What could go wrong? For Bernie Bernard, in Peru while on sabbatical from academic duties at Rhodes University, quite a lot.

 The Shining Path is the second thriller to involve full-time university lecturer and part-time sleuth, Bernie Bernard. The first, Dead Man’s Land, involved the murder of a local farmer, bigot and possibly worse, who seemed to be embroiled in local politics and land issues. But we’ll leave that one there.

Number two begins in the pub at The Pig and Whistle in Bathurst, possibly South Africa’s oldest pub (there are other contenders), which happens to be Bernie’s local. But the action quickly shifts to Peru and the Amazon. In that way it recalls The Heart of Darkness, with the narrator taking up some slack time on an outward-bound ship to relate to his dark ordeal up the Congo River. Continue reading