Monthly Archives: April 2021

Bedside Table books – April

THIS is a selection of books that have been sent to me recently. They have not all been read. Some will be reviewed in full in due course.  – Vivien Horler

The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes, by Adekeye Adebajo (Jacana)

Imagine if Cecil John Rhodes returned to Africa in the present day to be interrogated by some of those on whose lives he and his cohorts had such devastating effect. This is the theme of the short novel by Professor Adekeye Adebajo, a former Rhodes Scholar and currently the director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. It is set over five days in an African Hereafter. He is accused by Two Counsel for Damnation – Olive Schreiner and Stanlake Samkange – and defended by two Counsel for Salvation – Nelson Mandela and Harry Oppenheimer, while the seven judges include Ruth First, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Patrice Lumumba and Maya Angelou.

The Sanatorium, by Sarah Pearse (Bantam Press)

Elin Warner is a detective who has gone to an isolated hotel in the Swiss Alps to celebrate her estranged brother’s engagement. As soon as she arrives in the building, once a sanatorium, she feels uneasy. Her brother is behaving oddly, and a mighty storm is threatening. The next morning, as the storm hits, the guests wake to find the fiancée, Laure, is missing. Because of the weather, no one can come or go. And then it turns out another woman is missing.

This novel has been described as “an absolutely splendid Gothic thriller”, chilling, creepy and compulsive.

Win, by Harlan Coben (Century)

A rich family’s home is burgled, and heiress Patricia Lockwood is abducted. The girl escapes, but no one is ever arrested; nor are the stolen items recovered. Twenty years later, at a New York murder scene, a Vermeer painting and a leather suitcase with the initials WH3 are found. The suitcase had belonged to Win Horne Lockwood III and the Vermeer to his family, and now he wants some answers. The FBI have no clues, but Win decides to investigate.

I love Harlan Coben books and I’m not alone. A shout on the cover from Lee Child says the author “never lets you down”, while another describes him as “the absolute master of huge twists and turns”.


How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House, by Cherie Jones (Tinder Press)

My great-grandmother had a way of dealing with her naughty granddaughters. Having caught them in some sort of mischief, she would look at them solemnly and say: “I knew a little girl who died doing that.”

This is the same tactic Wilma, of Baxter Beach, Barbados, uses on her granddaughter. When 13-year-old Lala is out late, Wilma tells her the story of the one-armed sister, the girl who defied her mother and went into a tunnel in the garden where a monster grabbed her and pulled off her arm. Lala is not impressed by the story, but years later realises, after losing a baby and marrying the wrong man, it is actually one of hope. And then there’s Mira Whalen, whose husband has been murdered and who never heard her tell him she loved him.

Everything is Beautiful, by Eleanor Ray (Piatkus)

Amy is a bit odd. She is cool and efficient at the office and something of a hoarder at home. In fact soon there won’t be any room for her among the pretty wine bottles and piles of newspapers, the terra cotta pots, the chipped china bird. Amy has been like this for 11 years, since her world fell apart – saving things that most other people would throw away. And then a family move in next door, and Amy’s life starts to change again. Everything is Beautiful is described as the sort of book lovers of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine would enjoy.



It’s Not Inside, It’s on Top – memorable moments in South African advertising, by Khanya Mtshali (Tafelberg)

Remember the famous Cremora ad, where the hapless husband is peering into the fridge for milk for his coffee, and his wife yells: “It’s not inside, it’s on top!” In this collection of essays on TV ads Khanya Mtshali has taken what I think is a rather scholarly look at the advertising industry and some of its more memorable moments, mainly made in the post-apartheid era. The ads she writes about include Kulula, Nando’s, Castle Lager and the chummy multi-racial beer gatherings, and the Vodacom “Yebo Gogo” offerings. In a shout on the cover Richard Poplak calls her comments “hilarious, incisive, caustic and surprisingly human”. I didn’t laugh much, but the book is an interesting look at the culture of our advertising. I was irritated by the “woke” style convention of using caps for Black and Coloured people and lower case for whites, but I understand this is a growing international trend in journalism and publishing, following the Black Lives Matter movement. I guess I need to get over myself.

It’s Not About the Bats – Conservation, the coronavirus and how we must re-set our relationship with nature, by Adam Cruise (Tafelberg)

I suspect this is an important book; certainly other reviewers such as Don Pinnock have described it so. Adam Cruise is an investigative environmental journalist and academic, and the academia shows. In the prologue I was rather bogged down by his use of the terms weak and strong anthropocentrism, which basically describe how humans tend to regard nature as something for us to enjoy and control, rather than being vital to the survival of everything on the planet. But with the UN Climate Change Conference looming – it’s due to take place in Glasgow in November – it behoves us all to sit up and take notice. Or as Cruise says: “It is clear, therefore, that a major shift in our attitude and behaviour needs to occur, and without any further delay – otherwise we all might be sharing the fate of the dinosaurs.”

  • All but the last two books are among Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for April 2021.

Fascinating story of the platteland spies on both sides in World War 2


Review: Attie Hendriks

Hitler’s Spies, by Evert Kleynhans (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Evert Kleynhans, a military historian, has turned a work of excellent academic research into an engaging yarn about spies. 

Spies, like detectives, are enduring characters in fiction and parts of Kleynhans’s book often read like fiction, but it was all true and much of it happened on the South African platteland during World War 2.

At a time of great political conflict within the country, it is also a story about a police force that couldn’t be trusted, a suspect national intelligence agency, shadowy groups conspiring against the ruling party, and politicians consorting secretly with a foreign power. It sounds like South Africa today, yet this all happened when the country was fighting in a world war.

Other authors have touched on the subject of spies in South Africa during the war, but Kleynhans has found a startling new element. Giving it away here would spoil it for the reader. He has also found out much more about the spies because of deeper research – in MI5 files in London, largely hidden files in South Africa and some lucky breaks in his pursuit of the story.  Continue reading

Epic tale of love and horror on a pre-civil war Mississippi cotton plantation

Review: Vivien Horler

The Prophets, by Robert Jones Jr (Riverrun/ Quercus)

This powerful novel starts with a slave woman whispering a love letter to her son, the toddler who was ripped from her arms and sold. She tells him she remembers every curl on his head and every fold on his body, down to the creases between his toes.

But Massa Jacob sold him off, even though he had told the mother she was a part of his family. Is this what whites do to family, she asks.

She is whispering to the ancesters, hoping they will get a message to her son, who is half grown now, that she loves him and misses him. She can’t always understand what the ancestors are saying, because they often use the old (African) words “that are half beat out of me”.

Plantation owners didn’t want their slaves remembering the old ways, the old days, so stopped them speaking their languages and changed their names.

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A book about ‘the deadliest crime’ of post-apartheid South Africa

Review: Vivien Horler

Give Us More Guns – How South Africa’s gangs were armed, by Mark Shaw (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Three stories from just two days of the Cape Town news cycle:

  • Nafiz Modack arranged 2019 hand grenade hit on Charl Kinnear, State claims. – Daily Maverick April 9, 2021
  • Cape Amalgamated Taxi Association members have been urged to remain calm after their president, Victor Wiwi, was shot and killed along with another member. – Cape Times April 9, 2021
  • MEC for Community Safety Albert Fritz says he is “appalled” by the number of young people struck by stray bullets… on the Cape Flats. – News24 April 8, 2021

“Among those injured include Riaz Cloete, 8, who was shot in the head in Manenberg on Saturday afternoon (April 3) when playing (in) the road…; Chloe van der Westhuizen, 4, from Hanover Park … who was shot in the eye on March 25, and Declyn Wippenaar who was shot in the spine while playing in a football tournament in Philippi on Monday (April5).”

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A tough, tender memoir about plants and and a scientist

Review: Vivien Horler

Lab Girl – A story of trees, science and love, by Hope Jahren (Fleet)

When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.

That is an early sentence in this wonderful book, first published in 2016 but only now discovered by me.

It is by a distinguished American scientist who does research into paleobiology, a field which, according to Wikipedia, combines the methods and findings of biology with the methods and findings of paleontology. So a bit of a mix of biology and fossils.

Professor Hope Jahren is also a woman, which may be what gives her a warm take on her work. She has won academic prizes, published in scores of journals, and has won three Fulbright awards.

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