Monthly Archives: May 2022

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

Bushmen are the most diverse group of humans

Review: Myrna Robins

First People: The lost history of the Khoisan, by Andrew Smith (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

This well-written book’s introduction, which doubles as a summary of the author’s career, makes a great start to a great read.

The extent of Andrew Smith’s research, physical excavations and accumulation of knowledge is truly impressive. Run your eye down the list of his published titles and you will see that this professor of archaeology published a history of the Khoikhoi of Southern Africa (1996) and one of the Bushmen (2000) and now combines them with this accessible history. Continue reading