These were among the books that landed on my desk this month. A few have been read, others not yet. Some will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler
The first five books are among Exclusive Books’s top 40 reads for August.
The Favour, by Nora Murphy (Macmillan)
Two bright, well-educated wives are being abused by their husbands. One insists his wife, McKenna, resign from her beloved job as a paediatrician, because he is convinced her miscarriage was due to picking up a virus at work.
The other, Leah, loses her job as a lawyer after her husband, unbeknownst to her, takes a cheque belonging to Leah’s company and deposits it into a secret account, making it appear she has committed fraud.
Slowly both women find themselves increasingly isolated from colleagues, friends and family. And then the physical abuse starts.
Leah and McKenna don’t know each other, although they live near each other and have come across each other in the local shops. McKenna and her husband live in a house that faces onto open land, and Leah, increasingly fascinated by McKenna, starts spying on the couple, able to see into their kitchen through uncurtained picture windows.
One evening she sees a violent confrontation between McKenna and her husband, and realises McKenna’s marriage is abusive, just like hers. Leah calls the police.
And that’s about all I can say without giving the game away.
The basic premise is, I think, a bit unlikely, but if you suspend some disbelief, this thriller makes for an engrossing read.
The Measure, by Nikki Erlick (The Borough Press)
Talking of suspending disbelief… One morning in March every adult on the planet finds a small box on their doorstep. Their name is on the lid, along with an inscription: “The measure of your life lies within.”
Inside the box is what seems to be a piece of string, but everyone has a different length. It soon becomes clear that the length of the string is an indication of how long the person will live.
Governments and the UN pontificate, social scientists philosophise, physical scientists experiment. They work out that actual life length can be measured, so people can tell if they have 30, 40 or maybe just two or three years left.
Some people choose not to open their boxes, others do and are relieved. Still others are appalled and take themselves to hospitals to have thorough health checks. Of course a “short-stringer” who turns out to be healthy could still be hit by a No 11 bus.
Soon hospitals stop accepting short-stringers for tests – they can’t afford to give MRIs and CT scans to everyone who turns up on their doorsteps. This leads to violence in emergency departments as desperate short-stringers demand help.
The whole concept is absurd – where did the boxes come from? How were they delivered? – But there they are. And once you, the reader, have accepted the premise, the book seems to proceed according to the rules of normal life.
But it’s normal life turned on its head. Insurance companies refuse to insure short-stringers. Couples break up. One couple, she with a short string, he with a long, jump off a bridge three days after their wedding. She dies, he survives. But having a long string doesn’t mean you will survive unscathed.
Some very short-stringers decide to take the law into their own hands, knowing there will not be enough time to try and jail them. Others resign from their jobs and go travelling the world.
The story centres on a group of people in New York City and how they cope with the new normal. Nina is a journalist with a long string, her partner Maura has a short string. Suddenly Maura wants to have a baby, so she will have something to leave behind. Others in a short-stringer counselling group discuss their futures.
Then the government decides to bar short-stringers from serving with the armed forces. Companies decline to employ them – what’s the point if they’re going to die soon? – and short-stringers start to become an underclass.
I haven’t got very far into this novel but it’s intriguing as it explores the way society would react to such a crisis. As the blurb on the cover asks: “If finding out was as simple as opening a box… would you open yours?”
Maybe it’s time to think about how we face our futures.
The Lightness of Air – a novel, by Angela Miller-Rothbart (Newly Media)
Helena Jablonski has had a pleasant, middle-class childhood in a Polish town, but it is September 1, 1939, and everything is about to change. Against the odds, Helena survives to 1945 after spending time in Bergen-Belsen and losing her family.
She sets off to try to reach Palestine, joined by her childhood friend Sofia. She meets many people along the way and has to learn to navigate a new world order. She travels from Poland to Paris, then to New York, to the Middle East and eventually to the Paarl winelands.
A few years ago author Angela Miller-Rothbart, who grew up in Paarl and is in her 70s, joined a Cape Town Jewish seniors association where she met a Holocaust survivor and heard her story.
Miller-Rothbart began writing, based on what her friend told her, and the piece morphed from a short story into a full-length novel. She told reviewer Beryl Eichenberger: “It is not my friend’s story, but so much of what she told me created the platform for the novel, which is a tapestry of many stories.”
The Anatomy of Grief – How the brain, heart and body can heal after loss, by Dorothy P Holinger (Yale University Press)
It happens to everyone – it will happen to you. At some point you will have to cope with grief. And grief is strange – it makes your brain freeze. “Do you need milk?” I was asked the day after my husband was killed. I had no idea.
Dr Holinger, a psychotherapist, taught psychiatry at Harvard Medical School for more than 20 years. She says this is not a grief memoir, not a self-help book and not a textbook, but offers an understanding of the unpredictable nature of grief, “an understanding that has the power to help ease the heartache of a terrible loss”.
Sadness needs to run its course, for then a survivor can begin the bitter sweetness of a new life.
Rewilding Africa – Restoring the wilderness on a war-ravaged continent, by Grant Fowlds with Graham Spence (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
Writing these little thumbsketches of new books requires that you read a chapter or foreword or something to give a flavor of the book – précis-ing the blurb on the cover is not good enough.
So I read chapter 1, then chapter 2, then chapter 3, and am halfway through chapter 4. Trust me, this books grabs you. Reading it only a few weeks after Johan Jooste and Tony Park’s Rhino War, about Jooste’s strategy to save rhinos in the Kruger Park, this feels a bit like a sequel.
For example Fowlds, who works a lot in KwaZulu-Natal, says how the well-resourced response to poachers in Kruger has led to poachers moving south. But the KZN rangers don’t have anything like the firepower of the Kruger rangers, which makes them way more vulnerable. As recently as March 2020, rangers were using World War I Lee Enfield .303s against AK-47s and telescopic-sighted hunting rifles.
This book also looks at the devastating effect Covid-19 has had on the fight to save Africa’s wildlife.
Veld Birds of Southern Africa – the complete photographic guide, by Burger Cillié, Neil Cillié, Phil Penlington, Trevor Hardaker and Karin Wiesler (Sunbird Publishers/ Jonathan Ball)
This afternoon I spotted a bright yellow bird in my birdbath, and I assumed it was a bishop of some kind. But no, none of the yellow bishops in this magnificent (and weighty) guide had the prominent black chinstrap exhibited by my visitor.
So I just started paging, and there it was, the bokmakierie, which I feel I should have recognised instantly, it being such an iconic SA bird. Turns out it’s a shrike, and I hadn’t noticed its rather elegant yellow eyebrows.
Many earlier bird guides were illustrated with paintings as photography just wasn’t quick or good enough to capture the birds’ fine detail, but no longer. This book is packed full of exquisitely detailed photographs (which is how I know about the eyebrows).
Each entry has a detailed map and brief text that provides the bird’s key features, status, and habitat. I rather liked some of the categories, such as: swimming waterbirds; large birds with long legs, which range from spoonbills to ostriches; small birds with long legs; fowl birds and many more.
In addition this book gives the reader access to BirdScan, a new app that provides additional pictures, information and bird calls.
The Russian on Commando – the Boer War experiences of Yevgeny Avgustus, edited by Boris Gorelik (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
A dislike of British imperialism in the years running up to the start of the Boer War in 1899 fuelled a popular Russian outpouring of support for the two Boer republics. Two Russian ambulances operated in the republics, and the Russian Red Cross sent more than 30 doctors, nurses and other medics.
The Russian government of the day did not endorse military involvement, but between 225 and 400 fighting men joined military commandos in the republics, and one of them was Yevgeny Avgustus, a Russian second lieutenant who apparently saw the adventure in the Transvaal as a break from the routine of serving on the border with the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Aged 25, he arrived in the Transvaal in January 1900, where despite expecting to serve as an officer, he had to remove his golden epaulettes and join up as a rank-and-file burger. He was part of the Krugersdorp Commando, fighting on the Natal front where he was eventually wounded.
He stayed about six months and then went home, publishing a memoir and a number of newspaper articles about his experience. These are the basis of this book.
Editor Boris Gorelik, a senior research fellow at the Institute for African Studies in Moscow, writes in his introduction: “…Avgustus offers both keen observation and thoughtful introspection. His narrative is a series of paintings rather than snapshots. History comes alive as you immerse yourself in this memoir… Avgustus speaks to us through the years because his stories of wartime chaos pivot on the typical and the perennial.”