Publishers have gone flat out, book stores’ shelves are groaning, and if ever there was a time to buy a book – or books – it’s now, thanks to the remarkable diversity of titles on offer.
So whether you’re looking for something to read on a lazy summer holiday or searching for the right Christmas or festive season present, it’s worth considering a book (although, as we know, they’re not cheap).
Each month – except for November and December – Exclusive Books compiles a list of their top 25 reads. But in the run-up to the festive season store managers from across the country get together to plan their Christmas catalogue, and the result is a splendid collection, including fiction, current affairs, history, sport, humour, biography, and books for children and young adults.
Here is a somewhat ad hoc list of books that have landed on my dining table – my desk is too small for the cornucopia I’ve been sent. They’re not all in the Exclusive Christmas catalogue – the ones that are I’ve marked with an asterisk.
Some are slim volumes, some are real doorstoppers – the new Cormoran Shrike is over a thousand pages long. Reviewers say the book is unputdownable – I think it’s a miracle anyone is able to pick it up.
But they all look absolutely fabulous.
A small note: there are some obvious omissions from this list, mainly because I have not received them even though I’d love to read them: Michelle Obama’s The Light We Carry, Denis Hirson’s My Thirty-Minute Barmitzvah, Faf du Plessis’ Faf: Through Fire, and John Boyne’s All the Broken Places.
However, what follows is quite a bit to be getting on with.
Our Poisoned Land – Living in the shadow of Zuma’s keepers, by Jacques Pauw (Tafelberg)*
This one, the sequel to Pauw’s shattering The President’s Keepers, is probably one of the most talked about volumes in South Africa right now.
That’s partly due to Julius Malema’s helpful demand that all copies be removed from bookstores. “This is the book Julius Malema doesn’t want you to see,” says Pauw in a release issued by NB Publishers, parent company to Tafelberg Books.
The problem for Malema and other members of the EFF are Pauw’s allegations detailing the extent of Malema’s controversial relationship with tobacco smuggler Adriano Mazzotti.
On November 14, NB Publishers received an urgent letter of demand from attorneys representing Malema, Floyd Shivambu and Mbuyiseni Ndlozi insisting the book be removed from book stores.
The letter also requests that “both Mr Jacques Pauw and NB Publishers unconditionally apologise to Mr Julius Malema, Mr Floyd Shivambu, Mr Ndlozi, and all other members of the Economic Freedom Fighters, for the negligent and mala fide publication of untrue, unverified, and defamatory allegations pertaining to those parties, which publications have been unconditionally withdrawn, and will not be republished, either now or in the future”.
Well, good luck with that. The publishing company responded: “NB Publishers stands by our author and the book. The information in the book was properly sourced and lawfully published and demands for removal and apologies have been rejected.”
And the chapter about Malema et al is just one of 23 detailing the depressing state of our beloved land.
Abyss – The Cuban missile crisis 1962, by Max Hastings (William Collins)*
I found the 2000 film Thirteen Days starring Kevin Costner, about the missile crisis, absolutely riveting. I was 10 years old at the time of the crisis and had no idea of how close we’d all come being blasted into oblivion.
So I fell upon Abyss and am halfway through. It’s dense, full of tricky Russian names, as well as many Cuban and American ones, and you have to pay attention.
It also gets off to a slow start – there are about 200 pages of scene-setting in Cuba, the USSR and the US before we get to the action – but I’m finding it fascinating.
And the echoes of Kruschev’s arrogance and truculence seen today from Putin and his “military operation” in Ukraine are chilling.
Samurai Sword Murder: the Morné Harmse story, by Nicole Engelbrecht (Melinda Ferguson Books)
Author Nicole Engelbrecht writes, accurately I expect, that people love to read the sordid details of crime. She reminds us that the SA journalist and writer Benjamin Bennett made a 50-year career out of people’s desire to read about “the most sensational of human misdeeds” including the Scissors Murder.
This is the story of teenager Morné Harmse’s 2008 attack with a samurai sword on fellow pupil Jacques Pretorius, 16, killing Jacques and brutally injuring three others.
In her author’s note, Engelbrecht says people were so horrified by the crime, said to be “the most barbaric act of schoolboy violence in SA history”, that they tended to focus on the perpetrator at the expense of the victims.
So here she focuses on both, trying to understand and to remember.
A peculiar thing is this is another horrific crime in Krugersdorp – think of the ghastly mine attack and rapes during a photoshoot earlier this year, and the series of satanic murders which became the hit TV series Devilsdorp. What is it about Krugersdorp?
Terry Pratchett – A life with footnotes, the official biography, by Rob Wilkins (Doubleday)*
I’ve been a fan of Terry Pratchett’s ever since his DiscWorld collection was introduced to my 12-year-old son who loved books but didn’t particularly want to read them for himself.
He later became an avid reader, thanks to the DiscWorld books, and when a teacher once asked him why, he said: “My mom starts reading a book to me, and then she stops, so if I want to know what happened, I have to read on myself.”
The DiscWorld books are fantasy/science fiction, not my favourite genre, but they’re magic and also very funny.
More to my liking was A Slip of the Keyboard, a compilation of Pratchett’s non-fiction writing, much of it in the form of newspaper articles, and quite a few of them about his belief in assisted death.
This affectionate biography of course is not by Pratchett at all but is written by the man who became Pratchett’s PA and later business manager, Rob Wilkins. It’s based on about 25 000 words of an autobiography Pratchett was writing when he died, and supplemented by long association and further research.
I opened it to get a flavour of it, and in no time was on page 54 and delighted. Wilkins writes lightly but knowledgeably of his subject, and almost every page has at least one footnote (Pratchett reportedly loved footnotes).
If you’re a fan of Pratchett’s, I suspect you’ll love this.
A Pocketful of Happiness – a memoir, by Richard E Grant (Gallery Books)*
Ever since the brilliant Withnail & I, I’ve paid attention to Robert E Grant (although on leaving the movie house in Rosebank many years ago my mother-in-law said succinctly: “What a load of crap.”
This memoir of his marriage to the London dialect coach Joan Washington begins with the former Swazi boy going to her for lessons to iron out his colonial accent, and how to speak with an Irish accent – his agent had told him with his black hair and blue eyes he should try for Irish roles.
She agreed to give him discounted lessons, on condition that if he made it as an actor, he’d have to repay her. He agreed – and then married her instead.
They were together for almost 40 years. She was ill in the last year of her life, but thanks to the lockdown they spent every day together, until she died in late 2020, he holding her hand.
Just before she died, she told him: “You’re going to be all right – try to find a pocketful of happiness in every day.” This edict became his New Year’s resolution, and he says her simple challenge proved to be a powerful one.
Whitey – The rise and rule of the Shoprite king, by Niel Joubert (Tafelberg)*
Whitey Basson seems to have all the right instincts. He bought eight small stores in and around Cape Town valued at R1million, and was the mastermind behind Shoprite becoming the largest retailer in Africa and the 35th largest in the world.
He bought Grand Bazaars and what was then the struggling Checkers group, and famously acquired OK Bazaars from SA Breweries for just one rand. It was profitable within a year.
He also fell out with long-time partner Christo Wiese, who in 2016 was the largest single shareholder in Shoprite, over Wiese’s strong desire to sell the group to Steinhof. Basson was absolutely opposed: he believed Steinhof was a bad company and that Shoprite and Steinhof were a bad fit.
We all know how that turned out for Wiese.
Niel Joubert is an award-winning financial journalist, and this is his first book.
Charlene – In search of a princess, by Arlene Prinsloo (Jonathan Ball Publishers)*
Arlene Prinsloo may be a veteran Cape Town-based journalist, but when it comes to royalty she’s apparently star-struck. There is something about tiaras, crowns and sumptuous gowns, something about fairy tales and happy-ever-afters, something about the poor girl catching the eye of a prince.
But it’s not all sparkles and glass slippers. As a journalist, Prinsloo knows only too well how the media will fall in love with a beautiful woman who is engaged to a prince – think Princess Grace, who would have been Charlene’s mother-in-law, Princess Diana and indeed Princess Charlene – and then, as she writes in her preface, it “prods and prods to show how the people it has made into fairy tales have feet of clay”.
The Accidental Entrepreneur – John Garlick, his life and legacy (Footprint Press)
Most people of a certain age in Cape Town will remember the great department stores in Adderley Street, where one could take tea in tinkling dining rooms, and buy everything from crockery, shoes and clothing to furniture, books and kitchenware.
Alas, Garlicks and Stuttafords are no more, gone the way of Cleghorns in Claremont and McDonalds in Wynberg, and Joburg’s John Orrs and Ansteys. (AP Jones in Fish Hoek soldiers on valiantly.)
This is a detailed biography of John Garlick, a draper by trade, who came to Cape Town from Scotland in the mid-1850s, and created an empire. He also became a city councillor, politician, benefactor (sending money back to family and friends in Scotland among other things), and philanthropist.
Garlick’s great-granddaughter Sherry Garlick Stanton has put an enormous amount of work into this title, travelling from San Francisco to London, Scotland, the US, Canada and of course Cape Town in the course of her research.
One touching footnote to this story is that just a few weeks after completing some of her research at UCT, the Jagger Library caught fire, but the Garlick papers, unlike so much else, were saved, damp but still legible.
It may strike some readers as a bit too detailed for general interest, but there is no doubt of the affection and dedication with which she has tackled her task.
Hiking Trails of South Africa, by Willie Olivier (Struik Nature/Penguin Random House)
Willie Olivier must have tough feet. This is the fifth edition of what is obviously a thorough and popular work, and this edition features 500 trails, including 60 new ones.
They range from the springtime flowered vistas of Namaqualand to the glories of the Drakensberg, from the canyons of Mpumalanga and the beauty of the Western Cape and Little Karoo, the Eastern Cape, the rolling hills of KwaZulu-Natal, and everywhere in between.
There is also a handy section titled “Before You Go”, which includes planning tips, food with a three-day sample menu, equipment from boots to backpacks, a kit list, a first-aid kit, and discussions of trail ethics and hiking safety.
There can be few more comprehensive guides to this activity.
Demon Copperhead, by Barbara Kingsolver (faber)*
Barbara Kingsolver needs no introduction, famous as she is for The Poisonwood Bible, Flight Behaviour (about butterflies) and my favourite, the non-fiction Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about living on a farm in Appalachia and spending a year eating local.
Demon Copperhead is a modern retelling of Dickens’s David Copperfield, starting off with Demon’s birth in a trailer in a dirt-poor area of Appalachia to a passed-out teenage mother (thanks to booze and painkillers).
The early arresting image of this title comes when a neighbour goes to the trailer to find the mother drunk and the baby born, but “worming and shoving around because I’m still in the sack that babies float in, pre-real-life”.
Demon – officially Damon Field, but called Demon because of his attitude and Copperhead because of his shiny red hair – sets off on a path in life that goes from bad to worse, becoming, like his mother, an opioid addict, a thief, and a victim of poverty. Can he, like David Copperfield, redeem himself?
As Molly Young wrote in the New York Times: “It’s hard to think of another living novelist who could take a stab at Dickens and rise above the level of catastrophe.” Faint praise?
The Last Chairlift, by John Irving (Scribner)*
This is apparently the first novel in seven years from the fabled author of The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.
I’m not surprised, judging from how huge it is (889 pages). I was about to say even Hilary Mantell didn’t run to those lengths in her fiction about Thomas Cromwell, or not quite, but then she did write three novels about him.
This Irving offering is about another illegitimate boy, Adam, born in the 1940s to a young downhill skier called Little Ray. She was tiny, hence her name, and according to her mother and sisters she wasn’t a successful skier because, as they would say sagely, “weight equals speed”.
So off she went to compete in the 1941 US Downhill and Slalom Championships in Aspen, Colorado, and though she didn’t come back with a cup, she did return to New England pregnant.
Years later, Adam goes back to Aspen to find some answers – and ghosts.
If you’ve never read John Irving before, you’re almost certainly in for a treat. If you have, well, you know you’ve got something to look forward to.
The Ink Black Heart: A Strike novel, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere)*
Here’s another doorstopper, and this one’s 1012 pages. I thought the last Cormoran Strike thriller could have done with an edit, and I don’t think it was as long as this one.
However, Galbraith is, as we know, JK Rowling in disguise, and one has to admire her for her prodigious energy, and she gets lots of praise for this series.
Robin is alone in the office one day when a disheveled and upset young woman, Edie, comes in looking for help from the private eyes.
She is the co-creator of a popular cartoon, called The Ink Black Heart, but now she is being persecuted online by someone going by the name of Anomie. She believes she knows Anomie’s true identity, but needs help to prove it.
Robin and Cormoran have a lot on their hands and decide they’re not taking on a new case. And then Edie is found murdered in Highgate Cemetery, exactly where the cartoon is set.
Now Robin and Cormoran can’t help themselves – they are drawn in, and go on a terrifying rollercoaster journey.
A Library to Flee, by Etienne van Heerden, translated by Henrietta Rose-Innes (Tafelberg)*
This novel is said to be set in a carnivalesque landscape populated by a cast of colourful characters.
There’s lawyer Ian Brand, who sends out a tweet that changes his life, Thuli Khumalo, a “Fallist” leader who has to choose between her father and her principles, Snaar Windvogel, once known as the little violin girl of Matjiesfontein who is transitioning to being male, Bill who has developed the board game Nkandla, Sello the Crab, who can fix anything, old-fashioned liberal Dr Stephen Eliot, and more.
And they’re all interacting against a background that Cape Town’s crossbow killer will strike again, that trains are burning at the station, lorry drivers fear attack on national roads, and gangs rampage.
Sounds like everyday life in the good old R of SA.
And that’s not all…
Here are some other books worth a mention on anyone’s Christmas list which have already been reviewed by The Books Page or have been rated already in our monthly Bedside Table feature.
Burchell’s African Odyssey, by Roger Stewart & Marion Whitehead (Struik Nature)
This is about a three-year journey undertaken by the naturalist William Burchell through South Africa in the early 1800s, collecting specimens as he went. His name resounds today in creatures such as Burchell’s coucal, and our gardens are richer for plants like the red hot poker and clivia that he introduced to a wider world.
Blood and Silver, by Jan Glazewski (Tafelberg)*
This tells the story of Glazewski’s unique heritage: he was born with haemophilia which nearly killed him as an infant, and he grew up on tales of the family silver that was buried in a hole in the ground when the family fled Poland for South Africa at the outbreak of World War 2.
So the former UCT professor decided to find it. And he did.
The Rising Tide, by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)*
This latest Vera Stanhope police thriller is set on Holy Island, also called Lindisfarne. Vera is called to Lindisfarne when one of a long-time group of friends is found hanged.
As teenagers 50 years ago the group spent a weekend on the island, and still return every five years to celebrate their friendship and mourn the friend who died during the first reunion.
But now there’s another body. Is it suicide or murder? What does the group know and what are they hiding?
Farm Killings in South Africa, by Nechama Brodie (Kwela)
Killings on farms account for less than half a percent of all murders reported in SA every year, and yet they are freighted with disproportionate weight in the national narrative on violence.
Having trawled through innumerable news reports, data, law cases and expert research about violence on farms, journalist Dr Nechama Brodie tells us that between April 2020 and March 2021 the police recorded 19 972 murders across the country – a terrifying average of 55 a day. But very few of them were farm killings.
Veld: Birds of Southern Africa, by Burger Cillie and more (Sunbird Publishers)*
Many earlier bird guides were illustrated with paintings as photography just wasn’t quick or good enough to capture the birds’ finer detail, but no longer. This book is packed full of exquisitely detailed photographs.
Each entry has a detailed map and brief text that provides the bird’s key features, status, and habitat.
The Eye of the Beholder, by Margie Orford, (Jonathan Ball Publishers)*
Cora flees for her life from the frozen north, but it is never easy to leave the past behind.
Damian Barr, Scottish writer and broadcaster, describes this writer’s work: “Orford truly understands the transformative power of violence for those who survive it and those who visit it upon others. It gives her writing visceral power.”