Monthly Archives: March 2023

Bedside Table for March


These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later. The first three are among Exclusive Books’ top 25 reads for the month. A fourth Exclusive Books book is One Hundred Saturdays by Michael Frank (Souvenir Press) which will be reviewed in full on Sunday April 2. – Vivien Horler





The Golden Mole – And other living treasure, by Katherine Rundell (faber)

Golden Mole is a physically beautiful volume, hardback with gilt-edged pages. In it Katherine Rundell, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, has written vignettes of some the wonders of the natural world, from swifts which fly 2million kilometres in their lifetime, to the pangolin, which apparently keeps its tongue furled in a pouch on its hip.

Rundell has unearthed the most extraordinary facts about creatures, many of which are endangered, and writes: “The book is made in part of moments where we have collided with living things, in both joy and destruction, delight and grandeur and folly.”

I’ve read only about 50 pages so far, and it’s wonderful. But listen to this.

In her piece about hermit crabs, she writes about a colony of coconut hermit crabs, the world’s largest land crab which grows up to a metre across,.

The crabs, strong enough to crack open a coconut, are found on the uninhabited island of Nikumaroro in the Western Pacific.

One of the theories about the death of pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan is that they may have crashed on to the island in 1937.

For five nights after her aircraft disappeared, the US Navy picked up distress signals from Nikurmaroro. When a rescue team reached the island a week later, it was deserted. But later researchers on the island have discovered human bones matching Earhart’s size.

Another team found a broken mirror of the type found in powder compacts, some flakes of rouge and a jar of anti-freckle cream.

So did the giant coconut crabs, with their powerful claws, eat Earhart? It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Changing a Leopard’s Spots – The adventures of two wildlife trackers, by Alex van den Heever with Renias Mhlongo (Macmillan)

Rookie game guide Alex van den Heever was paired with experienced tracker Renias Mhlongo when he started work at Londolozi more than 20 years ago.

Since then they have tracked leopards and lions at Londolozi, jaguars inSouth America and grizzly bears in the US.

I have not yet got very far, but already it is clear than Van den Heever is a fine raconteur. In the first chapter he tells how, early in their relationship, the two men were tracking leopard for a group of Canadian visitors. Mhlongo found a track in the sand that Van den Heever could barely see.

Leaving the tourists in the game-drive vehicle, the two men made their way through the bush on foot, Van den Heever carrying the rifle. Mhlongo became ever more focused. Suddenly a leopard burst out of the bush, frightening Van den Heever so badly that he stepped back, tripped over a log and fell, dropping the rifle.

The leopard came at him several times … Well, this is the first chapter so we know both guide and tracker survived – as did the leopard. But it was a scary moment.

Van den Heever realised if they were to become a successful team, he had to learn to trust Mhlongo implicitly, and vice versa. Eventually they developed a deep personal relationship as well as successful careers. Today they are motivational speakers and are the co-authors of the bestselling animal tracking field guide, Tracker Manual.

Exiles, by Jane Harper (Macmillan)

Jane Harper writes bestselling thrillers in the Australian noir genre – I’ve read two and am halfway through a third. She has won some top awards including the CWA Gold Dagger, the British Book Awards Crime and Thriller Book of the Year and the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the year. No less a crime writer than Anne Cleeves (Vera, Shetland) says Harper is an addictive storyteller.

The 2021 movie adaptation of her first novel, The Dry, is one of the highest grossing Australian films ever.

At the end of the first night of the Marralee Valley Annual Food and Wine Festival in South Australia, people are gathering up their things and leaving. But when everyone has gone, a technician collecting his bike notices a pram still in the designated pram bay.

He looks under the blanket and there, asleep, is a very small baby. Her name, Zoe Gillespie, is embroidered on her onesie. The festival director and later the police know the family. But when they ring the mother, her phone rings in the nappy bag found under the pram, along with cards and car keys.

The car turns out to be still parked in the car park.

The director phones the child’s father, who is at a restaurant with his parents in the town. There is no sign of the mother.

Some weeks later one of her shoes is found in a nearby reservoir

A year later it is once again the first night of the Marralee Valley Food and Wine Festival. Federal cop Aaron Falk is town to take part in the christening of his friends’ baby boy.

During a stage presentation at the festival, Kim Gillespie’s family make an emotional appeal to anyone who might have seen her that night a year ago.

Falk’s visit to Marralee is purely social, but he’s a cop, and he can’t help himself when it comes to local mysteries. He soon starts to feel that the Marralee community isn’t quite as close-knit as people like to think, and that someone is hiding something.

Hani – A life too short, by Janet Smith & Beauregard Tromp (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Chris Hani, leader of the SA Communist Party and chief of staff of uMkhonto we Sizwe, died on Easter Saturday, 1993, at the hands of an assassin. To mark the 30th anniversary of his death, coincidentally also at Easter this year, Jonathan Ball has reissued Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp’s biography, first published in 2009.

It includes a 33-page epilogue written at the end of last year looking at Hani’s legacy through the voices of three commentators: Sunday Times editor S’thembiso Msomo, EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema, both “exceptional leaders”, and to a somewhat lesser extent Mavuso Msimang, former Home Affairs director general, who had known Hani since the1960s.

It is Malema’s thesis, which appears to be supported by the authors, that the ANC establishment believed the socialist Hani was a threat. Malema is quoted saying: “What do we do? We have to get rid of this guy, because this guy is going to turn South Africa into a socialist state. So they killed Chris.”

Later, referring to the way members of the ANC cosied up to big business, Malema says: “Today we must be friends with them and protect that which they stole from us? I’m not part of that.

“So that’s why Chris was killed, because he refused to be part of this nonsense that hijacked the ANC.”

Msomi says Hani differed from the other leaders released from prison or back from exile. “They mostly spoke politics, pure politics. [Hani} spoke politics and linked it to civic issues…

“When you got to ’94, the ANC’s Mayibuye had ‘Free at Last, and the SACP was talking about a ‘breakthrough’, which was the idea that ‘now we have political power, what are we going to do with it?’ [The SACP was saying] this is an important milestone, but we are still going somewhere, whereas the ANC… seemed to be saying, ‘We have arrived’.”

The authors say since the book was first published they have heard many theories as to why Hani was killed and who was behind it other than the immediate perpetrators, but emphasise their book is about Hani’s life more than his death.

On the Precipice – a novel, by Kaizer Mabhilidi Nyatsumba (Verity Pubishers)

Peter Majozi of Alexandra turns 13 on the day FW de Klerk announces the unbanning of the liberation movements, and his teenage years are lived against the backdrop of the negotiations and fraught moments leading up to April 27, 1994.

He goes to a Model C high school – where to begin with he is the only black male there other than the gardeners – and later to Stellenbosch.

Thanks to his education, he speaks with a “Model C” accent, which white people admire, and tell him so. It’s meant as a compliment, but… Majozi also opts to be called Peter, rather than his second name Zwelethu, because it makes things easier for white people and he doesn’t like to hear his name butchered.

Kaizer Nyatsumba is a writer and former journalist, and he uses his own encyclopaedic knowledge of the South Africa we have lived through for the past 30 years to tell this coming of age story against a background of enormous initial  enthusiasm and hope to the country’s slow and depressing decline.

One reviewer describes it as “50 shades of SA politics – an interesting journey following a man’s sexual and political awakening”.

Another reviewer writes: “Through a personal journey of awakening, Majozi and his group of close friends hold firm to the belief that a better life for all is possible and, at considerable personal risk, put a plan into action to turn back the tide.”

This looks fascinating.

Never Never, by Colleen Hoover and Tarryn Fisher (HQ)

Charlie and Silas have been best friends all their lives, and now they’re at high school they’re boyfriend and girlfriend. But one day, out of the blue, they discover they don’t know the first thing about themselves, or each other.

It’s as though their memories have been wiped clean. Both have no idea who they are, who the other is, what class they’re in, or what has happened. Somehow their every memory has vanished.

Frightened, they decide to work together to find out what has happened to them, and why. They discover some unpleasant things, like Silas has been having a relationship with the school counsellor, that his and Charlie’s father’s once worked together but have fallen out big time over allegations of fraud.

They soon realise they’re not sure they like each other, much less love each other. But the more they find out, the more questions remain.

This is described as “a gripping, twisty, romantic mystery unlike any other”.

My Year of No Getting Sh*tfaced – How I tried to give up alcohol and learned the joys of moderation, by Pamela Power (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Pamela Power is a TV scriptwriter and script editor. She has also written several novels, including Ms Conception, but this is her first memoir, which she says falls into the category of “quitlit”.

Iit was Mother’s Day 2021 that forced Power to realise she probably had to take a long hard look at her drinking.  She had gone out to lunch with her husband in Parktown North, then joined a group of friends later.

On the Thursday after Mother’s Day she met up with some of the friends, who kindly filled her in on what had happened on the Sunday, because she did not remember a thing.

They told her in graphic detail. She also had the bruises.

She is mortified, and it’s not the first time. She gives up drinking during Covid and the famous booze ban (although to begin with she makes a plan) – and this is her diary of that year.

The book seems to be scary, honest and also funny (I haven’t got very far) as she confronts various problems, and experiences what it is like to go dry.

As the cover tells us: “While many other sober-curious books portray sobriety as the only answer, in the end Pam finds a sweet spot between total sobriety and binge drinking: moderation.”







People may think all oldies have is time. But that’s what they don’t have

Review: Vivien Horler

Bloomer, by Anne Schlebusch (Modjaji Books)

So it’s lockdown in Cape Town, and the residents of Hazyview Mansions, a state-subsidised home for the aged, retreat into their own rooms, getting their meals for the day served on a tray every morning.

At first it seems it will be a lonely time, but the real fear of ending up ill or even dead makes the residents obey the rules with little complaint.

A group of friends, led by the irrepressible Maggie, discover that it’s not that difficult to stay in touch via phones and Zoom, and they keep each other’s spirits up.

Eventually the lockdown stages ease, but Hazyview management still won’t let the oldies out, and Maggie and her group decide to rebel. Continue reading

Prospect of death, desire and the beauty of the sea

Review: Vivien Horler

My Side of the Ocean, by Ron Irwin (Macmillan)

Whenever a shark attack is reported in the Cape Town press, the predator is almost always a 5m great white. How do they know this?

According to The Comprehensive Biology of Sharks and Rays, quoted at the start of this novel, there are over 440 known species of shark on the planet. The coastal waters of South Africa are home to over a quarter of them.

There’s a thought to take with you the next time you go swimming in False Bay.

But this book is set mainly in the tiny seaside suburb of Bakoven, just down Victoria Road from Clifton and Camps Bay. As Capetonians know, the Atlantic is bitterly cold there, and not known as a haven for sharks.

But My Side of the Ocean opens with a terrifying encounter between a big shark, probably a great white, and a swimmer and a surfer. The swimmer is Stella, who is in her mid-30s, an accomplished American artist and academic based at UCT, and who owns a house on the granite rocks above Bakoven. Continue reading

Lively Noni Jabavu, an upper class British Xhosa woman, turns her gaze on 1976 SA

Review: Vivien Horler

A Stranger at Home, by Noni Jabavu (Tafelberg)

When Athambile Masola, now a writer and academic at UCT, was a student in 2009, she was asked to write a regular column for East London’s Daily Dispatch newspaper.

She wondered why there seemed to be so few black women writers and commentators, and began researching this. It emerged that black women had been writing for centuries, “but the colonial patriarchal framework in my education refused to acknowledge or see these women’s voices as valuable”.

Her research uncovered the Xhosa writer and journalist Noni Jabavu, who grew up in the UK and at one point was the first woman, the first black person and the first non-Brit to edit The New Strand, a London literary magazine.

She had also written two books, Drawn in Colour: African Contrasts (1960), and The Ochre People: Scenes from a South African Life (1963).

In 1976/77 Jabavu came back to South Africa on two extended visits to research a biography of her father, Professor DDT Jabavu, the first black professor at what was then Fort Hare University College.

While she was here she was commissioned to write a weekly column for the Daily Dispatch, then under the editorship of the late Donald Woods. This volume is a collection of those columns, running from January to December 1977. Continue reading

Don’t mess with these women

Review: Vivien Horler

A Dangerous Business, by Jane Smiley (Abacus Books)

Being a woman is a dangerous business, says Mrs Parks, and she should know.

She runs a brothel the Monterey of 1851, a port town a couple of days south of San Francisco, peopled by American settlers, Spaniards, Portuguese, indigenous Californians, British sailors and “priests and Presbyterians”. There are seven or eight men to every woman.

Mrs Parks is a kindly madam, for which Eliza Ripple is grateful. At 18, Eliza was married off by her parents in Michigan to Peter Cargill, a man who seemed prosperous and respectable, but wasn’t.

Within months of the wedding he has taken Eliza to Monterey to seek gold, but the gold rush has moved on, and he has no luck. Eliza is not happy, as Peter seems to expect her to be his servant, plus he makes it clear he intends to put it to her, whether she likes it or not, once or twice every day. Continue reading