Monthly Archives: June 2023

Bedside Table books for June

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later. They are on the list of Exclusive Books’s top reads for June. Another June top read was Winnie and Nelson – Portrait of a marriage, by Jonny Steinberg, which the Books Page reviewed on June 18. – Vivien Horler


Truth to Power – My three years inside Eskom, by André Ruyter (Penguin Random House)

When André Ruyter was first interviewed for the post of Eskom CEO – well before he actually got the job in 2020 – he was asked to make a short video of himself with a “meaningful object”. He chose an old pair of safety boots he had used when working at Sasol, because he saw himself as a “boots on the floor” kind of boss.

This found favour with the then chairman of the board, Jabu Mabuza, who later informed him that while he had done well in the interview and psychometric tests, it would be politically impossible to appoint a white man to the position.

He was offered another job instead, the newly created post of chief operations officer, which he turned down as he was not an engineer. And so it was only following another round of searches for a CEO that he got the job to a media storm, after 28 black people had turned it down.

I have just read the first couple of chapters but it looks like a gripping read. I didn’t know he was the son of Dutch immigrants who came to SA after World War 2, and who impressed on him the importance of treating everyone, regardless of race or class, with respect.

He became a supporter of the old liberal Progressive Reform Party, and his newspapers of choice were Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad.

He’s refreshingly self-deprecating. “Perhaps part of the reason for taking the job was just sheer Dutch bloody mindedness with a hint of arrogance thrown in.

“A fool was rushing in where angels feared to tread.” And we all know how that turned out.

Born White Zulu Bred – A memoir of a Third World Child, by GG Alcock (Tracey McDonald Publishers)

GG Alcock has a truly extraordinary story to tell. He was born on a Catholic mission station in what was then Natal, where his father, who was not a missionary, helped with local agricultural development.

Eventually the Alcocks were turned off the mission station and settled, with their two little blond sons, in Msinga, near Tugela Ferry, a place Alcock said was the most violent in the country.

And while Alcock senior helped poverty-stricken locals with their lives, including in local inter-tribal battles as well as fights with local white farmers and police, his wife wrote newspaper articles about what was going on in this distant corner of the country.

Life was tough and dangerous, but the two little boys, GG and his brother Khonya, ran wild, snaring small animals, never missing a target with their catties, speaking isiZulu fluently and being treated just like all the Zulu kids around them.

This is the story of GG’s youth, his father’s murder, and GG’s subsequent life. Today he is a businessman who in this book describes “the mazes of township market places… to reveal the proud and dignified world of township entrepreneurs who are transforming South Africa’s economy”. I look forward to reading it.

Small Mercies, by Dennis Lehane (Abacus Books)

Dennis Lehane is the best-selling thriller writer of titles such as the acclaimed Mystic River, which became an Oscar-winning film directed by Clint Eastwood.

Small Mercies is set in an Irish enclave of Boston in the sweltering summer of 1974, a time when schools were being forcefully desegregated and protests flared in the streets.

One night Mary Pat Fennessey’s teenage daughter Jules doesn’t come home. The same night a young black man is found dead, hit by a subway train.

There doesn’t seem to be a link between the two events, but Mary Pat starts asking questions, questions people like Marty Butler, head of the local Irish mafia, don’t want answered.

Stephen King describes Small Mercies as “thought-provoking, engaging, enraging”.

Little Lies, by Gail Schimmel (Macmillan)

This Joburg-set novel has been described as “brilliant – it’s a wolf of a thriller in suburban sheep’s clothing”.

Monique and Ben have been married for 20 years. Monique gets her affirmation from her friends’ admiration of her beautiful marriage, beautiful home and beautiful children.

But three children can derail your best plans, especially when one’s a 15-year-old who only ever dresses in black, and two young boys who have to play club cricket even when their grumpy father knows they have no real talent or inclination.

And so, what with one thing another, plus a few new people in her life, things start to go wrong for Monique and her beautiful family.

Gail Schimmel is an attorney, the author of two previous novels, and is the CEO of the Advertising Regulatory Board.


You don’t have to be a monarchist to enjoy this delicious read

Review: Vivien Horler

The Palace Papers, by Tina Brown (Penguin)

On May 6 I invited a few friends to lunch to watch King Charles’s coronation. I had acquired some Union Jack bunting and napkins, thanks to a nephew visiting from London, and we had a spectacular cake with a picture of Charles on it.

We weren’t in any way respectful. We looked out for sartorial disasters – you could usually count on either princess Beatrix or Eugenie to oblige, but disappointingly this time they didn’t. We cringed when Charles had to take off his shirt. We drank gin and ate roast lamb and had a great time.

(So did the dog who, sensing her opportunity while we had all turned our backs on the lunch table to see the royal family emerge on the Buckingham Palace balcony, climbed up and seized the half-eaten leg of lamb.)

You don’t have to be a monarchist to enjoy royal spectacle, and the drama around the British royal family in the past few years has been compelling. Similarly, you don’t need to be a monarchist to enjoy this latest book by Tina Brown, the British-born, New York based-journalist, writer and commentator.

Brown was editor in chief of the British society magazine Tatler, the US Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker. And she knows everyone, which is handy when researching a book like this. She has written two other books, The Diana Chronicles and The Vanity Fair Diaries.

The Palace Papers was first published last year, but updated and republished this year to include references to Queen Elizabeth’s death and the accession of King Charles.

Having read and enjoyed The Vanity Fair Diaries, I was pretty sure I would enjoy this one too, and I did. Brown has sources everywhere, and so the book is hugely well-informed, but she is also a light, witty writer who draws the reader in. And she is fair to her subject but not sycophantic.

The Times, in naming The Palace Papers the royal book of the year, described it as: “Clever, well-informed and disgustingly entertaining”. As the Daily Mail put it: “The devil is in the delicious detail.”

It focuses on the years since World War II, and on the leading royal characters of the time: Elizabeth, Philip, Margaret, Charles, Diana, Camilla, Andrew, William and Catherine, and of course on Harry and Meghan.

Here’s a tiny sample, referring to the famous Oprah Winfrey interview with the Sussexes: “The Duchess wore smoky tragedy eye make-up, first deployed by Diana, Princess of Wales, in her notorious interview with Martin Bashir, and her hair was in a low bun for confessional gravitas… Royal code-breakers noted that on Meghan’s left wrist was her late mother-in-law’s Cartier diamond tennis bracelet, signifying that the mantle of wronged royal woman was now hers.”

Brown says she was fascinated by Meghan’s comment in the interview that she had not known what to expect of royal life. “I didn’t fully understand what the job was,” she told Oprah. “…I grew up in LA, you see celebrities all time time.”

Brown comments: “Uh, yes. The notion that the country-side rooted, duty obsessed, tradition-bound senior members of the British Royal family bear any resemblance at all to Hollywood celebrities is head-explodingly off track. Celebrities flare and burn out. The monarchy plays the long game.”

As she points out, the British monarch is a more than1 000-year-old institution which at the time of the interview had a 96-year-old CEO and a septuagenarian waiting in the wings. “It cannot be expected to be nimble. It builds its social capital with steady, incremental acts of unexciting duty. Every so often the glacier moves, usually after a resounding shock to the system.”

Think Edward VIII’s abdication, the death of Diana, the departure of Harry and Meghan. The monarchy will change, says Brown, because its prime goal is to survive.

Somewhat surprisingly for an actress who was known while in the TV series Suits for doing her homework, Meghan told Winfrey: “I didn’t do any research.”

Well, Brown did. She spent two years, in person and over Zoom, talking to more than 120 people who were and are close to the royal family, and the result , she says, is a book she wishes Meghan had been able to read before she packed up her house in Toronto to move to London and Harry.

“She would have learned that no one is a bigger brand than the Firm.”

Serious thoughts on the nature and future of the British monarchy in The Palace Papers are interwoven with hilarious anecdotes about the family’s goings-on, all of which make this a scandalously entertaining read. I loved it.



A riveting history of our recent past, through the prism of a marriage

Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage, by Jonny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

A politically aware friend of a friend said she was not planning to read  this book. That would lend credence to what seemed to be an invasion of the privacy of the Mandelas and their marriage.

Certainly there is some truth to this. The book includes word-for- word transcriptions of private conversations between Winnie and Nelson Mandela, recorded by the prisons department when Winnie visited her husband on Robben Island, the sort of material biographers rarely have access to.

Should these conversations have been included? Continue reading

A story of war in the words of four brothers

Bullet in the Heart, by Beverley Roos-Muller (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Books on war tend to be about armies, battles, generals and the statistics of casualties, but the stories that stay in your mind are those about people.

Bullet in the Heart has plenty of the above, but at its heart it is the story of four Free State farming brothers who found themselves caught up in a war against what was then the world’s mightiest fighting machine. Continue reading

How to twitch in the Southern Ocean

Review: Lynn Mair

Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa (second edition), by Peter Ryan (Struik Nature)

The first edition of Peter Ryan’s Guide to Seabirds of Southern Africa was published in 2017, and I immediately acquired my copy.  I have used it extensively since then as I work on an expedition ship exploring the Southern Ocean, the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. 

I took this slender, easy-to-carry book as a reference guide, which was invaluable as I could take it up on deck when we were looking for wildlife and, in my case, birds.  Continue reading