Monthly Archives: August 2023

Top reads for August

Bedside Table August

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. The top four – Lost Property, The Bookbinder of Jericho, The Paris Deception and The Light We Carry, along with The Covenant of Water (reviewed on Sunday August 27) are among Exclusive Books’ top reads of the month. – Vivien Horler

Lost Property, by Megan Choritz (Melinda Ferguson Books)

The birds are everywhere. Some are real, some are imagined, but they comfort a young Laine as she grows up in a dysfunctional Jewish family in pre-1994 Johannesburg.

For Laine’s chain-smoking mother, life is all about her. She frequently takes to her bed with migraines, shouting to Dora, the domestic worker, to bring coffee and a clean ashtray.

Laine’s father is an altogether nicer person, but rarely stands up to his wife.

There is a younger brother, but he doesn’t really count.

And then there’s beloved, live-in Dora, who provides the mothering Laine yearns for.

Years later, Laine moves to Cape Town where she marries and settles in Woodstock. Her husband is useless, hopeless and selfish, and comes from a pretty ghastly family. In fact there are a lot of unlovable characters in Lost Property.

After her husband leaves, Laine befriends a little coloured girl, Tina, who lives across the road in another dysfunctional family – considerably more dysfunctional than Laine’s own, but also featuring a small girl who needs love.

At one point, when Tina has reluctantly agreed to go home, Laine points to a starling on the roof and tells Tina it will keep an eye on her. Tina mishears, and says she is glad a darling will keep her safe.

Tina wants to move in with Laine permanently, but Tina’s mother, who is regularly beaten up by her boyfriend, resents the relationship between her daughter and her  middle-class white neighbour.

I’m making Lost Property sound ghastly, but it isn’t – it’s a tender, touching story of finding love in unlikely places.

The Bookbinder of Jericho, by Pip Williams (Chatto & Windus)

Unlike The Beekeeper of Aleppo and other similarly titled novels, this one is not set in the Middle East – Jericho is an area of Oxford close to the Oxford University Press, which is at the centre of this historical novel.

From the pen of the author who wrote the delightful bestseller The Dictionary of Lost Words – about the compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary – comes this tale about Peggy, a folder in the bookbindery and her twin sister, at the outbreak of World War 1. After the men all march off to the Western Front, the women left behind have to pick up the slack and keep the press operational.

But Peggy has ambitions to be more than a worker in the press – she’s a reader and she wants to study, to improve her life. And yet what are her chances of overcoming her working class background and reading for a degree at Oxford?

Meanwhile the war is absorbing more and more people, not just young men but young women as well as they volunteer to help with refugees, to work as nurses. Suddenly Peggy has more choices than she knows what to do with.

I’m very much looking forward to this one.

The Paris Deception, by Bryn Turnbull (Headline Review)

Another wartime novel, but this is World War 2. It opens in Berlin in March 1939 with an appalled Sophie, an art restorer, watches as Nazis fling “degenerate art” and books on to enormous bonfires.

She leaves Berlin for Paris, but the Nazis aren’t far behind.

Working as a restorer at the Jeu de Paumme museum, she wonders whether it is possible to save priceless works of art from a fate similar to that of the “degenerate art” of Berlin. And then comes a daring plan – could they copy some of this work skilfully enough to fool the Nazis, and hide the originals?

The Light We Carry – Overcoming in uncertain times, by Michelle Obama (Viking/ Penguin)

I found Michelle Obama’s first book, Becoming, a great read. Not only did it record how a black girl from a working-class family became the First Lady of the United States, it also provided wonderful behind-the-scenes glimpses into what life is like at that rarified level.

You’d think, after all that, Michelle would have life sorted. She says she’s frequently asked for answers and solutions, how to navigate a life full of unfairness and uncertainty.

In the introduction to this volume she says if she had a formula, she’d hand it over. But no, she admits that she too lies in bed, sometimes, wondering if she’s good enough.

So there’s no formula. What this offering contains is an insight into her “personal toolbox”.

It’s “… what I use professionally and personally to help me stay balanced and confident, what keeps me moving forward even during times of high anxiety and stress”.

But it’s not a how-to manual either. What the reader will find in the book “is a series of honest reflections on what my life has taught me so far, the levers and hydraulics of how I get myself through”.

She writes that we become “bolder in brightness… One light feeds another. One strong family lends strength to more. One engaged community can ignite those around it. This is the power of the light we carry.”

Hiking Beyond Cape Town – 40 inspiring hikes outside the city, by Nina du Plessis and Willie Olivier (Struik Travel & Heritage/ Penguin Random House SA)

Just the cover of this glorious little field guide makes you want to lace up your hiking boots and get out there.

The cover picture is taken on Hangklip Peak near Pringle Bay, less than two hours from the Mother City, a trail that offers fabulous views of fynbos, mountains and sea.

The guide features 40 trails, mostly involving one-day trips taking between two and seven hours. All ages and abilities are catered for.

Willie Olivier is a known veteran explorer on foot, road and 4×4, while his daughter Nina du Plessis spends most weekends on a mountain somewhere in the Western Cape.

Each hike entry contains a map, a route description, a summary of the distance, time and trail difficulty, as well as details of the fauna, fynbos and features you can expect to see. And there are lots of great colour pictures.

I have done only one of the trails featured, the 3.7km circular Hangklip Lighthouse Trail, which wanders along the coastline and reaches three gorgeously deserted beaches as well as circling the lighthouse, built in 1960 and SA’s first fully automated light.

It’s a lovely, level dog-friendly walk, but you have to keep an eye out for sneaky roots snaking across the path.

This is a marvellous guide.

Killer Cop – The Rosemary Ndlovu Story, by Naledi Shange (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Daisy de Melker, who was hanged in 1932 for the murder of her son, the improbably named Rhodes Cecil Cowle, has been the subject of a recent book by Ted Botha, Hiding Among Killers in the City of Gold (Jonathan Ball Publishers).

She is also believed to have poisoned two husbands, although was never convicted of their murders.

In her introduction to Killer Cop, author Naledi Shange points out that the presiding officer in the Rosemary Ndlovu case, Judge Ramarumo Monama, said a matter like this had not been heard in a South African court since the days of De Melker.

But it seems Ndlovu was a much more determined killer than De Melker, being found guilty of at least six murders, mostly of relatives, having taken out insurance policies on all of them. She even planned to kill her mother, a woman who ended up giving evidence in her defence during the trial.

Many consumers of news were riveted by this case, and one of the people who reported on it extensively for the Sunday Times and TimesLIVE was Shange.

Ndlovu eventually received six life sentences, with an additional 145 years behind bars.

Anyone who found reports of the trial fascinating is likely to be equally absorbed by this book.

A great, sprawling triumph of a novel

Review: Vivien Horler

The Covenant of Water, by Abraham Verghese (Grove Press UK)

Years ago I was in a book shop trying to decide between three novels, one of which was John Irving’s The World According to Garp.  The bookseller looked at my selection, handed me Garp, and said: “After you’ve read this one you won’t need those.”

I feel a bit that way about The Covenant of Water. It’s a big, long, sprawling triumph of a novel, one in which the author disconcertingly doesn’t hesitate to kill off characters you’ve come to admire and love, and yet there are enough others to keep you going with enthusiasm.

Abraham Verghese’s first novel was the acclaimed and brilliant Cutting for Stone, about a doctor in Africa, which remained on the New York Times bestselling list for two years.

His background is interesting – he was born in Ethiopia to Christian parents from Kerala in India.

After the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was deposed, the family left for the US. Later the young Abraham studied medicine in Madras, now Chennai. Following his graduation he returned to the US where he worked in hospitals in Tennessee and Texas. He is currently a professor of medicine at Stanford.

In this novel, which is set in a Christian community in a Kerala in 1900, a 12-year-old child bride arrives terrified at the home of her small-landowner husband, a 40-year-old widower. At first he refuses to marry her, pointing out he already has a child to look after and doesn’t need another.

But the marriage goes ahead and the couple eventually gel, finding love and comfort in each other. The young bride, who soon becomes known as Big Ammachi, bonds with little Jo-Jo, her stepson, who is not that much younger than she, and he with her.

One day Big Ammachi finds a collection of moth-eaten papers that amount to a family tree, and she discovers that in each generation someone dies by drowning. In Kerala you can’t avoid water – what with rivers and canals and the province’s famed backwaters, it is everywhere.

Big Ammachi comes to think of it as the Condition, something that appears to be passed down. Her husband avoids water, and so does Jo-Jo, and yet, years later, her granddaughter Mariamma is a great swimmer.

The novel is rooted in Parambil, the family estate, and explores the links between various family members and the people of different castes who work for them.

But there is a wider world, and interwoven with the story of Parambil is a second story of Digby, a young Glaswegian doctor who joins the Indian medical service during the flagging days of Britain’s colonial project in India. He becomes an expert in hand surgery, a skill that serves him well when working in a leper hospital not far from Parambil.

The novel covers the period from 1900 to 1977, and we see many beloved characters born and die, some peacefully, some not. We follow historical events, World War 2, independence, the coming of electricity to Parambil, and eventually even a hospital.

Big Ammachi’s granddaughter, Mariamma, becomes a doctor who begins to uncover the genetic secrets of the Condition – it turns out it’s a real thing. Standing beside the river she realises: “This is the covenant of water: that  they’re all linked inescapably by their acts of commission and omission, and no one stands alone. She stays there listening to the burbling mantra, the chant that never ceases, repeating its message that all is one.”

Eventually the interwoven threads between the lives of Mariamma and Digby – many years her senior – become clear.

I’ve read reviews that say the novel flags towards the end, but I didn’t think so. The surprises keep coming.

I thought it was brilliant.

  • The Covenant of Water is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads of the month.


Does SA’s way of war work?

Review: Archie Henderson

20 Battles – Searching for an SA way of war, 1913-2013, by Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz (Delta Books)

“In war, prepare for peace; in peace, prepare for war.” It’s one of the more famous quotes from Sun Tzu, general, philosopher, strategist and author of The Art of War, written more than 2,500 years ago.

It applies to many walks of life – especially in the corporate world – but Evert Kleynhans and David Brock Katz are more interested in its literal meaning.

Both are civilians and also military men. Continue reading

Author weaves his own moving story into the classic Shackleton tale


Review: Vivien Horler

Finding Endurance – Shackleton, my father and a world without end, by Darrel Bristow-Bovey (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Like author Darrel Bristow-Bovey, I’m a Shackleton fan. Some Antarctic polar nuts are Robert Falcon Scott fans – and Scott did actually reach the South Pole, albeit behind the Norwegian Roald Amundsen – but he and his party died on the return journey.

Shackleton never made it to the South Pole, yet his story seems to me the more remarkable one: he and his entire team made it back home, after seeing their ship crushed by the ice and then going through extraordinary privations to survive. Continue reading

You do what you have to do – even when the bombs are falling

Not Without my Dogs, by Kobus Olivier with Hilda van Dyk (Tafelberg)

Kobus Olivier is a cricketer – both player and coach – and his passion for the sport has taken him all around the world. After teaching cricket in Dubai, where he found the heat debilitating, he decided in 2017 he needed a holiday where it was cold, and booked a flight to Kyiv.

In just a week the city stole his heart, and in 2018 Olivier packed up his cases and his little dog Tiekie and moved to Kyiv permanently – well, that was the plan.

He got a job teaching English at a good school and also introduced and taught cricket to schoolchildren. Olivier moved into a 7th floor in a building in Peremohy Ave – the road you would take if you were driving from Belarus to Kyiv. Continue reading