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.

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