Books make perfect gifts for Christmas – and lazy summer days

Vivien Horler

With temperatures up in the 30s, blue skies and inviting beaches, summer is finally here, along with festive plans and hopefully some time off.

Many people will be thinking of Christmas gifts, while others who may have been lucky enough to get an end-of-year bonus, are planning to spoil themselves a little.

So what to get? With malls and shops full to overflowing, one-stop gift buying is good, and bookshops offer something for all.

As Exclusive Books points out in its Christmas Catalogue, books are the only presents you get to open twice.

The 130 titles featured in Exclusive’s Christmas Catalogue cover all fields, from fiction, history and current affairs to business, biography, natural science, cookery, sport, faith, travel, humour, reference, travel and of course stuff to read for children, teens and young adults.

The catalogue is compiled by Exclusive’s 45 store managers, based on their familiarity with what their customers want to read.

So here’s a list of great reads, some of them my top choices over the past year, some that have arrived this month, and some from the EB catalogue.

I haven’t finished all the books on this list, but I’ve had fun startingthem. Enjoy.

I’ll start with some fascinating-looking non-fiction.

Lawrence of Arabia, by Ranulph Fiennes (Michael Joseph)

Ranulph Fiennes is a British adventurer and explorer – he’s actually named by the Guinness Book of Records as “the world’s greatest living explorer” – and is of course also a writer, with biographies like Captain Scott and Shackleton behind him, as well as books about his adventures.

A note on the cover of Lawrence of Arabia says: “You don’t have to have led a desert army into battle to tell [T E Lawrence’s] story, but it helps.” During Fiennes’s military career in the British Army in the 1960s, he was seconded to the army of the Sultan of Oman, seeing active service in the Dhofar Rebellion, and being decorated for bravery.

In his introduction to this biography, Fiennes writes: “Like T E Lawrence, I led an Arab platoon in a fight for their country. Also, like Lawrence, it was an experience that would take me to the edge. Before my adventures in Oman I already counted him as one of my heroes…

“While there are some interesting parallels between us, I’ve often found that he is a man without equal. His adventures in the desert were enough to stir the blood, but the complexity of his character also held me in his grip. There have been few like him, before or since.”

  • This title is included in the Exclusive Books Christmas Catalogue.

Emperor of Rome, by Mary Beard (Profile Books)

This title is proclaimed as “a new way of seeing the Roman Empire”, and has had some splendid reviews overseas. Mary Beard is Professor Emerita of Classics at Cambridge University, and the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Previous books include the prize-winning Pompeii.

In her “Welcome”, Beard says her book explores the fact and fiction of the rulers of ancient Rome, looking at what they did, why they did it, and why their stories have been told in sometimes lurid ways.

“It looks at the big questions, of power, corruption and conspiracy. But it also looks at the day-to-day practicalities of their lives. What, and where, did they eat? Who did they sleep with? How did they travel?”

She says there are fewer psychopaths in her book than the reader might expect, although the Roman world was, in our terms, “an almost unimaginably cruel place of premature death… murder was the ultimate way of resolving disputes, political and otherwise. The corridors of power, as well as many other humbler corridors in Rome, were always bloodstained.”

It’s beginning to sound like parts of South Africa – and the wider world – today.

  • This title is included in the Exclusive Books Christmas Catalogue.

The Race to the Future – the adventure that accelerated the 20th century, by Kassia St Clair (John Murray/ Jonathan Ball)

Remember that hilarious film Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines? This book celebrates something similar – a car race from Peking to Paris in 1907. Motoring was pretty new, roads were designed for horses rather than cars, cars were started with crank handles and fuel stations were few and far between.

Bearing in mind that the first car to be shown off in SA was a Benz Velo  before President Paul Kruger in Pretoria in January 1897, all of 20 years previously, 1907 was early days for a race of that magnitude.

In a journey that would take the competitors through the Gobi Desert, over the Urals and across two continents on the verge of revolution and war, the band of five cars set off – a Contal Mototri (6hp), two De Dion-Boutons (10hp), a Spyker (15hp), and an Itala with a massive 34-45hp engine.

In her preface, British writer Kassia St Clair says the race excited such public attention that between 500 000 and 600 000 people were on the wet streets of Paris to see the winner enter the city.

At the time, motoring magazines carried lists of the tools, lubricants, spare tyres and parts that people were advised to carry, even on short journeys.  Yet here was a journey where “roads” were often donkey tracks, fuel needed to be cached, or transported by camel, and drivers and their crew occasionally needed to make their own tracks, using pickaxes, axes and shovels.

“The Peking-Paris race was a decisive moment. It put the utility and practical significance of the automobile beyond doubt. Afterwards, even the most hardened sceptics could not ignore its potential as a rival to the railway or its applications in both civilian and military life… In practical terms, driving across two continents was the sternest test the technology had faced.”

The race, she says, is a parable about a world teetering on the edge of the most consequential century in human history.

Normal Women – 900 years of making history, by Philippa Gregory

According to the EB Christmas Catalogue, “Reframing British history from 1066 to modern times, this title highlights the diverse roles and contributions of women throughout nine centuries of social and cultural transitions. Sharing the stories of countless ‘normal women’ who shaped society as soldiers, traders, campaigners, inventors and more, this landmark work celebrates the agency of women while acknowledging that true gender equality still awaits”.

Author Philippa Gregory, probably best known for her wonderful historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl, about Ann Boleyn’s older sister Mary, said of Normal Women: “What I wanted to write was a huge book about women – those engaged in unusual practices and those living uneventful lives, up against their society and gliding along the top of it, the few we have heard of and the millions that we have not.”

  • This title is included in the Exclusive Books Christmas Catalogue.

Coloured – How classification became culture, by Tessa Dooms & Lynsey Ebony Chutel (Jonathan Ball)

In 1958, when he was 16, Solly Dooms was taken, with his school class – no parents or family present – to an Office for Race Categorisation. Living in a Northern Cape village he spoke Setswana, Afrikaans and English and considered himself to be a Motswana boy.

After telling the registration officer his name was Lesole Dooms, he was classified “Native” and accordingly issued with a dompas. At home later that day he discovered there was a problem – all the rest of his family were classified “Coloured”. Technically he was not even allowed to live with them.

So it was back to the Office for Race Registration where Lesole relinquished his name and emerged as a coloured boy called Elliot. Eventually Elliot moved to Eldorado Park in what is now Gauteng, a formerly coloured area, and the place where his daughter, author Tessa Dooms, grew up.

She writes: “Elliot would be safe in Eldorado Park, as long as he forgot about Lesole. That name does not appear in his contemporary SA identity document, but is invoked as a term of endearment by family members who to this day call him Solly – a contraction of Lesole.”

This is just one of the stories in this insightful book on coloured identity and culture, written by Dooms, a sociologist and political analyst, and Lynsey Ebony Chutel, a journalist and writer.

In their introduction they say: “We offer this book, then, as a mirror to reflect Coloured life – and a projection to show this life to people who too often think they know us. It is a book for Coloured people, by Coloured people, a book of Coloured and colourful stories from varied corners of the SA vista, past, present and future.”

The very term “Coloured” is controversial. Some see it as a slur, a burden, others see it as a unifier.

“Who are Coloured people? Are they San or Khoe, Malay or mixed, and where in SA do they fit in? And then the enduring, but also insulting question: do Coloured people even have a culture?”

This title aims to provide some answers.

Bush Brothers – Life and death across the Border, by Steve de Witt (Tafelberg)

This looks like a slightly different memoir from the many that have been published over the years since 1990. Thirty-five years after leaving the army Steve de Witt had a drink in Cape Town with a former platoon mate. The mate was in touch with another mate, and this eventually led to a two-day reunion of seven of them.

They had all been fresh out of high school when they met, going through formative experiences together – often involving life and death, and relying on each other implicitly. They had gone on to have different lives, but once they got together for their reunion in Johannesburg in 2016, they realised the old bonds were still strong.

De Witt then founded a veterans’ association, Bush Brothers Reunited, and now they get together every year, with more “makkers” joining all the time. “In some ways we’re now closer now than before, guiding one another through life’s trials into old age.”

The 1980s pictures in the book show lean young men in their browns, but pictures of the guys at the reunions area bit different. One of the captions reads: “One joker commented, ‘Put bandoliers around your chests and you could be Boers in the Anglo-Boer War.”

At one of the reunions the guys suggested De Witt write their Border War story, and here it is.

He says: “I didn’t want to write just another memoir filled with dry, sequential facts. Instead I wanted to evoke the drama, humour and complexity of our service – those things fellow conscripts can relate to…”

  • This title is included in the Exclusive Books Christmas Catalogue.

2024 Sky Guide Southern Africa – An astronomical handbook, by Auke Slotegraaf and Ian Glass (Astronomical Society of Southern Africa with Struik Nature)

The Fighting Dragons of Ara sounds like something out of Tolkein, but they are a region of star formation “consisting of emission, reflection and dark nebulae sculpted and lit by powerful radiation from young stars”.

This is the impressive 79th edition of the handbook, and is aimed at anyone with an interest in the night skies of Southern Africa, from the beginner to the professional.

It highlights the cosmic events for each month of the year, including planetary movements, eclipses and meteor showers.

It starts with highlights of the 2024 astronomical calendar (“Jan 24: Venus near Lagoon Neula; Jan 27: Mercury near Mars”), and itemises the planets visible before and after sunset.

It lists all the full moons of the year – including four Supermoons and two Micromoons, and charmingly gives them names: “Jan 25: Mantis Moon; Feb 24: Dassie Moon, Micromoon; Mar 25: Harvest Moon, Micromoon, eclipse…”

Then it launches into detailed monthly thrills in the celestial almanac, each one accompanied by fabulous full-page pictures.

It contains a wealth of information about the Sun, Moon, comets and bright stars, all accompanied by diagrams, charts and images.

This would seem to be a must for all stargazers.

Capture in the Court – In defence of judges and the constitution, by Dan Mafora (Tafelberg)

Our constitution was signed at Sharpeville on December 10, 1996, and at the signing ceremony President Nelson Mandela said he was honoured to be signing into law a text that “embodies our nation’s highest aspirations… let us join hands for peace and prosperity. In doing so we will redeem the faith which fired those whose blood drenched the soil of Sharpeville and elsewhere in our country and beyond.”

Yet here we are today, with Mandela accused of being a sell-out. Populist leaders see the Constitution as an obstacle to freedom. “Sophisticated disinformation campaigns, using bots and fake social media accounts, are used to sway public opinion.”

Dan Mafura is the senior researcher at the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution, and worked at the Constitutional Court as a law clerk.

He writes that this book is not about state capture, but about “a new, more insidious, form of capture. It is about the ascendant anti-constitutionalism of our present moment. Rhetoric that the Constitution has failed or is an obstacle to freedom, economic or otherwise, is flowering everywhere.”

There are dangers in this talk, and Mafura proposes ways we can change course, before it is too late.

Hugh Corder, UCT Professor Emeritus of Public Law, has described this title as “a challenging, provocative and highly accessible account of some of the most urgent constitutional and ideological questions besetting SA currently”.


The Book of Fire, by Christy Lefteri (Manilla Press)

Christy Lefteri, author of the best-selling and prize-winning The Beekeeper of Aleppo, has written a new book about a family in a small village in Greece.

Irini is British, her husband Tasso Greek, and they live simply and happily with their young daughter Chara until a wealthy man, who lives in splendid isolation in a mansion up the hill, sets fire to the land out of greed and indifference.

The family, and scores of others, flee the flames, with Irini and Chara spending hours in the sea before they are rescued.

Afterwards, Tasso’s father is dead, Tasso is badly injured and Chara has burn scars on her back.

Then one day, six months later, Irini comes across the rich man sitting under a tree in what are left of the woods. Irini says: “He did something terrible, but then, so did I. I left him. I left him, and now he may be dead.”

The first two chapters had me hooked.

  • This title is included in the Exclusive Books Christmas Catalogue.

Lefteri grew up in London, the child of Cypriot refugees.

Still Breathing, by Marita van der Vyver (Tafelberg)

There’s an old colour snap of a group of friends, posing together, babies in their laps. And now it’s 25 years later and the group, scattered all over the world, have come back to the West Coast to celebrate Adriaan’s 70th birthday in his beach house.

Children, now grown, and grandchildren join them as they look back over the years with wine and flowers, and record who is missing, who have changed partners, and the age that is beckoning them.

This looks like a lovely warm story, but I was a bit dismayed by the cast of characters, and then the first chapter, describing who is who in the old photograph. I think it will be a fun read, once I’ve figured out who they all are, who was who, who was/is married to whom, and whose children all those kids are.

  • This title is included in the Exclusive Books Christmas Catalogue.

The Little Liar, by Mitch Alboom (Sphere)

This book, by the author of the bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie, is about truth and lies set in the Holocaust.

The Germans are loading the Jews of Salonika on to trains whose final destination is Auschwitz. Most know 11-year-old Nico Krispis as a child who never lies, and are tempted to believe him when he tells them, at the behest of a German officer, that the trains are taking them “north” to new jobs and safety.

Nico has no reason not to believe the officer, particularly when he tells the child he can protect his own family by encouraging the neighbours. But the day he sees his own family loaded on to the train, he realises he’s been had.

Nico escapes, but never tells the truth again. Interspersed with Nico’s story is that of his brother Sebastian, a school friend, and the German officer.

The blurb tells us this is Mitch Alboom “at his very best, a timeless tale of the harm we inflict with our deceits, and the power of love to redeem us”.

Day, by Michael Cunningham (4th Estate)

It’s April 2019 and a New York family who love each other but recognise cracks approaching in their relationships, have a typical early morning send-off to work and school.

A year later they are in lockdown, driving each other nuts and missing Robbie, the children’s uncle, who went on a trip to Iceland, and is now trapped overseas.

A year after that the family get together again, drawn by tragedy to seek each other’s comfort. All is changed, and yet the love lives on.

Day will be reviewed on Sunday, December December 17.

  • This title is included in the Exclusive Books Christmas Catalogue.

The Fraud, by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton/Jonathan Ball)

This is a dazzling yet complicated depiction of Victorian England, and its attitude to sugar, slavery, women’s rights and literature. It also provides an account of one of the longest trials ever to be heard in Britain.

It was reviewed on The Books Page on Sunday December 10.

To see the review: A dazzling depiction of Victorian colonial England

Other books to feature in The Books Page which are included in Exclusive Books’ Christmas Catalogue:

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

This novel was reviewed by Vivien Horler on The  Books Page on August 27, 2023.

To see the review: A great, sprawling triumph of a novel



Winnie & Nelson – Portrait of a marriage, by Jonny Steinberg (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

This title was reviewed by Vivien Horler on The Books Page on June 19, 2023.

To see the review: A riveting history of our recent past, through the prism of a marriage



Truth to Power – My years inside Eskom, by Andre de Ruyter (Penguin Books)

This title was reviewed by Vivien Horler on The Books Page on July 9, 2023.

To see the review: De Ruyter tells his shocking inside story of Eskom



Harry Oppenheimer – Diamonds, gold and dynasty (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

This title was reviewed by Archie Henderson on The Books Page on July 23, 2023.

To see the review: Dismissed by a new generation, Oppenheimer played major role in 20th century SA




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