Monthly Archives: May 2024

Bedside table books for May

It’s been a wonderfully book-rich month, and there are books on every surface in my house. These are some of the offerings that landed on my desk this month, of which I will review a few in full in coming weeks. The first two – Show Me the Place by Hedley Twidle, and The Comrades’s Wife by Barbara Boswell – are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for May, along with Diva by Daisy Goodwin, a novel based on the life of Maria Callas, which will be reviewed in full on Sunday June 2 on The Books Page website. – Vivien Horler

Show Me the Place – Essays, by Hedley Twidle (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Thirty-six “is no longer young, promising or even emerging”, writes academic and essayist Hedley Twidle in a delightful piece on learning to surf, 20 years too late.

No matter, it is fun, even when he and his friend Alex battle to cope with 2-foot waves off Milnerton lighthouse and have to dodge the odd nappy in the surf. It is also humiliating out there, “being whistled off a wave by a seven-year-old”.

It’ll take five years to get even half way good, says Alex gloomily, even if they surf every day. But they press on, till Covid strikes and the beaches are declared off limits. “The world needed people who loved surfing without feeling the need to surf themselves,” says a resigned Twidle.

Other essays are about seeking Rhodes’s chopped off bronze nose, attending an academic conference in Brazil where a British colleague is obsessed with relationships in her department back home, spending weeks in a Scottish bothy with a pair of grumpy anarchists, meditating for seven hours (it hurts, physically), and the tragedy of his mother’s dementia.

“Hedley Twidle is an essayist of rare brilliance,” is a shout on the cover of this book.

The Comrade’s Wife, by Barbara Boswell (Jacana Media)

This is a tautly plotted novel about a divorced Cape Town academic in her mid-40s who meets a delicious man of a similar age online. He is handsome, urbane, educated, apparently wealthy, and he fancies Anita big time, as she does him.

He turns out to be a rising star backbench MP for the ruling party, so that he travels a great deal. This becomes a problem for Anita who wants more of him, despite Neill pointing out that she knew he was a devoted comrade from the get go.

There are a couple of red flags, but Anita tells herself to be a grownup, because when she has Neill’s attention she has all his attention. He is also kind, generous and a tender and fantastic lover.

Within months of meeting, they marry, but sudden work commitments mean Neill is unable to accompany Anita on their honeymoon trip to Vic Falls.

And so it goes on. When the relationship is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad…

It turns out scorned wives are not powerless.

This is a triffic read.

Hunting the Seven – How the Gugulethu Seven assassins were exposed, by Beverley Roos-Muller (Jonathan Ball)

The 1980s were a terrible time in South Africa. The Struggle against the apartheid government was ratchetting up, and in response the authorities were becoming more viciously heavy handed.

Early on March 3, 1986, Gugulethu residents heard an explosion, followed by gunshots. Minutes later, all was quiet again. For those who were looking, seven bodies lay sprawled in NY1. There was an unusually high police presence.

What had happened? The official version was that seven heavily armed young black men had been planning to ambush a police van returning to the nearby Gugulethu police station.

But it happened that Chris Bateman, a Cape Times reporter who could speak isiXhosa, arrived at the scene and was amazed by the number of senior police milling about. This was unusual in an under-policed area.

The scene was overlooked by a hostel lived in by dairy workers. Bateman found three hostel dwellers who had seen what happened. Two men told a similar story: there had been an explosion, and they had run to the windows to see what was going on. Outside a man lay in the dirt under a big tree. A policeman walked up to him and shot him in the head.

A third hostel dweller said he had seen a man near the bushes on the opposite side of the road. A policeman confronted him, kneed and kicked him till he was down, and shot him.

These reports were key to establishing the truth of what really happened that day.

But most of this became known, thanks to testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Beverley Roos-Muller takes matters further: the men’s families denied they were activists. Why had the police shot them? Roos-Muller went hunting for answers.

When Love Kills – The tragic tale of AKA and Anele, by Melinda Ferguson (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Author Melinda Ferguson describes this tale as echoing a Shakespearean tragedy, “a story that broke my heart”.

The rapper AKA – Kiernan Forbes, 35 – was shot dead along with his friend, chef and entrepreneur Tebello “Tibz” Motsoane, in Florida Road, Durban on the night of February 11, 2023.

This was big news around the world. He was a talented rapper and producer, although he did not impress author and publisher Melinda Ferguson much. In an author’s note she writes: “…for me, his chaotic personal life had blurred his genius”.

Somehow, in all the publicity around his death, little was said about the death of his fiancée, Anele Tembe, more than 10 years his junior, who fell from the 10th floor of the Pepperclub Hotel in Cape Town in April 2021.

In fact not everyone was silent about Tembe’s death. There was speculation AKA’s assassination might have been an act of revenge. Was it an inside job? Was it a suicide, a dreadful accident, or a murder?

Ferguson says this book, which is controversial, is not a biography of either of the couple. “Rather it’s a twisted love story involving a highly talented and flawed man, a bright and flawed young girl and some significant characters who crossed their paths.”

Sizzlers – The hate crime that tore Sea Point apart, by Nicole Engelbrecht (Melinda Ferguson Books)

I was still working on the newsdesk of the Cape Argus when on January 23, 2003, ten men were tied up and attacked at Sizzlers, a gay massage parlour in Sea Point, Cape Town. It was a very big story at the time.

Extraordinarily, after the killers had left, one of the victims, Quinton Taylor, who had been shot in the head twice and had his throat slit, dragged himself to a nearby petrol station and raised the alarm.

Eventually two killers, Adam Woest and Trevor Theys, were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

And then, in 2018, Woest became eligible for parole, despite the fact that none of the victims’ families had been contacted, much less consulted, and nor had Quinton Taylor. Eventually the sister of one of the victims, who lived in Canada, took matters in hand. Woest was not going to be released if she had anything to do with it.





Forget PlayStation – try stories, kindness and ice cream instead

Review: Vivien Horler

Prescription: Ice Cream – A doctor’s journey to discover what matters, by Alastair McAlpine (Macmillan)

In 2018 Alastair McAlpine, a paediatrician based in Cape Town, found five minutes of fame.

He worked as a palliative care doctor, helping children with terminal illnesses to die more comfortably – both physically and mentally.

This is a gruelling speciality, because everyone feels it is wrong for children to die, and yet they do. If they and their families can be helped through the ordeal, it is a good thing.

One day he was talking to seven-year-old Evangeline, whose medication caused appalling nausea, which meant keeping her fed and hydrated was fraught. Continue reading

Check out some of the local publications in this year’s Homebru catalogue

South African readers have always had access to a cornucopia of books from abroad, but the proportion of new books available in any one month contains an increasing number of books published in this country.

May is Exclusive Books’ annual Homebru campaign, when the spotlight is on the homegrown voices defining the SA literary landscape.

“South Africans have always had a way with words, and while meanings may differ, we understand each other all the same,” said a spokesperson for the book chain.

“That why this year’s Homebru campaign is a celebration of words: the unique and quintessentially SA words that bring us together, help us express ourselves and give us an avenue to tell our story.”

There are 58 books in the 2024 Homebru catalogue, ranging from fiction and nature books to poetry, current affairs and children’s reads.

To see the full selection, visit the Exclusive  Books website. But here are a few of the Homebru books sent to me. – Vivien Horler

Place – South African Literary Journeys, by Justin Fox (Umuzi)

Olive Schreiner’s Karoo, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s lowveld, Herman Charles Bosman’s Marico, Dalene Matthee’s Knysna forest, Zakes Mda’s Wild Coast and Stephen Watson’s Cederberg – these are among the places travel writer Justin Fox explores.

A former editor of Getaway magazine, Fox goes on a series of magnificent journeys around our country and into the landscapes that inspired generations of South African writers.

He has chosen landscapes that are still wild and largely unspoilt, and writes: “My choice of literary works is all about places of the heart, both for the authors and myself. The selection is personal, reflecting my own literary and literal geographies… In each instance, setting is no mere backdrop but an integral part of the work and a reflection of the author’s heart-land.”

This is, he says, a book about a series of journeys around SA, “with an old kitbag of books instead of maps to guide us”.

How to Fix (and unf*ck) a Country – Six things to reboot South Africa, by Roy Havemann (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Roy Havemann has consulted to the SA Presidency, the Treasury, the World Bank and private companies. He joined the national Treasury in 2002, eventually becoming former Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s speechwriter. (Which makes me wonder who actually wrote Mboweni’s foreword…)

In his introduction Havemann says some countries are stable and prosperous, while others are failed states. But none of this is destiny. History is full of examples of countries that have pulled themselves out of – or got into – a hole.

He points out that once successful countries like Argentina, are successful no longer. North Korea, with plenty of natural resources, is poor. South Korea, which has no minerals and a relatively small population, is among the richest places in the world.

Havemann says there are six priorities – things we could do practically to get us moving in the right direction, all beginning with the letter “E”: Eskom, Education, Environment, Exports, Equality and an Ethical and Effective state.

In a brief shout on the cover, News24’s respected business journalist Carol Paton says: “This book will make you smarter. Packed with lively anecdotes and lessons from history, economics, and the world, [it] explains the hole South Africa is in how we can climb out.”

As Mboweni says in his foreword: “This book aims to create a conversation. My hope is that it stimulates a discussion on growth. We need it.”

Bullsh!t – 50 fibs that made South Africa, by Jonathan Ancer (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

What is it with books that employ swear words in their titles and then don’t have the courage of their convictions but coyly hide behind an asterisk or an exclaimation mark, like Scope magazine’s topless models and their strategically placed stars.

In my opinion, if you want to say bullshit, or fuck, just say it. The asterisks fool no one.

Right, rant over.

Jonathan Ancer, a quirky and clever former colleague has written an intriguing book about the lies that some or all of us believe.

The first he picks at is the 1994 election, which was, he says, “an agreed fiction”.

Organising the first democratic election was an impossible task for the brand new IEC. They had no voters’ roll and just four months to do it all.

Ancer quotes the political scientist Professor Steven Friedman who in 1994  headed the IEC’s information analysis department. He says a lot of the 1994 results were absurd, especially in KwaZulu-Natal.

“For example, by any credible population estimate, in some voting stations you had 800% of the adult population voting. The whole thing was dodgy.”

Before election day, Friedman wrote a paper on what would constitute a fair and free election, and said there was a single major criterion: whether the losers accepted the results.

“It’s a legitimacy issue. If the losers accept the results, then does it matter if five votes go astray here or there?”

He believes if the IEC had been purist about the results, conflict would have been inevitable. “In my view, it was not a lie but a ‘negotiated truth’ or an ‘agreed fiction’.”

The historian Bill Nasson says in his foreword: “Combining journalist raciness with a magpie mind and an alligator’s nose for a swamp, Ancer is a shrewd recorder and interpreter of SA’s steaming pile of follies, crimes, misfortunes and absurdities.”

Prescription: Ice Cream – A doctor’s journey to discover what matters, by Alastair McAlpine (Macmillan)

This is an interesting and even inspiring book which I’m not going into detail about here as it will be the subject of the Sunday book review on May 26 on The Books Page.


Among the other books in the Homebru catalogue are Margie Orford’s vulnerable Love and Fury, Ivan Vladislavic’s The Near North, and Graham Coetzer’s Hunting with the Hawks, all three of which have been either reviewed or mentioned in previous weeks of The Books Page.




Giving a voice to the voiceless

Review: Vivien Horler

James, by Percival Everett (Mantle/Pan Macmillan)

There are so many parallels in this book with South Africa’s history that the American writer Ann Patchett’s advice to every American to read it probably holds true for South Africans too.

It is a retelling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or perhaps it is more correct to say inspired by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this time from the point of view of the slave, Jim.

Percival Everett is a prolific and respected black American author, whose book The Trees was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, and whose novel
Erasure was adapted into the film American Fiction. He is also a professor of English in California.

I don’t know how long ago I read Huckleberry Finn, probably some time in high school, and some of the details of the story were hazy.

But it is essentially the story of a young and ill-educated white boy in Missouri in the 1850s, who has staged his own death to get away from his abusive father, and of a runaway slave who flees his post because he hears his owner is about to sell him and break up his family. Continue reading

Defending empire – with millions of deaths

Review: Vivien Horler

Great-Uncle Harry – A tale of war and empire, by Michael Palin (Hutchinson Heinemann)

I’ve never been to the World War I cemeteries of France, but I’ve seen pictures of them. Acres of green grass starred with regular rows of pale crosses. Hundreds and thousands of them, each representing a person, usually young, usually a man, who gave his life for his country.

Who were all those young men, and does anyone today know or care?  Do those rows of graves present a salutary lesson about the vast carnage that can result when countries go to war? Apparently not – in 1939, only 21 years after the guns fell silent, war broke out again in Europe. Continue reading

The demons that can tear at the heart of what seems a successful life

Review: Vivien Horler

Love and Fury – A memoir, by Margie Orford (Jonathan Ball)

Henry Thoreau said: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” I’m sure he would have included women in that, had that been the thinking in 1854 Massachusetts.

We all like to think we’re not one of them, though occasionally it occurs to us we might be. But I never suspected the acclaimed, award-winning and enormously successful crime thriller writer Margie Orford would be of their number.

Yet this memoir reveals her life to have been lived on various levels (as I suppose most of our lives are: the personal, political, professional). And all was clearly not what it seemed.

Continue reading