Bedside Table Books for June

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. The top three – Moederland, by Cato Pedder; The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo; and Mr Einstein’s Secretary, by Matthew Reilly – are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for June. Some of them will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Moederland – Nine Daughters of South Africa, by Cato Pedder (John Murray)

Despite its title, Moederland is written in English by the British-born great-granddaughter of former SA prime minister Jan Smuts.

It looks at the stories of nine women across four centuries of South Africa’s history: Krotoa, a Khoikhoi translator for the Dutch East India Company; Angela of Bengal, a former slave; Elsje, a German child immigrant who was married at 13 and had her first child at 15; Anna, who was mistress of Vergelegen in the 1700s; Margaretha, a farmer who resisted the abolition of slavery; another Anna who trekked; Isie, wife of Jan Smuts; Cato, the author’s grandmother; and Petronella, the author’s aunt, who fell in love across the colour bar.

Pedder writes she is named after her grandmother, Smuts’s daughter Catharina, who too was called Cato (pronounced Cuh-too, not Kate-o). She says in her prologue that this name ensures “…I am forever connected to a country 6 000 miles from home, to a culture freighted with shame”.

This history has been reviewed on The Books Page website by Annamia van den Heever, but I’m mentioning it here as I have just received it and it is one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for the month.

Mr Einstein’s Secretary, by Matthew Reilly (Orion)

This is a novel by a best-selling thriller writer. It is the story of the fictitious Hanna Fisher who was born in 1902 and lived through many tumultuous events of the first half of the 20th century.

The cover blurb tells us that all Hanna wants to do is study physics under Albert Einstein, but in 1919 her life is turned upside down, and she is flung into a new life as a secretary, a scientist, a sister and a spy.

Hanna meets racist gangs in Berlin, gangsters in New York City, works with some of the greatest and most egregious minds of the 20th century, goes through some terrible times, and desperately tries to stay alive.

This novel, described by the Guardian as “a thrilling, action-packed adventure from cover to cover”, looks like a blockbuster of note.

The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

There is an old adage that novelists should write about what they know, and in this debut novel Claire Lombardo obviously took that to heart. Her book is about a family of two parents and four grown daughters, and in her acknowledgements she thanks her siblings, three sisters and a brother to whom she says she owes a great deal.

This novel tells the family saga of David and Marilyn, he a Chicago GP and she a housewife and later hardware store owner, and their four daughters. The story loops forward and back between the past of the milestones of the couple’s relationship, and the present, which sees all four sisters going through varying degrees of crisis.

So far it’s a wonderful warm novel, and I’m loving it.

Crash and Burn – A CEO’s crazy adventures in the SA airline industry, by Glenn Orsmond (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

One of the problems in the airline industry is that it attracts people who love aeroplanes – hence, too many pilots and not enough accountants end up running things.

That’s the view of chartered accountant Glenn Orsmond, who was CEO of Comair twice and the founding CEO of 1time. After 30 years in the airline industry, he was the boss under whose watch in 2022, in the wake of Covid, Comair crashed and burned.

Shareholders, lenders and suppliers lost money, employees – including Orsmond himself – lost their jobs, and thousands of travellers lost the fares they had paid.

Orsmond’s career in aviation began in 1991 with Bop Air, the national airline of the ostensibly independent homeland of Bophuthatswana. Soon after the homeland’s reintegration into South Africa, Bop Air applied for a licence to operate in SA proper, facing competition from SAA, Flitestar, Comair and Nationwide.

This looks like a rollicking account of a career and a really interesting book.

Saltblood, by Francesca de Tores (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)

In 1685, in Portsmouth, baby Mary Read is born as her half-brother is dying. Her mother makes the split-second decision to turn Mary into Mark, so she will continue to collect his inheritance.

Mary becomes a footman in a great house and later joins the navy, but being a woman aboard a ship is a dangerous thing to be. Eventually she becomes a pirate.

The novel opens in 1721, with the pirate Mary/Mark in gaol, condemned to the gallows. It appears Mary Read was a real historic character.

Saltblood has had some ecstatic reviews, such as “a complete triumph. A glittering jewel of a novel; a treasure chest of delight”, but the one I liked best was: “Master and Commander meets Thelma & Louise”. Which sounds promising.

Birds of Greater Southern Africa, a Helm Field Guide, by Keith Barnes, Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe; illustrated by John Gale and Brian Small (Sunbird Publishers)

This is a magnificent tome, beautifully illustrated and featuring thousands of birds – resident, breeding and migrants, as well as vagrant species – found in nine African countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

It also includes birds found in the waters of the Mozambique Channel, the African sector of Antarctica, the Southern Ocean and the islands of these waters including Tristan da Cunha and the Prince Edward Islands.

There are maps, and discussions about landscapes and habitats. Each entry includes  pictures, physical descriptions of the bird concerned, the difference between adult and immature birds, their status and habitat, and the sounds they make.

Only one caveat: this is a field guide but you might need a porter – it weighs a ton (about 1kg).




One thought on “Bedside Table Books for June

  1. David Bristow

    Krotoa was originally taken to the Castle by her interpreter uncle, “Herry” (aka Khoi headman Atshumatso) at age 10 or 11 to work as a servant for the van Riebeecks. She later married a Danish ship’s surgeon, Pieter can Meerhof. After that it gets better then much worse.
    PS – so you didn’t like my three local murder story books?


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