Category Archives: Book club suggestions

If it’s your book club this month and you have to buy the books, consider these titles

On my Bedside Table for February

  • THESE are some of the titles that landed on my desk in the past few weeks. Not all have been read yet, and some will be reviewed in full. – Vivien Horler

Outlawed, by Anna North (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

I opened this book about 90 minutes ago, am now on page 91, and am riveted. One shout on the cover describes it as something of a cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which seems unlikely but so far sounds about right. In a version of America in 1894, after the Great Flu and the collapse of the United States, Ada, 17, is married, but turns out to be barren. Amid allegations that she is a witch she flees, first to a convent and then to join a bunch of feminist outlaws in Colorado called the Hole in the Wall gang.



1986, by William Dicey (Umuzi)

In his author’s note on this crisp summary of the events of the pivotal year of 1986, William Dicey says he read Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart a couple of years ago and was astonished to see Malan describe it as a watershed year in South African politics. Dicey was halfway through high school at Bishops at the time, and remembers the headmaster, John Peake, giving the prize-giving speech at the end of 1985. “…only a few kilometres from our gates, there is to be found a scene of nightmare, of burning, looting, murdering. A negation of education.” Dicey has drawn on newspaper articles, memoirs and stories to create “a compelling diary of a very bad year”. I loved Dicey’s earlier book Borderline, about a canoe trip down the Orange River, and much more besides.

The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

It is Texas in 1934, and all is well in Elsa Martinelli’s world of family and farm on the Great Plains. But then the drought comes, and the Dust Bowl Era makes the Great Depression a hundred times worse. Her husband leaves, and she has to decide whether to take her children to California and a possibly better life, or stay and fight for the land. Delia Owens, author of the bestselling Where the Crawdads Sing, describes The Four Winds as “A timely novel highlighting the worth and delicate nature of Nature itself.” Kristina Hannah’s novel The Great Alone, about a family trying to make a life in unforgiving Alaska, was brilliant.


The Funny Thing about Norman Foreman, by Julietta Henderson (Bantam Press)

Norman Foreman and his friend Jax have a dream to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe when they’re 15. They’re a pair of wannabe stand-up comedians, and they’ve put up a poster of their five-year plan in Norman’s room. Jax says timing is everything, but then he goes and dies, which demonstrates pretty poor timing, Norman reckons. Norman’s single mother finds her heart breaking when she sees Norman’s revised plan, which is to look after her, try to find the dad he’s never known, and get to the Fringe to perform a one-night Jax tribute show. So Norman’s mum decides on a pilgrimage to Edinburgh, and on the way they’ll see if they can find Norman’s dad. This looks like a delightful read.

Three Women and a Boat, by Anne Youngson (Doubleday)

I’ve been on a number of narrowboat canal cruises in the UK which is a wonderful way to spend a slow week, so I couldn’t resist this novel. Anastasia, a narrowboat owner who is awaiting a life-saving operation, is joined on her boat by Eve, who has just left her 30-year career, and Sally, who has left her husband for a voyage through the English countryside. All three are vulnerable and the ups and downs of narrowboat life will draw them together – or drive them apart.



Life’s Not Yoga, or Is It? Finding love in the chaos of life, by Jacqui Burnett (Sophie Blue Press)

This is the non-fiction account of a troubled Cape Town teen who had a ghastly relationship with her awful father, a fraudster and a cheat. Later as an adult she goes to work for him, which turns out as badly as you might expect. There is a lot of detailed description, in capital letters, of their horrific shouting matches. Eventually, two failed marriages later, she goes to North America where I presume she reached the sunlit uplands referenced by the title of the book, but by that time I had been wearied by all the rage and had turned away.  (I was unable to download a cover picture to go with this entry.)


*All these titles – except Life’s Not Yoga – are among Exclusive Books’ 25 recommendations for February 2021.


Great Bookclub reads for March


great aloneThe Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

There is the most superficial similarity between The Great Alone and Queen of Bloody Everything: both are about lonely children who come from dysfunctional families and who find another family to cherish them.

But the great alone describes a life almost unimaginable to South Africans – in the beautiful but punishing state of Alaska. Leni’s father is a Vietnam war veteran and former POW who has come back to the US a damaged man. He can’t settle at anything, and his wife, who adores him, keeps telling their daughter how different, how much fun he was before.

Then he inherits a piece of land in Alaska from a Vietnam buddy, and the family move up north. Leni’s dad Ernt is capable and clever with his hands, but the people in the town where they end up fear for them as they are utterly unprepared for the harshness of an Alaskan winter.

Ernt has always been more difficult when the days are short and the nights long and dark and freezing. In many ways the family couldn’t have chosen a worse place to settle. Ernt becomes increasingly erratic and violent, and joins a group of right-wingers preparing for the end of the world.

But through it all, Leni, 13 at the start of the book in 1974,  tries to have a normal teenagerhood, deeply in love with a classmate. This is something of an epic about survival, of love and fortitude, and living under a brooding cloud.

Kristin Hannah is best known for her novel The Nightingale, which has sold almost four million copies and which, having devoured The Great Alone, I now want to read.

queen of bloody everythingThe Queen of Bloody Everything, by Joanna Nadin (Mantle/ Pan Macmillan)

This is a delicious piece of fiction: interesting, warm and often very funny.

Dido is around six when her mother Edie, both feckless and fierce, inherits a house in Essex and moves in. Dido loves fairy tales, and almost immediately finds herself in one. At the bottom of the garden there is a gate in a wall, which she discovers leads into the house behind – a grand house complete with two proper parents and two lovely children of about her own age.

Dido falls in love with her neighbours’ home, lifestyle and the kids. The children’s mother is not so sure about Dido, though.  When she asks Dido about her absent father, the guileless six-year-old says she doesn’t have one. “I thought it was Denzil, but Edie said don’t be daft because he’s black.”

The three children become inseparable, finding in each other’s homes what is lacking in their own. And then there is a night when Edie, drunk, arrives at a party given by the neighbours and tells everyone the secrets she has been keeping.

Forty years later a grim Dido is at Edie’s hospital bedside, looking back on what may have sometimes seemed like a fairy tale, complete with locked garden gate, a widower, and a wicked stepmother. But there was no enchantment, says Dido, “no fairy godmother, no genie, no amulet or grail. There is just us. You and me.”

I loved it.


Book club at my house tonight – so what will we choose?

It’s book club at my house tonight, so I’ve had two milk crates of books cluttering up the dining room for a month, and now two brown bags full of new books.

Our club, The Observatory Book Club, has been going for well over 25 years, starting when most of us were young mothers living in and around Obs. Today we’re scattered across the Peninsula, but most of the original members are still with us. We include a couple of journalists, a former town planner, two doctors, a couple of academics and a retired (but not retiring) headmistress.

Originally we used the stokvel approach – we each paid in R20 or R30 a month to fund the purchase of a pile of books, because we were young and fairly poor and books were very expensive. But the collection of the money became problematic, and we also got a bit better off, so now the host just pays for the lot. Continue reading

Some worthy November book club suggestions

East West Street, by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

I have to confess that my own book club voted against this, but that is their loss. I got to read it anyway and it was a brilliant read. It is a Holocaust book but also a great deal more than that. Philippe Sands’ Jewish grandparents were from Lemberg in Poland (now Lviv in Ukraine) and were murdered during the Nazi occupation. Sands himself is a British-based international lawyer, who became fascinated by two former Lemberg lawyers, Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin, who were responsible for introducing the legal concepts of “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” to the Nuremberg Trial. The other main character in this sweeping book is Hans Frank, the governor-general of Nazi-occupied Poland and an enthusiastic servant of Hitler’s. He was one of the defendants at Nuremberg.

bare ground peter harrisBare Ground, by Peter Harris (Picador Africa)

Peter Harris’s books of non-fiction read like fiction, and Bare Ground, his first novel, reads like fact. His first book, In a Different Time, was about the trial of the Delmas Four, and was quite literally a page-turner. Bare Ground is set in Joburg, and deals with the people in and around a mining company which is setting up a BEE consortium. The deal has to have government approval, but people in the presidency are distinctly dodgy. As is the president, who is backed by a wealthy Indian family. Sound familiar? At the launch in the Book Lounge a couple of weeks ago Harris said he occasionally wondered, while writing it, whether he was stretching the truth, but then the articles in current newspapers assured him he wasn’t.

course of loveThe Course of Love, by Alain de Botton (Penguin)

Shakespeare said: “The course of true love never did run smooth”, and it certainly doesn’t in this novel. Rabih and Kirsten are Londoners who fall in love, marry and have children. They believe their love will carry them through, like a buoyant tide, bur they discover you don’t stay afloat if you don’t keep paddling. The trajectory of the story is supplemented with passages of commentary on how well – or not – Rabih and Kirsten are doing, and the mistakes or otherwise they are making. It’s tender, perceptive and often instructive. The Daily Mail said The Course of Love should be “compulsory reading for anyone contemplating tying the knot”, while the Evening Standard said: “It may even save some marriages.”

a legacy of spiesA Legacy of Spies by John le Carré (Penguin)

George Smiley must be over a hundred, Peter Guillam well into his 80s and Jim Prideaux about a thousand years old. Jim was always old. These three old secret service hands come together in John le Carré’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, where he returns to his old haunt, the Cold War. Or rather, the detritus of that part of his life and genre which produced his best works. (Archie Henderson)







Great October book club suggestions

  • The Anglo-Boer War in 100 Objects (Jonathan Ball Publishers): Richly illustrated, this book, based on artefacts in the War Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein, gives an engaging, accessible and chronological account of the war that left a long shadow over our country. If you are going to read only one book about the Anglo-Boer War, let it be this one.  – A review of this book will appear on this site on Sunday, October 7)
  • In the Days of Rain, by Rebecca Stott (Fourth Estate) Non-fiction about a British family which belonged to a cult called the Exclusive Brethren for several generations. It’s better than you think, beautifully written, and an eye-opener. It’s also fascinating to read how, when the family leave the cult, they feel cast adrift because none of the old certainties apply. Thoroughly recommended. – Find the review under New Books September 5.
  • Gone, by Min Kym (Viking/ Penguin) Non fiction.  Min Kym is a Korean-born British violinist and child prodigy who bought a Stradivarius when she was 21. Playing that violin was what she was made for, she says. But when she was 31, the violin was stolen at Euston Station and she fell apart. The money was the least of her concerns. I can’t say too much more without being a spoiler, but I will add that her partner, Matt, was a toad. A terrific read. Find the review under New Books September 17.
  • Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin (Little, Brown) Fiction. Aviva Grossman from Florida is a promising politics student who secures a job as an intern for a (sexy,charming, married) congressman. She writes a blog about it, including the details (without names) of their sexual relationship. This is an extremely poor decision, and she ends up changing her name to Jane Young and moving to Maine. But secrets on the internet hang around forever. This is a delightful read, but also has some serious things to say. Find the review under New Books, September 30.