Category Archives: My Book Pile

These are books I have in my possession, and may get around to reviewing.

Bedside Table Books for March

Bedside Table March

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. The first four are from Exclusive Books’s top reads for March. Some will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

The Near North, by Ivan Vladislavic (Picador Africa)

Ivan Vladislavic has the extraordinary ability to write about everyday subjects and make them interesting. This new account of life in Johannesburg, by the man who wrote the brilliant Portrait with Keys, opens with a description of the lights going out during an episode of load-shedding.

“In a moment, every room breathed its last: the resigned sighs of electronic devices shutting down.”

There’s a search for candles, but all Vladislavic’s partner can find are tea lights. They’re hungry, but everything in the fridge needs cooking. “Looks like it’s either cornflakes or a restaurant.”

So they go out looking for an open restaurant, but like Riviera, the streets of Rosebank and Saxonwold are dark.

In a blackout, Vladislavic muses, those who can afford such things worry about electric fences, security cameras and burglar alarms that aren’t working; those who can’t worry about walking down unlit streets or having to unlock doors in the dark, or the neighbour knocking over a candle.

Parkview turns out to be on a different grid and the lights are on, but it’s a Monday night and most of the restaurants are closed.

Finally they find a small Italian diner where they and a group of strangers eat, chatty and happy to have also discovered a place that’s open and offering hospitality.

And that’s it, the first chapter in this volume. Nothing much, but we all been there  – and will be again.

The Near North is described as a vivid account of the old mining city in times of crisis, “finding meaning in the everyday and incidental”.

Vladislavic is an award-winning writer of novels, stories and essays, and is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Wits.

The Hidden, by Fiona Snyckers (Macmillan)

It’s been the worst terror attack in the US since 9/11, and the FBI are under enormous pressure to find and arrest the ringleaders. But these people are survivalists, with the ability to lie low in the dense forests of the Pacific North West.

This is the US in a post-Trump world, with a woman president, and domestic terrorism declared a federal crime.

Becca Abrahamson has a secret. While she may seem just another suburban housewife, she has deep ties with survivalist communities, and the FBI believes she is involved in the attack.

Fiona Snyckers, who is based in Johannesburg, has published eight novels, one of which, Lacuna, won the SA Literary Award for best novel in 2020.

SA writer Gus Silber says of The Hidden: “A propulsive and nerve-wracking tale of terror in the American heartland. The Hidden hits home with the urgency of a breaking news bulletin.”

The Antique Hunter’s Guide to Murder, by C L Miller (Pan Macmillan)

Exclusive Books says this murder novel falls into a similar category to those of Richard Osman’s popular Thursday Murder Club series. Novels about what they call “cosy” crime rarely focus on harsh realities, profanity or violence.

“The murders take place off stage, and are often relatively bloodless (eg poisoning), while sexual activity (if any) between characters is only ever gently implied and never directly addressed.”

A former antiques hunter investigates a suspicious death at an isolated English manor, which sees her back in the ruthless world of tracking down stolen treasures.

In a foreword author C L Miller reveals that before starting to write, she consulted her mother, Judith Miller, a regular expert on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, until her death last year. Miller senior told her daughter that what made antiques valuable was not necessarily their intrinsic value but their provenance, in other words their stories.

And Miller junior said once she had thought about that, this novel began to form in her mind.

Publisher’s Weekly says of this debut novel: “Miller’s winning debut exposes the dark underbelly of the antiques trade. Miller nails the pace and mood of a good mystery on her first try…”

Bounce – How to raise resilient kids and teens, by Naomi Holdt (Macmillan)

KZN-based psychologist and mother Naomi Holdt says there never was a time when rotten lemons weren’t tossed at people. We’ll all be knocked down by foreseen circumstances from time to time, and however much we try to protect them, so will our children.

So the question she sets out to answer in this book is how, despite “these lemon-drenched sucker punches”, can we ensure our kids get back up again?

It can be done, but it starts with the parents (doesn’t everything?). “The little things that you say and do have the power to completely change the trajectory of your child’s life.”

A parent’s role is not to prevent your children from falling, but to let them fall, knowing you are there to support them while they get up again. Because it’s in the struggle that we learn we can.

Bounce is not an academic book full of stats and data – it’s intended to be a workbook. One section lists 20 attributes of parents of resilient children, which points out that these parents tend to be resilient themselves, prioritise themselves and their partnerships, put consistent boundaries in place, prioritise play and fun, can let go, allow their kids to mess up, and are able to say sorry.

It also provides advice for anxious parents, gives tips on childhood depression and resilience, has advice for grieving children, tips for divorced parents and a “how to” guide on boundaries and discipline.

She says it’s impossible to get stuff right all the time, but if parents focus on the relationship first and always, the rest somehow falls into place.

Back Up – Why back pain treatments aren’t working and the new science offering hope, by Liam Mannix (New South/ University of New South Wales Press)

University of Sydney professor Chris Maher says in a foreword to this volume that low back pain is the number one cause of disability, affecting an estimated 540 million people at any point in time. In Australia the problem costs the health system A$4.8 billion annually and is the most common reason why middle-aged Australians retire early.

In this book Australian science journalist Liam Mannix, who, like his father was a chronic back pain sufferer, describes the new science of pain and how we think about it, and says recovery from back pain is within our own control.

The book is the result of years of interviewng experts on back and chronic pain. As many as one in five Australians have chronic pain, ranging from headaches to arthritis and endometriosis.

He looks at the back itself, whether we’re built “wrong”, at common beliefs about our backs that turn out to be plain incorrect (“good posture is important, strengthen your core, lift with a straight back…”) and he talks to people who’ve suffered and experienced the “old science” of back pain.

The second half of the book focuses on the new science, how neuroscience has revolutionised the way scientists think about pain and what that can tell us about sore backs.

 

 

 

Bedside table books for February

These are among the books that landed on my desk in February. The first three are from Exclusive Books’s top reads of the month. Some of the books will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Water, by John Boyne (Doubleday)

I have a weakness for islands, and so the premise of Water appeals. Vanessa Carvin, who is in her 50s, leaves Dublin for a small island off the Irish coast in a form of self-imposed exile.

About the first thing she does is change her name to Willow Hale, her middle name and maiden surname. Then she shaves off most of her hair. She is glad there is no wi-fi or television in her bare little cottage, and after switching the radio on she switches it off a minute later. It’s a rare privilege to be so wilfully ignorant of the world and all its nonsense, she muses.

We learn early on that Willow has a past, one that was often discussed on talk radio. Was she in on it, listeners wonder. Like attracts like, they mutter.

While Willow may have taken herself away, it’s harder to shuck her past, and the “scandals that follow like hunting dogs”. She has to try to figure out if her former husband was really the monster everyone says he is.

And whether she was complicit.

One reviewer says of Water: “…Boyne tells us a story we thought we knew, but strips away the ideology to present a new way of seeing.”

The Women, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

It is California 1966 and Finley McGrath is off to Vietnam, the latest in a line of fighting McGraths. His younger sister Frankie is going to miss him very much.

One day Finely’s friend points out there are no pictures of women heroes on the wall of her father’s study, and tells Frankie women can be heroes too. This has never occurred to Frankie.

She is doing nursing training, and she realises they’re going to need nurses in Vietnam. She could join Finley.

Things don’t work out quite as she’d expected.

The Women is dedicated to “the courageous women who served in Vietnam”, most of them nurses. Author Kristin Hannah says after the war was over, in many instances they went home to a world that didn’t care about their service and or want to hear about their experiences.

“I am proud to have this opportunity to shine a light on their strength, resilience, and grit.”

Fool Me Once, by Harlan Coben (Penguin Books)

Maya Burkett is with her husband Joe in Central Park on a pleasant evening when two men approach and shoot him. Calling for help, Maya flees.

Afterwards, she blames herself. She was, until recently, an army captain with service in Iraq, a markswoman and a helicopter pilot. She is strong and tough, how come she didn’t or couldn’t protect Joe?

After the funeral, Maya’s friend Eileen gives her what she calls a nanny cam. Seeing there is no Joe around any more, and Maya works full time giving flying lessons, Eileen thinks it might be helpful to keep an eye on how the nanny looks after toddler Lily. (Is that even legal?)

And then, one morning, shortly before Joe’s will is read, Maya is idly watching yesterday’s footage while reading Dr Seuss to Lily, when a man appears in the frame – and it’s a man both Maya and Lily know very well: Joe.

That’s as far as I’ve got. But Harlan Coben is a master of the thriller, and other reviews promise that the story only gets better.

The title was first published in 2016 but has been republished to coincide with a 2024 eight-part British TV series made for Netflix and starring Joanna Lumley among others.

Mrs Winterbottom Takes a Gap Year, by Joanna Nell (Hodder & Stoughton/ Jonathan Ball)

Dr and Dr Winterbottom have retired from their practice in an English village after more than 40 years. On the first morning of the rest of their lives, they eat breakfast at the mossy patio table – mossy because largely unused – under a heavy grey sky.

Alan has broken with his tradition of marmalade toast and cooked himself a couple of kippers, nauseating Heather, who settles for muesli. So what are they going to do?

Heather knows the way to get Alan to do what she wants is to present him with a couple of alternatives, one of which will not appeal. “We could get fit,” she says. Pilates, yoga…

Or… go to Greece on holiday.

Alan says he’s done Greece. He spent a month or two in his gap year drinking beer and shagging his way around the Greek archipelago. There’s no rush, they could go next year, he says.

Alan has a better plan. He wants to grow a vegetable garden. Heather points out he hates gardening. Only mowing the lawn and weeding, he counters.

Heather contemplates watching home improvement programmes on the telly every afternoon, “the passage of hours marked only in the boiling and cooling of the kettle”.

This is not going well. After a few ups and downs, Heather comes to a conclusion. She’s going to take a year off, alone, in Greece, a la Shirley Valentine.

Of course, things don’t go quite the way she’s planned.

The Last Trial, by Scott Turow (Macmillan)

Legendary American defence lawyer Sandy Stern is 85 and not well, but he has been persuaded to take on his last criminal trial in defence of his old friend – old in both senses of the word – Kiril Pafko, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine, and a man who has now been charged in a federal racketeering indictment with murder, fraud and insider trading.

Can the charges possibly be based on fact, Stern wonders as the trial progresses. And will Stern ever really know the truth, even if he wins in court?

We are told Stern’s belief in his friend and his belief in the justice system face a terrible test in the courtroom, “where evidence and reality are sometimes worlds apart”.

The Observer said of Scott Turow’s writing: “Grisham might do it more often, but Turow does it much better.” Turow has written 11 bestselling novels, including Presumed Innocent, and his books have been translated into more than 40 languages.

The Last Trial was published in 2020, but I’ve just got my hands on it.

Held, by Anne Michaels (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)

It is 1917 and after a blast John lies on a battlefield. He supposes he’s seriously injured as he can’t feel his legs, and his mind drifts between the present and the past.

Snow is falling thickly, but he doesn’t feel cold, which puzzles him. He wonders if he will know the moment of his death or will it be like night falling?

But John doesn’t die, and three years later he is home, but not whole. He is reunited with Helen, his lover and an artist, and reopens his photography business.

But he discovers the past is very much with him, and ghosts start to appear in his pictures.

This is a story that spans four generations, but it is a slight novel, not a tome, often written in short sections. The writing is beautiful.

Anne Michaels is the author of Fugitive Pieces, which was described by John Berger of the Observer as “the most important book I have read for 40 years”. She has also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Power and Faith – How evangelical churches are quietly shaping our democracy, by Pontsho Pilane (Tafelberg)

In her introduction to this title, Pontsho Pilane says she has always been uncomfortable with the level of dependence the SA government and civil society place on faith-based organisations as conduits into communities and the delivery of social service.

She understands that is because so many people are religious and belong to an institutional faith structure, “but it is particularly worrying in SA because our constitution includes many policies that are contrary to conservative interpretations of the Bible and other religious beliefs”.

The aim of her book is to unpack structural and systemic issues of  Christian evangelism in SA and the “sociopolitical implications that they have and will have on the state of health, human rights and other aspects of our everyday lives as South Africans”.

The book is for the young women who fall prey to evangelical religion, for those “trapped in the clutches of evangelicalism and cannot see a way out… this book is for… churches unaware of how they are tainting our democracy”.

Power and Faith has been declared “Book of the Month” by News24.

 

 

 

 

 

Bedside Table Books for January

These are among the books that landed on my desk this first month of 2024. The first four are from Exclusive Books’s top reads. Some will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Normal Women – 900 years of making history, by Philippa Gregory (William Collins)

The Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered to embellish the newly built cathedral in Bayeux in 1077, tells the story of the conquest of England by William I, the French Duke of Normandy. It is 70m long and depicts an invasion force of 632 men, along with almost 200 horses, 55 dogs, 500 other animals and birds, and just five women – all of them threatened or suffering violence. In fact, points out author Philippa Gregory, there are more penises in the tapestry than women.

This indicates the way that women have been largely ignored by historians over the centuries. The only women of interest to male record keepers – mostly men of the church – were mothers, queens, taxpayers and criminals.

William Churchill’s magisterial A History of the English -Speaking Peoples, published in the 20th century, “is a description not of the ‘peoples’ but of English-speaking men, 1 413 named men, and just 98 named women. What we read as a history of [Britain] is a history of men, as viewed by men, as recorded by men”.

Gregory, an admired writer of historical novels, notably The Other Boleyn Girl, was originally inspired to write this (equally magisterial) book by the life of Mary Boleyn, sister to the unfortunate Anne. Mary “made her own remarkable life but enters history only as the sister to the more famous Anne. She made me think of all the other women whose names and stories are lost…”

Gregory says what she wanted to write was “a huge book about women – those engaged in unusual practices and those living uneventful lives…”

They were there, in history, brides and queens, nuns, witches and soldiers, “all part of women’s history… even though they lived and died without a man noticing them for long enough to write down their names”.

I think this book looks brilliant.

A Memoir of My Former Self – A life in writing, by Hilary Mantel (John Murray)

Hilary Mantel was the prize-winning author of the brilliant Wolf Hall trilogy, for which she won the Booker Prize twice, along with other novels and two works of non-fiction, Giving Up the Ghost and Mantel Pieces.

Now, following her death in 2022, her book editor for 20 years, Nicholas Pearson, has compiled a collection of her writing for newspapers and periodicals in which, he says, her wicked sense of humour often comes shining through.

The pieces reveal “a full and exhilarating self-portrait… she isn’t afraid to lay herself bare”. While Mantel Pieces was a collection of writing from the London Review of Books, this collection is drawn from wider sources.

She wrote for the Guardian for years, the New York Review of Books and The Spectator, as well as delivering the BBC Reith Lectures in 2017, which were meditations on how people interpret the past. Pearson says these lectures “are perhaps the finest distillation we have of the art of the historical novelist”.

In one piece, dated 2007, she refers to a remark by Martin Amis, who said he thought of journalism and criticism as writing left-handed, “where the connection isn’t to the part of me that novels come from”.

She says, being contrary and literal-minded, she decided to write a paragraph with her left hand, and this is what emerged:

“It’s so slow, so uncontrolled… the least flourish slides all over the paper… ‘W’ I find is the very devil… tension transmits to your whole body, as if you were trying to write with your legs. No wonder it was so tiring to be at infant school. Noon, and you were done for.”

I think this title looks great too.

Killers of the Flower Moon – Oil, money, murder and the birth of the FBI, by David Grann (Simon & Schuster)

This is an extraordinary story of indigenous people – Native Americans – who in the 1870s were kicked off their productive and traditional lands in Kansas to a barren reservation in Oklahoma, which turned out, several decades later, to be on top of some of some of the richest oil deposits in the US.

To access the oil, prospectors had to pay the Osage people for leases, rights and royalties, and by the early 1920s, the Osage were believed to be the wealthiest people per capita in the world.

At the centre of the story is Mollie Burkhart, a member of the Osage tribe, and her white husband, Ernest. In 1921 Osage people began to disappear, including Mollie’s older sister Anna, whose body was found a week or so later with a bullet wound to the top of the head.

The blurb on the back of this book says, “as the death toll climbed, the [fledgling] FBI took up the case and with the Osage began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history”.

David Grann’s book, based on years of research, was first published in the US in 2017, but has now been rereleased to coincide with a Martin Scorsese feature film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert de Niro and Lily Gladstone.

I’ve watched the film’s trailer and read the first couple of chapters of the book, and it looks like a cracker.

The Secret Life of John le Carré, by Adam Sisman (Profile Books)

In his epigraph at the start of this volume, Adam Sisman quotes from John le Carré’s novel A Perfect Spy: “All his life he’s been inventing versions of himself that are untrue.” It appears that’s what Le Carré did too.

In 2015 Sisman published a biography of Le Carré, writing that it was the truth “insofar as I was able t ascertain it, but not the whole truth. While [Le Carré ] was alive, I was obliged to suppress some of what I knew.”

When the biography appeared, a reviewer wrote: “It’s hard not to feel there is a great deal we’re not being told.” He was right.

Among the information Sisman suppressed was the fact Le Carré had been a serial adulterer, with his pursuit of women apparently the key to unlocking his fiction.

In a letter to Sisman, Le Carré wrote: “My infidelities produced in my life a duality & tension that became almost a necessary drug for my writing, a dangerous edge of some kind… They are not therefore a ‘dark part’ of my life, separate from the ‘high calling’, so to speak, but, alas, integral to it, & inseparable.”

Sisman says without much effort he identified 11 women with whom Le Carré had had affairs in the first 30 years of his marriage, and he knew there were plenty more. Some were recognisable as characters in the novels.

Despite this, he forbade Sisman to write about them in his lifetime. Le Carré died in late 2020, and his wife Jane just a few weeks later.

This volume, then, is not a reworked biography but a supplement to the biography, containing material Sisman says he omitted then as well as information that has emerged since. “It might be described as What Was Left Out.”

How’s that for a teaser?

How to Fight a War, by Mike Martin (DeltaBooks/ Jonathan Ball)

With wars raging in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa, geopolitical tensions  over China, Taiwan and the South China sea, “the world has not looked this chaotic for decades”.

Apparently there are ways to fight wars and ways not, and the current problem is that often those waging wars don’t have much grasp of the tried and tested ways to succeed.

A former British Army officer with military experience in Afghanistan, Mike Martin has a PhD in war studies, and is a senior visiting research fellow in the department of war studies at King’s College, London.

In his introduction he says at the core of How to Fight a War is the notion that winning wars “is about understanding and following basic principles… wars are almost always lost due to the same simple ideas being misapplied or ignored”.

“When war leaders fail in their aims, it is usually because they have ignored warfare’s simple ideas, thinking that, for instnance, logistics matter less to them than to their adversaries. This ‘wishing away’ happens because of three fallacies: overconfidence; being bewitched by a new technology that will ‘solve’ their problems; or misunderstanding the enemy and their perspective.”

The book is intended as a reference guide for the commander in chief of a nation’s military, because leaders need the strategic, operational and tactical skills to wage war successfully.

Martin has chapters on strategy, tactics, morale, training, the environment in which fighting takes place, the necessary land, sea and air forces, information and cyber operations, and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

He is nothing if not blunt.  Part three of the book, he says, “brings it all together and shows you how to orchestrate lethal violence to achieve your political goals. In other words, how to change your enemy’s mind, or kill them.”

The book has a foreword by Professor Abel Esterhuyse, chair of the department of strategic studies at Stellenbosch University’s faculty of military science.

Words Words Words, by David Crystal (Oxford University Press)

David Crystal OBE is a British academic who works on the linguistics of the English language. Linguistics is a highly technical and philosophical field, but Crystal’s brilliance – to my mind – is how he can make the subject fascinating to the lay person. He is the author of many readable books on the subject, including this one.

It is not a new book (it was first published in 2006) – but it is new to me; I spotted it on the Exclusive Books’ shelves at UCT’s summer school, and snapped it up.

He says while all the world’s 6 000 or so languages have fascinated him, English is his favourite, “probably because of its literature”. It is also his home language, which helps.

Everyone has some interest in words, whether in dialect words, or the way small children put words together, or the history of a word’s meaning.

So how many words are there in English? This is an impossible question, but we can get a hint from the Oxford English Dictionary which had over half a million words in its 1992 edition, or The Third New Webster International, the biggest American dictionary, which had 450 000 entries in 1961. Both dictionaries have grown since.

He writes about the development of language in children, saying most utter their first word around the age of 12 months, starting off with individual words, but some launch directly into simple sentences.

Lord Macaulay, the historian, was said to have been a late talker who began speaking in full sentences at three. There is a story, which Crystal is pretty sceptical about, that when he was asked, at three, why he started talking so late, Macaulay is said to have replied: “Hitherto, nothing of sufficient significance has warranted my verbal attention.”

This is a little book, but a delight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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”.

Fiction:

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

 

 

 

Bedside books for October

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later. All the Broken Pieces by John Boyne, Paperless by Buntu Siwisa and The Seventh Son by Sebastian Faulks, are among Exclusive Books’ top reads for the month. – Vivien Horler

The Seventh Son, by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson Heinemann)

Talissa Adam is a post-doc based in Manhattan who finds she has no clear career path ahead. Her field is the distant but recoverable past. She has been offered a post-doctoral research position by a new and admired institute, but a condition is that she will have to provide her own funding for the first year – an amount in the region of $70 000.

So she looks elsewhere. An English institute involved in genomics has proposed a study into the role of surrogate mothers in IVF. She would have to go to London and become a surrogate mother, hopefully being paid enough to fund the post-doc position she has been offered in the US.

It emerges that the head of the English institute wants to make a substitution – one man’s sperm for another’s in a bid for a human hybrid.

It’s not clear at the outset if Talissa is aware of dubious ethics of this plan; she goes ahead and gives birth to baby Seth, whose parents are delighted. But as he grows it becomes obvious he is not quite the same as his peers, and he begins to attract attention.

According to th cover notes, The Seventh Son asks the question: just because you can do something, does it mean you should? Intriguing.

All the Broken Pieces by John Boyne (Penguin Books)

Gretel Fernsby is an elderly woman who has lived in her posh Mayfair flat for more than 60 years. She keeps herself to herself, and is rather proper and formal, as this sentence on the first page of the book illustrates: “Mr Richardson and I had enjoyed the perfect neighbourly relationship in that we had not exchanged a single word since 2008.”

Gretel is of the generation which did not let it all hang out; consequently she rarely talks about – or tries not even to think about – her past growing up in Germany before and during World War 2, with a father who was eventually hanged for war crimes, and a brother who died young.

But now Mr Richardson downstairs has died, and the flat has been sold to a young family whose young son, Harry, brings back painful memories. She finds herself in a position where she can help save a young boy for the second time in her life, but what will this mean for her self-contained life?

This is a self-standing but sort of sequel to Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

I’ve just started it and I’m already absorbed.

Paperless – a novel, by Buntu Siwisa (Jacana Media)

Mostly set in Oxford, this novel looks at the experiences of African, undocumented and displaced characters living in the ancient British university town.

The novel opens with Luzuko Gobo, doing his doctorate at Oxford, on his way to hear a talk by Rhodesia’s Ian Smith in the Oxford Union on the topic: “Do African leaders govern for, or against, the interests of their people?”

But we all knew, says Luzuko, the Oxford Union was gunning for “the old boogeyman… His Excellency President Robert Gabriel Mugabe”, and all the black people in Oxford were going to hear Smith.

Siwisa’s first book was Rugby, Resistance and Politics: How Dan Qeqe helped shape the history of Port Elizabeth.

Paperless was shortlisted for the James Currey Prize for African Literature. I’ve read only a few pages and the writing seems pretty prolix – maybe he settles down or maybe I’ll get my eye in.

Soul Mandate – the extraordinary life of a property maverick, by Lew Geffen (Melinda Ferguson)

Judging by the photographs in this autobiography, real estate tycoon Lew Geffen has had a good life.

After a somewhat shaky early start, including a failure to get matric, he has gone on to socialise with celebrities, including holding his 60th birthday on Nicholas Cage’s yacht in the Med, golfing with Rafael Nadal in Mallorca, and selling homes for both Nelson Mandela and Gary Player.

He’s also athletic, climbing Table Mountain, running the Comrades, and being in the swimming team at school in Joburg. His career included a stint in the Israeli army, being a hawker, going into the construction business, being fired by his mother, the estate agent Aïda, and dealing with the fall-out of a murder at Lew Geffen Estates’ annual convention at Spier wine farm.

Over the years people told him he should write a book, and the lockdown provided the opportunity. So at 75 he says he is grateful to be healthy and in love, retired from his company but still chairman of Lew Geffen Estates.

He finishes this account: “If the question were to be asked, ‘Did you have a full and fulfilled life, taking into account all the highs and troughs?’ the answer would be: ‘Geffenitely yes!’ ”

Winning the Property Game – letters from an executive property mentor, by Koketso Sylvia Milosevic (Tafelberberg)

Koketso Sylvia Milosevic has the sort of name that was concocted by a prominent PR firm to spread fake news in SA during the State Capture years. But it’s genuinely hers.

She writes: “Who is this black woman with an Eastern European surname… I ask myself, what is a girl who grew up in Ga-Rankuwa in Bophuthatswana doing running a global business, travelling the world, and managing a property empire?”

In her foreword, transformational coach Lisa Nicols says she has helped a lot of people make the often-challenging journey from where they are in life to where they want to be.

“So I was thrilled to discover this book, which is pure rocket fuel for that crucial trip…”

She adds that anyone, no matter how challenging their circumstances, can rise above anything. How? “By being determined, by developing certain skills and by adopting useful attitudes – in short – by believing what Sylvia always says: ‘Success is your birth right’.”

Buy your First Home – SA’s ultimate property guide for newbies by Zamantungwa Khumalo (Tafelberg)

In her preface Zamantungwa Khumalo says she bought herself two properties for her 27th birthday.

“I took uMa to see them, and while we were at one of them, she said uGogo (her mom and my maternal grandmother) had been a domestic worker in that area. In that moment it hit me that we millennials really are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

She says at the outset buying property – and the fear of taking on a whopping R350 000 to R500 000 debt – was crippling.

Google was not much help. She looked up how to buy a house, how home loans worked, what interest rates are , what questions she should  an estate agent, and how long it took to buy a house.

The trouble was the answers came up for people living in the West, with almost no resources catering for South Africans.

So she learnt, and is now sharing the fruits of her research. Chapters include preparing yourself financially, what you can afford, the costs of homeownership, buying off-plan or by auction, First Home Finance, joint homeloans and being married in community of property.

Clear, straightforward and full of useful information, this little book will be handy for anyone contemplating buying their first home.

Bedside Table Books for September

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed n full later.

Three books – I Write the Yawning Void, by Sindiwe Magona and edited by Renee Schatteman, Painting a Life in Africa, by Joan van Gogh, and Prison Child, by Felicia Goosen, are among Exclusive Books’ top reads for September.

They are some of the books chosen by the book chain as part of their annual Heritage Day celebration in which they highlight “Homebru” books – books that say: “That’s Home, Bru.” –  Vivien Horler

 

Statues and Storms – Leading through change, by Max Price (Tafelberg)

Max Price was vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town for 10 years, from 2008 to 2018, with the two years between 2015 and 2017 coinciding with “sustained, widespread, disruptive and at times violent protests” of the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall campaigns.

He was told afterwards he had appeared “unflappable”, and his response to that was: “Oh wow.” It seems he didn’t feel unflappable at all.

One night at the height of the trouble, he and his wife packed up their valuables and took them to a friend’s house off-campus for safekeeping, as they feared their official on-campus residence, Glenara, might be attacked.

His office was firebombed on the night of February 16, 2016. Emotions ran very high.

Speaking at the launch of this memoir at the V&A Waterfront last week, Price said his first seven years at UCT saw growth and success in research and teaching, and global recognition. Then came Rhodes must Fall.

A number of SA universities, including UCT, had been oases of freedom during apartheid, so many white academics were taken aback by black attitudes – of both staff and students – in 2016. This book was written partly to explore Price’s own and others’ blind spots, he says.

I look forward to reading it.

Painting Life in Africa – by Joan van Gogh (Rockhopper Books)

A talent for art evidently runs in some families, as Joan van Gogh is a lateral descendant of the legendary Vincent. She specialises in botanical art, and has designed postage stamps and illustrated including the SAPPI Tree Spotting series.

She’s also known for landscapes and seascapes as well as portraits of animals in both watercolours and oils.

This volume is an autobiography, starting with her Johannesburg childhood during World War II, and going on to describe a life of wandering the Karoo and bushveld, and painting their inhabitants – plants, animals and views.

My heart sank a little when I opened it – the font in which it’s printed is  unfriendly and the text needs more leading, but the story – as far as I’ve gone anyway – is engaging, and enlivened by delightful pen sketches. And she certainly is a gifted artist.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top titles for September.

I Write the Yawning Void – Selected essays of Sindiwe Magona, ed by Renee Schatteman

Sindiwe Magona is a celebrated and award-winning writer who spent 20 years working for the UN. On her retirement she could have remained in the US, but it was an exciting time in South Africa and she came home to be part of it all.

Despite this devotion to the country of her birth, she says in her introduction to this volume that her writing seems “to come out of anger, disgust, disappointment, sadness or grief; it is provoked by a deep dissatisfaction with some aspect of the life I witness all around me, a life gone all awry”.

Explaining the title of the collection, she says she writes the books she wishes were not necessary. “However, to my way of seeing the world, each book is an injunction to some, if not all members of society, to stop doing what they should not have done… or to do what they ought to have done: acts of commission or omission.”

So don’t expect a comfortable and folksy read here, but much that she writes needs to be taken to heart in this tottering country of ours.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads for September.

Prison Child – The story of Vanessa Goosen’s daughter, by Felicia Goosen and Deonette de Kock (LuxVerbi)

In early 1994 Vanessa Goosen, just 21, was found guilty by a Thai court of drug trafficking and sentenced to death. But because it was a first offence, and she was pregnant, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in the Lard Yao prison.

Goosen, a Miss SA semi-finalist, had gone on a trip to Bangkok where she was asked by her boyfriend’s friend to bring back some engineering books he needed.

She willingly agreed, but when she was passing through immigration to leave the country, the spines of the books were slashed and heroin poured out.

Seven months later Felicia was born. By the rules of the prison, she was able to stay with her mother for three years, but on her third birthday she was sent to SA into the care of a family friend, who raised her for the next 16 years.

Although Felicia was well-treated and even loved by her foster family, she had enormous difficulty coming to terms with what she felt was her mother’s rejection. For a long time she was in a “deep, black hole”. Then, aged 24 she returned from a missionary outreach in Lard Yao, her birthplace, and finally found closure.

She is, she says, now able to talk about her life, and this book is her story.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ top reads for September.

Fraud – How prison set me free, by Nikki Munitz (Melinda Ferguson Books)

A woman in prison is also the theme of this book. Nikki Munitz, born into a wealthy Johannesburg Jewish family, became hooked on heroin. She was sent to a rehab facility in Noupoort in the Karoo, where she met and fell in love with Jake, the son of what turns out to have been a dodgy Afrikaans family.

They married, but Jake continued his drug habit. Money was short, and Munitz got work at a law firm, where she discovered it was relatively easy to make life more comfortable by helping herself to the firm’s trust account – to the tune of R2.5 million.

At first she was terrified, but no one seemed to notice. By now the mother of two children, Nikki told Jake where the extra money was coming from, and he  promptly told his father. The father-in-law insisted some of the money be paid into his account.

Eventually they were all arrested, Nikki, Jake and the father-in-law. By now Nikki had left Jake, and had her own lawyer, who advised her to plead guilty. She was sentenced to eight years in prison, five suspended. Jake and the father-in-law were acquitted.

Prison was a devastating blow for a single mother of two young children, and yet, unlikely as it sounds, in prison Nikki was able to turn her life around.

The Girl who Survived her Mother – navigating and healing the mother wound, by Moshitadi Lehlomela (Tafelberg)

Moshitadi Lehlomela grew up in rural Limpopo where women did the washing in the river, cooked over open fires and had to collect water from a standpipe. The family were poor, there was physical and substance abuse and “oppressive gender scripts dictated by tradition and religion”.

Lehlomela was a first daughter, as were her mother and grandmother before her. She writes: “Our lives, my grandmother’s, my mother’s and mine, when put under a microscope, tell a tale of generational trauma. A mother hurts her daughter, and the daughter becomes a mother that hurts her own daughters. They are women running on empty, because their mothers didn’t pour love into them.”

But after much suffering as well as introspection, Lehlomela says she became the cycle breaker, and in this book, should you be unfortunate enough to come from such a family, she tells you how you can do the same.

Moving to the UK – A concise guide for South Africans, by Sam Beckbessinger (Jonathan Ball)

There was a Biddulphs van outside my neighbour’s house the other day – they’re moving to the UK next week, along with their two kids and two small dogs. They’re very much interwoven in the neighbourhood and we’ll miss them.

If Sam Beckbessinger’s book had come out a few months earlier, I’m sure they would have found it handy.

If you’re thinking of heading to the UK, this book is probably for you.

It’s divided into four parts: Deciding to Move; The Move Itself; Setting up your New Life; and A Path Back to Happiness (because anyone who’s ever lived abroad for a bit knows it can be a hell of a wrench).

As Beckbessinger writes in her “welcome”: “This book will take you through the whole process of disassembling your life in SA and moving to the UK, from the first conversation with your family… to registering for council tax in your new UK home. Expect jokes, helpful downloads and to-do lists. So many to-do lists. To-so lists are your life now, sorry.”

She takes a cold hard look at costs, the best age to move children, organising visas, how to find a UK job, where to live in the UK, what you’re going to take with you, moving pets, financial advice, your first week in the UK, making friends, how to do basic things, keeping the house clean, and dealing with homesickness. And remember, she says, it just takes time.

Moving countries is a big deal but this should book help a lot.

 

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.

Bedside Table Books for July

Bedside July

These are among the books that landed on my desk in July. Some will be reviewed in full later. Four of them – Standing Up for Science, by Salim S Abdool Karim, Another Life by Kristin Hannah, The Wind Knows my Name by Isabel Allende, and Broken Light by Joanne Harris – are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for July. – Vivien Horler

Standing Up for Science – A voice of reason, by Salim S Abdool Karim (Macmillan)

The man who became the face of SA’s response to Covid-19, “Slim” Abdool Karim, originally wanted to be an engineer. But it was 1977, and for students of Indian descent – even top students – there was no guarantee he would get into a top engineering school. And then there was the matter of the fees.

So as a back-up he applied for medical school as well, and three days after the start of the 1978 academic year, he was informed he had been accepted by the University of Natal’s Medical School with an annual scholarship of R1,200.

In early 2020, as Covid reared its ugly head, Abdool Karim was a natural to be asked to serve on the Ministerial Advisory Committee. He was as a leading SA epidemiologist and virologist, a world-class HIV researcher, and former head of the SA Medical Research Council.

The night after making a live presentation on Covid on TV in April 2020, watched by millions of South Africans, he was informed by his children that he was trending on Twitter. He told them he didn’t think he dressed that trendily, which generated serious eye-rolling.

But while he might not be a digital native, he knows his stuff when it comes to viruses and public health. His description of the early months of the pandemic in SA makes for engrossung reading, despite the alphabet soup of acronyms.

So little was known about the virus in the early weeks and months of 2020. He describes the process as “building the ship as we sail it” (from the title of a poem), but the MAC’s advice to the government set two early goals: pushing back the peak, and lowering the peak, and in this they were successful.

The peak was delayed by six to eight weeks, pushing it from April/ May to July, giving authorities the chance to build field hospitals and brace themselves.

At the beginning he joked it might be a good idea if we all were infected and got it over with, but he soon realised Covid was a different type of virus, nothing like flu, and something to be avoided.

Visiting hospitals in the early days and losing a key colleague acted as a wake-up call. His description of going to St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban, where there was a spate of infections, was gripping.

The first patient was someone who had returned from the UK on March 9 – well before lockdown – and wanted a Covid test. This “patient zero” was followed by “patient one”, who had been admitted after a mini-stroke, and who tested positive for Covid a few days later. They did not come into contact with each other, but were treated by the same doctor and nurse.

Five more patients became infected, and when “patient one” returned to her care home, the infection spread to others there, with a high death rate.

This looks like a fascinating read.

The Wind Knows My Name, by Isabel Allende (Bloomsbury Publishing)

This novel encompasses children and stories of war. Samuel Adler is five in Vienna on Kristallnacht, the night his father is beaten up and transported to Dachau, where he dies of his injuries.

His distraught mother is persuaded to send Samuel on a Kindertransport train to England, where she promises the whole family will be reunited, a promise he remembers for the rest of his life.

In 1981 a civil war is raging in El Salvador. Leticia, who lives in a remote village, is a primary school pupil who has some sort of stomach problem. With village help to raise funds, her father takes her to hospital. While they are away from the village, it is attacked in what becomes known as the El Mozote massacre, and more than 800 people die, including Leticia’s whole family.

Later her father swims across the Rio Grande with Leticia clinging to his back, and she grows up in California.

In 2019 seven-year-old Anita and her mother flee El Salvador for the US, but when they arrive they become victims of Trump’s family separation policy. Anita is sent alone to a Home where she takes refuge in an imaginary world, while no one seems to know what has happened to her mother.

I’m not very far into this novel yet but, as one would expect from Isabel Allende, it’s very good.

Broken Light, by Joanne Harris (Orion)

Joanne Harris is the acclaimed author of Chocalat, the novel about a French chocalatier which was made into a movie starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. She also wrote Five Quarters of the Orange set in France during World War 2, which I thought was brilliant.

I’m not so sure about Broken Light, although others have praised it extravagantly.

Bernie Moon, who has always been a little odd, is menopausal and feels she is fading. Then a young woman is murdered at a nearby park, which sparks a series of childhood memories for Bernie.

She also remembers a strange talent she had as a child and young woman to enter other people’s thoughts. She had firmly put the talent aside as she knew it was destructive – and yet now perhaps it’s the answer to her problems.

Another Life, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

I became a fan of Kristin Hannah’s when I read The Great Alone, published in 2018, about a war-damaged man who takes his family to live in a remote part of Alaska, without the slightest idea of what he is doing.

Then I read The Four Winds, published in 2021, about a family fleeing to California during the Great Depression, which was bleak but excellent.

Hannah is also known for The Nightingale (2015) which I haven’t read.

Now Another Life is in the stores. It was first published in 2004 in the US under the title The Things We do for Love, and has been re-issued this year.

I didn’t think it was as good as the two Hannah novels I have read, but then it is a much earlier work.

Angie De Saria’s marriage has failed, partly because she is has been utterly focused on a vain effort to have a baby. She leaves the big city to return to her hometown, where her Italian family run a restaurant.

But the restaurant is failing now that Papa has died, and Angie steps into try to save it.

She takes on a desperate teen as a waitress, a clever girl with excellent grades who needs a full scholarship to go to college as her wastrel mother cannot afford the fees, even if she wanted to.

The only real bright part of Lauren’s life is her boyfriend David, the son of a rich family who expect him to get into an Ivy League college. But then Lauren falls pregnant.

The trouble with this novel is that the baby is obviously a solution to Angie’s predicament, and Angie the solution to Lauren’s, and you can see it coming from a mile away.

But fortunately it doesn’t quite work out like that.

What also saves the novel is the evocation of family, Angie’s relationship with her mother and two sisters, the mouth-watering descriptions of the food, and the way Hannah brings to life the setting in a small coastal town on the Pacific North West over a very wet winter. (I understand all winters in the Pacific North West are very wet.)

Girls of Little Hope, by Sam Beckbessinger and Dale Halvorsen (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Three 15-year-old girls live in a boring-ass town called Little Hope in California, helping to keep each other sane. One of their favourite activities is some amateur sleuthing into the town’s mysteries, such as why Ronnie Gaskins burned his parents alive.

Following their hobby they are led to a cave in the woods, but only two of them return alive. Donna can’t remember what happened in the cave, Rae seems to be trying not to remember, and Kat is missing, maybe dead.

And then they encounter a shattering secret.

In a cover shout, SA bestselling writer Lauren Beukes says of Girls of Little Hope: “Sharp as a DIY-piercing, with a fierce punk heart – I loved the hell out of this.”

Bedside Table books for June

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later. They are on the list of Exclusive Books’s top reads for June. Another June top read was Winnie and Nelson – Portrait of a marriage, by Jonny Steinberg, which the Books Page reviewed on June 18. – Vivien Horler

 

Truth to Power – My three years inside Eskom, by André Ruyter (Penguin Random House)

When André Ruyter was first interviewed for the post of Eskom CEO – well before he actually got the job in 2020 – he was asked to make a short video of himself with a “meaningful object”. He chose an old pair of safety boots he had used when working at Sasol, because he saw himself as a “boots on the floor” kind of boss.

This found favour with the then chairman of the board, Jabu Mabuza, who later informed him that while he had done well in the interview and psychometric tests, it would be politically impossible to appoint a white man to the position.

He was offered another job instead, the newly created post of chief operations officer, which he turned down as he was not an engineer. And so it was only following another round of searches for a CEO that he got the job to a media storm, after 28 black people had turned it down.

I have just read the first couple of chapters but it looks like a gripping read. I didn’t know he was the son of Dutch immigrants who came to SA after World War 2, and who impressed on him the importance of treating everyone, regardless of race or class, with respect.

He became a supporter of the old liberal Progressive Reform Party, and his newspapers of choice were Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad.

He’s refreshingly self-deprecating. “Perhaps part of the reason for taking the job was just sheer Dutch bloody mindedness with a hint of arrogance thrown in.

“A fool was rushing in where angels feared to tread.” And we all know how that turned out.

Born White Zulu Bred – A memoir of a Third World Child, by GG Alcock (Tracey McDonald Publishers)

GG Alcock has a truly extraordinary story to tell. He was born on a Catholic mission station in what was then Natal, where his father, who was not a missionary, helped with local agricultural development.

Eventually the Alcocks were turned off the mission station and settled, with their two little blond sons, in Msinga, near Tugela Ferry, a place Alcock said was the most violent in the country.

And while Alcock senior helped poverty-stricken locals with their lives, including in local inter-tribal battles as well as fights with local white farmers and police, his wife wrote newspaper articles about what was going on in this distant corner of the country.

Life was tough and dangerous, but the two little boys, GG and his brother Khonya, ran wild, snaring small animals, never missing a target with their catties, speaking isiZulu fluently and being treated just like all the Zulu kids around them.

This is the story of GG’s youth, his father’s murder, and GG’s subsequent life. Today he is a businessman who in this book describes “the mazes of township market places… to reveal the proud and dignified world of township entrepreneurs who are transforming South Africa’s economy”. I look forward to reading it.

Small Mercies, by Dennis Lehane (Abacus Books)

Dennis Lehane is the best-selling thriller writer of titles such as the acclaimed Mystic River, which became an Oscar-winning film directed by Clint Eastwood.

Small Mercies is set in an Irish enclave of Boston in the sweltering summer of 1974, a time when schools were being forcefully desegregated and protests flared in the streets.

One night Mary Pat Fennessey’s teenage daughter Jules doesn’t come home. The same night a young black man is found dead, hit by a subway train.

There doesn’t seem to be a link between the two events, but Mary Pat starts asking questions, questions people like Marty Butler, head of the local Irish mafia, don’t want answered.

Stephen King describes Small Mercies as “thought-provoking, engaging, enraging”.

Little Lies, by Gail Schimmel (Macmillan)

This Joburg-set novel has been described as “brilliant – it’s a wolf of a thriller in suburban sheep’s clothing”.

Monique and Ben have been married for 20 years. Monique gets her affirmation from her friends’ admiration of her beautiful marriage, beautiful home and beautiful children.

But three children can derail your best plans, especially when one’s a 15-year-old who only ever dresses in black, and two young boys who have to play club cricket even when their grumpy father knows they have no real talent or inclination.

And so, what with one thing another, plus a few new people in her life, things start to go wrong for Monique and her beautiful family.

Gail Schimmel is an attorney, the author of two previous novels, and is the CEO of the Advertising Regulatory Board.

 

Bedside Table for May

Bedside Table for May

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. All are from Exclusive Books’s list of top reads for May. – Vivien Horler

I Am Ella, by Joanne Jowell (Kwela Books)

Ella Blumenthal, a Cape Town centenarian who survived the Holocaust, is the subject of what looks like a remarkable book.

Author Joanne Jowell was approached in 2017 by Blumenthal’s daughter, Evelyn Kaplan, who asked if Jowell could help the family record Blumenthal’s story for her children and grandchildren.

Jowell spent hours interviewing Blumenthal and studying her personal archive of articles, books and pictures. In an interview with the SA Jewish Report, Jowell said of Blumenthal’s holocaust: “Every single survivor story is remarkable and, as Dr Edith Eger puts it, ‘There’s no hierarchy of suffering.’

“But Ella’s story reads like a hit list of Holocaust hot-spots, and her experience in Majdanek of being sent to the gas chambers and then released from that certain death, is unique.”

The Making of Another Motion Picture Masterpiece – A novel, by Tom Hanks (Penguin Random House)

This is not twice Oscar-winner Tom Hanks’s first venture into fiction – his 2017 collection of short stories, Uncommon Types, had reasonable reviews. But this novel might be a step too far.

It’s a novel about the making of a star-studded blockbuster called Knightshade: The Lathe of Firefall, and takes the reader from the 1940s to a counter-culture comic and eventually to a premiere in New York’s Times Square.

Critics have not been particularly kind: The Guardian said it would have been nice to believe the film was a satire when, in fact, “Alarmingly … this tale is deadly serious.”

The New York Times says “You might admire its rah-rah spirit, yet still want to press fast-forward.”

Well, I haven’t read it yet, so am reserving judgment.

The Midnight News, by Jo Baker (Hachette)

This is writer Jo Baker’s second World War 2 novel, the first being A Country Road, A Tree, a fictionalised account of the Irish novelist Samuel Beckett’s experiences with the French Resistance.

The Midnight News follows the experiences of a young Ministry of Information typist whose friends start to disappear mysteriously. during the Blitz in London.

It has attracted excellent reviews, being described as thoroughly absorbing and a tour de force.

Baker, the author of seven novels, is best known for her bestselling Longbourn (2013), a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the Bennet family’s servants.

Go as a River, by Shelley Reed (Penguin Random House)

It is post-World War 2 and 17-year-old Victoria lives on her father’s Colorado peach farm, with her disabled uncle and angry brother. Ever since her mother, aunt and cousin died in a crash five years before, she has kept house, somewhat resentfully.

One day she goes into town with produce and meets a young coal miner with swarthy skin, straight black hair and a beautiful smile. Torie is charmed, having never met anyone like him before. But racism is rife in this mountainous corner of Colorado, and people have little patience with a Native American, nor a white girl who loves one.

Then Torie makes a decision that changes her life. This debut novel looks well worth a read.