Category Archives: My Book Pile

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

Books on my Bedside Table January 2021

  • 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

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (Picador)

Encouraging news for anyone battling to get a novel published: fashion designer and writer Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain was rejected by 32 US publishers and 12 British ones before going on to win the 2020 Booker Prize. The American independent publisher Grove Atlantic took the winning chance on it. Shuggie Bain is set in working-class Glasgow – where Stuart grew up – of the 1980s and 1990s, and the Booker Prize judging panel said it was destined to be a classic.

 

How I Learned to Understand the World, by Hans Rosling (Sceptre)

The late Swedish doctor, academic and public speaker Hans Rosling wrote a bestseller Factfulness in which he proposed that most of us have a dubious and out-of-date view of the world, which is not borne out by the facts. Things are actually better than you’d think. This new book is a memoir, and unlike Factfulness, “is about me” and “very short on numbers”.

 

 

Unconventional Wisdom – Adventures in the surprisingly true, edited by Tom Standage (The Economist Books)

So you think the world’s population is rising uncontrollably (see review above)? Well, according to the United Nations, not. The body has reduced its predictions, suggestion the world will contain a little over 9.7bn in 2050, a total of 37m fewer than it forecast two years ago. One reason is that birth rates are falling faster than expected in some developing countries. This book is full of unexpected and intriguing facts, such as the effect a ghost in a property can have on house prices, why Easter is dangerous for dogs, and why US Republicans eat more meat than Democrats.

six years with al qaeda

Six Years with Al Qaeda, by Stephen McGown, as told to Tudor Caradoc-Davies (Maverick 451)

In November 2011 Steve McGown was on an epic motorbike journey through Africa, riding home from London to Johannesburg. In Timbuktu he was taken captive by Al Qaeda and held in the desert for six years, with no idea whether he would live or die. Thanks to huge efforts of those of at home, including Gift of the Givers, led by the indomitable Imtiaz Sooliman, he survived and came home to his wife  and father, though not his mother who died while he was in custody. He taught himself French and Arabic, converted to Islam and decided to live his life as a better human being.

 

Dark Tides, by Philippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster)

In her Fairmile series, historical novelist Philippa Gregory has moved away from the Tudors to the 17th century and the world of the newly restored monarchy of Charles II. The action takes place between restoration London, Venice and the American frontier, and is a story about love, wealth, and the search for a child. Tidelands was the first in the series, this is the second.

  • All these titles are among Exclusive Books’ recommended monthly reads for January 2021.

 

Great bookish Christmas gift ideas

Reviews: Vivien Horler (mostly!)

If you need last-minute Christmas present ideas, here are some from both recent book parcels I’ve happily received, and from my best books of the year.

I haven’t read all the latest ones, but they look brilliant (see down at the bottom). Most are non-fiction, my favourite  reads, but there are some triffic fiction books too.

NON-FICTION

Saving a Stranger’s Life, by Anne Biccard (Jacana) is a Joburg private hospital doctor’s account of being on the Covid frontline. The experience is tough and exhausting, but the book is frequently both funny and heartbreaking. Great read.

Death and the After Parties, by Joanne Hichens (Karavan Press) is Hichens’ account of surviving the loss of her mother, her husband, her father and her mother-in-law within about three years (the last three within about three months). It’s a h4ear-breaking time, and this is a book very different f5rom Hichens’ usual police thrillers.

Lost without You, by Vinnie Jones (Seven Dials) recounts Jones’ life as something of a bad boy of English football and now a film star (remember Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels?), and his love for his beloved wife Tanya who died after a six-year battle with cancer. This is his memoir of how he is learning to cope.

The Windsor Diaries 1940-45, by Alathea Fitzalan Howard (Hodder & Stoughton) During their teens British princesses Elizabeth and Margaret had a pleasant social life at Windsor Castle – where the British royal family was based during World War 2 to escape Hitler’s bombs – and aristocrat Alathea Howard was one of their friends. Her diaries describe lunches, dances and fun with the princesses, and her anxieties if she thought they had forgotten her.

The Terrorist Album, by Jacob Dlamini (Harvard University Press) is contemporary history about some of the people who featured in a real album of photographs, distributed by the Special Branch to police stations around South Africa, so that police would know who to look for. All you had to do to get into the album was to have left the country illegally. And once you were in the album you were fair game.

My Mother, My Madness, by Colleen Higgs (deep south) and A Childhood Made Up, by Brent Meersman (Tafelberg) are two memoirs by Cape Town writers on growing up with mothers suffering from various degrees of mental illness. Survivors of even the happiest of childhoods probably all carry some resentments, but the experiences of Higgs and Meersman are in a different terrain. These are thoughtful accounts of great suffering on the part of both mothers and their children.

Goodbye Christopher  Robin by Ann Thwaite (Pan) is a much better book than the film of the same name. It is based on Thwaite’s biography of AA Milne (AA Milne: His Life), and is the story of how Milne, a prominent playwright, poet and novelist in the early 20th century, came to write the four children’s books for which he is remembered. In 1952 he wrote: “little thinking/ all my years of pen-and-inking/ Would be almost lost among/ Those four trifles for the young.” More than a half century later, we have to drop the “almost”.

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper) is a novel based on the Kindertransport – a bid to save Jewish children from the holocaust by getting permission to send them to England. A Dutchwoman, Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, helped around 10 000 children, three quarters of them Jewish, to flee Austria for England before September 3, 1939. Some grew up to be prominent artists, scientists and politicians, and one, Walter Kohn, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1998.This is a compelling page-turner.

Homesick: Why I live in a shed, by Catrina Davies (Quercus) describes how Davies has not bought into the salary culture, instead surfing and writing and playing her cello. This means she tends to be, as she puts it, “skint”. She moves into a shed her father owns (the shed, not the land it is on) and describes her battle to stay there. You’re not allowed to live in sheds in England, but the price of accommodation in that country is prohibitive; as she writes: “If food prices had risen as fast as house prices in the years since I came of age, a chicken would cost (about R1 000).”

Seven Votes: How WW2 changed South Africa forever, by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball) goes back to the South African parliament’s very close vote to enter World War 2 on the side of Britain. With his fine feel for the current readership of South African history, Steyn has taken the vote drama beyond 1939 to the beginning of apartheid and the stirrings of militant black resistance. (Review: Archie Henderson)

Know My Name, by Chanel Miller (Viking/ Penguin) describes what happens when Miller, then 22, went to a party on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, California, drank too much and passed out. She was sexually assaulted by a student, and was launched on a three-year ordeal which upended her life, led to the recall of a judge and saw state law changed. As young people we’ve all made mistakes, but mostly we survive unscathed. Miller did not. Gripping.

Unholy Union – When rugby collided with the modern world, by Michael Aylwin with Mark Evans (Constable) Could Covid hasten the takeover of rugby by professionalism? The authors agree that such a development, if it leads to the extinction of community rugby, would deprive the game of its charms – indeed its soul – and turn rugby from a participation sport into a spectator game. (Review: Archie Henderson)

Beast, by Tendai Mtawarira with Andy Capostagno (Macmillan) tells the story of Tendai Mtawarira, better known as the Beast, a kid from Zimbabwe who came to SA to play for the Sharks. How he then became a world-class loosehead prop is the story told by Andy Capostagno, our best rugby commentator on TV and one of the game’s finest writers. (Review: Archie Henderson)

Dr Abdullah Abdurahman – South Africa’s first elected black politician, by Martin Plaut (Jacana). Medically trained in Scotland and married to a white Scottish woman, Abdurahman came home to District Six both to practise as a doctor and to represent his people in the Cape Town City Council and the Cape Provincial Council. His daughter Cissie Gool frequently disparaged him as an “Uncle Tom”, but he was an indefatigable fighter for black people – of all shades – in South Africa between 1904 and his death in 1940.

 

FICTION

A Time for Mercy, by John Gresham (Hodder & Stoughton) is a delicious legal thriller that I wanted to gobble up. A teenager shoots his mother’s boyfriend dead, after he has attacked her up again and apparently murdered her. But she’s not dead, and the perpetrator is a popular local cop. Can the teenager beat a death sentence? (Apparently in the US 16-year-olds can be tried as adults.)

Love After Love, by Ingrid Persaud (faber & faber) tells the stories of Betty, her son Solo and Mr Chetan on the island of Trinidad. Betty loves Mr Chetan and she also loves Solo, but her love is thwarted at every turn. A wonderful novel about love and longing in a setting not well known to most English readers.

The Sound of the Hours, by Karen Campbell (Bloomsbury) is a brilliant novel based on the people in a handful of Italian mountain villages before, during and after a devastating World War 2 battle. This is one of those novels that will have you turning back to the first chapter after you’ve finished it to absorb the wicked twist in the tale. A beautiful book.

Loves & Miracles of Pistola, by Hilary Prendini Toffoli (Penguin) is the charming novel based on the true story of how around 100 young Italian men came to settle in South Africa shortly after World War 2, having been recruited by the old SA Railways & Harbours to work as waiters on the country’s mainline trains. After a few years many left to open their own Italian restaurants, introducing South Africans to the delights of Italian cuisine.

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press) is based on the short life of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, who died of some sort of plague. O’Farrell brilliantly recreates Shakespeare’s life and times, and the love between the playwright and his wild and beautiful wife, who stays behind in Stratford while Shakespeare makes his fame and fortune in London.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate) is the final book in the Mantel trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, right-hand man to Henry VIII. It is a fabulous story, detailed and absorbing. Proximity to the king meant great honour and wealth could come your way, but it also exposed you to great danger as two of Henry’s six wives and Cromwell himself experienced. It failed to win the Booker Prize – as its prequels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies did – but it is a great novel. Read all three in order though.

The Inn at Helsvlakte, by Patricia Schonstein (Penguin) is a strange and wonderful tale, shot through with a sense of fable and mystery, and peopled with a motley bunch of circus men, soldiers, a military uniform designer, a transport ride, a woman farrier, her one-legged lover and a foppish man intent on revenge. It is set around the turn of the 20th century in sort-of Namaqualand, and has a plot that is complicated and intricate, swooping forward and looping back, revealing layers of action, love, beauty and peculiarity. Marvellous.

American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins (Tinder Press) ignited a firestorm of criticism because it was written by an American woman who was telling the fictional story of a Mexican refugee and her young son fleeing to the United States. Latinx people based in the US have excoriated the novel on the grounds of cultural expropriation, but it is a terrific thriller that will have you breathlessly turning each page.

UNREAD BUT INTERESTING

Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) This doorstopper – over 900 pages (are Rowling’s editors being too indulgent?) – has had some bad press because it features a cross-dressing serial killer. It is the fifth Cormoran Strike novel and sees Strike chasing a 40-year-old cold case in Cornwall. Rowling says the fundamental story is based on a real case.

Cop Under Cover, by Johann van Loggerenberg (Jonathan Ball). We’ve all heard of  Van Loggerenberg, the dogged SARS investigator who fell foul of the Guptas’ campaign to discredit and derail South Africa’s tax revenue collection service. I haven’t read this one yet, but it looks pretty interesting.

White Tears/ Brown Scars – How white feminism betrays women of colour,  by Ruby Hamad (Trapeze) and Sensuous Knowledge – A black feminist approach for everyone, by Minna Salami (ZED). The Hamad book is described by one reviewer as “An essential guide for those who want to be truly intersectional in their feminism”, while the Salami book is referred to as centering on “the black female body and experience at the heart of global feminist discourse”.

50 People who F***ed up South Africa – the lost decade, by Alexander Parker and Tim Richman, with cartoons by Zapiro. This is a sequel to the book of the same title without the caveat of “the lost decade”, and the shout on the cover says: “It took 350 years to come up with the list of shame for the original” book published in 2010, “but it’s taken only 10 more years to come up with the next 50”. They include Bathabile Dlamini, Jessie Duarte and Gwede Mantashe, John Hlophe,   Julius Malema, Helen Zille, Iqbal Surve, Gavin Watson and, of course, Jacob Zuma and the Guptas.

United We Are Unstoppable, ed by Akshat Rathi (John Murray). Here’s another list of people, but these are 60 inspiring young ones from around the globe who are saving the world. I’m afraid I haven’t heard of any of them (Greta Thunberg isn’t included). There is a South African, Ruby Sampson, 19, a passionate eco-activist who says: “Don’t let your fear stop you, let it unite and drive you.”

Do the Macorona, by Zapiro (Jacana) and Days of our Lockdown Lives by Stephen Francis & Rico. These welcome annuals may seem to be light relief, but usually provide a sharp and pointed look at our country and the way we live. Hooray for Zapiro and Francis & Rico for telling us like it is, but lightly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The true story behind the whimsical film Goodbye Christopher Robin

Review: Vivien Horler

Goodbye Christopher Robin – AA Milne and the making of Winnie-the-Pooh, by Ann Thwaite (Pan)

One of the first books I recall owning was a red cloth-bound copy of Winnie-the-Pooh, with a map of the Hundred Acre Wood where all the stories happened, marked: “Drawn by me and Mr Shepard helped”.

I loved it. Years later, in matric, I rediscovered the book and realised for the first time how funny it was. For instance: “Next to (Piglet’s) house was a piece of broken board which had “TRESPASSERS WILL” on it. When Christopher Robin asked Piglet what it meant, he said it was his grandfather’s name, which was short for Trespassers William. And his grandfather had had two names in case he lost one – Trespassers after an uncle, and William after Trespassers.” Continue reading

Brains, birds and bonking – you can’t go wrong with a book

christmas baubleWith Christmas just a week or so away, it’s time to refine the prezzie lists and go shopping. Some people are dead easy to buy for: me for instance. I want a canoe.

Sadly this is a tad over the R150 limit our family has set itself this year.

So are most books, but when you’re desperate, you might have to bend the budget a bit.

Here is a list of some fun and interesting non-fiction books that could be just the ticket for those difficult people who seem to have most things. I have ignored the obvious big bestsellers like Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers, Redi Tlhabi’s Khwezi,  and Sisonke Msimang’s Always Another Country, which I assume you and yours ha’ve all read anyway. Continue reading

A couple of good reads

new times rehanaNew Times – a novel, by Rehana Rossouw (Jacana)

It wasn’t easy being a journalist for the donnerse Engelse pers in the old South Africa, but it’s not that easy being one now either. Ali Adams starts a new job as a political writer for The New Times, a weekly Cape Town newspaper. Nelson Mandela is starting his second year as president, the Rugby World Cup is happening, and life is heady with promise.

But with a gallery seat in Parliament, Ali realises all is not well. The government’s new economic policy seems to be ignore the poor, there is the smell of corruption, and Ali exposes a major scandal.

While Ali, in her jeans and Doc Martens, may be a modern and politically sussed journalist, she lives with her devout Muslim family in the Bo Kaap, a family who want nothing more for her than to settle down and have children. Can she square both sides of her life?

Rehana Roussouw, who once worked at the Cape Argus with me, is now a journalist based in Johannesburg. Her first novel, What Will People Say? set on the Cape Flats, won the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Science prize for fiction earlier this year and was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature last year.

tell tale archerTell Tale, by Jeffrey Archer (Macmillan)

Jeffrey Archer has had a rollercoaster of a life, from deputy chairman of Britain’s Conservative Party to jailbird (his Wikipedia entry is eye-stretching), but he is certainly a constant and prolific writer. Although a Daily Telegraph shout proudly quoted on the cover, “If there was a Nobel Prize for storytelling, Archer would win”, seems to damn with faint praise.

Tell Tale is the clever title to his second book of short stories. He says some of are loosely based on tales he picked up on his travels around the world, including to Cape Town, while the rest are the result of his imagination.

The few I’ve read have a feeling of being dashed off, but he starts off with one called Unique which is clearly polished. He says he was challenged by a Reader’s Digest editor to write a 100-word story with a beginning a middle and an end, in just 24 hours. He rose to the challenge – and his story is a delight: small but perfectly formed.

October 16

rapid fireRapid Fire, by John Maytham (Tafelberg)

Can a vegan eat a fig? Well of course. Except it turns out figs are tricky. Smyrna figs are pollinated in such a way that a female wasp dies inside the fruit. You won’t actually bite into the wasp – her body will be dissolved by acid – but technically the fruit will contain a speck of animal matter and that might put a very strict vegan off.

This is the sort of clever question – and answer – found in the book by John Maytham, who presents the afternoon drive show on Cape Talk radio. Because Maytham is a real know-it-all, he gets people to ring in on air with good questions to see if he and his team can answer them. Prizes are given for interesting rather than just difficult questions.

This is a fun quiz book covering topics from flags to food, from sport to spies. Here’s another question: which American president was the inspiration for a popular toy? Yes – you know this one, really.

The Blessed Girl, by Angela Makholwa (Macmillan)

Bontle Tau is gorgeous, and she knows it. If she had a choice between coming back as Albert Einstein or as Marilyn Monroe, she’d choose Marilyn Monroe every time. Marilyn Monroe was the original blessee, and you can quote Bontle on that.

Bontle likes the fine things in life – the designer shoes, the champagne, the penthouse, the expensive car, the beauty treatments. But all this costs, and she needs to keep her chaps on side, like Papa Jeff, who’s getting just a teeny bit fat; like Teddy, who seems to have messed up a tender business; like Mr Emmanuel, the lovely rich Nigerian; oh, and then there’s Bontle’s soon-to-be ex-husband.

It’s not easy, or as Bontle puts it, keeping all her boyfriends happy and living a fabulous life has its challenges.

This is Angela Makholwa’s fourth novel, following Red Ink, The 30th Candle and Black Widow Society. Makholwa is based in Joburg.

September 26 2017

 

Sheri just the way I amShéri – Just the way I am, by Shéri Brynard & Colleen Naudé (Lux Verbi)

Not many people with Down Syndrome write their life stories, but Shéri Brynard has. In the foreword co-writer Colleen Naudé says the book is based on Shéri’s own writing, supplemented by Naude’s interviews with her. Shéri is 35, has met Oprah Winfrey, has travelled the world as a motivational speaker, has a diploma in educare from a Bloemfontein FET college, and works at the Lettie Fouché School for mentally challenged children.

The second, shorter part of the book is written by Shéri’s mother Susette Brynard. Susette says she has learned more from Shéri than Shéri ever learned from her. “My child knows about work. Everything is hard work; nothing ever falls into her lap.” Thanks to this determination, Shéri , who is Afrikaans speaking, has remarkable achievements behind her, including being an ambassador for Down Syndrome International, which meant she had to learn to give speeches in English. Jonathan Jansen, former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State and a key figure in Shéri’s life, says: “She has defied all odds… Her story inspires and educates at the same time, and makes one’s own struggles pale into insignificance.”

This week’s new books

overkill james clarkeOverkill – the race to save Africa’s wildlife, by James Clarke (Struik Nature)

In his introduction to this book, environment writer James Clarke says 90% of the world’s largest creatures have disappeared since humans migrated from Africa and fanned out across the world. The one landmass that has kept its giant animals – elephants, rhinos, giraffe – is, ironically Africa, where humans came from. The reason, he says, is that African animals knew very well to keep their distance from humans, something the mammoths and mastodons on other continents did not. It is only in the past couple of hundred years, when humans armed themselves with firearms, that African animal numbers began plummeting. Clarke believes that last year the African wildlife situation reached its lowest ebb, and that now the tide is turning.

tracks & signsInvertebrates of Southern Africa and their Tracks and Signs, by Lee Gutteridge (Jacana)

When people go to game parks and reserves they are generally looking for the big animals, the vertebrates, lions and elephants and eland and rhino. But there is a treasure of other creatures out there, often in your garden, the insects and spiders, the beetles and worms. Wildlife writer and guide Lee Gutteridge says his book is a first, a relatively untouched topic in southern Africa. This could be partly because many invertebrates keep themselves to themselves and live hidden lives, and also because they are so common we take them for granted. Many are of vital importance within the processes of nature, such as pollination, and others are important food sources. This book is richly illustrated, and shows insects as often gorgeous, highly coloured creatures. Others are a little less appealing.

This week’s new books – September 4 2017

the other hoffman sisterThe Other Hoffman Sister (Little, Brown/ Jonathan Ball)

Ben Ferguson

In 1902 the Hoffman family move from Germany to a bleak desert farm somewhere north of Okahandja in what is then German South West Africa. Ingrid, the younger sister, worries about her older sister Margarete, who begins to withdraw from her family, and who seems to be going slightly mad. Then Baron von Ketz, a nasty poiece of work who has a farm two hours horse ride away, is murdered, and his family and the Hoffman’s return to German. As World War I breaks out, Von Ketz’s son Emil asks Margarete to marry him, but she disappears on her wedding night. Nothing can be done at the time, but after the Ingrid is determined to discover what happened to her sister.

these dividing wallsThese Dividing Walls (Hodder & Stoughton/ Jonathan Ball

Fran Cooper

A grieving Edward lives in England, but has to get away, have a break. And so his friend Emilie offers him the use of her one-roomed Paris apartment, an apartment in a building far back on the Left Bank, set in a warren of quiet streets. This, says the shout on the cover, is not the Paris you know. Behind the building’s large turquoise door are five floors, and many people live there, the woman who runs the bookshop downstairs, the man who feeds the sparrows on his windowsill, the young mother. But although they can hear each other and often see each other on the stairs and in the courtyard, the people of No 37 keep to themselves. And as the summer heat builds, so do the tensions among the residents.