Category Archives: My Book Pile

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

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.




Bedside table books for April

Bedside books April

These are some of the books that landed on my desk this month. The first two are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for April. A review of a third Exclusive Books novel, All Your Children, Scattered, by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse, is due to appear on this website on Sunday April 30. – Vivien Horler

Homecoming,  by Kate Morton (Mantle)

It’s been a long, blazingly hot Christmas Eve of 1959, and Percy Summers is heading home after helping clear fire-prone bush on a cattle station in South Australia.

He takes a shortcut through the extensive grounds of the Turner family home to the cool of the river, where he sees the Turner family, asleep on picnic blankets – mother, three children and the baby. Utterly still.

Years later, Jess Turner-Bridges is an Australian journalist living in London. She is called back home to Sydney where her beloved grandmother is seriously ill. While staying in her grandma’s house she finds a true-crime book telling the story of the Turner family murders.

And then, while reading, she discovers a link between her own family and this ghastly crime – one that has never been solved.

I think that sounds like a pretty good beginning of a doorstop-sized novel that spans a couple of generations.  I’m halfway through and enjoying it immensely.

The Library Suicides, by Fflur Dafydd (Hodder & Stoughton)

When the novelist Elena commits suicide, her distraught twin daughters, who work at the National Library, are convinced she was driven to take her own life as a result of a review by a literary critic, Eben.

Eben wants to clear his name, and asks if he can have access to Elena’s diaries, which are kept at the library. The twins see an opportunity for revenge.

They manage to lock the library, trapping their colleagues, readers and Eben inside. But the plan falls apart when a security guard starts freeing the hostages.

The cover blurb tells us this is “an intensely memorable and provocative literary read unlike any high-concept thriller you’ve read before”.

Harry Oppenheimer – Diamonds, gold and dynasty Michael Cardo (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

With the Ruperts, was Harry Oppenheimer the representative of “white monopoly capital” par excellence, or were things a bit more nuanced?

In a thoughtful introduction to his biography, DA MP Michael Cardo, shadow minister of employment and labour, says what struck him forcefully during his research was how, in the 1950s,  “nationalists of another stripe had focused their ire on the Oppenheimer family”.

He is of course referring to the Nationalists of 1948 and later, when Harry Oppenheimer became an MP for the United Party. “He represented an existential threat to Afrikanerdom: he embodied everything its leaders dreaded and detested.”

Oppenheimer (1908-2000), writes Cardo, was in many ways ahead of his times, in others he was a product of his era. He bankrolled the Progressive Party for decades, yet supported a qualified franchise until 1978.

And Cardo adds: “And even though Oppenheimer was an enlightened capitalist, certainly by the standards of his peers, on his mines the conditions above and below ground contributed to generations of black hardship.”

He was never any more than an accidental tourist down his own mines, remarking once to a journalist: “It’s quite amusing but I wouldn’t like to work there.”

Well no. And yet he was a brilliant entrepreneur and Anglo-American came to dominate the SA economy, “a $15 billion empire on which the sun never set”.

Cardo adds: “…his legacy is multifaceted, and he deserves neither obloquy nor hagiography”.

This One Thing: Journeying with Tutu, by Dan Vaughan (Sunlit)

Most of us remember Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with fondness and respect. He could be hilarious, he could be fearless and brave in defying the powerful of the day as well as murderous mobs.

But this is a memoir of a time before he became internationally famous, a time when he was head of the SA Council of Churches, when his path crossed with that of one Dan Vaughan, who became his deputy.

Vaughan was a young white man in 1948, the year the Nationalist Party came to power. He worked in an office in Cape Town, and life moved in a pleasant routine, he writes. Yes, there was an increasingly draconian crackdown on black people, but it didn’t really affect him. That was the way things were.

And then Vaughan felt drawn to being a missionary, spending time in what was then Rhodesia, and for the first time in his life felt he was “seeing, tasting and feeling Africa and its people”.

Later he began working for the SACC, not long before Tutu arrived. Eventually he became the cleric’s righthand man, travelling with him as Tutu confronted the apartheid government – a stance that eventually won him the Nobel Peace Prize – and bore witness around the world.

I asked a friend, who worked closely with Tutu in the archbishop years, what he thought about This One Thing, and he said: “Its strength and uniqueness is that it’s the story of the conversion of a white conservative to the cause of liberation on religious grounds… Vaughan is a sweet man of great personal integrity.”

The Scholarship Kids – a memoir by Robert Gentle (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Robert Gentle and his twin brother Michael were small coloured boys living in Wynberg in Cape Town, just below the railway line, on literally the wrong side of the tracks.

Sometimes the family went to Cape Town harbour to watch ocean liners head to Europe. But the event that turned their lives around was the day the boys’ dad took them to the airport to see one of SAA’s newly acquired Boeing 707s.

“The sight of that plane triggered something in both Michael and me: a love of aircraft that would give our lives purpose and direction… A dream was born that day. Time would give it wings.”

But how were two young coloured boys in apartheid SA going to achieve their dream? This memoir tells their story.





Bedside Table for March


These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later. The first three are among Exclusive Books’ top 25 reads for the month. A fourth Exclusive Books book is One Hundred Saturdays by Michael Frank (Souvenir Press) which will be reviewed in full on Sunday April 2. – Vivien Horler





The Golden Mole – And other living treasure, by Katherine Rundell (faber)

Golden Mole is a physically beautiful volume, hardback with gilt-edged pages. In it Katherine Rundell, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, has written vignettes of some the wonders of the natural world, from swifts which fly 2million kilometres in their lifetime, to the pangolin, which apparently keeps its tongue furled in a pouch on its hip.

Rundell has unearthed the most extraordinary facts about creatures, many of which are endangered, and writes: “The book is made in part of moments where we have collided with living things, in both joy and destruction, delight and grandeur and folly.”

I’ve read only about 50 pages so far, and it’s wonderful. But listen to this.

In her piece about hermit crabs, she writes about a colony of coconut hermit crabs, the world’s largest land crab which grows up to a metre across,.

The crabs, strong enough to crack open a coconut, are found on the uninhabited island of Nikumaroro in the Western Pacific.

One of the theories about the death of pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan is that they may have crashed on to the island in 1937.

For five nights after her aircraft disappeared, the US Navy picked up distress signals from Nikurmaroro. When a rescue team reached the island a week later, it was deserted. But later researchers on the island have discovered human bones matching Earhart’s size.

Another team found a broken mirror of the type found in powder compacts, some flakes of rouge and a jar of anti-freckle cream.

So did the giant coconut crabs, with their powerful claws, eat Earhart? It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Changing a Leopard’s Spots – The adventures of two wildlife trackers, by Alex van den Heever with Renias Mhlongo (Macmillan)

Rookie game guide Alex van den Heever was paired with experienced tracker Renias Mhlongo when he started work at Londolozi more than 20 years ago.

Since then they have tracked leopards and lions at Londolozi, jaguars inSouth America and grizzly bears in the US.

I have not yet got very far, but already it is clear than Van den Heever is a fine raconteur. In the first chapter he tells how, early in their relationship, the two men were tracking leopard for a group of Canadian visitors. Mhlongo found a track in the sand that Van den Heever could barely see.

Leaving the tourists in the game-drive vehicle, the two men made their way through the bush on foot, Van den Heever carrying the rifle. Mhlongo became ever more focused. Suddenly a leopard burst out of the bush, frightening Van den Heever so badly that he stepped back, tripped over a log and fell, dropping the rifle.

The leopard came at him several times … Well, this is the first chapter so we know both guide and tracker survived – as did the leopard. But it was a scary moment.

Van den Heever realised if they were to become a successful team, he had to learn to trust Mhlongo implicitly, and vice versa. Eventually they developed a deep personal relationship as well as successful careers. Today they are motivational speakers and are the co-authors of the bestselling animal tracking field guide, Tracker Manual.

Exiles, by Jane Harper (Macmillan)

Jane Harper writes bestselling thrillers in the Australian noir genre – I’ve read two and am halfway through a third. She has won some top awards including the CWA Gold Dagger, the British Book Awards Crime and Thriller Book of the Year and the Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the year. No less a crime writer than Anne Cleeves (Vera, Shetland) says Harper is an addictive storyteller.

The 2021 movie adaptation of her first novel, The Dry, is one of the highest grossing Australian films ever.

At the end of the first night of the Marralee Valley Annual Food and Wine Festival in South Australia, people are gathering up their things and leaving. But when everyone has gone, a technician collecting his bike notices a pram still in the designated pram bay.

He looks under the blanket and there, asleep, is a very small baby. Her name, Zoe Gillespie, is embroidered on her onesie. The festival director and later the police know the family. But when they ring the mother, her phone rings in the nappy bag found under the pram, along with cards and car keys.

The car turns out to be still parked in the car park.

The director phones the child’s father, who is at a restaurant with his parents in the town. There is no sign of the mother.

Some weeks later one of her shoes is found in a nearby reservoir

A year later it is once again the first night of the Marralee Valley Food and Wine Festival. Federal cop Aaron Falk is town to take part in the christening of his friends’ baby boy.

During a stage presentation at the festival, Kim Gillespie’s family make an emotional appeal to anyone who might have seen her that night a year ago.

Falk’s visit to Marralee is purely social, but he’s a cop, and he can’t help himself when it comes to local mysteries. He soon starts to feel that the Marralee community isn’t quite as close-knit as people like to think, and that someone is hiding something.

Hani – A life too short, by Janet Smith & Beauregard Tromp (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Chris Hani, leader of the SA Communist Party and chief of staff of uMkhonto we Sizwe, died on Easter Saturday, 1993, at the hands of an assassin. To mark the 30th anniversary of his death, coincidentally also at Easter this year, Jonathan Ball has reissued Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp’s biography, first published in 2009.

It includes a 33-page epilogue written at the end of last year looking at Hani’s legacy through the voices of three commentators: Sunday Times editor S’thembiso Msomo, EFF commander-in-chief Julius Malema, both “exceptional leaders”, and to a somewhat lesser extent Mavuso Msimang, former Home Affairs director general, who had known Hani since the1960s.

It is Malema’s thesis, which appears to be supported by the authors, that the ANC establishment believed the socialist Hani was a threat. Malema is quoted saying: “What do we do? We have to get rid of this guy, because this guy is going to turn South Africa into a socialist state. So they killed Chris.”

Later, referring to the way members of the ANC cosied up to big business, Malema says: “Today we must be friends with them and protect that which they stole from us? I’m not part of that.

“So that’s why Chris was killed, because he refused to be part of this nonsense that hijacked the ANC.”

Msomi says Hani differed from the other leaders released from prison or back from exile. “They mostly spoke politics, pure politics. [Hani} spoke politics and linked it to civic issues…

“When you got to ’94, the ANC’s Mayibuye had ‘Free at Last, and the SACP was talking about a ‘breakthrough’, which was the idea that ‘now we have political power, what are we going to do with it?’ [The SACP was saying] this is an important milestone, but we are still going somewhere, whereas the ANC… seemed to be saying, ‘We have arrived’.”

The authors say since the book was first published they have heard many theories as to why Hani was killed and who was behind it other than the immediate perpetrators, but emphasise their book is about Hani’s life more than his death.

On the Precipice – a novel, by Kaizer Mabhilidi Nyatsumba (Verity Pubishers)

Peter Majozi of Alexandra turns 13 on the day FW de Klerk announces the unbanning of the liberation movements, and his teenage years are lived against the backdrop of the negotiations and fraught moments leading up to April 27, 1994.

He goes to a Model C high school – where to begin with he is the only black male there other than the gardeners – and later to Stellenbosch.

Thanks to his education, he speaks with a “Model C” accent, which white people admire, and tell him so. It’s meant as a compliment, but… Majozi also opts to be called Peter, rather than his second name Zwelethu, because it makes things easier for white people and he doesn’t like to hear his name butchered.

Kaizer Nyatsumba is a writer and former journalist, and he uses his own encyclopaedic knowledge of the South Africa we have lived through for the past 30 years to tell this coming of age story against a background of enormous initial  enthusiasm and hope to the country’s slow and depressing decline.

One reviewer describes it as “50 shades of SA politics – an interesting journey following a man’s sexual and political awakening”.

Another reviewer writes: “Through a personal journey of awakening, Majozi and his group of close friends hold firm to the belief that a better life for all is possible and, at considerable personal risk, put a plan into action to turn back the tide.”

This looks fascinating.

Never Never, by Colleen Hoover and Tarryn Fisher (HQ)

Charlie and Silas have been best friends all their lives, and now they’re at high school they’re boyfriend and girlfriend. But one day, out of the blue, they discover they don’t know the first thing about themselves, or each other.

It’s as though their memories have been wiped clean. Both have no idea who they are, who the other is, what class they’re in, or what has happened. Somehow their every memory has vanished.

Frightened, they decide to work together to find out what has happened to them, and why. They discover some unpleasant things, like Silas has been having a relationship with the school counsellor, that his and Charlie’s father’s once worked together but have fallen out big time over allegations of fraud.

They soon realise they’re not sure they like each other, much less love each other. But the more they find out, the more questions remain.

This is described as “a gripping, twisty, romantic mystery unlike any other”.

My Year of No Getting Sh*tfaced – How I tried to give up alcohol and learned the joys of moderation, by Pamela Power (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Pamela Power is a TV scriptwriter and script editor. She has also written several novels, including Ms Conception, but this is her first memoir, which she says falls into the category of “quitlit”.

Iit was Mother’s Day 2021 that forced Power to realise she probably had to take a long hard look at her drinking.  She had gone out to lunch with her husband in Parktown North, then joined a group of friends later.

On the Thursday after Mother’s Day she met up with some of the friends, who kindly filled her in on what had happened on the Sunday, because she did not remember a thing.

They told her in graphic detail. She also had the bruises.

She is mortified, and it’s not the first time. She gives up drinking during Covid and the famous booze ban (although to begin with she makes a plan) – and this is her diary of that year.

The book seems to be scary, honest and also funny (I haven’t got very far) as she confronts various problems, and experiences what it is like to go dry.

As the cover tells us: “While many other sober-curious books portray sobriety as the only answer, in the end Pam finds a sweet spot between total sobriety and binge drinking: moderation.”







Bedside Books for February

THESE ARE AMONG the books that landed on my desk this month.  Some will be reviewed in full later. The first three are from Exclusive Books’ top 25 reads for February. There was a fourth book, A Dangerous Business by Pulitzer prize-winning Jane Smiley, which I’ll review on Sunday. – Vivien Horler

How to Stand up to a Dictator – The fight for our future, by Maria Ressa (WH Allen)

Just a quick read of the foreword – by Amal Clooney – and the prologue by Filipino journalist Maria Ressa make one realise how important this book is. In 2021 Ressa, along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Clooney writes that in an autocracy, a journalist’s opponent is the state – “which makes policy, controls the police, hires the prosecutors and readies the prisons… Its existence depends on ensuring that there is only one side to every story”.

In Ressa’s Nobel acceptance speech, she said, referring to social media, an invisible atom bomb had exploded in the world’s information ecosystem. Four months later, Russia invaded Ukraine, “using meta-narratives it had seeded online since 2014, when it invaded Crimea…The tactic? Suppress information, then replace it with lies”.

Ressa currently faces numerous court cases in the Philippines, and may go to jail, according to her lawyer, for more than 100 years. But she refuses to be silent. Democracy is fragile and it needs to be fought for, she says.

“This is what many Westerners, for whom democracy seems a given, need to learn from us.”

The Institute for Creative Dying, by Jarred Thompson (Picador Africa)

This debut novel is clearly something different. Five strangers – a former nun, a model, a couple in crisis and a recently released prisoner – all arrive at a house just below Northcliff Ridge in Johannesburg to discover an end to life as they know it.

They open their minds and bodies to a different experience, and not all of them survive.

The writer and critic Khanya Mtshali says of the book: “Jarred Thompson proves why he’s one of South Africa’s most daring young writers. Macabre, weird, zany and decidedly ominous, this gutsy debut novel explores the ethics of death and the value of life.”

Thompson is a lecturer in the University of Pretoria’s English department.

Living in Two Worlds – addressing humanity’s greatest challenge, by Ian McCallum and Ian Michler (Quickfox)

In 2010 authors and conservationists Ian McCallum and Ian Michler were sitting around a fire in a tented camp in northern Botswana when Michler came up with an idea.

“How about, one day, we do a circular walk… following the elephant migration routes through the Caprivi, into Zambia, Zimbabwe and back to Botswana?”

McCallum responded: “Sounds great, following in the tracks of giants… Why not?”

The idea eventually transformed itself into a four-month 5 000km journey, walking, kayaking and cycling, through six southern African countries: Namibia; Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east.

It turns out the old elephant migration tracks don’t really exist any more, but the expedition followed elephant cluster groups in the six countries.

And while they travelled, important questions came up: what would it take to change our anthropocentric mindset and question current values to understand a biosphere in which we co-exist with all living things? How are we going to address the human contribution to environmental issues? And how to get the environmental message across “in a way that those who hear it are left with the deepened sense of personal accountability?”

This book looks at some of the answers they discovered.

The South African Air Fryer Cookbook, by Louisa Holst (Human & Rousseau)

I was sent this cookery book late last year, but didn’t have an air fryer. Now, however, thanks to some Christmas and birthday vouchers, I do, and I’m becoming an enthusiastic fryer.

I bought a Phillips, not the smallest one, which comes with the most hopeless user’s guide. It didn’t even tell me how to turn it on.

But I retrieved this cookery book and it’s been extremely useful in giving me the basics.

This probably sounds bleeding obvious, but you have to rethink microwave oven ideas – you can’t use plastic cooking utensils but you can use metal.

The book begins with tips for success: should you preheat the fryer? Holst says yes. Don’t overload the basked. Turn or toss the ingredients halfway through. Make sure the fryer has space around it – it needs air to circulate. Temperatures tend to be lower, and cooking times slightly shorter. And so on.

The recipes are delightfully South African, from fishcakes with achar, and cream cheese and biltong spring rolls, curried chicken rotis, boerie burgers, and stuffed ostrich steaks to mielie-pap chips, mielie bread with biltong (that looks particularly delicious), sosaties, and steak Gatsby.

You can cook bobotie, snoek with an apricot glaze, and even milk tart and malva pudding.

So far I’ve done chips, chipolata sausages (it works really well with those), the most delicious cheese toasties, and – my big experiment – roast chicken, with chips on the side. They were delicious.

All the recipes are accompanied by fabulous pictures taken by Donna Lewis.

How to Steal a Gold Mine – The Aurora story, by Dianne Hawker (Tafelberg)

Reading the introduction to this book prompts a sense of “oh dear”. Another ghastly South African tale involving fraud, theft, corruption thought  to run into hundreds of millions rands, the loss of some 5 000 jobs.

But unlike state capture, this is about the capture of a private rather than state-owned entities. However, as Dianne Hawker points out, it reveals the same kind of collusion between government and politicians and business people with political connections – among them Jacob Zuma’s nephew Khulubuse Zuma, his lawyer Mike Hulley, and Zondwa Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela.

Hawker, a fine journalist with whom I once worked, says the book is intended to find out “what truly happened in the Aurora mine saga, and, at the same time, show how easy it can be to steal a gold mine”.

Noni Jabavu – A stranger at home, by Noni Jabavu (Tafelberg)

Noni Jabavu, born in 1919, came from a distinguished Eastern Cape family. Her grandfather was John Tengo Jabavu, owner and editor of Imvo Zabantsundu, and her father was DDT Jabavu, SA’s first black professor who was head of Latin and Bantu languages at the university college of Fort Hare. Her uncle by marriage was ZK Matthews.

In 1933 at 13 Noni, a pupil at Lovedale, was sent to England to continue her education, and never really came home again. She was studying music at the Royal Academy when World War 2 broke out, and became an oxy-acetylene welder in aircraft production.

She married an Englishman, had two children, and became SA’s first black female memoirist, writing several books including Drawn in Colour, The Ochre People and Life and Loves of an Ochre Lady.

This volume is based on a collection of weekly columns she wrote for the Daily Dispatch in 1977, drawn from a couple of visits back home to gather information on her father about whom she was planning to write a biography.

Having lived a self-confessed upper-class life in Britain, Kenya and elsewhere, returning to SA was something of a shock, and it started at immigration at the Durban docks. She was allowed to stay for only three months, despite having been born in the country.

Topics include: “Getting Used to Colour Again”, “The Special Branch Call”, Xhosa Men have Changed”, “Why Don’t our Blacks Read?” and “Smuts and I”.

She’s a lively writer and this looks to be both thought-provoking and fun.


Bedside table books for January

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

Whatever Next? – Lesson from an unexpected life, by Anne Glenconner (Hodder & Stoughton)

Not many people would have the optimism, at the age of 90, to write a book titled Whatever Next? And Anne Glenconner is certainly not thinking of the obvious.

She has lived a life of money and prestige, being the daughter of the Earl of Leicester and the widow of Lord Glenconner (better known to tabloid readers as Colin Tennant of Mustique island fame). She was a society hostess, a maid of honour at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 and lady-in-waiting to the queen’s sister Princess Margaret. She speaks of the house in Norfolk, the castle in Scotland, the flat in London.

Colin Tennant will be remembered by some as the man who bought the island of Mustique in the Caribbean, then a failing cotton estate without electricity or fresh water, and transformed it into a luxury retreat frequented by the likes of Princess Margaret and Mick Jagger.

And yet her life has not been all roses. Her husband was a brilliant and mercurial man prone to public tantrums, who once beat her so badly that she permanently lost the hearing in an ear.

She also lost two sons – one to hepatitis C as a result of heroin addiction, and one to HIV – and a third son nearly died in a motor cycle accident, spending four months in a coma.

When Tennant died, he left his entire estate to his valet, and a long legal battle ensued before the current Lord Glenconner, her grandson, was able to retrieve some of Tennant’s property.

And yet with an innate sense of curiosity and optimism, as well as being trained as a child to be polite, demure and welcoming, she has created a successful life. She still has a son and two daughters, as well as several grandchildren, she is obviously comfortably off, she has travelled widely and has many dear friends.

In her 80s she was persuaded to write her autobiography, Lady in Waiting, based partly on her relationship with Princess Margaret, and this opened up an entirely new career, and led to this latest book.

She says of all her roles in life – daughter, wife, mother, lady-in-waiting – her favourite is that of author. “It has taught me that it is never too late for a new chapter – the one you write for yourself.”

These days she is always asked her secrets for a healthy long life. And she believes the key is striking a balance between pleasing herself and pleasing others.

Last year she turned 90, with a “bonfire” of a birthday cake – all those candles – and told her guests: “I look forward to seeing you all here again in 10 years’ time.”

Whatever next?

The Light We Left Behind, by Tessa Harris (HQ/ HarperCollins)

Most readers will have heard of Bletchley Park and its role in World War II, but it wasn’t the only stately home where hush-hush matters were happening.

Trent Park, an estate once owned by Sir Philip Sassoon, is at the end of London’s Piccadilly Line at Cockfosters, and has been referred to as the house of the secret listeners.

It emerged in 1996, when “top secret” records were declassified, the mansion had been a luxury prison to dozens of senior German POWs. They were allowed walks in the grounds, could use the on-site shop, and even had access to a Savile Row tailor.

But what the German officers didn’t know was that their private conversations were being recorded, with microphones placed in every room and even in bushes outside. The information gathered provided vital intelligence on troop movements, tanks, codes and ciphers, and most importantly, the development of the V-1, V-2 unmanned rocket bombs. There were also plans for the V-3.

Author Tessa Harris has used this as a background to an interesting novel about a young German-speaking psychologist, Maddie Gresham, who is recruited to Trent Park to “break” a senior German brigadier said to be the driving force behind the V rockets project.

I haven’t got very far with this novel yet, but I’m intrigued.

Isaac and the Egg, by Bobby Palmer (Headline Review)

Isaac is standing on a bridge in the dark, considering jumping. Life is pretty tough and he’s not sure there’s much to be grateful for.

He screams in despair, then hears an answering scream in the nearby woods. As dawn begins to break he goes in search of the source of the sound. And there, in the centre of a clearing, is an egg. No ordinary egg, this; it’s about 60cm high, white, and oddly soft to the touch, like a boiled egg that’s been peeled.

He looks around nervously, in case whatever creature capable of laying such an egg might be nearby, then picks it up and takes it home.

To my mind this doesn’t sound a particularly promising start to a novel, but then I’m not much of a fantasy fan. But it’s had rave reviews.

One reader wrote: “I read it in one breath… true and tragic and funny and hopeful and big – big enough somehow to contain all of our stories and all of our lives inside it.”

Another wrote: “Truly one of the most beautiful stories you’ll ever read.”

So I’m ready to give Isaac and his egg a go.

The Lindbergh Nanny,  by Mariah Fredericks (Headline Review)

Betty Gow was a young Scottish woman who went to the US in search of a new life, and was hired by Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne to look after their toddler son, Charlie.

Charles Lindbergh was beyond famous, having made the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris in 1927, and the Lindbergh couple travelled a great deal. This meant Betty spent a lot of time with the little boy alone, and they grew close.

As we all know, one night in March 1932, after Betty and Anne had put Charlie down to sleep, he was kidnapped from his bed. Two months later his body was found in the woods, not far from his home.

Betty was the one who discovered Charlie missing, and after his body was found she was asked to identify him to spare his parents the pain.

This novel is a retelling of the fallout of one of the 20th century’s most infamous crimes.

Breathless, by Cathy Donald (Europe Books/Helco Promotions)

Cathy Donald is a Cape Town medical doctor who was at the frontline during the Covid-19 pandemic, and she has now written a novel based in a local hospital during those difficult and exhausting years.

Emily goes through the ups and downs of the pandemic, as well as the challenges for her family, the desperate struggle for survival of her patients, and her own problems trying to balance home and work in a desperate situation.

Donald has written a total of four novels, with the third, The Silence of the Shadows, winning the jury prize at the Milan International Literary Awards. It tells the story of five different Cape Town women.

Fly Away – a Sopwith Jones adventure, by Alan Haller (Austin Macauley Publishers)

This action-packed novel by a retired South African-born engineer is rather touchingly subtitled “A Sopwith Jones adventure”, although you’d be forgiven for never having heard of Sopwith Jones, as this is the first in what Alan Haller hopes will be a series.

Set in the present, Sopwith (his father was an aviation buff), an aeronautical engineer, develops a solar-powered aircraft, but then a corrupt SA government minister tries to hijack the technology, and Sopwith is forced to flee to the UK, along with his aircraft.

Some time later, accompanied by a new wife, he flies down Africa, only to be shot down by Boko Haram jidhadists. The couple survive, and end up in Palma in Mozambique where they are captured by jihadists and held together with another pilot, who is beheaded.

It all gets a bit breathless, but if action and excitement are what you’re after, this might be the book for you. Haller says he has written a sequel.