Category Archives: My Book Pile

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

Bedside table choices for July

These are among the books that have landed on my desk this month. Not all have been read yet, and some will have fuller reviews. – Vivien Horler

The Grief Handbook – A guide through the worst days of your life, by Bridget McNulty (Self-published)

At a time of pandemic, when grief stalks the land, Cape Town-based Bridget McNulty has penned a timeous book to help the bereaved cope. Death is always with us, yet most of us have no idea what to do and how to react when someone close to us dies. Her mother was 72 when she started having odd symptoms. A physician diagnosed cancer and just 13 days later her mother died. McNulty, her father and her brothers were knocked sideways. She sought books to help her through, but suffering from the fog of grief she found books on death were either too dense, philosophical or religious. McNulty concedes she is not an expert on grief, but she has consulted many such experts and this slim volume contains suggestions that helped her and will probably help others. For example: treat yourself gently. Eat and go to bed at normal times. Move your body. And don’t question your feelings: what you’re feeling is right for you.

Ougat – From a hoe into a housewife and then some, by Shana Fife (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Writes Shana Fife at the beginning of this memoir: “I promise this book will have all of the elements that make for a real Coloured skinnerstorie.” It’s about growing up on the Cape Flats and the mixed messages passed on to a coloured girl child. The opening lines are: “The very first rule you are given as a Coloured child who has a vagina is that no one is allowed to touch it. Ever. Even with your consent. Especially not with your consent.” Fife, now 30, had two children by different fathers by the time she was 23, and was trying to emerge from a viciously destructive relationship with her second child’s father. At a low point she began writing a blog about who she was and where she was going, and this changed her life. She writes of how toxic masculinity can shape and trap a woman “from the cot to the cot because our whole purposes, from when we are babies, is to eventually have our own babies”. This memoir is shocking, frighteningly honest and disarming.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.

Unbecoming, by Joanne Fedler (Penguin Books)

In what would usually be called an “Author’s Note” and is here labelled an “Author’s Warning”, SA-born novelist Joanne Fedler says our second life begins when we hit 50 or so and realise: “Shit, I’m running out of time.” This is when we start to question our values and certainties, spouses and friends, and wonder if having kids was worth it. This, she says, is where our second life begins and where this novel kicks off. Jo takes a three-month sabbatical from her life – as a wife and mother – and is invited to join her friend Fiona and her mates on a sacred walk in the Australian bush to mark Fiona’s 57th birthday. Jo isn’t that keen – she doesn’t know Fiona’s friends – but she figures she could manage one night. And then a stranger joins them around the fire in their overnight camp, and there are all sorts of unintended consequences as they ponder life, midlife and truth – ánd, as the cover blurb puts it, wonder what to do with vaginas that are not ready to be put out to pasture just yet.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.

Still Life, by Sarah Winman (4th Estate)

I think I chose this novel because it’s by the women who wrote the gorgeous When God was a Rabbit. But this one is not set in Cornwall, it’s set in Tuscany in 1944. Elizabeth Skinner is in her 60s, an art historian and possibly a spy who has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage of war and remember the time she met EM Forster there. She comes across a young British soldier, Ulysses Temper, and they talk of truth and beauty, a conversation that will affect the rest of Temper’s life, and of those who love him. Still Life looks wonderful, although I wonder why writers dispense with quotation marks.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.

Lean Fall Stand, by Jon McGregor (4th Estate)

This novel opens with a blast, or more accurately, a blizzard. Doc, Tom and Luke are on an Antarctic research mission and have set off on skidoos from the hut, taking pictures. With the three men barely a few dozen metres apart, a storm sweeps down off a glacier and they are blinded by a white-out. Tom tries to move towards where he believes Luke is, but suddenly there is water ahead of him instead of ice. Something is wrong. This moment has terrible consequences for the men and their families. In a shout on the cover Hamnet author Maggie O’Farrell writes: “A spectacular book… it does what Jon McGregor does so well: examine the widening ripples of a single event. I read it again, as soon as I’d finished it.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.

 

Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday)

This is the story of an air-splitting fictional female pilot ­– think Amelia Earhart – who flies Spitfires during World War II, does dare-devil stunts over the forests of Montana, and who dreams of flying a great circle, a pole-to-pole circumnavigation of the globe. But as she is about to fly the last leg, from Antarctica to New Zealand, she crashes. Interwoven with Graves’s story is that of young Hollywood star Hadley Baxter who, 50 years after Graves’s death, is cast to play Graves in a bio-pic. It turns out the two women have a lot more in common than one would think. This is a novel of freedom, danger and obsession against the sweep of history.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.

 

Bedside Table books for June

THIS is a selection of books that have been sent to me recently. They have not all been read. Some will be reviewed in full in due course.  – Vivien Horler

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Chatto & Windus)

The story of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary is well known. Published by the Oxford University Press, it took many more years than the 10 originally planned, and began in a garden shed grandly known as the Scriptorium. The walls were lined with shelves which housed millions of slips of paper sent in from around the world giving the use and meaning of individual words. In The Dictionary of Lost Words Pip Williams invents a young orphan called Esme who spends her days under the sorting table in the Scriptorium. One day a slip of paper flutters to the floor containing the world “bondmaid”. Eventually Esme realises some words, especially those relating to women and their experiences, somehow never make it into the dictionary. So she starts collecting them for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

The Bomber Mafia – ­ a story set in war, by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane/ Penguin)

We’ve all heard of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought World War II to an end. But I didn’t know anything about the incendiary bombing of scores of Japanese cities, including Tokyo, which must have killed hundreds of thousands of people, in the months between March and August 1945. The bombing, by the Americans, was the brainchild of General Curtis LeMay and was springboarded from the Marianas islands which, after they had been wrested from the Japanese in 1944, finally put Tokyo within flying distance of B-29 bombers. And yet all this is not really what The Bomber Mafia is about. It is about a dream that went wrong, and what happens when technology and good intentions collide.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

Suitcase of Memory, by A’Eysha Kassiem (Kwela Books)

Cape Town journalist A’Eysha Kassiem has a way with words. This is how she opens this novel, set mainly in Stellenbosch: “The smell of death is always the same – camphor and incense. These are the first hosts that will meet you at the door.” Set during the height of apartheid, the book tells the story of Bastian Bredenkamp, heir to a farm, and a man who has the unusual ability to remember everything that has ever happened to him since birth. And then his heart is captivated by Rashieda. Which is going to make things very tricky indeed.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

The Promise, by Damon Galgut (Umuzi)

The Swarts are an ordinary white family, clinging to what they call their farm on the outskirts of Pretoria. The story of their decline is told in four snapshots, each one involving a family funeral, and each one happening in a different decade of South Africa’s recent past. The protagonists get older and life grimmer, and at the novel’s heart is a promise made years ago, and not kept. One reviewer says the prose is “leavened with languid comedy, as thought Galgut had collaborated with Tennessee Williams. The effect is utterly compelling.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

Empire of Pain – The secret history of the Sackler dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe

This is what Wikipedia has to say about Oxycontin: “Oxycodone, sold under the brand names Roxicodone and OxyContin among others, is an opioid medication used for treatment of moderate to severe pain. It is highly addictive and is commonly used recreationally by people who have an opioid use disorder.”  The Sackler family are the owners of Purdue Pharma, the developers of Oxycontin, and this book is about three generation of the family and their legacy. It is said that the company helped spark an opioid epidemic that has killed nearly half a million Americans in the past 20 years.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

The Scandalous Times of a Book Louse – a memoir of childhood, by Robert Muponde

Telling stories staves off hunger, which is just as well as Father doesn’t have a job and Mother’s miserable maize plants aren’t going to feed many. This is a coming-of -age novel set in Gushure Village, in rural Zimbabwe in the period from the Second Chimurenga to independence, and according to the cover, features malevolent mermaids, eccentric shamans, outrageous relatives, fearsome teachers and men who transform hippos.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

 

Go Away Birds, by Michelle Edwards (Modjaji Books)

Go Away Birds is a lovely read about Skye, a young woman who’s more or less lost the plot. She is suffering from grief for a loss she has never been able to talk about, not even to her husband Cam. She and he own a restaurant in Cape Town, but then an unwise remark in a magazine interview upends the business. Meanwhile during a Christmas with Cam’s family at Misty Cliffs, things unravel. Skye flees back to her family home in Mpumalanga, where her decidedly strange mother is running writing retreats and is possibly going bankrupt. Her brother is deeply suspicious of what is going on and is in some trouble too. Skye is convinced her marriage is over, and there is a rather nice chap on the farm next door, but things go awry there too. Maybe it’s time for her to stop running. Set in modern South Africa, the novel is nuanced and warm.

Midlife Money Makeover, by Kim Potgieter (Tafelberg)

Most of us worry about money. And we especially worry about whether we will have enough money to retire on. In her introduction Kim Potgieter, a financial planner, says starting to think about your money at 60 is too late (so that’s me, then) and she adds: “The earlier you start, the more options you have.” She says her book is a call to action, a reminder that one’s second chapter is a chance to create one’s best life. Midlife, she says, is the perfect time to pause, tune in and decide what you’re going to do next.

Bedside Table books – April

THIS is a selection of books that have been sent to me recently. They have not all been read. Some will be reviewed in full in due course.  – Vivien Horler

The Trial of Cecil John Rhodes, by Adekeye Adebajo (Jacana)

Imagine if Cecil John Rhodes returned to Africa in the present day to be interrogated by some of those on whose lives he and his cohorts had such devastating effect. This is the theme of the short novel by Professor Adekeye Adebajo, a former Rhodes Scholar and currently the director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. It is set over five days in an African Hereafter. He is accused by Two Counsel for Damnation – Olive Schreiner and Stanlake Samkange – and defended by two Counsel for Salvation – Nelson Mandela and Harry Oppenheimer, while the seven judges include Ruth First, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Patrice Lumumba and Maya Angelou.

The Sanatorium, by Sarah Pearse (Bantam Press)

Elin Warner is a detective who has gone to an isolated hotel in the Swiss Alps to celebrate her estranged brother’s engagement. As soon as she arrives in the building, once a sanatorium, she feels uneasy. Her brother is behaving oddly, and a mighty storm is threatening. The next morning, as the storm hits, the guests wake to find the fiancée, Laure, is missing. Because of the weather, no one can come or go. And then it turns out another woman is missing.

This novel has been described as “an absolutely splendid Gothic thriller”, chilling, creepy and compulsive.

Win, by Harlan Coben (Century)

A rich family’s home is burgled, and heiress Patricia Lockwood is abducted. The girl escapes, but no one is ever arrested; nor are the stolen items recovered. Twenty years later, at a New York murder scene, a Vermeer painting and a leather suitcase with the initials WH3 are found. The suitcase had belonged to Win Horne Lockwood III and the Vermeer to his family, and now he wants some answers. The FBI have no clues, but Win decides to investigate.

I love Harlan Coben books and I’m not alone. A shout on the cover from Lee Child says the author “never lets you down”, while another describes him as “the absolute master of huge twists and turns”.

 

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House, by Cherie Jones (Tinder Press)

My great-grandmother had a way of dealing with her naughty granddaughters. Having caught them in some sort of mischief, she would look at them solemnly and say: “I knew a little girl who died doing that.”

This is the same tactic Wilma, of Baxter Beach, Barbados, uses on her granddaughter. When 13-year-old Lala is out late, Wilma tells her the story of the one-armed sister, the girl who defied her mother and went into a tunnel in the garden where a monster grabbed her and pulled off her arm. Lala is not impressed by the story, but years later realises, after losing a baby and marrying the wrong man, it is actually one of hope. And then there’s Mira Whalen, whose husband has been murdered and who never heard her tell him she loved him.

Everything is Beautiful, by Eleanor Ray (Piatkus)

Amy is a bit odd. She is cool and efficient at the office and something of a hoarder at home. In fact soon there won’t be any room for her among the pretty wine bottles and piles of newspapers, the terra cotta pots, the chipped china bird. Amy has been like this for 11 years, since her world fell apart – saving things that most other people would throw away. And then a family move in next door, and Amy’s life starts to change again. Everything is Beautiful is described as the sort of book lovers of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine would enjoy.

 

 

It’s Not Inside, It’s on Top – memorable moments in South African advertising, by Khanya Mtshali (Tafelberg)

Remember the famous Cremora ad, where the hapless husband is peering into the fridge for milk for his coffee, and his wife yells: “It’s not inside, it’s on top!” In this collection of essays on TV ads Khanya Mtshali has taken what I think is a rather scholarly look at the advertising industry and some of its more memorable moments, mainly made in the post-apartheid era. The ads she writes about include Kulula, Nando’s, Castle Lager and the chummy multi-racial beer gatherings, and the Vodacom “Yebo Gogo” offerings. In a shout on the cover Richard Poplak calls her comments “hilarious, incisive, caustic and surprisingly human”. I didn’t laugh much, but the book is an interesting look at the culture of our advertising. I was irritated by the “woke” style convention of using caps for Black and Coloured people and lower case for whites, but I understand this is a growing international trend in journalism and publishing, following the Black Lives Matter movement. I guess I need to get over myself.

It’s Not About the Bats – Conservation, the coronavirus and how we must re-set our relationship with nature, by Adam Cruise (Tafelberg)

I suspect this is an important book; certainly other reviewers such as Don Pinnock have described it so. Adam Cruise is an investigative environmental journalist and academic, and the academia shows. In the prologue I was rather bogged down by his use of the terms weak and strong anthropocentrism, which basically describe how humans tend to regard nature as something for us to enjoy and control, rather than being vital to the survival of everything on the planet. But with the UN Climate Change Conference looming – it’s due to take place in Glasgow in November – it behoves us all to sit up and take notice. Or as Cruise says: “It is clear, therefore, that a major shift in our attitude and behaviour needs to occur, and without any further delay – otherwise we all might be sharing the fate of the dinosaurs.”

  • All but the last two books are among Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for April 2021.

On my bedside table in March

  • 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

The Smallest Man, by Frances Quinn (Simon & Schuster)

At 10 he was the size of a two-year-old, and was sold by his butcher father to a duke. A shilling changed his life. In 1625 Nat Davy was hidden in a pie (it must have been quite a big pie) so he could be given as a gift to the new queen of England. He became her friend and also saved her life. This historical novel was inspired by the life of Jeffrey Hudson, who became court dwarf to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1. In an author’s note Frances Quinn says Hudson was a celebrity, “thanks to his tiny size, doll-like looks and ready wit”.

Girl A, by Abigail Dean (HarperCollins)

Girl A is Alexandra Gracie, one of seven children whose parents kept them locked up as prisoners in what they call the House of Horrors. But one day Lex and her sister Evie escape, which brings an end to their suffering and a jail term for their mother. The novel opens with Lex, now a New York-based lawyer, visiting the prison where their mother has just died. The children have inherited the House of Horrors, which Lex wants to turn into a force for good. But first she has to stop running from the past she and her siblings shared. One of the shouts on the cover describe Girl A as “terrifyingly gripping”.

The Prophets, by Robert Jones jun (riverrun)

Two young male slaves on a Deep South plantation provide the loving mutual warmth that in every other way is lacking in their lives. They look after the animals in the barn, and made the space their home. But then an older slave starts to speak for the master, and the slaves turn on each other, with developing tension culminating in a major reckoning. Author Marlon James describes this novel as “epic in its scale, intimate in its force, and lyrical in its beauty. The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel is, should do, and can be”.

The Chanel Sisters, by Judithe Little ((H Review)

Coco Chanel said a girl should be two things, “classy and fabulous”. She and her sister Antoinette certainly were. This is a historical novel about Antoinette and Gabrielle (later Coco), who changed the face of French fashion. They were abandoned at a Catholic orphanage as children, but dreamt of a glittering future, and began singing in cafes and music halls. Later in Paris they had a small hat shop on the rue Cambon, the beginning of the Chanel empire and legend. The story is told in the voice of Antoinette.

  • These titles are among Exclusive Books’ 25 recommendations for March 2021.

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.