Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Inspiration for shaded gardens


Inspiration for Shaded Gardens 

Review:  Myrna Robins

Gardening in the Shade in South Africa, by Allan Haschick (Struik Lifestyle)

Today, as many of us spend far more time at home than we used to before the onset of the Covid19 pandemic, interest in gardening has blossomed as never before, making this title extra-welcome.

This slim guidebook with its wealth of beautiful photographs is, by its very nature, a specialist title, fulfilling a need as most gardening books offer limited coverage of the subject of shade. South Africa, being the sunny country it is, means gardeners wrestle more with the problem of surplus sun rather than too little.

This compendium of solutions would have been so helpful during the decades we gardened on the slopes of Devil’s Peak  in Cape Town’s Newlands, where sun was patchy and disappeared behind the mountain all too early.

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Unrelentingly miserable – and very, very good

Review: Vivien Horler

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart (Picador)

I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards Booker Prize-winning novels. Some are marvelously readable, like Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell novels (the third one was too, but it didn’t win the prize).

Then there are the more experimental novels, like George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, or Anna Burns’s Milkman, in which none of the characters is named and of which one reviewer said: “told in an unspooling, digressive, and fretfully ruminative manner”.

Shuggie Bain is much more straightforward than those, and while author Douglas Stuart does use a certain amount of Glaswegian dialect, it is perfectly readable.

It’s also unrelentingly miserable, and very, very good.

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Adventure in the desert turns to nightmare

Review: Vivien Horler

Six Years with Al Qaeda ­– the Stephen McGown story as told to Tudor Caradoc-Davies (Maverick 451)

When Steve McGown and his wife Cath decided to return to South Africa after some years in London, Steve saw an opportunity to realise a life-long dream: to ride a motor bike through Africa.

He bought a Yamaha XT, and started studying routes. The east coast route, covered by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in Long Way Down, put Steve off; they had, he figured, “made it look like vanilla”.

There was also a central route, through Algeria and into Niger which was well known, but had a reputation for bandits and danger. Since Steve had “zero interest in being kidnapped”, that was out.

This left the west coast route: Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and into Burkino Faso. He was particularly interested in the equatorial countries further south where he could see amazing birds, fish in rivers off the beaten path, admire giant trees and ride along jungle tracks.

But the desert was as far as he got.

Cath gave him six months for his adventure – he promised to reach Joburg by March 31, 2012, the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. The six months turned into almost six long years.

On October 13, 2011 Steve set off for Morocco via Gibraltar. At campsites he would meet other overlanders, including Dutch couple Sjaak and Tilly in their Land Rover and Swedish bikers Tommy and Johan. Seeing they were all taking a similar route, they banded together, and were staying in the same guesthouse in Timbuktu when their lives changed forever.

It had been a last-minute decision to go to Timbuktu – other overlanders told them how fabulous it was, and that it was safe; although Al Qaeda was active in Mali, there had been no attacks or incidents in the city.

Well, there’s always got to be a first, and Sjaak, Johan and Steve – and another tourist, Martin from Germany –  were it.

Armed men came into the courtyard of the guesthouse and marched four of the men out to their bakkie at gunpoint. When Martin yelled and struggled, he was shot dead in the street. This was a powerful incentive for the other three to shut up and do as they were told.

They were tied up and driven north-west to a remote desert region. One of the worries torturing Steve on that frightful drive was his brand new British passport.

And he was right to be concerned: when Al Qaeda discovered it, they clearly felt they had hit the jackpot. You got a lot more publicity for kidnapping a Brit, and Britain had been involved in too many incursions in Muslim countries such as Libya and Iraq to make members of Al Qaeda warm to them.

To this day Steve believes the fact that his captors saw him as British – even though he had been born and raised in South Africa – was one reason he became Al Qaeda’s longest-held hostage.

The first few months were a nightmare. Actually it was all a nightmare, but the early months were among the most terrifying, as Steve and his fellow prisoners never knew if they would be summarily executed, shot as Martin had been, or beheaded. Even the odd child in the camp would approach the prisoners with sly grins and draw their fingers across their throats.

Being terrified every day for six months does strange things to your body and mind. Johan converted to Islam, and was immediately treated better. Steve didn’t know if conversion would save his life, but even though it was a tough decision, it was worth a try.

The Muslim name suggested to him was Lot, and Steve thought: “Wasn’t Lot the guy whose wife was turned to salt and he never saw her again?” Was the choice of name a hint that he would never go home?

But now life changed for the better: he was now seen by his captor as a brother. “I was still a prisoner, but now I was human and had a basic right to dignity and respect.”

And so the years dragged on. The three prisoners never gelled as friends. Johan was very bright, and contemptuous of everyone around him, or as Steve puts it, he was all IQ and zero EQ. Sjaak, who was about 20 years older than the other two, was easier to get on with, but in Steve’s opinion became increasingly unhinged.

Steve/Lot taught himself to speak and write Arabic, which made life a bit more bearable. He also learnt many skills not needed in an urban life: how to slaughter animals, how to milk camels, how to weave a rope from grass, track and hunt rabbits, and make sundials to tell the time.

Understandably, Steve suffered from constant anxiety and depression. But he realised he needed to make the best of the hand he’d been dealt, and not be ground down. So he tried hard to find joy and meaning in every day.

Meanwhile on the outside, the families worked unceasingly to get the prisoners freed. The McGowns were supported in part both by the British and the South African authorities, but it took the involvement of Imtiaz Sooliman and Gift of the Givers to really get things moving.

In July 2017 he was finally released, and flew home to Joburg to find his mother had died just weeks previously.

This book was very much better than I had expected. Stephen McGown is a thoughtful man, and his reactions are rarely kneejerk. He was determined, if at all possible, both to survive and come out of the ordeal a better person. His reflections on one of the world’s most feared terror organisations are perceptive and nuanced.

And he found a sensitive, sympathetic writer in Tudor Caradoc-Davies. This is a thoroughly worthwhile read.




Rising above the effects of a corrosive childhood

Review: Vivien Horler

Just Ignore Him, by Alan Davies (Little, Brown)

You know Alan Davies on the hilarious British programme QI – the permanent panel member with curly hair, who is warm, empathetic and clever, with a slightly silly sense of humour?

How that delightful performer and comedian grew out of the boy in this memoir is hard to fathom. The boy whom Davies chronicles is sad, angry, lonely, disruptive, rebellious and mutinous.

Until he was six he lived in a happy family, the middle child of three and particularly close to his mother. But then she died of leukaemia, and everything changed. His father, an accountant, was authoritarian and apparently permanently irritated by young Alan, frequently telling his brother and sister to “just ignore him”.

Alan Davies

And the natural response of one who is being ignored is to be even more bumptious.

But there was more. When he was eight his father began coming into his bedroom in his white Y-fronts, stripping him naked and stroking his buttocks. This was Alan’s “special cuddle”, a cuddle of course to be kept secret. This continued on and off for years, until Alan was around 13.

He responded by becoming both a show-off and withdrawn, a shoplifter and thief, stealing money and items from his family and various childminders.

He was lonely both within his family and at school. Being disliked, he says, prompted a calming wave of familiarity.

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Doorstopper of a JK Rowling thriller may be too big for its plot

Review: Vivien Horler

Troubled Blood, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere)

This is the fifth in the Cormoran Strike/ Robin Ellacott series written by JK Rowling under the pen name Robert Galbraith, and it’s had a lot of negative publicity.

Last year Rowling aired her views on gender, and in particular, transgender people, objecting to the replacement of the word “women” with the phrase “people who menstruate”. At the risk of being pilloried, I’m with her there. Not all women menstruate, certainly not much after the age of 55, which makes them no less women.

One of her remarks was: “I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”

She was accused of being transphobic and of being a “TERF” – a “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”. Along with many others, the three young stars of the Harry Potter films turned their backs on her. Continue reading

Empathetic social history of our most famous national park


Review: Archie Henderson

Safari Nation, by Jacob Dlamini (Jacana) 

The Kruger, Dlamini reminds us in this social history of the national park, is as much about people as it is about animals. 

Ever since Paul Kruger had the idea of preserving wildlife in the Sabi River area to the official establishment of the park in 1926, people and animals were in conflict over who should be given preference. The animals won.

This was not such a bad thing, but the conflict has never been properly settled. A shadowy land claim deal of R1billion some years ago for the MalaMala area, adjacent to Kruger, is testimony to this continuing conflict. So is the rampant poaching, especially from the Mozambique side, that has never been resolved.

The park’s first warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton, who is credited with establishing the Kruger National Park in its present form, had no qualms about forcing people off land where they had lived for hundreds of years so that the wild animals could thrive in that space. Not for nothing did the people he moved give him the nickname Skukuza, which means “destroyer”.

In 1935, Bantu World, a black elite newspaper, gave its opinion on the forced removals: “The preservation of animals … is a noble thing, but nobler still is the preservation of human life, be it white or black.”

This part of the park’s history has often been suppressed, especially in the early days when South African Railways, then in charge of promoting tourism, was trying to sell the country to foreign visitors. According to Dlamini, “The country had to know itself first as a nation before it could project itself as a tourist destination. But the country never did settle these questions, meaning that it sold itself to the world without resolving its basic political contradictions.”

Dlamini approaches Kruger with his usual intellectual rigour and sympathetic dispassion. He revealed that quality early in a journalism career with the Sunday Times. As a young reporter, he did not settle for the mere murder of Winnie Mandela’s driver. He followed the story and arrived at the office on the following Tuesday having found and interviewed the driver’s family. His Terrorist Album, a book on state killings during apartheid, was the result of following up evidence given at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Safari Nation is less grisly and is the result of a PhD thesis completed some years ago when Dlamini enlisted in a Kruger Park game-ranger’s course to better understand the issues he would write about. 

Kruger’s history is filled ambivalence, irony and contradictions. He not only sorts it all out, but debunks some myths. One of the myths, espoused by some of the country’s leading academics, was that black people were not allowed into the park during segregation and apartheid. This might have been underpinned by JG Strijdom’s objection to black people using the same roads as whites in Kruger. At the time the second apartheid prime minister was minister of lands in DF Malan’s National Party cabinet.

A poignant part of the book is how black people dealt with visits to Kruger and how officials in the park had to reconcile the National Parks Act of 1926 with apartheid legislation. The latter usually won. An Indian doctor could attend an international medical conference in the park because he was light-skinned but not his darker-skinned wife. When the Department of Indian Affairs complained about the poor condition of “Bantu toilets” in Skukuza (at the time the only place where black tourists could stay, albeit in a segregated compound), authorities cut a hole in the fence surrounding the white toilets and turned a blind eye.

By 1974, the National Parks Board resolved that only the more benign National Parks Act of 1926, and not apartheid legislation, could apply in Kruger. But it was only in 1980 that elements of petty apartheid began to disappear.

Kruger is now firmly established as one of the world’s most iconic wildlife sanctuaries, but Dlamini’s history shows that we can never take this for granted.  It will need constant protection. “The black actors who thought seriously about the KNP did not oppose conservation in principle,” he writes. “They opposed injustice.”

All the usual suspects

Review: Vivien Horler

50 People who F***ed Up South Africa – The lost decade, by Alexander Parker &  Tim Richman, with cartoons by Zapiro (Mercury)

Authors Alexander Parker and Tim Richman are clearly feeling bolder since they’ve changed their series title from 50 People Who Stuffed Up (South Africa in 2010 and The World in 2016). Now they’ve upped the ante from “stuffed” to “f***ed”, although as someone  once pointed out, if you want the questionable shock effect of “fucked”, why not just say so?

This fourth volume in their best-selling series focuses on the period between 2010, when we were cheered by the success of the Soccer World Cup, and this devastating pandemic year of 2020.

Like its predecessors, despite its zany cover and Zapiro cartoons, this is not a funny book. In fact it’s deeply sobering. In their introduction the authors say that much of what ails South Africa “marches in step with international trends”, such as inequality, the urban/rural divide, crony capitalism and the fact that across the word black people are generally poorer than white people. But, they add, “there is a distressingly tumultuous South African amplifications of all this fraught political upheaval”.

Hapless Cyril

Narrowing the list to the 50 here represented was “impossibly tricky”. All 50 in the book have done great damage to an already struggling country. “Their greatest collective crime is the squandering of hope and potential.”

So who are they? A skim of the index reveals all the usual suspects, from Shaun Abrahams to Mosebenzi Zwane, and including the likes of Bathabile Dlamini, she of the “smallanyana skeletons”, Malusi Gigaba and his willie, John Hlophe, Markus Jooste, David Mabuza, Ace Magashule, Julius Malema, Andy Marinos, Baleka Mbete, Brian Molefe, Lucky Montana, Hlaudi Motsoeneng , Helen Zille and Jacob Zuma.

We know many of these people have been really bad, but there are others who would seem less culpable, like Cyril Ramaphosa, of whom they point out: “…President Ramaphosa pretty much nailed it when he described the waste of the Zuma years, his presence at the man’s right hand through so much of it notwithstanding.”

Another of the not-so-bad is the grim-faced Dlamini-Zuma, whose track record is “a patchwork of mediocrity, fleeting competence and occasional disaster”. The Covid-19 crisis brought out the worst of her authoritarian nature, and the authors point out we now have some understanding of the bullet we dodged when Ramaphosa beat her to the presidency of the ANC.

There’s a delightful quote from former Sunday Times editor Mondli Makanya, dated May this year: “A recent study by a reputable research institute compared the number of times [NDZ] smiled with the number of times former ANC spokesperson Carl Niehaus told the truth. The research, soon to be published in an academic journal, found that Niehaus told the truth more often than Dlamini-Zuma smiled.”

As for Carl Niehaus, while most of us see him as a running political joke, in some ways he is one of the more tragic of the 50 in this book, “someone who sacrificed much for the moral high ground in his young days, and who then sacrificed his reputation entirely with his subsequent behaviour. In so doing he represents the greater reputational downfall of many in this party.” They something of the same regarding Gigaba.

I’m not sure I’d rush out to buy this book, because we know so much of it already, but it does provide a useful summary of all that’s been going on. It’s not funny, although there are some funny moments, and the writing is light as well as hard-hitting.

The authors say it is an indignant book. Most South Africans are good and decent, “but politics being what it is, the real bad buggers have found their way into power”. Now things have to change, and that is up to us.


Joburg emergency doctor reports on Covid-19 from the front line

Saving A Stranger’s Life – The diary of an emergency room doctor, by Anne Biccard (Jacana)

Someone suggested we have “very merry little Christmas” this year. Well, I don’t know how merry it was, but it was certainly little.

A book about Covid-19 and its effect on exhausted medical staff doesn’t sound very festive for the Christmas weekend, but as this second wave is dominating all our celebrations and conversations, it seems apt.

With more than 30 years’ emergency room experience, Anne Biccard works at a private hospital in Joburg. Her book is written in diary form, spanning the period from March 5, the day South Africa’s first case was confirmed, to September 1. It has of course missed the news of the second wave and the new variant, so considering the dispiriting and gruelling nature of the first wave on medical staff, one hates to think how they’re feeling now.

We’ve been given some insight into medical staff’s struggles in the letter by Dr Andrea Mendelsohn, senior medical officer at the Retreat community health centre, which is doing the rounds. She wrote: “Yesterday my community health centre reached capacity. All five oxygen tanks were in use, five men and women saved from the strangulating effects of Covid-19. Then a sixth patient arrived…”

She added: “A tidal wave is enveloping Cape Town.”

But back to Biccard and the first wave. She writes in early March: “It feels like nature is taking revenge on the human race.” Her hospital is scrambling to try to keep up. People are queueing in the hospital carpark as staff try to separate patients with respiratory symptoms from others.

All the staff are wearing masks, gowns and gloves, but then they touch the phones and doors and countertops with their gloves “so the virus is probably everywhere already. We don’t want to throw away protective equipment because we know that the supply is limited, and we don’t know how long this crisis will last.”

At this stage only people who have travelled abroad or have had contact with a corona-positive person are being tested. An angry man appears at the hospital, demanding a test because he has a sore throat and someone at work might have been positive. Biccard refuses him a test – if everyone in the country with a sore throat has a swab for the virus, the test kits would be finished, and the labs swamped. He says he will not leave the hospital until he gets a test. She tells him he’s in for a long wait.

Eventually he storms out. She senses he’s going to complain about her, but she’s too tired to care. And that’s only March.

The next patient will be tested: he was in a hotel in China that was quarantined for six weeks. In the middle of the night he found an unlocked fire door, took his passport and wallet and caught a taxi to the airport. Now he has a high fever and a raging sore throat.

Among all this are the usual patients: a woman having a heart attack, a teenager having a miscarriage, a mechanic with a shattered leg. A man comes in with a long complicated story. He’d locked himself out of his home, had to climb in through the pantry window, but his foot slipped and in the ensuing fall a bottle of tomato sauce went up his anus.

Biccard doesn’t blink: “Why were you naked?” she asks. The man needs abdominal surgery – but what will they tell his wife?

Biccard says she jokes with her colleagues about the Grim Reaper, whom she refers to as Grim. No one, she says can work in an emergency department without forming a relationship with him. And he doesn’t always win.

Another day, another emergency. The number of injuries caused by baking have increased exponentially during lockdown – cuts, burns and in one awful case, the little string at the top of a flour bag caught in an electric mixer and wrapped around the patient’s finger. Biccard finds the finger has rotated right around, so the fingernail is facing the palm.

By July Biccard wants to quit. Only two of the six physicians in the hospital are left standing – the others have Covid. But good things happen too. One day she discovers five non-pulmonary specialists have been added to the hospital’s Covid WhatsApp group. They turn up in the emergency department, stethoscopes around their necks and announce: “We’ve come to help,” and her eyes fill with tears. They don’t have to do this – but they have.

By September the weather is warming up and Biccard is feeling more positive. Spring is virtually here. She looks at the mild evening sky and says a silent word of thanks to the universe. She will remain at her post, because there are lives to be saved.

I wonder how she’s feeling now.

This is a fascinating, sobering and occasionally funny look at one of the doctors on our front line.



Delicious thrillers to gobble up

Reviews: Vivien Horler

A Time for Mercy, by John Grisham (Hodder & Stoughton)

Present Tense by Natalie Conyer (Clan Destine Press)

The Paris Diversion, by Chris Pavone (faber & faber)

John Grisham’s latest thriller A Time for Mercy had me hooked from the first page.

Stuart Kofer is a deputy sheriff in a small Mississippi town. He’s a good cop and popular with his colleagues. But he has a dark side.

Stuart likes to go out on a Saturday night and get roaring drunk. Mean drunk. He likes to fight. And if there’s no one to fight in the bar, he’ll take out his rage on his girlfriend, Josie.

The book opens with Josie waiting for Stuart to come home. She’s put on a negligee because he’d once said he liked it, and it might turn his thoughts from violence to romance.

Upstairs her children, Drew, 16 and small for his age, and Kiera, 14, are also awake, fearing that Stuart will take out his rage on their mom.

Stuart kicks the kitchen door open and immediately takes issue with the negligee. Why is Josie wearing it? She looks like a slut. Has someone been visiting while he’s been out?

The children listen to the sound of the fight, and then all goes quiet. They are sure that if Josie is okay, she would have come upstairs to check on them.

Eventually Drew goes down to see what has happened. His mother is on the floor and doesn’t seem to be breathing. Stuart is on his bed, passed out.

Drew calls 911 and tells them their mother’s boyfriend has beaten her up again and this time she’s dead. Then he goes back to Stuart’s room, takes Stuart’s Glock 9mm, and shoots him in the head.

Emergency services and the police arrive and Stuart’s colleagues are appalled. Josie, it turns out, is not dead, but has a shattered jaw. Drew is arrested.

The next morning lawyer Jake Brigance gets a call from Judge Noose. Jake admires and respects the judge, and his feelings are reciprocated. Noose wants him to represent Drew. Jake is reluctant to take on the case knowing that it will divide the town. But he cannot refuse the judge.

Everyone, from the mayor and sheriff to Stuart’s extended family, will be hoping Drew is tried and gets the death penalty. Despite his age, he can expect to be tried as an adult.

Despite Jake’s reluctance, he is a professional and while he represents Drew – Noose has promised to try to find a lawyer from out of town to take on the case after the preliminaries – Jake is determined to do his best.

And so they prepare for trial. I can’t say much more without risking a spoiler, but it’s a terrific read, and I had to stop myself gobbling it up.


Natalie Conyer was born and grew up in Cape Town but has spent much of her life in Sydney. Last year, the year she turned 70, she wrote her first novel, Present Tense, a police thriller set in Cape Town.

It has been well received in Australia and won the 2020 Ned Kelly Award for best debut crime fiction.

My first reaction was an “oh no!” when I saw it was described as “a Schalk Lourens mystery”. Didn’t Conyer know who Schalk Lourens was? Well, course she did, and the eponymous detective is forever wearily telling people that yes, he knows he’s named after a famous character in SA fiction.

Lourens, an ageing white cop in an increasingly black force, is sent to a necklacing: his former boss, Piet Pieterse, has been murdered on his Franschhoek farm. Lourens notes that what is left of Pieterse’s body stinks “of rubber and braai”.

Lourens has investigated necklacing murders before, in the old days, but this is his first white one. Was the fact that Pieterse was formerly with BOSS the reason he was killed in this gruesome way?

It emerges that on the night of his murder Pieterse was alone on the farm and had clearly been expecting someone. His wife was away and he had given his workers the night off. The CCTV camera was off and his dogs had been shot.

Straight into the investigation Lourens finds himself caught in some sort of power struggle between his immediate boss, the small but steely Colonel Sisi Zangwa, and Cape police commissioner Lieutenant General Nkosi. Nkosi wants Lourens to report directly to him.

Apart from having to deal with that, Lourens is trying to cope with a wife suffering from depression, some of which may be caused by the fact that Lourens is hardly ever home.

Meanwhile an election is looming, with most people being impressed by the favourite for president. But Lourens begins to wonder if he’s as wonderful as everyone thinks.

There’s a bit of love interest – Pieterse turns out to have a beautiful and surprisingly young widow – which leads Lourens into a situation for which he’ll never forgive himself.

A good read.


The Paris Diversion is a spy thriller that takes place in Paris over the course of a single day. Kate Moore is an ex CIA operative, who is apparently living a quiet expat life. But nothing is as it seems.

A young Muslim man, wearing a bomber’s vest, is at the Louvre. A businessman is preparing a big company announcement. A sniper has the bomber in his sights. Central Paris is locked down. And Kate’s day has gone entirely pear-shaped.

This a sort of sequel to Chris Pavone’s debut novel, The Expats, and I kept feeling I would have had a better understanding of what is going on in Paris Diversionif I’d read the first book.

The Wall Street Journal described it as “deliciously twisty”, which is true, so much so that I lost the plot. Towards the end I decided not to try too hard to follow everything that was happening, and just enjoy the taut and exciting writing.

I would appear to be alone in this view – there are two pages of praise for Chris Pavone at the start of Paris Diversion by the likes of Stephen King, Jeffery Deaver, Ken Follett and Harlan Coben.

So don’t take it from me.





What happens when you flush the loo – and other terrifying realities of our modern world

Review: Vivien Horler

Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists – Environmental stories from South Africa, by David Bristow (Jacana)

David Bristow starts this book referring to a photo doing the rounds on social media a few years ago. A young protester is holding a poster reading: “More trees, less assholes.”

Well, that’s one approach to saving our planet and we could do worse. As we know, there are plenty of assholes out there, although thankfully the candy floss-headed Asshole in Chief is on his way out.

How worried should we be about our planet? Very, says Bristow, author, journalist and environmental fundi.

Read his book and you’ll see why. He spent much of this year gathering and collating information from a variety of sources to write a South African-focused book on the predicament we find ourselves in. Continue reading