Forget PlayStation – try stories, kindness and ice cream instead

Review: Vivien Horler

Prescription: Ice Cream – A doctor’s journey to discover what matters, by Alastair McAlpine (Macmillan)

In 2018 Alastair McAlpine, a paediatrician based in Cape Town, found five minutes of fame.

He worked as a palliative care doctor, helping children with terminal illnesses to die more comfortably – both physically and mentally.

This is a gruelling speciality, because everyone feels it is wrong for children to die, and yet they do. If they and their families can be helped through the ordeal, it is a good thing.

One day he was talking to seven-year-old Evangeline, whose medication caused appalling nausea, which meant keeping her fed and hydrated was fraught. Continue reading

Check out some of the local publications in this year’s Homebru catalogue

South African readers have always had access to a cornucopia of books from abroad, but the proportion of new books available in any one month contains an increasing number of books published in this country.

May is Exclusive Books’ annual Homebru campaign, when the spotlight is on the homegrown voices defining the SA literary landscape.

“South Africans have always had a way with words, and while meanings may differ, we understand each other all the same,” said a spokesperson for the book chain.

“That why this year’s Homebru campaign is a celebration of words: the unique and quintessentially SA words that bring us together, help us express ourselves and give us an avenue to tell our story.”

There are 58 books in the 2024 Homebru catalogue, ranging from fiction and nature books to poetry, current affairs and children’s reads.

To see the full selection, visit the Exclusive  Books website. But here are a few of the Homebru books sent to me. – Vivien Horler

Place – South African Literary Journeys, by Justin Fox (Umuzi)

Olive Schreiner’s Karoo, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s lowveld, Herman Charles Bosman’s Marico, Dalene Matthee’s Knysna forest, Zakes Mda’s Wild Coast and Stephen Watson’s Cederberg – these are among the places travel writer Justin Fox explores.

A former editor of Getaway magazine, Fox goes on a series of magnificent journeys around our country and into the landscapes that inspired generations of South African writers.

He has chosen landscapes that are still wild and largely unspoilt, and writes: “My choice of literary works is all about places of the heart, both for the authors and myself. The selection is personal, reflecting my own literary and literal geographies… In each instance, setting is no mere backdrop but an integral part of the work and a reflection of the author’s heart-land.”

This is, he says, a book about a series of journeys around SA, “with an old kitbag of books instead of maps to guide us”.

How to Fix (and unf*ck) a Country – Six things to reboot South Africa, by Roy Havemann (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Roy Havemann has consulted to the SA Presidency, the Treasury, the World Bank and private companies. He joined the national Treasury in 2002, eventually becoming former Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s speechwriter. (Which makes me wonder who actually wrote Mboweni’s foreword…)

In his introduction Havemann says some countries are stable and prosperous, while others are failed states. But none of this is destiny. History is full of examples of countries that have pulled themselves out of – or got into – a hole.

He points out that once successful countries like Argentina, are successful no longer. North Korea, with plenty of natural resources, is poor. South Korea, which has no minerals and a relatively small population, is among the richest places in the world.

Havemann says there are six priorities – things we could do practically to get us moving in the right direction, all beginning with the letter “E”: Eskom, Education, Environment, Exports, Equality and an Ethical and Effective state.

In a brief shout on the cover, News24’s respected business journalist Carol Paton says: “This book will make you smarter. Packed with lively anecdotes and lessons from history, economics, and the world, [it] explains the hole South Africa is in how we can climb out.”

As Mboweni says in his foreword: “This book aims to create a conversation. My hope is that it stimulates a discussion on growth. We need it.”

Bullsh!t – 50 fibs that made South Africa, by Jonathan Ancer (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

What is it with books that employ swear words in their titles and then don’t have the courage of their convictions but coyly hide behind an asterisk or an exclaimation mark, like Scope magazine’s topless models and their strategically placed stars.

In my opinion, if you want to say bullshit, or fuck, just say it. The asterisks fool no one.

Right, rant over.

Jonathan Ancer, a quirky and clever former colleague has written an intriguing book about the lies that some or all of us believe.

The first he picks at is the 1994 election, which was, he says, “an agreed fiction”.

Organising the first democratic election was an impossible task for the brand new IEC. They had no voters’ roll and just four months to do it all.

Ancer quotes the political scientist Professor Steven Friedman who in 1994  headed the IEC’s information analysis department. He says a lot of the 1994 results were absurd, especially in KwaZulu-Natal.

“For example, by any credible population estimate, in some voting stations you had 800% of the adult population voting. The whole thing was dodgy.”

Before election day, Friedman wrote a paper on what would constitute a fair and free election, and said there was a single major criterion: whether the losers accepted the results.

“It’s a legitimacy issue. If the losers accept the results, then does it matter if five votes go astray here or there?”

He believes if the IEC had been purist about the results, conflict would have been inevitable. “In my view, it was not a lie but a ‘negotiated truth’ or an ‘agreed fiction’.”

The historian Bill Nasson says in his foreword: “Combining journalist raciness with a magpie mind and an alligator’s nose for a swamp, Ancer is a shrewd recorder and interpreter of SA’s steaming pile of follies, crimes, misfortunes and absurdities.”

Prescription: Ice Cream – A doctor’s journey to discover what matters, by Alastair McAlpine (Macmillan)

This is an interesting and even inspiring book which I’m not going into detail about here as it will be the subject of the Sunday book review on May 26 on The Books Page.


Among the other books in the Homebru catalogue are Margie Orford’s vulnerable Love and Fury, Ivan Vladislavic’s The Near North, and Graham Coetzer’s Hunting with the Hawks, all three of which have been either reviewed or mentioned in previous weeks of The Books Page.




Giving a voice to the voiceless

Review: Vivien Horler

James, by Percival Everett (Mantle/Pan Macmillan)

There are so many parallels in this book with South Africa’s history that the American writer Ann Patchett’s advice to every American to read it probably holds true for South Africans too.

It is a retelling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or perhaps it is more correct to say inspired by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this time from the point of view of the slave, Jim.

Percival Everett is a prolific and respected black American author, whose book The Trees was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, and whose novel
Erasure was adapted into the film American Fiction. He is also a professor of English in California.

I don’t know how long ago I read Huckleberry Finn, probably some time in high school, and some of the details of the story were hazy.

But it is essentially the story of a young and ill-educated white boy in Missouri in the 1850s, who has staged his own death to get away from his abusive father, and of a runaway slave who flees his post because he hears his owner is about to sell him and break up his family. Continue reading

Defending empire – with millions of deaths

Review: Vivien Horler

Great-Uncle Harry – A tale of war and empire, by Michael Palin (Hutchinson Heinemann)

I’ve never been to the World War I cemeteries of France, but I’ve seen pictures of them. Acres of green grass starred with regular rows of pale crosses. Hundreds and thousands of them, each representing a person, usually young, usually a man, who gave his life for his country.

Who were all those young men, and does anyone today know or care?  Do those rows of graves present a salutary lesson about the vast carnage that can result when countries go to war? Apparently not – in 1939, only 21 years after the guns fell silent, war broke out again in Europe. Continue reading

The demons that can tear at the heart of what seems a successful life

Review: Vivien Horler

Love and Fury – A memoir, by Margie Orford (Jonathan Ball)

Henry Thoreau said: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” I’m sure he would have included women in that, had that been the thinking in 1854 Massachusetts.

We all like to think we’re not one of them, though occasionally it occurs to us we might be. But I never suspected the acclaimed, award-winning and enormously successful crime thriller writer Margie Orford would be of their number.

Yet this memoir reveals her life to have been lived on various levels (as I suppose most of our lives are: the personal, political, professional). And all was clearly not what it seemed.

Continue reading

The young yachtie who followed her star

Review: Vivien Horler

Thinking Up a Hurricane, by Martinique Stilwell (Karavan Press)

We all have an idea of what it takes to get into medical school in South Africa. Years of unrelenting school study, utter determination and brilliant results.

Martinique Stilwell probably developed her determination on the way, but the rest of her gypsy journey was utterly different, and not through choice.

In 1977, when Nicky was seven, her father decided to buy a yacht and sail around the world. He was a Benoni electrician whose experience at sea was minimal, but he didn’t allow his lack expertise to stop him. He was also something of a tyrant, and his family – and the poodle Pepe – had little option but to go along with him. Continue reading

Bedside Table Books for April

Here is a taste of the books that landed on my desk this month. The first four are from Exclusive Books’ list of top reads for April. Another, One of the Good Guys by Araminta Hall (Macmillan) was reviewed on this website on Sunday April 21. Some of the rest will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Love and Fury – A memoir, by Margie Orford (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Most readers know Margie Orford for her crime thrillers, the five Clare Hart novels (a sixth is due to be published next year). She’s been described as the “queen of SA crime-thriller writers” by The Weekender.

I didn’t know about her impressive academic pedigree. She was a Fulbright Scholar with a master’s degree in comparative literature from the City University of New York, and has a PhD in English literature from the University of East Anglia. She is an honorary fellow of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and was also an executive board member of PEN International.

This memoir opens in London, where Orford finds a small home overlooking Hampstead Heath, a refuge after the collapse of her marriage, and three “vagrant years” after she fled Cape Town.

She is thoroughly depressed, and says for months she had been trying to write a suicide note “…but my writing, which I regard as separate from me – something life and death-giving, beneficient and tyrannical as the Furies… – vetoed me”.

She casts about, she says for a way to leave life that would not disturb anyone.

And then she goes for a wintry walk on the heath, comes home, tears out all the pages of the “to whom it may concern” death notes, and is ready “for the shy night creatures of the mind to slip out of their shadows so I could befriend them”.

And she adds: “This book kept me alive; I will give it that.”

James, by Percival Everett (Doubleday)

I don’t know how much of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn you remember, but it’s set in the 1850s or so and is about a barely educated teenager who fakes his own death to get away from a drunken, abusive father.

He teams up with a runaway slave, and the pair set off on a raft down the Mississippi River, having a variety of life and death adventures on the way. It was first published in 1884.

In this novel Percival Everett, a Distinguished Professor of English at UCLA, rewrites Huckleberry Finn from the point of view of the slave Jim, and gives us a unique insight into the strategies a literate and intelligent slave had to use not to stand out from the crowd.

Everett, whose novel Erasure was adapted to become the film American Fiction, uses different dialects to indicate when Jim is speaking in his own voice, and in that of an uneducated slave when he is talking to whites: “Lak I say, I furst found my hat up on dat nail. I ain’t put dat dere… How dat hat git dere?”

The American writer Ann Patchett describes James as “funny and horrifying, brilliant and riveting… a powerful, necessary corrective to both literature and history… Who should read this book? Every single person in the country.”

The Excitements, by CJ Wray (Orion)

“Revenge is a dish best served old” is the subtitle of this fictional romp starring two very old ladies, the Williamson sisters, who are Britain’s most treasured World War II veterans.

Because they represent a literally dying breed, they are in demand at commemorative events, and always give their money’s worth. They are adored and watched over by their great-nephew Archie, who accompanies them on a trip to Paris to receive the Legion d’Honneur.

Archie knows some of their wartime history in the Wrens and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (risibly known as Fany), but it turns out not as much as he thought. As the cover points out, there’s a reason sweet Auntie Penny can dispatch a would-be mugger with her umbrella.

Now the sisters are in Paris, probably for the last time, to have some excitements, settle some scores and avenge lost friends.

One reviewer says: “Not all heroes wear capes, some wear M&S cardigans! A triumph!”

The Excitements looks delightful.

How to Stop a Train – The story of how Mohandas Gandhi became the Mahatma, by Stephanie Ebert and Kathryn Pillay, illustrated by Paddy Bouma (Pan Macmillan Children’s Books)

I don’t usually review children’s books but I thought this story, which is of course set in SA, would be interesting. How do you convey what was a pivotal moment in Gandhi’s life, a deeply political act, in a way that’s meaningful to children?

Gandhi’s ejection from a train because he refused, as an Indian, to move from first class to third class, where the South African Railways thought he belonged, marked the beginning of a journey, “a journey to teach everyone that you can change the world without using violence. A journey to make the world a better place. A long journey that begins with one small word: No.”

Besides simply telling this story, the authors provide context, describing the SA of the time, notes for parents and a glossary of terms such as civil rights and indentured labourers.

It’s an inspiring story which tells youthful readers that across the world Gandhi’s ideas helped people to stand together, put their bodies in the way of danger, stare down injustice and say one little word: “No. You may not treat people this way.”

Hunting with the Hawks – Untold crime stories from the elite SA crime-fighting unit, by Graham Coetzer (Tafelberg)

Graham Coetzer has spent 13 years working on Carte Blanche programmes, doing what he says he loves best: “exposing the people who scam, exploit, bully and otherwise do harm to ordinary South Africans”.

In the preface he says this volume is not masquerading as a PR exercise for the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, the body founded in 2008 to target organised crime, economic crime and corruption.

He was inspired to write the book since the nature of the Hawks’ work means most of us never get to hear first-hand accounts of their stories. “Despite often risking their lives for us, they get very little recognition.”

So here’s a behind the scenes glimpse of some of the work they do.

I’ve read only one of the case histories, that involving a trafficking and racketeering operation run, originally in Blouberg in 2017, and headed by a woman, Shantel Reyneke-Bridger.

She ran brothels, sold drugs, and was involved in extorting money from her male clients, who were terrified of being exposed. She also employed many young women, some of them under age, ensured they became drug addicts, and kept them in thrall with the help of violent heavies.

She and her two major partners, her husband and her boyfriend, who all lived together, made a lot of money, yet their brothels were dirty and squalid. Where did all the money go, Coetzer wondered. To casinos, it turned out – all three had serious gambling problems.

Now all three are serving 20-year sentences.

Not a comfortable book to read, I suspect, but ultimately showing that crime can be tackled.

The Invincible Miss Cust – A novel, by Penny Haw (Sourcebooks)

About two weeks ago I reviewed a new book by Penny Haw, The Woman at the Wheel, about the wife of Carl Benz, who invented the first “horseless carriage”. Bertha Benz was a staunch supporter of her husband and I found the book extremely interesting.

The Invincible Miss Cust is about another determined woman, and I think of the two books possibly even more readable. It is relatively new, published in 2022, and I got it from my book club.

Aleen Cust was the first woman veterinary surgeon in Britain and Ireland. Despite completing the practical and course work to become a vet set by the New Veterinary College in Edinburgh in 1897, she was denied registration by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons because of her gender. It was to be more than 20 years before the college relented and admitted her, in 1922.

This meant despite having better marks than many of her fellow (male) students in the final exams, she had to sit at the back of the graduation hall and watch her classmates graduate.

But she did not let this set her back – she found work with an Irish vet in Roscommon and worked alongside him for years. Penny Haw speculates in this, her first historical novel, that Cust and the Irish vet had an intense relationship, although there is no proof of this.

But even the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography suspects it was so.

My only criticism of Miss Cust, and it’s not really a fair one, is that since it is published by a US publisher, all the spellings are American despite the fact author Penny Haw is South African and Miss Cust was Anglo-Irish.

I found this a really enjoyable and inspiring read.


You might think you’re one of the good guys, but are you?

Review: Vivien Horler

One of the Good Guys, by Araminta Hall (Macmillan)

One of the Good Guys starts deceptively simply.

Cole has left London for a remote stretch of coast near Brighton (I didn’t know there were remote stretches of coast near Brighton) to outrun his pain.

He has a new job as a wildlife ranger, which comes with a cottage. Cole is a bit of a loner, and this job suits him much better than his previous work in PR.

Cole’s pain is caused by the collapse of his marriage to Mel who was, for six years, the one. They had met on a dating app, and knew immediately they had each found their soulmate. They were so taken with each other that on their first date they both deleted the app in front of each other. Continue reading

‘Only a girl’ didn’t stop the determined Bertha Benz

Review: Vivien Horler

The Woman at the Wheel, by Penny Haw (Sourcebooks)

In 1896, just 10 years after the first horseless carriage was demonstrated in the streets of Mannheim, Germany, by inventor Carl Benz, South African crowds welcomed the automobile – a Benz Vilo – to our shores.

The Velo, short for Velocipede, was a very different vehicle from the original Motorwagen which is depicted on the cover of this fictionalised piece of history.

For one thing it had four wheels, rather than the Motorwagen’s three, and was more powerful, but it still used a type of tiller for steering rather than a steering wheel (invented in France in 1894).

SA’s first Velo was put through its paces on a field in Pretoria before President Paul Kruger, and a century later I was present at the same field when Mercedes-Benz celebrated a century of the marque in the country.

Continue reading

Extraordinary tale of the beginning of the end of tuberculosis

Review: Vivien Horler

The Black Angels – The untold story of the nurses who helped cure tuberculosis, by Maria Smilios (Virago)

During World War II my aunt, who was a munitions worker in her early 20s in Cornwall, contracted tuberculosis.

She was sent to a sanatorium where she and several other women shared a three-walled ward – the fourth wall was open to the elements, all year round.

Bed rest, fresh air and good food – as good as was available in wartime Britain – was the treatment, and after two years she was pronounced cured.

Her fiancé had not hung around, so her engagement was over, and she had lost two years of her 20s, but compared with the horrors described in The Black Angels, it would seem she got off lightly.

TB is still a dread disease and the battle against it is far from over.  HIV has exacerbated the problem, because it is said as many as half the SA population has been infected with TB, but healthy immune systems keep it in check. When immunity is compromised however, such as by HIV, the TB microbes are free to make the patient desperately ill. Continue reading