I have endured a difficult few months prior to the final wrench yesterday when I lost a second son to another country. It was while we were perusing his impressive collection of books prior to packing them for storage that I borrowed what turned out to be the first of Lee Child’s novels featuring Jack Reacher. Talk about a page-turner! Killing Fields gave my mind a complete break from the sadness hovering in the wings. I whipped through it in a single sitting and felt refreshed afterwards. While browsing through a second-hand bookshop in Bathurst before Christmas, I came across another Jack Reacher novel.

I was hooked and purchased another novel from a bookshop in Port Elizabeth several weeks later. We had already reached the stage of ‘the last’ of this and that and I found comfort in the quick-action dimension that required no thought or emotional investment on my part.

As the impending departure loomed darkly, a friend and I met for coffee and she returned a pile of Ann Cleeves novels I had lent her during a difficult time. “What do you think of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels” I asked, thinking she too may find them a distraction.

“I have a heap of them at home.” My eyes must have lit up for she called me a week later to collect them. They teetered on a to-be-read pile on my desk.

I was bone tired from sorting, packing, cleaning and having to face up to the impending departure. Sleep evaded me during the final week and so I tackled the pile – finishing each novel somewhere between midnight and 2 am – then waking with my mind refreshed and cleansed of the previous day’s concerns.

On our return from the final farewell at the airport two hours away, I felt too emotionally drained to do anything useful other than to brew a cup of tea and curl up in a chair to read the last of the Jack Reacher novels in my pile. I have now read my fill of them and know it is time to move on.

Months ago another friend gave me a pile of old delicious magazines she had found in a charity shop. Feeling tired and emotionally drained, I picked one up at random before going to bed. It is dated November 2022. While idly turning the pages, my attention was drawn to this illustration that seemed so ‘me’.

Hands cupped around a warm drink, a notebook at hand, something to eat, and the autumnal background all ‘spoke’ to me for it clearly illustrates me carving a slice of peace in a busy day as I sit in our garden and watch birds whilst eating breakfast or enjoying mid-morning tea. Then I saw the post-it note from my friend.

The title of the article is ‘The comfort of simple pleasures’. Yes! That is where my comfort will be sought in the coming months. I sent her this message: Lying in bed tonight after an exhausting week and a particularly sad day, listening to the wind howling and trying to warm my feet, I picked up a copy of delicious[and found your note]. Both are balm for my bruised soul.

How serendipitous it is that I picked up that particular magazine and was blessed by her unexpected note when I needed it most!



This sensitively written account about the healing of the relationship between a dying mother and her daughter is compelling. Catherine Dunne’s fine-tuned descriptions and imagery draw the reader right into the context and setting of her story:

Listening to the uneven breathing of the frail, elderly woman [her mother] beside her, Beth hoped it wasn’t already too late for her to feel beyond the years of sharp exchanges, the slow foxtrot of anger and disappointment that had kept them at arm’s length from the other, dancing to the same old tunes.

The narrative follows Alice through a series of small strokes that leave her increasingly incapacitated. Reconciliation, she realises, will have to come in the form of writing letters to her daughter while she still has the capacity to do so:

God alone knew how long she had left. Now, she was going to give Him a run for his money.

Her daughter, Beth, finds the letters whilst sitting at her comatose mother’s bedside. It is through them that we learn about the background to their estranged relationship; of sacrifices made; of hurts, disappointments and misunderstandings. There is no sentimental soppiness about these letters. Rather, readers are more likely to identify with aspects of their own relationship with their parents or children: life is not always easy.

Alice concludes that:

It was time she apologised to her daughter for holding on too tight, for making hoops of steel out of bonds of love. Mothers and daughters needed ties that would give a little, would bend and stretch with generosity, not break and unravel at the first tugs of defiance and misunderstanding.

As the narrative unfolds, we learn more about the relationship between Beth and her brother, James. Like her, he has domestic troubles of his own to contend with. For now though their focus remains on their dying mother.

I found this novel to be a quick, satisfying read that has left me with a lot to ponder about in its wake. My paperback edition was published by Picador in 2000.


On occasion a very light read is in order: a novel that introduces you to characters, places and situations far removed from your own. A novel that will give you a ‘lift’ when you need one. Roisin Meaney’s It’s that Time of Year fits the bill perfectly.

The right ingredients are there: Annie, the central figure, who has fostered numerous children during her working years. She invites three of her former charges to her wedding. Although they do not know each other and live very different lives – they all love and respect Annie and wouldn’t miss being with her on her special day.

There is Julia, a successful songwriter and singer living in a luxurious apartment in Paris. Her fame was unexpected, but now she is unable to compose either the music or lyrics needed for her next CD: For the first time she’s seriously blocked, and it’s terrifying. What if she’s lost whatever ability she had? What if she never manages to write another song? How will she find a way through this blank wall?

Then there is Steph, living in Spain and now thinking about Ireland: The thought of it, of seeing it again, prompts a small rush of nervous excitement. She knows exactly how long it is since she left – but why does she leave Spain so furtively?

The third of Annie’s former charges to be invited to her wedding is Eddie the chef: Dark shadows under his eyes, the whites bloodshot, the strain showing of too many late nights and rushed meals, and not enough money. He dreamed big, but still has a long way to go. Is he following the right path towards future happiness and success?

First they need to celebrate Annie’s marriage to the man she has loved for practically her whole life. At 61, her dream comes true … but, there is the impending sale of her house, unexpected snow, and lingering concerns about her three ‘children’.

We learn about the strong friendship between Annie and Cora; about building trust; how apparent disasters can shake us out of a rut; and about the inherent goodness of people. This quick and light read is bound to banish the blues, leaving you with a more benign view of the world.

I leave you with the quotation at the start of the story: Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction – Rumi.

BEWILDERMENT – Richard Powers

Richard Powers does not need the accolades plastered on the beautifully designed cover of his novel, Bewilderment, published by Hutchinson Heinemann in 2021.

It is an astonishingly wonderful read that takes us through what could be a bewildering array of journeys with the easy guidance of a master storyteller, who keeps the reader on track throughout by sticking to short and manageable routes.

We explore unbelievable worlds on planets way beyond our ken; relationships that are deep and entwining; the long-term effects of both politics and the economy on the environment; as well as shortcomings of conventional education:

The father and son regularly fall foul of education rules and battle with the idea of Robin being home-schooled as a possible solution. He [Robin] was calm as a skiff on a windless pond. I was capsizing. I wanted to shout, Give me one good reason why you can’t sit in a classroom like every other child your age. But I already knew several.

As the narrative unfolds, we explore the short-sightedness of some laws; the ethical boundaries pushed by scientists ever eager to find out more and to gain funding for their projects; as well as the intrusion of media in its many forms in a bid to satisfy the ‘hunger’ of the public mass for the unusual and interesting events of life – no matter how short-lived or what impact this might have on the individuals concerned:

There was a planet that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness.

Throughout this bewildering array of paths, is the love of a father for his unusual son which supports his determination to do his best for him whilst trying to protect him from the worst this planet has to offer:

I never believed the diagnoses the doctors settled on my son. When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from non-existent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.

I highly recommend this novel that will open your mind to all sorts of possibilities and leave you pondering deeply over the way it ends.


Given my interest in the plight of the horses used during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), it is not surprising that I was drawn to the title of Joyce Kotzè’s debut novel, The Runaway Horses. It is billed as ‘a saga of love and betrayal during the time of the Anglo-Boer War’, but do not expect a soppy romance or even a tale of swashbuckling soldiers. This is the story of ordinary people caught up in an event much larger than they could imagine.

There is no doubt that the Anglo-Boer War has had a long-lasting impact on South Africa. The country abounds with battle sites, war graves, blockhouses – and stories. We know about Magersfontein, Paardeberg, Elandslaagte, the Treaty of Vereeniging … we are painfully aware of the concentration camps, the burning of farms and the pitting of the Boers against the Brits which tested human relationships to the full; splitting families and friendships; causing hunger and distress; and in the end even causing rifts among those Boers who had fought so hard and long for the freedom of their country. The country is also swathed in cosmos flowers, blackjacks and Khakibos as reminders of this period of bloody conflict!

As the war dragged on and took its toll among the Boers, there were the hensoppers – people who had lost so much that they couldn’t see much point in fighting anymore and who wanted to go back to their burnt-out farms and start again. There were the verraaiers – people who, for a variety of reasons, gave up the fight and joined their former enemies. Who knows, perhaps they too simply wanted the fighting to stop so that they could rebuild their lives. There were also the bittereindes – people who had fought so long and so hard, who had lost their farms, their families, and their compatriots yet felt the very act of simply giving up would have made all those sacrifices for nothing. Then there were the British soldiers: how did they feel about sowing such widespread destruction and opposing an untrained and under-armed foe? Did they even understand what they were fighting for?

In the saga of The Runaway Horses Joyce Kotzè provides a broad sweep of soldiers on both sides of the divide from before the war began right through until its end. To create a reality her readers can identify with, she focuses on a fictitious family which is a truly South African mix of Boer and Brit. An English woman marries a Boer and becomes a valued member of the Wintersrust community, while her sister marries into minor British gentry – their children get to know each other well, little guessing that the time would come when they would find themselves on opposite sides of a war that would tear through large parts of South Africa. Kotzè’s characters become so believable and easy to identify with that the tragedy of this conflict boldly comes to the fore as the saga unfolds to portray this difficult period with insight and empathy – readers are caught up in the way in which the strong bonds between the cousins are tested to the limit during the war.

Mixing the action with historic figures such as Jan Smuts, Paul Kruger, Christiaan de Wet, General Kitchener, Lord Roberts and others help to create an authentic background to the development of the war. The author provides vivid impressions of the countryside where battles were fought as well as well-chosen details of clothing, mannerisms, and cameos that breathe life into the soldiers on both sides as well as the women left on the sidelines. By doing so, she brings into sharp focus the conflicting emotions felt by individuals on each side. James Henderson, for example, finds himself at the mercy of both his loyalty to Britain and his compassion for his Boer family.

So real are her descriptions and the careful development of her characters that the author successfully reflects the reality of the history of many South African families that are intertwined with the Anglo-Boer War both at the time and in the aftermath.  She does this by successfully portraying what life was like for the Boers on commando as well as the harsh conditions experienced in the concentration camps. It is story that remains with the reader long after the book has been closed for the last time as we reflect on the complex history of South Africa.