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A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

4.0 14
by Nicholas Drayson

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A beguiling novel that does for contemporary Kenya and its 1,000 species of birds what Alexander McCall Smith’s Ladies Detective series does for Botswana

For the past three years, the widower Mr. Malik has been secretly in love with Rose Mbikwa, a woman who leads the weekly bird walks sponsored by the East African Ornithological Society. Reserved and


A beguiling novel that does for contemporary Kenya and its 1,000 species of birds what Alexander McCall Smith’s Ladies Detective series does for Botswana

For the past three years, the widower Mr. Malik has been secretly in love with Rose Mbikwa, a woman who leads the weekly bird walks sponsored by the East African Ornithological Society. Reserved and honorable, Malik wouldn't be noticed by a bystander in a Nairobi street—except perhaps to comment on his carefully sculpted combover. But beneath that unprepossessing exterior lies a warm heart and a secret passion.

But just as Malik is getting up the nerve to invite Rose to the Nairobi Hunt Club Ball (the premier social occasion of the Kenyan calendar), who should pop up but his nemesis from his school days. The jokester Harry Khan, good-looking in a flashy way and quick of foot, has also become enraptured with the object of Malik’s affection.
So begins the competition cooked up by fellow members of the Asadi club: whoever can identify the most species of birds in one week’s time gets the privilege of asking Ms. Mbikwa to the ball.
Set against the lush Kenyan landscape rich with wildlife and political intrigue, this irresistible novel has been sold in eight countries and is winning fans worldwide.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
The Asadi Club in Nairobi is a place where members have blended the nicest qualities of both native and colonial cultures into a modern milieu echoing gentler days. Third-generation member Mr. Malik is an honest, unassuming man, with a witty little subversive streak that could get him killed by Kenya's notoriously corrupt government officials. But Mr. Malik has larger concerns than his safety. He has fallen for the leader of his Tuesday morning birdwatching walks, the lovely Rose Mbikwa.

Rose is unaware of Mr. Malik's feelings but cannot help noticing the handsome, brash Harry Kahn, a former schoolyard nemesis of Malik's who has returned just in time to squelch Malik's plan to ask Rose to the annual Hunt Club Ball. The dilemma? Asadi Club members are firm: only one man may ask Rose to the dance; for both to do so would put a lady in an awkward position, and that won't do.

What ensues is a bird-logging competition for the right to invite Rose to the ball. But the brilliance of this little gem of a book is its quiet humor, marvelous narration, and tender faith in humanity. Readers may laugh in places and feel their hearts jump in others, but without a doubt, they'll smile all the way through this charming novel, as delicate and lovely as the East African birds themselves. (Holiday 2008 Selection)
Publishers Weekly

A charming love triangle in Nairobi, Kenya, forms the center of a novel that manages to be both sweet and gripping. Mr. Malik, a quiet widower guided by a naïve crush, spends his Tuesdays on bird walks led by Rose Mbikwa, the Scottish widow of a Kenyan politician, whom he secretly wishes to escort to the Nairobi Hunt Club Ball. Enter Harry Khan, Mr. Malik's playboy nemesis, who also takes a liking to Rose. Mr. Malik's social club organizes a bet-whoever can spot the most bird species in one week earns the right to ask Rose to the ball. While Harry heads off on expensive safaris, Mr. Malik is beset by a plague of problems, including the theft of his car and bird-watching notebook, and an ambush by renegade Somalis. The competition takes on a surprising page-turning urgency, thanks largely to Mr. Malik's delightful nature and his unexpected secrets. With captivating character sketches and glimpses into Kenyan life and politics, Drayson meets the inevitable comparisons to Alexander McCall Smith without breaking a sweat. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

In this delightful love story, author and naturalist Drayson (Confessing a Murder) introduces readers to the ornithological wonders of Kenya. Mr. Malik, a short, round, aging Indian man with a horrendous comb-over, is in love with Mrs. Rose Mbikwa, who is attractive, Scottish, and the leader of the Tuesday morning bird walks. Both have lost their spouses and both are devoted to Kenya, birds, and politics, but beyond that, they couldn't be more different. Nevertheless, Mr. Malik intends to invite Mrs. Mbikwa to the Hunt Club Ball. Alas, Harry Khan, a flashy playboy on holiday in Nairobi, also has his sights set on Mrs. Mbikwa. A contest is staged that grants the man who can sight the most bird species in one week the right to invite the lady to the ball. The course of the contest reveals the shallowness of Harry Khan and Mr. Malik's true worth. While the reader is pulled along by the suspense of the contest, the glorious sights, sounds, and smells of Nairobi provide lovely rest stops along the way. Recommended for all fiction collections.
—Joy Humphrey

Kirkus Reviews
A lighthearted novel about birding and a wager to win the right to call a woman for a date. The story is set in Nigeria, where former Nairobi resident Drayson (Confessing a Murder, 2002) introduces us to Mr. Malik, a shy widower whose son recently died of AIDS. As a way of having at least some semblance of a social life, he's been going on weekly excursions with the local birding club, led by the attractive Rose Mbikwa. Shortly before the big social event of the year, the Nairobi Hunt Club Ball, the brash but charming Harry Khan shows up. In their school days more than 40 years earlier he had bullied Mr. Malik, and now he seems determined to best him again by courting Rose. Because both men are interested in inviting her to the ball, they decide on a gentleman's bet, to be adjudicated by members of the Nairobi Asadi Club. The wager is for the right to invite Rose to the ball, a right that will be given to whoever identifies the greatest number of birds in one week. While he knows far more about womanizing than about birding, Harry wastes no time lining up a couple of ornithologically astute Australian tourists to help him out, and because Harry is both rich and competitive, he has no qualms in pulling out all the stops-hiring a plane to take him to Mount Kenya, for example, to augment his week's list. Meanwhile, for Mr. Malik things go painfully and comically awry. His car is stolen, which makes traveling beyond the bounds of Nairobi a serious problem, and after he recovers the car he's held up by machine-gun-toting bandits. With less than 24 hours to go he finds himself down by one, with 198 species to Harry's 199. A sweet novel in which the reader gets surprisingly caught up in fairlyfrivolous events. Agent: Peter Robinson/Robinson Literary Agency
From the Publisher
"[a] quietly beguiling new novel, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa...reads like transplanted Wodehouse." Christian Science Monitor

"enchanting...Readers will find themselves buying copies for all their birding friends." -Birding Business

"Nicholas Drayson's engaging new novel...[a] quiet, gently humorous tale." -National Geographic Traveler

"This book is a sheer delight for birders and nonbirders alike." Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"A lighthearted novel about birding and a wager to win the right to call a woman for a date." Kirkus Reviews

"While the reader is pulled along by the suspense of the contest, the glorious sights, sounds, and smells of Nairobi provide lovely rest stops along the way." Library Journal Starred

"A Guide to the Birds of East Africa will appeal to Alexander McCall Smith fans, but definitely stands on its own and will beguile any reader who appreciates sharp wit and gentle charm." -Shelf Awareness

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

‘Ah yes,’ said Rose Mbikwa, looking up at the large dark bird with elegant tail soaring high above the car park of the Nairobi Museum, ‘a black kite. Which is, of course, not black but brown.’ Mr Malik smiled. How many times had he heard Rose Mbikwa say those words?
Almost as many times as he had been on the Tuesday morning bird walk.
You never know exactly how many kinds of birds you will see on the Tuesday morning bird walk of the East African Ornithological Society but you can be sure to see a kite. Expert scavengers, they thrive on the detritus of human society in and around Nairobi. At his first school sports day (how many years ago was that now – could it really be fifty?) Mr Malik remembered little of the sprinting and javelin throwing and fathers’ sack race but he would never forget the kite which swooped down from nowhere to snatch a devilled chicken leg from his very hand. He could still recall the brush of feathers against his face and that single moment when as the bird’s talons closed around the prize its yellow eye looked into his. Of course it wasn’t quite accurate to say that he had no memories of the javelin throwing. Few would forget the incident with the Governor General’s wife’s corgi.
There was already a good turnout. Seated along the low wall in front of the museum a gaggle of Young Ornithologists (YOs), mostly students training to be tourist guides, chattered and preened.
The Old Hands were also out in force.
Joan Baker and Hilary Fotherington-Thomas were leaning against a car talking to a couple of pink-faced men, one bearded, whose pocket-infested khaki clothing instantly identified them as tourists and their accents as Australian. Standing furtively to one side were Patsy King and Jonathan Evans.
They had been carrying on their Tuesday morning affair for almost two years now and though Mr Malik had never had an affair, he supposed that a certain furtiveness was necessary to achieve full satisfaction in these things. The two were an unlikely match. Imagine a giraffe, towering above the wide savannah. Now imagine a warthog. But Mr Malik was used to seeing the lanky figure of Patsy King striding along road or track, her 10 x 50 binoculars enveloped in one large hand, with Jonathan Evans trotting along beside her. To Mr Malik they seemed, like members of his own family, no longer remarkable.
Keeping himself to himself as usual was Thomas Nyambe. He was standing with his back to the crowd, looking up towards the sky, entranced. Mr Nyambe loved birds, and had been coming to the bird walks even longer than Mr Malik.
Tuesday was his rostered morning off from his job as government driver. A driver in Kenya is seldom paid enough to afford a car of his own, so as usual Mr Nyambe had walked to the museum from his home in Factory Road, just behind the railway station. As usual Mr Malik would offer him a lift to wherever they were going that day.
A bang and a rattle and a loud curse through an open window announced the arrival of Tom Turnbull driving over the speed bump in his yellow Morris Minor (the speed bump had been there over a year now but still it took him by surprise). He opened the door of the car, got out, and slammed it. He cursed, opened the door, and slammed it again.
The distant town hall clock struck nine.
‘Good morning and welcome,’ said Rose.
All conversation ceased, all heads turned.
‘I see a few new faces here – and many old ones – but I welcome all of you to the Tuesday morning bird walk. My name is Rose Mbikwa.’ Mr Malik had got used to it by now, the transformation of Rose’s normal low contralto speaking voice into her public voice of distance-shrinking volume and clarity. Rose looked around the group, nodding here and smiling there, then conferred again with the young woman who had earlier pointed out the kite.
‘And to those of you who don’t know her, may I introduce Jennifer Halutu. Just to remind you, I will be away next week and Jennifer will be leading the walk. Last week, you may remember, we thought we might try the MEATI but we didn’t have enough cars. Do we have enough this week?’ She looked around the car park. ‘I think we might.
Who can give lifts?’ Hands were raised, calculations made.
‘Good, that’s fine,’ said Rose. ‘Then the MEATI it is. You all know the way?’ It was left to Joan Baker and Hilary Fotherington-Thomas to explain to the mystified newcomers that the Modern East African Tourist Inn was a popular restaurant on the southern outskirts of town.
Thomas Nyambe had already slipped into the front seat of Mr Malik’s old green Mercedes 450 SEL. The back seats were sttill empty. Perhaps, thought Mr Malik, the two tourists would like to come with him? He was about to offer a lift when another Mercedes, a shiny red SL 350, bounced in over the speed bump and swung into the car park. A tinted window opened, a sunglassssssed face leaned out over gold-braceleted arm.
‘Hi, Rose – not too late?’ The man leapt out of the car. ‘Hey, David, George, there you are. Your chariot awaits.’ The tourists, who Mr Malik now surmised were called David and George, walked over to the red Mercedes to be greeted with handshakes, smiles and shoulder clasps.
‘These guys are staying at the Hilton too, Rose, so I said they should come along. OK with you?’ After the three of them had gained Rose’s approval and paid their visitor’s subscription the two guests were shown into the passenger seats while the driver jumped back behind the wheel, started the engine and pulled out on to the drive, yelling out through the window just before it closed.
‘See you there, everyone.’ Who on earth was that? Brown skin, white hair, expensive clothing, and some kind of American accent; yet he looked slightly familiar. Mr Malik had little time to ponder this question, nor how this man seemed to know Rose Mbikwa, before several young black Africans piled into the back of his old Mercedes.
The rest of the YOs slipped and squeezed into Rose’s 504, Tom’s Morris Minor and the assortment of Land Rovers, Toyotas and other vehicles that other Old Hands had brought along. Engines were started, handbrakes released. As he drove gently over the speed bump and eased his tightly packed load out into the morning traffic, Mr Malik was wearing a worried expression.
That man. No, it couldn’t be. Not after all this time.

Meet the Author

NICHOLAS DRAYSON has written extensively about wildlife and natural history; he is also the author of Confessing a Murder, which was hailed by Booklist for its “view of Darwin never before seen.” An Englishman by birth, Drayson lived in Nairobi for two years.

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Guide to the Birds of East Africa 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
On first introduction, Mr. Malik is a gentlemanly retiree who spends his time bird-watching. Pleasant enough, but perhaps not the most exciting prospect for Rose Mbikwa, the widowed guide of the weekly bird walks in Nairobi, Kenya. When a flamboyant schoolmate, Harry Khan, turns up from Mr. Malik's past, the stage is set for a contest between the two. Whoever identifies the greatest number of bird species in a week will earn the privilege of asking Rose to the Nairobi Hunt Club Ball. This book's unassuming charm grows on the reader, rather like Mr. Malik. Decency and goodness are not the most flashy qualities but as the contest progresses, Nicholas Drayson have you firmly rooting for the 'short, round and balding' underdog. The story appears somewhat slight at first and there is more to bird-watching than meets the eye. It is a hobby but it can also be a lesson about the virtues of paying attention to one's surroundings and discovering the richness around us. A bird's eye view can be instructive as the avian world can be read as an allegory for the shenanigans taking place in Kenyan politics. Drayson does not shy away from the darker side of life in Nairobi. Besides talking about corruption, he also touches on crime, the devastation caused by Aids and the abduction of young men to be sold as soldiers in nearby countries. A seemingly trifling premise opens up into a far more bountiful world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
www.LindaBallouAuthor.com More than 1 year ago
This charming story set in Nairobi, Kenya before the recent troubles is set in a world I'm afraid no longer exists. Mr. Malik, a timid subdued gentleman of Indian decent, is a member of the Asadi Club, a vestige of colonial days founded in 1903. A bet is made between gentlemen over beers at the club that whichever one counts the most birds before the Hunt Club Ball will have the honor of taking Rose Mbikwa, a widow of genteel breeding. Each bird hunting trek takes us into another aspect of life in Kenya. Day safaris to outlying regions explorations to nearby birding hotspots that include a very sorry incident for Mr. Malik in the local cemetery flesh out the story. The realities of living in a country with political upheaval, threatened wildlife and a failing infrastructure are revealed without malice. This is a fun romp written with a tongue in cheek humor. So many birds are identified, I felt I needed a real Guide to Birds of East Africa to help me keep track. -Author of Wai-nani, High Chiefess of Hawaii Lost Angel Walkabout-One Traveler's Tales www.lindaballouauthor.com
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful love story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A good story with strong characters, very well written. Practically every chapter has a twist you didn't expect, keeping you on your toes as you learn more and more about a widowed gentleman and his romantic hopes in beautiful east Africa.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LisaA15 More than 1 year ago
This is a satisfying, plesant book. A good book for when you want a nice story that takes you away from your own life enough, but not too much. The characters are well developed and interesting. The setting is very intriguing. I feel the need to go out and find some bird books in order to research what the birds referenced in the book look like.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This lighthearted novel is an easy read and is very nicely narrated. The story was enjoyable. However, for me, it falls short of ever coming close to "The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series by Alexander McCall Smith (as it has been compared to). Also, I could have done without the elongated chapter on farts. What did that have to do with anything?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith, but had a different twist too. Loved the characters and voice of this book. I was also intrigued to be reading about Indian characters living in Kenya....an unusual change of perspective.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith's series of the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency. I started reading this series in 2004 when I went to Botswana. In 2008 I went to East Africa and stumbled upon this book when browsing at Barnes & Noble upon my return. I found it a very interesting book to read and a delightful story. Enjoy
Anonymous More than 1 year ago