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Summary and book reviews of A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

A Novel

by Nicholas Drayson

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    Sep 2008, 208 pages
    Sep 2009, 192 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

A Field Guide to the Characters

Mr Malik

  • Identification. Small, dumpy, brown-skinned, nondescript. SBJ.*
  • Habitat. Inner suburban Nairobi, especially Garden Lane, though occasionally may be spotted further afield in Kenya. Often seen after dark at the Asadi Club.
  • Status. Introduced, resident.
  • Distinguishing characteristics. Close inspection may reveal that hairstyle owes more to artifice than nature.

Harry Khan

  • Identification. Brown skin, white hair, white teeth, and a tendency to dress in white clothes.
  • Habitat. Hilton Hotel, Nairobi, and similar establishments worldwide. Cosmopolitan.
  • Status. Occasional vagrant from North America, though close relatives are introduced resident.
  • Distinguishing characteristics. Highly ornamented. Noted for flamboyant mating display.


  • Identification. Small, very dark, with tuneful whistle.
  • Habitat. Almost entirely restricted to suburban gardens, especially at Number 12 Garden Lane. Also anywhere that sells Coca-Cola.
  • Status. Native, though local migrant in Nairobi.
  • Distinguishing characteristics. A tendency to happiness.

Rose Mbikwa

  • Identification. Pale, slender, red-haired, though tending to white hair in mature adult.
  • Habitat. May be seen in daylight hours in the company of various other species, in and around the National Museum. Roosts at Hatton Rise.
  • Status. Introduced, resident. Has been known to hybridise with native resident.
  • Distinguishing characteristics. A very active species.

* SBJ: Birdwatcher’s shorthand for "Small Brown Job" — which includes very many hard-to-identify species all over the world.

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...

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Comparisons to Alexander McCall Smith's novels are inevitable. Fans of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series will not be disappointed in A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. If anything, Birds is better written, with more depth and humor.  This book is sure to be a hit with book clubs, as well as readers looking for a light romance with a bit of a bite.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review Members Only (721 words).

Media Reviews
National Geographic Traveler

This quiet, gently humorous tale weaves the destinies of four principal characters: Mr. Malik is a reserved, brown-skinned bird-lover whose undeclared passion propels the narrative. The object of his affection is red-haired and pale-skinned Rose Mbikwa, longtime leader of the weekly East African Ornithological Society's bird walks. The third character is Mr. Malik's observant, empathetic shamba boy helper, Benjamin. Ruffling this flock's feathers is the flamboyant and carefree Harry Khan, who flies in from North America and incites a romantic rivalry for Rose's attentions.

I hate to bring this up because hand-on-heart I recommend A Guide to the Birds of East Africa to anyone looking for a slightly quirky and (yes) immensely charming summer read, but there are too many ornithological discrepancies for a self-professed avid - some may say 'anoraky' - birder like me to ignore .... However, I’ve a feeling that the vast majority of the people who’ll read this book either won’t notice or couldn’t care less anyway. They’ll be picked up and carried along oblivious and happy, and they’ll be all the better for it really. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa is enjoyable and entertaining so who really cares whether Mr Drayson's hero spots a coastal speciality, Fischer’s Greenbul, in his Nairobi garden? Not many of us I suspect.

Library Journal

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

Publishers Weekly

A charming love triangle in Nairobi, Kenya, forms the center of a novel that manages to be both sweet and gripping.

Kirkus Reviews

A sweet novel in which the reader gets surprisingly caught up in fairly frivolous events.

Financial Times - Abigail Cheung

In sum, a refreshing, engaging and conversational read.

Reader Reviews

Birder's Delight
Nicholas Drayson's delightful style of storytelling charms his readers as it lures those who love birds to add his characters to their life lists.

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Beyond the Book

A Short History of Kenya
The Republic of Kenya is located on the eastern coast of the African continent (map). It is approximately 225,000 square miles (580,000 square kilometers), with a population of 38 million people (2008). The official languages are English & Swahili, and Nairobi is its capital city. Primary exports include coffee and tea.

The area was inhabited from at least 2000 BCE, with its first residents being tribal groups. Arab traders settled in the coastal areas around the 8th century. They developed trade during this time between the Arab world and India, primarily in ivory and slaves.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the region, "discovering" it in 1498 while seeking new trade ...

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