Cops, a sangoma – this thriller could only have been written in Africa

Review: Vivien Horler

Knucklebone, by NR Brodie (Picador Africa)

Knucklebone takes the SA-based detective thriller to a whole new level.

Set in a vibrant and rather sinister Johannesburg, we have a burglary, a company that helps foreign big game hunters, and the butchering of poached animals.

Then there are also a coven of witches, a sangoma, and a tokoloshe.

Ian Jack is a former cop known to his friends as Cousin – I suspect you need Cornish links to get Continue reading

Man Booker International: Some great novels – but none from Africa

man booker int 2018Article: Vivien Horler

Africa did not make the cut on the longlist of the Man Booker International Prize this year.

The Man Booker Prize is awarded for the best fiction written in English; the Man Booker International Prize celebrates the best novels – or collections of short stories – from around the world that have been translated into English and published in the UK. Continue reading

The knock on the door that led to terror

knock on the doorReview: Vivien Horler

The Knock on the Door – The story of the  Detainees Parents Support Committee, by Terry Shakinovsky and Sharon Cort (Picador Africa)

It all began with Barbara Hogan. In the late 1970s she had been recruited by the ANC in exile to give information about what was going on politically inside the country and to mobilise the white left. Four years later she was Wits Masters student who had built up contacts within many trade unions. Continue reading

The key to being an aspiring Englishman

rosenblums listReview: Vivien Horler

Mr Rosenblum’s List – Or friendly guidance for the aspiring Englishman, by Natasha Solomons (Sceptre)

You sometimes make delightful finds on the shelves of beach cottages. One I found on holiday this week is Mr Rosenblum’s List, published in 2010, and described on the cover as an international bestseller.

The Times shout says the book is “Hilarious and touching… prepare to be seriously charmed”. Continue reading

So who was the guy who tattooed the Auschwitz numbers?

tattooist of auschwitzReview: Vivien Horler

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris (Zaffre/ Jonathan Ball)

I was having a meal at Spier a few years ago when a family settled near me. The party included an elderly woman, who reached out for something on the table.

As her sleeve slid up, I saw a set of numbers tattooed on her wrist. I stared, appalled. Could that really be a Holocaust tattoo? The woman was nicely dressed, a touch of gold jewellery, surrounded by her family – she could have been any pleasant middle-class grandma. And yet, as we sat on that green terrace restaurant in the sunshine, those numbers hinted at a ghastly past.

Now I know that the man who engraved those numbers on her wrist might have been Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was one of the earliest inmates of Auschwitz, having arrived there in April 1942.

For nearly 50 years Sokolov kept silent about his wartime experiences. Even his son Gary, born in Australia in 1961, didn’t know the whole story.

Ironically, Sokolov had volunteered to work for the Germans, hoping his sacrifice would help protect the rest of his family. But it wasn’t long, travelling to Poland crammed into a cattle truck, before he began to realise the horror of what he had let himself in for.

When people arrived at Auschwitz they faced “selection” – the weak or sick or old were killed, and the young, healthy and strong were kept to work. On arrival they gave their names and addresses to clerks, and in turn were handed a slip of paper with a number.

They then moved to another table where these numbers were tattooed on to their arms. Sokolov was 32407.

In his first months at Auschwitz Sokolov was set to work in construction, building new camp huts. But shortly afterwards he came down with typhus, and was nursed back to health by Pepan, a French intellectual and the original Tätowierer or tattooist of Auschwitz. With the news that many more people were expected in the camp, Pepan persuaded the authorities that he needed an assistant, and Sokolov got the job. It had distinct benefits: he was given extra rations, his own room, and an official appointment as a member of the political wing of the SS. As noted in a BBC programme about Sokolov, he “lived a step further away from death than the other prisoners”.

He did not like his job – Jewish tradition disapproves of tattoos, and Sokolov felt he was defiling people’s bodies. But Pepan persuaded him that whatever he did for the Nazis, building huts or tattooing wrists, he was going to do some of their dirty work. At least he could try to be gentle. But a month or so later he was horrified when a group of young girls had to be tattooed.

Sokolov had already seen enough casual murder in the camp to know that he had to do as he was told or face death. A girl approached and handed him her slip, and he pressed the needle into her skin. Blood oozed.

But when he had done the deed, he looked into her eyes. Later, he would say in an interview, that as he tattooed her number on to her wrist, she tattooed that same number on to his heart.

And so began an extraordinary love story between Sokolov and Gita, also Slovakian. Sokolov believed he had a responsibility to survive, and with Gita, he was now determined they would both go on to have a life together after the war. Because he got extra rations, he was able to share food, some with his former hut mates, some with Gita and her friends, and later with a large group of Roma who were sent into his new block.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is described as a novel, but it is based on the true story of Sokolov and Gita, and is the result of hundreds of hours of interviews Heather Morris had with Sokolov after Gita’s death. Morris then got Sokolov’s account fact-checked against the available documentary evidence, and corroborated by the couple’s son Gary.

It is an extraordinary tale of quiet defiance, luck, determination and love.

  • This review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on March 4, 2018.

Why local food, honestly grown, is good for us

animal vegetable miracleReview: Vivien Horler

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle – Our year of seasonal eating, by Barbara Kingsolver (faber and faber)

We’re descended from a long line of Cornish tin miners, with not a farmer among us, so the fact my nephew Shaun is now living and working on an ostrich farm near Oudtshoorn is something of a novelty.

We were talking about sustainable farming and good practice and I mentioned Barbara Kingsolver’s book, first published in 2007. Best known for her bestseller novel, The Poisonwood Bible, she has written a non-fiction account of a year in the life of her family on a small farm in Virginia in the US. Continue reading

How the Brits stymied SA troops ‘up north’ in WW2

Safricans vs rommelReview: Archie Henderson

South Africans versus Rommel, by David Brock Katz (Stackpole)

Almost 80 years after the events, it is still easy to get angry with the British military commanders under whom our troops served in North Africa during World War 2.

When our soldiers went “up north” in 1940, they were subjected to British military doctrine, which did not suit the South African way of making war. Explaining this difference of approach is one of the strong points of David Brock Katz’s book, an extension of a thesis for his masters, which he attained cum laude from the South African Military Academy.

Katz’s book has a subtitle, “The Untold Story of the Desert War in World War 2”. If that seems a publisher’s exaggeration, it is a story that has seldom been told and never as forcefully as this.

On the question of doctrine, Katz writes: “Had the British shown greater foresight and availed themselves of the South African mobile capability, the disaster (the destruction of an entire infantry brigade at Sidi Rezegh, Libya, in 1941) may have been avoided.”

South Africa’s soldiers showed their prowess at manoeuvre during the campaign, and victory, in East Africa. But once they moved north, into Egypt, that freedom to apply their national military doctrine was subverted and submerged into the British one. The South African divisions came under the supervision of British corps and army commanders.

And those commanders didn’t have a clue, to paraphrase Katz. While the Germans, and their unfairly maligned Italian allies, had perfected the art of combined arms (a balanced approach using armour, artillery, infantry and, where possible, air) in concentrated attacks, the British fragmented their forces.

The British also had almost childlike faith in tanks being the ultimate weapon, forgetting that the Germans had formidable anti-tank weapons, especially the famous 88 guns.

It is not only Katz who believes the South Africans were hard done by; one of the most astute British military minds thought so too. Eric Dorman-Smith, a controversial British general who was regarded as one of the brightest military minds, served for a while as General Claude Auckinleck’s deputy chief of staff when Auckinleck was Middle East commander. He wanted Auckinleck to fight the German way, with “a couple of armoured divisions wedded to two tactically mechanised unarmoured divisions”.

“The proper people for this sort of work, to my mind, were the descendants of the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) riders who had so often run rings around the slow-moving slow-witted British,” wrote Dorman-Smith.

Alas, it was not to be. When Bernard Montgomery became Eighth Army commander in 1942, he sacked Dorman-Smith, whom he loathed because of some disagreements earlier in their careers. If South African troops had been used more effectively, and earlier, in a role such as Dorman-Smith envisaged, who knows how better they might have performed in the desert. Perhaps the disaster of Sidi Rezegh and the capitulation of an entire South African division at Tobruk, due mainly to British confusion and indecision, may have been averted.

Most books on the war in the North African desert deal with the big picture, involving British and Commonwealth forces and, from November 1942, the Americans. Katz has focused on our soldiers in great detail and it is the first book to do so in 60 years, so it’s long overdue. And it’s not only about doctrine; he has a good story to tell about South Africa’s forgotten war.

Nonetheless, there are a few minor irritations. But with so much detail, footnotes and conscientious research, writing the perfect book is as impossible as trying to stop a tank with a Webley revolver. So it was the South African 2nd Division that surrendered at Tobruk, not the 1st, as mentioned in the introduction – a clear typographical error because the mistake is not repeated.  Katz slips up, however, by still having the Aussies in the fortress when it is first relieved in late November 1941. By then the Australians had been evacuated and replaced by the British 70th Division. These are mere quibbles and should not detract from what is not only an assembling of facts – many of them new – but also contextualising, interpreting and explaining what is often a complex series of battles.

Great Bookclub reads for March


great aloneThe Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah (Macmillan)

There is the most superficial similarity between The Great Alone and Queen of Bloody Everything: both are about lonely children who come from dysfunctional families and who find another family to cherish them.

But the great alone describes a life almost unimaginable to South Africans – in the beautiful but punishing state of Alaska. Leni’s father is a Vietnam war veteran and former POW who has come back to the US a damaged man. He can’t settle at anything, and his wife, who adores him, keeps telling their daughter how different, how much fun he was before.

Then he inherits a piece of land in Alaska from a Vietnam buddy, and the family move up north. Leni’s dad Ernt is capable and clever with his hands, but the people in the town where they end up fear for them as they are utterly unprepared for the harshness of an Alaskan winter.

Ernt has always been more difficult when the days are short and the nights long and dark and freezing. In many ways the family couldn’t have chosen a worse place to settle. Ernt becomes increasingly erratic and violent, and joins a group of right-wingers preparing for the end of the world.

But through it all, Leni, 13 at the start of the book in 1974,  tries to have a normal teenagerhood, deeply in love with a classmate. This is something of an epic about survival, of love and fortitude, and living under a brooding cloud.

Kristin Hannah is best known for her novel The Nightingale, which has sold almost four million copies and which, having devoured The Great Alone, I now want to read.

queen of bloody everythingThe Queen of Bloody Everything, by Joanna Nadin (Mantle/ Pan Macmillan)

This is a delicious piece of fiction: interesting, warm and often very funny.

Dido is around six when her mother Edie, both feckless and fierce, inherits a house in Essex and moves in. Dido loves fairy tales, and almost immediately finds herself in one. At the bottom of the garden there is a gate in a wall, which she discovers leads into the house behind – a grand house complete with two proper parents and two lovely children of about her own age.

Dido falls in love with her neighbours’ home, lifestyle and the kids. The children’s mother is not so sure about Dido, though.  When she asks Dido about her absent father, the guileless six-year-old says she doesn’t have one. “I thought it was Denzil, but Edie said don’t be daft because he’s black.”

The three children become inseparable, finding in each other’s homes what is lacking in their own. And then there is a night when Edie, drunk, arrives at a party given by the neighbours and tells everyone the secrets she has been keeping.

Forty years later a grim Dido is at Edie’s hospital bedside, looking back on what may have sometimes seemed like a fairy tale, complete with locked garden gate, a widower, and a wicked stepmother. But there was no enchantment, says Dido, “no fairy godmother, no genie, no amulet or grail. There is just us. You and me.”

I loved it.


Noakes book: all you wanted to know about nutrition? Not so much


Lore of Nutrition – challenging conventional dietary beliefs, by Tim Noakes & Marika Sboros (Penguin)

This is a curious book and its title is something of a misnomer. While Noakes’s first book, Lore of Running, is described by reviewers as covering “everything runners, trainers and coaches need to know about running”, Lore of Nutrition is less about nutrition and more about Noakes’s “trial” by the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

Of the 365 pages of the book proper – excluding a forward, two prefaces, a closing chapter, bibliography, notes and an index – 304 pages deal with Noakes and the furious controversy he engendered with the Continue reading

Eating family style food the Banting way

delicious low carbReview: Myrna Robins

DELICIOUS LOW CARB by Sally-Ann Creed, published by Human & Rousseau, 2017.

The writer first leapt into prominence as a co-author of The Real Meal Revolution which started the Banting diet craze and the hullabaloo between Professor Tim Noakes and his detractors.

This new collection of low-carb, gluten-free, sugar-free recipes offer those already on a low-carb, high-fat diet further culinary choices, It combines eye appeal with all the dishes that most families cook, including sauces and  trendy pestos from ingredients like nasturtium leaves. Pizza  and quiche bases from coconut flour resemble traditional wheat flour ones. There’s a baby potato salad – surprise! – as she says our gut flora need resistant starch now and then. Continue reading