Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Eleanor Oliphant may be completely fine – but there’s something wrong with this picture


Review: Vivien Horler

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman (HarperCollins)

Eleanor Oliphant may think she’s fine, but she isn’t, not by a long chalk.

She works for a graphic design company in Glasgow, but is not one of the creatives: she works in accounts. She comes to work at 8.30am, takes an hour for lunch, and leaves at 5.30pm.

She listens to a radio serial while she eats her supper – always pasta with pesto and salad – and then either reads, does the crossword, or occasionally watches television. She goes to bed at 10pm. Every Wednesday she speaks to Mummy on the phone. Continue reading

Novels bring fading memories of World War II to frightening life

alice networkReviews: Vivien Horler

The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn (William Morrow/ Harper Collins)

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave (Sceptre)

Wars that still echo down our history are slipping beyond human memory. No one alive remembers the Boer War, which continues to have a huge impact on South Africa today, nor World War I.

As for World War II, it ended literally a lifetime ago – 73 years ago this week – and there are fewer and fewer people who remember it.

Within a decade it will be gone from lived experience, and our only access to a conflagration that changed the world will be through novels that bring it alive.

everyone brave is forgivenTwo absorbing war novels demonstrate the courage demanded by people who lived through the war, not all of them soldiers.

The Alice Network is a page-turner about women spies in France during World War I, and how their experiences in that war affect their lives during and just after World War II.

It is London in 1947, two years after World War II has ended, and Charlie St Clair is a wealthy young American whose mother has brought her to Europe for an abortion. Continue reading

Real-life crime thriller shines spotlight on fish poaching

catching the thunderReview: Vivien Horler

Catching the Thunder – the race to save our oceans from poachers and criminal kingpins, by Eskil Engdal & Kjetil Saeter (Tafelberg)

Patagonian toothfish is a deepsea delicacy often called “white gold”. It lives in icy waters near the Antarctic, in black depths of up to 2000m.

It was first caught and described at the end of the 19th century, and then forgotten until rediscovered in the 1980s. The Norwegian authors of this gripping real-life thriller say that served in US restaurants, it caused a gastronomic sensation. Continue reading

Rugby ref becomes solo dad, with a little help here and there

winging itReview: Vivien Horler

Winging It: Jonathan Kaplan’s journey from world-class ref to rookie solo dad, by Joanne Jowell (Macmillan)

Cape Town writer Joanne Jowell was dimly aware of who Jonathan Kaplan was – the Green Point-based international rugby ref. Both she and he are Jewish, share acquaintances, and they’ve bumped into each other socially over the years.

But she’s not much of a rugby fan, and didn’t really know him. Continue reading

Kgalagadi book is fabulous as both coffee table volume and guide

kgalagadi coverReview: Vivien Horler

Kgalagadi Self-Drive – Routes, roads and ratings, by Ingrid van den Berg and Jaco Powell; with pictures by Philip & Ingrid van den Berg, Heinrich van den Berg & Jaco Powell (HPH Publishing)

In our daily lives we’re rarely less than a couple of metres away from other people. But there are places not all that far from here where you can feel as if you’re the only person in the world.

Or as publisher Heinrich van den Berg says in his preface to this magnificent book, during his first visit to the Kgalagadi aged 14, setting next to a termite mound in the heat of the day, he was struck for the first time in his life by a feeling of huge emptiness.

kgalagadi hunt

Snatching supper in the Kgalagadi

But it just feels empty, he says. “In the landscape of an unpeopled desert, in a kind of silence unknown elsewhere, and while experiencing deep solitude, if you sit quietly and patiently, amazing sights and sounds will be revealed.”

The old name Kalahari comes from the Setswana word kgalagadi, which refers to salt pans, or the place where the land has dried up, or a place of no water.

The Kgalgadi Transfrontier Park stretches from the north of the Northern Cape province into Continue reading

Cautionary tales from Britain’s National Health Service could have a lesson for us

your life in my handsReviews: Vivien Horler

Your Life in my Hands: A junior doctor’s story, by Rachel Clarke (Metro)

The Human Kind: A doctor’s stories from the heart of medicine, by Peter Dorward (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)


The two doctors at the centre of these books are both active in Britain’s National Health Service. Rachel Clarke is a “junior” hospital doctor in her late 30s based in London; Peter Dorward is a much older GP in Edinburgh.

human kindClarke’s book, which came out late last year, is perhaps the more political of the two. She worked as a current affairs TV journalist for around 10 years before training as a doctor, inspired partly by her doctor father to whom she dedicates this book.

I think that from the South African perspective we tend to think the NHS is a wonderful institution compared with the local public healthcare system. And of course in many ways it is.

But Clarke says from the medical staff’s point of view understaffing is at best exhausting and at worst soul destroying. Apart from the danger this exposes patients to, she says another casualty of doctor overstretch is the one that attracted them into medicine in the first place, “our kindness”. Continue reading

There’s no beating about the bush with this comprehensive guide

beat about the bushReview: Vivien Horler

Beat about the Bush – exploring the wild, by Trevor Carnaby (Jacana)

When my son was a small boy I explained to him that my Cape Argus colleague John Yeld was the environment reporter, which meant he knew all about the world.

A few days later I was puzzling over a problem. Thomas said: “Ask John Yeld.” Huh? Tom said: “Mom, you said John knows everything in the world”.

John is retired now, so if you need someone like him, Beat About the Bush is probably the book for you and anyone of a curious turn of mind, including small children. Continue reading

Dylan – following in the footsteps of the greats

why dylan mattersReview: Vivien Horler

Why Dylan Matters, by Richard F Thomas (William Collins/ Jonathan Ball)

There was a great deal of surprise and even some ridicule when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.

But for Richard F Thomas the award provided delightful vindication. A New Zealand-born Harvard professor of classical poetry and a man who gives seminars on Homer, Virgil and Ovid, Thomas also teaches a course on Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, instead of being regarded as something of a maverick, Thomas became the world’s leading academic on Dylan, and everyone wanted to know what he had to say. 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

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.