Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

Dido and her thoroughly modern fairy tale

queen of everythingReview: Vivien Horler

The Queen of Bloody Everything, by Joanna Nadin (Mantle/ Pan Macmillan)

Dido’s life gets off to a somewhat rocky start. It is the early 70s and her mother rejects her middle-class parents’s values, gets pregnant, has the baby, and moves into a London squat, sharing space with a transient group of people.

Edie rejects any help offered by her parents but when, during the long hot summer of 1976, a great-aunt leaves her a cottage in the Essex town of Saffron Walden and money to live on, Edie and Dido move in. Continue reading

When the Donald trumped decency

joe biden book

Review: Vivien Horler

Promise Me, Dad, by Joe Biden (Macmillan)

The name Joe Biden on the cover of this book seemed familiar – wasn’t he an American politician? But with its title of Promise Me, Dad, it didn’t seem that kind of book. Maybe a different Biden.

But no. Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president, at the charismatic US president’s side for the two terms they served, and privy to the highest power in the land – like Obama he too had control of the codes that could launch a nuclear strike. He had a Security Service detail, flew in Air Force Two, and lived in an official residence not far from the White House. He was also considering running for president after Obama.

biden obama

Joe Biden with former president Barack Obama

But Joe Biden was – and is – a devoted family man and devout Catholic, who has had more than his share of personal tragedy. Promise Me, Dad, is the story of a year “of hope, hardship and Continue reading

Chris Barnard: daring, driven and brilliant – but not very nice

chris barnard heartbreakerReview: Vivien Horler

Heartbreaker – Christiaan Barnard and the first heart transplant, by James-Brent Styan (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Chris Barnard, the first man to perform a heart transplant, wasn’t a particularly nice man.

Answering a question in a TV interview about the fact he had left his first wife, Louwtjie, who was in her 40s, to marry the 19-year-old heiress Barbara Zoellner, Barnard replied with a broad smile: “Why eat biltong when you can have fillet steak?”

Interestingly, Louwtjie’s own book about her marriage was titled Heartbreak.

He loved women and was serially unfaithful to all his three wives. He also kissed and told: in his Continue reading

It seemed to be an all-black, stripeless zebra, but it couldn’t be, could it?

Zulu running wild

Zulu, after being recaptured and back on safari.

cover running wild

Review: Vivien Horler

Running Wild – the story of Zulu, an African stallion, by David Bristow (Jacana)

It must have been an amazing sight: a stallion, coal black except for one white sock and a white smudge on his shoulder, running wild in the bush of Botswana’s Tuli Block with his harem of zebra mares.

Reared as a riding horse and one of a herd used for bush safaris, Zulu spent four years living as a zebra stallion in the bush, avoiding predators, snakes and the scourge of African Horse Sickness. Continue reading

Mad, bad, and dangerous to have shared a planet with

stuffed up the world50 People who Stuffed Up the World, by Alexander Parker and Tim Richman, illustrated by Zapiro (Burnet Media)


I assumed, driven partly by the “stuffed up” in the title, that this was a bit of a comic book, an amusing take on famous baddies.

Well, apart from Zapiro’s illustrations, there’s not much that’s amusing about it. In fact it leaves you feeling downright depressed. I hadn’t intended to sit down and read it through, though – between books I decided to pick it up and read a chapter here and there. And I was hooked. Continue reading

Love letters reveal a father to orphaned daughter

Review: Vivien Horler

Letters from the Suitcase – a wartime love story, ed by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan (Tinder Press)

Rosheen Finnigan never remembered her father. A serving naval officer, he was in the UK when she was born in August 1940, and when he was posted to Swansea a few months later, Rosheen and her mother Mary joined him for just under a year, their only period of normal family life.

Then in March 1942 her father – David Francis – was selected to be part of the planning team for the top-secret Operation Ironclad, the code name for the invasion of Madagascar, and he sailed for Africa and, subsequently, India.

She never saw him again. Continue reading

When the land becomes art



sculpting the land

Scarlet rose petals are used to form a spiral beside the sea at Koeël Bay in the Western Cape.

Review: Vivien Horler

Sculpting the Land – artistic interventions with the landscape, by Strijdom van der Merwe ( Protea Book House)

Much of the art we admire has endured for centuries; some, like marble sculpture, is set in stone. But the work of Strijdom van der Merwe is ephemeral: based on light, shadow, water, wind, leaves and sand.

sculpting the landVan der Merwe is a land artist, a man who uses the materials of his chosen site to create geometrical forms that speak to the landscape in which he works. Sometimes he imports materials to complement a site, such as red rose petals in a beach installation, or scarlet flags in a field of wheat stacks.

He will also create essentially manmade shapes and superimpose them on a natural site: sawdust crosses on a forest road, a huge red cotton cross between two trees which seems to constitute a formidable bar to entry. One piece, worked in Nieuwoudtville during spring flower time, is a field of orange and yellow Continue reading

We cannot live in a world without bees

history of beesReview: Vivien Horler

The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde (Scribner)

A life without bees is unimaginable. Honey is the least of it – pollination is the major service that bees provide.

And as we all know, honeybees are dying out around the world. Maja Lunde, who is Norwegian, had her interest in the subject sparked by a documentary she watched on the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, something that she says both scared and fascinated her.

The result is this novel, a story about bees from three perspectives: one set in England in the 1850s, one set on a bee farm in Ohio in 2007, and one set in Sichuan in China in 2098. Continue reading

Northern Ireland’s Troubles cast a long shadow

woman of stateReview: Vivien Horler

Woman of State, by Simon Berthon (Harper Collins/ Jonathan Ball)

Maire Anne McCartney is a clever Catholic girl growing up in Belfast and doing her A-levels. Her family have high hopes for her. But she has a Provo brother and a Provo boyfriend, so there is an inevitability about the fact that she is recruited for an IRA mission. It’s a one-off, she is promised, and there will be no violence.

But they lied, and she is forced to flee alone to Dublin to start a new life for herself. It is lonely and tough, but she makes a sort of life studying law at university. Continue reading

Laughing our way into 2018, please God

zapiro hasta la guptaReview: Vivien Horler

Hasta la Gupta, Baby! by Zapiro (Jacana)

Hadeda La Land – A new Madame & Eve collection, by Stephen Francis & Rico

When I was a child we always gave my dad a Giles collection for Christmas. And then there’d be arguments after the big lunch as to who got to look at it first. Dad didn’t always win.

There’s no dad any more, nor is there Giles (although sometimes you find a dusty old collection in a beach house, and smile as you page through them, remembering political events of decades ago.)

madame & eve hadedaBut in South Africa we have jolly fine substitutes from our top cartoonists, Zapiro and Stephen Francis & Rico, and there’s nothing like revisiting the tough political events of the year with a sugar-coating of laughter.

In his book Penpricks, a serious look at South African political cartoons, author and writer Ken Vernon said there could be no better guide to the country’s complicated and convoluted political history than its mixed bag of political cartoonists.

Continue reading