Category Archives: New Books

The joy of reading other people’s letters

letters of noteReview: VIVIEN HORLER

Letters of Note – Correspondence deserving of a wider audience

compiled by Shaun Usher (Canongate/ Unbound)

A tremendous cacophony of barking heralds the arrival in my street of the postman on his bike.  He puts something in my letter box but I do not rush out to see what it is.

It’ll probably be the rates and Telkom bills. These days the interesting stuff comes via e-mail. But I remember a time, not that long ago, when there was a good chance of a long and chatty letter from friends in London or elsewhere, and the receipt would brighten my day.

Shaun Usher, who compiled this volume, says in his introduction that he wanted “to illustrate the importance and unrivalled charm of old-fashioned correspondence just as the world becomes digitised and the art of letter writing slips from view”. Continue reading

Illegal firearms on the Cape Flats, and what this has to do with Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers

Review: Vivien Horler

The President’s Keepers: Those keeping Zuma in power and out of prison, by Jacques Pauw (Tafelberg)


Excuse the squeaking noise – my eyes have been out on stalks and I’m reeling them back in.

A variety of emotions go through your mind as you read The President’s  Keepers, from depression (lots) to mirth (not so much), from wanting a double brandy to wanting to emigrate.

Much of what Jacques Pauw writes is not new. You have read and heard hints here and there, and he quotes extensively from journalists such as Marianne Thamm, Richard Poplak, and Justice Malala as well as publications like the Daily Maverick, the Mail & Guardian and City Press. Continue reading

Why do cats lie in the sun? The answer is stranger than you think

rapid fire maytham

rapid fire maytham

Review: Vivien Horler

Rapid Fire – Remarkable miscellany, by John Maytham (Tafelberg)

JOHN Maytham says he has “a magpie memory”, one that is attracted by bright, shiny facts that he stores in “the large and messy nest” of his memory.

Certainly anyone who listens to Maytham during his afternoon drive show on 567 Cape Talk radio is aware he knows almost everything, which is why his daily “Rapid Fire” segment is so compelling. You really want to beat him, and I think I have the question to do it.

He says in his preface (what he calls “The short bit before the proper book”) that originally the format of Rapid Fire was to award the prize to someone who could stump the team, but this often meant boring questions won prizes. “Does rubidium or strontium have a higher value on the table of valences?” Who cares, says Maytham.

So they changed the format to give the prize to the person asking the most interesting question. And then Maytham collected them, googled the answers Continue reading

Brilliant view of one man’s history against the sweep of war

nuremberg trial

The defendants at the Nuremberg trial are sitting in the two rows in front of the military police. Hans Frank is the man in the sunglasses in the middle of the front row. The men in front of the defendants are their lawyers.

east west street

Review: Vivien Horler

East West Street, by Philippe Sands (Weidenfeld and Nicolson/ Jonathan Ball)

Many people have written accounts of their experience of World War II or the Holocaust, each story becoming part of a mosaic that contributes to a bigger picture of a time that tore the world apart.

What Philippe Sands has done in this extraordinary book is to write an account of his family’s experiences, but set it into the wider context of war and of the Nuremberg Tribunal that followed.

This wide view enables him to write adjoining sentence like: “The elderly living in Austria or Germany would first be sent to an old people’s ghetto in Theresienstadt. My great-grandmothers Malke Buchholz and Rosa Landes were among them.”

Sands is a professor of law at University College London, and has worked as an international lawyer in cases involving the Congo, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq and Guantanamo. Continue reading

Fiction or factumentary?


Bare Ground, by Peter Harris (Picador Africa)

bare ground peter harris

Peter Harris seems to have an instinctive ability to tell a good story.

The lawyer turned writer has produced three books: two non-fiction titles – In a Different Time, and Birth – which read like thrillers, and the new novel, Bare Ground, which reads like a documentary. It’s made up, and yet the tale he tells is so plausible in the current South African context that it feels true, just one you haven’t read in the newspaper yet.

Bare Ground was launched at the Book Lounge recently, and Harris told proprietor Mervyn Sloman he felt this was a novel that needed to be published now, given the pace at which things move in South Africa.

“Some stuff lies beyond fiction, quite frankly. I wanted it to come out during the Zuma presidency – it’s important to tell this story now in our history.”

The story is of a mining company that needs to set up a consortium to give effect to a BEE deal. The boss is wealthy, urbane Max Sinclair, and his right-hand man is one Sifiso Lesibe, a geologist now working in head office.

The way the deal is structured is critical, Max realises. Do they go internally and give it to senior black employees in the company, with some going to black staff, or do they go to an outside consortium. Or should it be a mixture of both? Continue reading

Taking a miracle for granted


The Most Perfect Thing – Inside (and outside) a bird’s egg, by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury)

WE take eggs utterly for granted. There they are, cream or brown or speckled, in their clever natural packaging, waiting to be boiled, fried or beaten.

Yet, seen through the eyes of British ornithologist Tim Birkhead, they are little miracles.

Hen’s eggs, the ones we buy from the supermarket, are unfertilised and unincubated, so we see only a fraction of the miracle they are, he says.

“Our familiarity with the eggs of one species has blinded us to the extraordinary diversity of egg size, shape and structure across the 10 thousand other species of birds that currently exist in the world.”|

Birkhead has made a career studying guillemots, northern hemisphere seabirds that nest on cliffs and lay eggs of an astonishing variety of size and colour.  In fact these eggs were the most popular and sought after for collections because of their variety, beauty and odd, pointy shape. (See the eggs on the cover of the book.) Continue reading

Story of a war in objects

Review by Vivien Horler

The Anglo-Boer War in 100 Objects, edited by Johan van Zÿl and created by the War Museum of the Boer Republics (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

War might be a ghastly waste of life and a failure of diplomacy, but it does seem to promote extraordinary human ingenuity.

Or, in this context: ’n Boer maak a plan.

You’re a member of a Boer commando in the guerilla phase of the Anglo-Boer War, and it has been decided by a war council of senior Boers, including presidents Paul Kruger and MT Steyn, that the British communication systems must be disrupted.

Your capital cities have been occupied, you have no access to industrial workshops, and you are waging war on the back of a horse. How do you derail the trains and blow up the bridges that the British depend upon?

Captain Henri Slegtkamp, a Dutch-born member of Captain Danie Theron’s Reconnaissance Corps, came up with the idea of a “trein vernieler” or train wrecker. The Boers would place a few sticks of dynamite and part of a Martini-Henry rifle bolt containing a single round under the rail. When a train passed, its weight depressed rail on to the trigger, firing the round into the dynamite and detonating it.

The Brits could be ingenious too. During the siege of Mafeking, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, commander of the British garrison in the town, had limited artillery to hand: seven aging .303 Maxim machine guns and seven artillery pieces. But they also had the Lord Nelson, an old ship’s cannon which they used to fire dynamite grenades at Boer positions.

And where did they find a ship’s cannon in the inland semi-desert town? It was being used as a gatepost. Continue reading

A secret life

young jane youngYoung Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin (Little, Brown/ Jonathan Ball)

We’ve all done silly things when we were young and stupid, and mostly we don’t die, nor are we maimed, and we grow up with our reputations more or less intact.

But sometimes our follies are not so easy to shrug off, and this is the theme of this delightful novel by the author of The Collected Works of AJ Fikry.

When the action begins, Aviva Grossman is a 20-year-old student at the University of Miami in Florida, studying politics and Spanish literature.

She gets an unpaid internship in the office of a (sexy, charming, married) Florida congressman, and writes a blog about her experiences. She’s able and smart, but not that smart. The blog is anonymous, and she uses no names, but she goes on writing it even after she and the congressman become lovers. Continue reading

Camilla reaches the sunlit uplands

the duchess camillaReview: Vivien Horler

The  Duchess – the untold story (William Collins/ Jonathan Ball)


In the late 1960s Camilla Shand, the woman who was to become Prince Charles’s second wife, had a boyfriend called Andrew Parker Bowles.

He was  a “deb’s delight”, the sort of man young upperclass British girls fancied rotten. He was good-looking, charming, a polo player and an officer in the Household Cavalry.

He was fond of Camilla, but then he was fond of a lot of girls. Camilla was determined to marry him. The early years of their relationship marked what journalist and biographer Penny Junor describes as the beginning of “a long torturous romance”, because he couldn’t resist other women, many of them Camilla’s friends.

A young Chilean historian, Lucia Santa Cruz, lived in the flat above Camilla in London’s Belgravia, and felt sorry for her. Santa Cruz happened to know Prince Charles, then 22 and with  no girlfriend, and in 1971 introduced the pair. Continue reading

The unstrung violinist

gone min kymReview: Vivien Horler

Gone – a girl, a violin, a life unstrung  (Viking/ Penguin)


Min Kym was a child prodigy violinist. Born in South Korea, her family moved to London when she was three, where her father worked for Daewoo.

Her older sister was musical, and the two girls would play “duets” together in their bedroom at night, the sister playing on a drawn paper keyboard and Min on a paper violin.

At a very young age Min was given an eight-size violin, harsh and factory made, but she loved it, loved the feel of it, and by the time of her first lesson she had taught herself to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Playing a violin was not simply for Min, it was Min, she writes. Everything about it was easy and natural: “I had found, not only my home and my voice, but my element… I felt like a creature released, alive in herself for the first time.”

Her sister, nine at the time, was a good enough pianist to get into the Purcell School for Young Musicians, Britain’s oldest specialist musical school. Min at seven was too young, but one day while she and her mother were collecting her sister, Min carrying her violin, the headmaster asked her if she could play.

pic of min kymCertainly, she said, and played Bach’s Concerto in A minor. Afterwards the headmaster said he thought he could bend the rules, allowing her to start at the school two years earlier than usual. He would also see if he could provide some financial help.

Things didn’t run entirely smoothly – Min’s dad was posted back to South Korea – and it was some years before Min could take up her place.

She studied with some top teachers including the legendary Ruggiero Ricci at the University of Salzburg, and became a student at the Royal College of Music. She bought her first proper violin, a Carlo Bergonzi, for £250 000, partly funding the purchase with money she had won in a competition. She became a soloist, played with the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy, made a recording. Continue reading