If you don’t believe you are victim, can you be one?

Review: Vivien Horler

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell (HarperCollins/ Jonathan Ball)

In these times of the revelations of the appetites of the likes of Jeffrey Epstein and the #Me Too campaigns, My Dark Vanessa is a tricksy novel to get your head around.

In 2000 fifteen-year-old boarding school pupil Vanessa Wye has a sexual relationship with her 42-year-old English teacher. She is flattered, excited and convinced that she is in love – and is loved in return. But while she doesn’t believe their relationship is wrong, she’s savvy enough to know it has to be a secret.

The dilemma is: is someone a victim if she doesn’t believe she is one? Even 17 years later, as an adult, she still loves Jacob Strane, and doesn’t think he hurt her. And yet…

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The mother who didn’t love back

Review: Vivien Horler

My Mother, My Madness, by Colleen Higgs (deep south)

Very early in this brief journal-based memoir, Colleen Higgs writes: “My whole life has felt like a long deeply unsatisfying love affair with my mother.  She is the beloved who doesn’t love back.”

How hard it must be, to assume the care of a person who is not really interested in you, but demands a lot of you. And Higgs tries to be a dutiful daughter, while running a business – the publishing company Modjaji – and dealing with her not entirely satisfactory husband and her young (entirely satisfactory) daughter.

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The joy of being beside the seaside

Review: Vivien Horler

Land’s Edge – a coastal memoir, by Tim Winton (Picador)

Any half-awake policeman based at Muizenberg has only to look out of a window of the splendidly positioned police station to know that that the regulations against going on to the beach under Level 3 are being widely flouted.

At first it was just the surfers, scuttling across the sand with board under arm to get into the waves, but now it’s everyone: walkers, sandcastle builders, paddlers, dog walkers, even, in late June, the occasional swimmer.

Maybe the police have better things to do, being out looking for murderers, gangsters and cigarette smugglers, or maybe they’ve just given up. Because it’s not easy, or even very sensible, to keep residents of a coastal city away from the sea.

The Australian writer and environmental activist Tim Winton would understand the drive to be in or near the ocean, to be close to its wildness and unpredictability, to feel the wind and swirling water at a time when nothing is guaranteed. Continue reading

Use your lockdown time to write a novel

Vivien Horler

Mike Nicol

When you read detective thrillers by overseas writers you can enjoy them, knowing your chances of bumping into the baddies roaming London or Los Angeles are pretty small.

Mike Nicol’s books are different. The Clovelly-based writer creates recognisable Capetonian baddies of the type you would not want to irritate on the M5 on a dark night.

Now Nicol, author of successful and chilling crime novels, biographies – including one of Nelson Mandela – and memoirs, is offering budding writers who want to end the tedium of the lockdown an opportunity to write a best-selling novel.

“The lockdown provides at least one of the critical elements of writing a novel – and that is the time to write,” says Nicol. Continue reading

Elsa Joubert – a writer who travelled life’s long journey


Vivien Horler

You can go a long way in 97 years, and Elsa Joubert did.

Born in Paarl in 1922, Joubert grew up in an orthodox Afrikaner family, and at first embraced their beliefs. In fact in her early years she felt her father was not sufficiently committed to the Afrikaner cause.

In 1938, when Afrikaners celebrated the centenary of the Great Trek, 16-year-old Elsa was in the crowd when the Cape Town wagon, on its way from the Mother City to Pretoria, passed through Paarl. The oxen were unhitched for the night and Joubert was one of the proud young Afrikaners who placed the yokes over their shoulders and pulled the wagon to the showgrounds. Later she wrote in her diary: “I shall never forget this day.” Continue reading

Lady Anne Barnard author turns to the history of Jack Tar

Review: Archie Henderson

Sons of Waves: The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail, by Stephen Taylor (Yale)

Stephen Taylor is hardly known in South African literary circles, yet he was born here, trained here as a journalist and worked on the Rand Daily Mail in its glory days. Three of his eight books are about South Africa: Shaka’s Children, the Caliban Shore (about the wreck of the Grosvenor off Pondoland and its castaways) and Defiance (the first full history of Lady Anne Barnard).

More recently he has become, as The Times of London reported this year, “an acclaimed naval historian”. Following his researches on Britain’s naval history, this is the book he has long wanted to write. It’s about a time when Britain began to rule the waves and about the men who enabled that rule: the Jack Tars of the Royal Navy who did the heavy lifting while heroes like Nelson took much of the credit. Continue reading

Blood, love, murder and fable – a wonderful read

Review: Vivien Horler

The Inn at Helsvlakte, by Patricia Schonstein (Penguin)

A platoon of State soldiers rides into the gap between two calcified dunes on the edge of Helsvlakte. Separatists have been spied in the area, and the military authorities in the Capital want them eradicated.

The soldiers are led by Captain Leander Botha Malan, an experienced soldier not expecting a major confrontation, although he is confident he is prepared for one. And then, as they slip into the embrace of the dunes, Malan’s “soldier-marrow” senses something deeply wrong.

He gallops forward to turn the column back, but it is too late. Separatist fighters are positioned on top of the dunes, and they open fire. There is an explosion. “… and then it was just his hammering heart and the acrid, massed smell of terror.” Continue reading

A book to celebrate our chance to buy wine once again


Review: Myrna Robins

WINE + FOOD: The Art of (the) Perfect Pairing, by Fiona McDonald, Vickie de Beer & Charles Russell (Libertas Vineyards and Estates)

With our being allowed to buy wine again from tomorrow, it’s an ideal time to get hold of this book and explore the gentle art of pairing.

Libertas – the name brings to mind the part of Stellenbosch that’s steeped in wine and home to historic giants like Distell, formerly SFW, and venues like the theatre, the slow food market, the choir, concert auditorium – a wonderful mix of culture and wine in a stunning Cape setting.

The original Libertas was one of the oldest farms in the area, established in 1689. Today its name  refers to a group of wine farms and estates that owner Distell recently launched as a separate company of premium wine producers. Continue reading

When a woman finds she’s earning less than the man next to her

Review: Vivien Horler

Equal – A story of women, men & money, by Carrie Gracie (Virago)

In 2013 BBC journalist Carrie Grace was made the corporation’s first China Editor. With the country a rising superpower, the BBC believed its story needed to be reported in depth.

Gracie had worked for the BBC for more than 30 years, had extensive Chinese experience, and spoke fluent Mandarin. She accepted the job on the basis that as the two jobs were on a par, she would be paid the same as the North America Editor.

The BBC is funded by license fees, paid by ordinary Britons for the privilege of listening and watching programmes produced by an organisation whose printed values include: “Trust is the foundation of the BBC; we are independent, impartial and honest.”

But it appeared the BBC was less than transparent when it came to salaries. The government stepped in; under the terms of the corporation’s 2017 Royal Charter, it was obliged to publish all salaries higher than that earned by Britain’s prime minister: £150 000 a year (roughly R2.5million at the time). Continue reading

Post-Boer War story of Deneys Reitz still a delight


Review: Archie Henderson

No Outspan, by Deneys Reitz (The House of Emslie)

If this doesn’t seem new, it’s because it ain’t. Old Deneys Reitz has been around for a long time, most significantly as the chronicler of Commando, the enduring classic of the Boer War, and only slightly less successfully in Adrift on the Open Veld, a combination of his trilogy in one volume by his dedicated publisher Trevor Emslie.

Emslie recently decided to publish the final volume of the trilogy on its own and it will still appeal to a certain generation of readers who remember Reitz fondly from those earlier volumes.

Reitz, with his quaint prose, is still a delight to read. He’s from a different era, now vanished. How he stands up in these times of political correctness is hard to gauge, but we need to remember that he completed his book 77 years ago when things were very different and light was beginning to emerge from the tunnel that was World War 2.

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