Sweeping story of a family misplaced and displaced by war

Review: Vivien Horler

This Strange Eventful History, by Claire Messud (Fleet)

South Africans know all about diasporas. So many people have come here, seeking a better or less unstable life: Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century, Britons after World War 2 (of which I’m one), later as the wind of change blew across Africa, white Kenyans and Northern and Southern Rhodesians, Mozambicans and Angolans.

Then South Africans started to leave, to Britain and the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, mainly white, but joined today by an increasing number of black South Africans, forming a diaspora of their own. And now we have new diasporas here, Somalis, Rwandans, Congolese, Malawians, Zimbabweans…

People will always move, and trying to stop them is like bailing out a boat with a colander. Continue reading

Scientist, secretary, sister and spy – this is an epic page-turner

Review: Vivien Horler

Mr Einstein’s Secretary, by Matthew Reilly (Orion)

If you had a life as, well, interesting as Hanna Fischer’s, you too might like to retire from it all in your mid-40s.

This page-turner of a rollicking novel, albeit with some very dark moments, opens with Hanna’s funeral on a freezing January New Jersey day in 1948. The person delivering the eulogy is the great Einstein, who was handily Hanna’s neighbour when she was a bright little girl in Berlin in 1912.

Hanna is a fictional character, but many of the people she comes across in this thriller are only too real.

When Hanna meets Einstein he has not achieved worldwide fame, and works from a modest apartment in the city. Apart from being brilliant, he is also interested in the people around him being, in Hanna’s words, boundlessly enthusiastic – for physics, for discovery, for life, for the sheer pursuit of joy. Continue reading

Three local crime writers earn their stripes

Review: David Bristow

Circle with Three Corners, by AnB Love (Europe Publishers)

Undercover, by Alan Haller (Meteoric Publishers)

Triad, by Monty Roodt (Meteoric Publishers)

Three who-dunnits landed in my postbox recently. I am not that big on crime novels, but here were these three, each by a local writer and all published outside of the conventional system – which was what initially caught my writer-editor-publisher attention. Also, that I happen to know each author variously.

Respectively, this is their second, third and fourth book in a series, and all three happen to be surprisingly good. However, knowing the writers did not prevent me from lambasting two of the earlier works in previous reviews.

Some of the problems with either self-publishing, or going the pay-to-play route, is that your work is not given the attention and quality that a conventional house will lavish on your darling.

First up is the mysterious AnB Love’s Circle With Three Corners (Europe Publishers).

Emily, who is obsessed with her mother’s insoluble murder, meets game rancher Daniel de Randt in London, follows him back to his game ranch in the Lowveld and all hell breaks loose.

She finds herself entangled in a big-game poaching intrigue. Going back to London all cloak-and-dagger, she stumbles into a nest of crooked politicians, “skin” clubs and the sex slave trade.

Refreshingly, the author is a woman who brings a very personal point of view to a very male milieu. She does seem to have an uncanny – and titillating – insight into the London skin-club business.

For this, as well her break-out Imprinted Curse (which I have not read), she went the “vanity” or pay-to-play publishing route. Basically, you put down around R30,000 to get your manuscript copy edited (no quality input), printed and put on Amazon.

In some cases you are obliged to buy a few hundred copies. So you are down to the tune of some R50 000 before you’ve had a sale. And I know from long and hard experience, the selling is when the really hard work begins.

In the case of Circle – which I was asked to vet – the original manuscript was exceptionally well polished and that shows. But the cover is a derivative AI-looking image which is a hallmark of this method.

Next up is Undercover by Alan Haller (Meteoric Publishers)

This is the fourth in the Sopwith Jones series of crime adventures. The first two were issued by the Martin Macauley pay-to-play system, and it showed – in the worst way. With the next two (including Undercover) Haller went through Meteoric, a garagista publishing operation based in Bathurst in the Eastern Cape.

I’m guessing that it is partly through hard practice, but also due to a more caring publishing relationship, number four sees the author really coming of age as a crime writer.

It’s a crooked tale about the cocaine trade in East London and thereabouts, a part of the country I happen to know and love, and one the author clearly knows as well. In this one you absorb the sense of place, heading out on dirt tracks along the Wild Coast to smoke out the gang kingpin, to the seedy streets of this faded old colonial outpost the locals call Slummies.

It also features a motorbike gang, something the author clearly knows stuff about (along with a love of airplanes) as he takes us down the highways and byways of Slummies, to Somerset East and Kologha on the back of a Harley. It is said best writing comes from what and where you know, and it shows here in heaps.

Lastly Triad by Monty Roodt (Meteoric Publishers)

The cover tells us this is No 3 in the Bathurst Chronicles featuring full-time Rhodes academic and part-time crime solver Bernie Bernard, his office being the pub at The Pig and Whistle in Bathurst, where he lives.

For the record, Roodt is pretty much Meteoric, having launched it to publish his own books but also some others under contract (we were together in journalism school yonks ago).

That did not prevent me giving his first crime novel (Dead Man’s Land) a pummeling when asked to assess it. One of the issues in self-publishing is that expenses are high. Therefore one tends to call in favours from friends and family to help edit, proofread, design and the like, and it usually shows.

But third time round and Triad is a tour de force in the genre. (The second in the series, The Shining Path is also a blockbuster.) The basic premise is that local academic and part-time sleuth Bernie’s idyllic life is threatened when he comes upon the murder of a neighbour at his beloved beach cottage at Cannon Rocks.

This puts him in the cross hairs of an abalone and rhino-horn poaching syndicate that is linked to a Chinese Triad.

This also puts him in, as they say in Boet-en-Swaar country, diep innie kak. There is hardly any let-up in this one and we are, metaphorically, holding our breaths on every page, as the story races from The Pig and Bernie’s invaded home in Bathurst, to a secret Gqeberha abalone warehouse, back to Cannon Rocks and finally a private game farm that is mired in dirty business.

As in Undercover, the sense of place here is intimate and palpable. You feel Bernie is the kind of oke you’d like to buy a dop when next you stop over at The Pig – arguably the oldest watering hole in South Africa, but you can debate that with the locals.

All three novels can be found in some bookstores, Takealot and Amazon.

  • David Bristow is the founder of Southern Right Publishers, a writer and author, and former editor of Getaway magazine.



Language skills lead to the truth about a ghastly episode in SA’s apartheid past

Review: Vivien Horler 

Hunting the Seven – How the Gugulethu Seven assassins were exposed, by Beverely Roos-Muller (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

If ever there was a case to be made for all white South Africans to learn an African language, over and above Afrikaans, Chris Bateman’s experience does so.

He was the Cape Times crime reporter who, on March 3, 1986, headed to the intersection just outside Gugulethu after hearing about a shoot-out in the area.

When he arrived the intersection had been cordoned off. Police were throwing sand on to pools of blood in the road. Chalk rings had been drawn around cartridges scattered on the tar.

A lot of policemen, many of them senior, were present, which was unusual as Gugulethu was generally underpoliced. When Bateman approached a police spokesman he knew well, the policeman told him he would have to get his information from Pretoria. This too was puzzling – why Pretoria for a shooting in Cape Town?

The official story was that the police had had a tip-off: terrorists planned to ambush a van ferrying police to the Gugulethu police station for their morning shift. Police staged a counter ambush, and when the white van carrying the “terrorists” approached, attacked it. A gun battle ensued.

All seven terrorists were killed, and all the defending policemen survived, “a triumph of intelligence work and anti-terrorist training”.

Bateman was not convinced. Fluent in Zulu and Xhosa, having grown up at a trading station in KwaZulu-Natal, he headed into the Dairy Belle hostel, which overlooked the intersection.

There he spoke to three people who had witnessed the attack. A cleaner told him he had heard a bang, and ran to the window where he saw a man lying under a tree at the intersection. The cleaner then rushed outside, and saw the same man being shot in the head by a policeman.

A Dairy Belle worker told Bateman he had heard a bang, and went to the window where he saw a man lying next to a tree. A policeman had walked up to him and shot him in the head.

Another man emerged from the bushes with his hands above his head, but was kneed by a policeman. The worker heard a police officer shout: “Skiet hom!”, and the first policeman turned back and fired two shots at the victim’s head, at virtually point-blank range.

A third witness told Bateman a similar story.

Tony Heard, the Cape Times editor, weighed up the different versions of what had happened in Gugulethu that morning, and published Bateman’s story under the headline “Man with hands in air shot –  witness”, alongside the official, police-sanctioned story (required by law under the State of Emergency regulations of the time).

There was consternation, but as we now all know, thanks to information that emerged at various inquests, trials and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Bateman’s version was the true one.

Without his language skills, the truth may never have emerged.

Author Beverley Roos-Muller says Bateman’s article “is one of the most significant examples of fine media work in South Africa’s history, akin to a Watergate moment…”

She also says: “Anyone who doubts that a free media is essential to keep democracy and truth alive need look no further than this case.”

Apart from Roos-Muller’s denouement at the end which exposes the police’s cynical and sickening motive for the attack, much of the ground in Hunting the Seven has been covered over the years.

Yet it is still worth reading as a reminder of our country’s terrible history. As the writer Christopher Hope says in a quote on the cover: “…a tale of cold-blooded assassination, told in forensic detail, and a merciless dissection of the old apartheid regime, where cruelty vied with stupidity”.

It’s also worth reading as it is well written, reading more like a fast-paced crime novel – except that it tells a shameful truth.

At the end I was left with a feeling of grief. The seven victims were not terrorists or activists or anything of the sort, just seven arbitrary young men going about their business – several of them were looking for jobs on the day they were killed – who happened to fall into the clutches of a vile section of the police.

A last thought: maybe it would help in this fractious society of ours, even today, if more of us could speak each other’s languages.

  • Hunting the Seven is one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for June.


Bedside Table Books for June

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. The top three – Moederland, by Cato Pedder; The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo; and Mr Einstein’s Secretary, by Matthew Reilly – are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for June. Some of them will be reviewed in full later. – Vivien Horler

Moederland – Nine Daughters of South Africa, by Cato Pedder (John Murray)

Despite its title, Moederland is written in English by the British-born great-granddaughter of former SA prime minister Jan Smuts.

It looks at the stories of nine women across four centuries of South Africa’s history: Krotoa, a Khoikhoi translator for the Dutch East India Company; Angela of Bengal, a former slave; Elsje, a German child immigrant who was married at 13 and had her first child at 15; Anna, who was mistress of Vergelegen in the 1700s; Margaretha, a farmer who resisted the abolition of slavery; another Anna who trekked; Isie, wife of Jan Smuts; Cato, the author’s grandmother; and Petronella, the author’s aunt, who fell in love across the colour bar.

Pedder writes she is named after her grandmother, Smuts’s daughter Catharina, who too was called Cato (pronounced Cuh-too, not Kate-o). She says in her prologue that this name ensures “…I am forever connected to a country 6 000 miles from home, to a culture freighted with shame”.

This history has been reviewed on The Books Page website by Annamia van den Heever, but I’m mentioning it here as I have just received it and it is one of Exclusive Books’s top reads for the month.

Mr Einstein’s Secretary, by Matthew Reilly (Orion)

This is a novel by a best-selling thriller writer. It is the story of the fictitious Hanna Fisher who was born in 1902 and lived through many tumultuous events of the first half of the 20th century.

The cover blurb tells us that all Hanna wants to do is study physics under Albert Einstein, but in 1919 her life is turned upside down, and she is flung into a new life as a secretary, a scientist, a sister and a spy.

Hanna meets racist gangs in Berlin, gangsters in New York City, works with some of the greatest and most egregious minds of the 20th century, goes through some terrible times, and desperately tries to stay alive.

This novel, described by the Guardian as “a thrilling, action-packed adventure from cover to cover”, looks like a blockbuster of note.

The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

There is an old adage that novelists should write about what they know, and in this debut novel Claire Lombardo obviously took that to heart. Her book is about a family of two parents and four grown daughters, and in her acknowledgements she thanks her siblings, three sisters and a brother to whom she says she owes a great deal.

This novel tells the family saga of David and Marilyn, he a Chicago GP and she a housewife and later hardware store owner, and their four daughters. The story loops forward and back between the past of the milestones of the couple’s relationship, and the present, which sees all four sisters going through varying degrees of crisis.

So far it’s a wonderful warm novel, and I’m loving it.

Crash and Burn – A CEO’s crazy adventures in the SA airline industry, by Glenn Orsmond (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

One of the problems in the airline industry is that it attracts people who love aeroplanes – hence, too many pilots and not enough accountants end up running things.

That’s the view of chartered accountant Glenn Orsmond, who was CEO of Comair twice and the founding CEO of 1time. After 30 years in the airline industry, he was the boss under whose watch in 2022, in the wake of Covid, Comair crashed and burned.

Shareholders, lenders and suppliers lost money, employees – including Orsmond himself – lost their jobs, and thousands of travellers lost the fares they had paid.

Orsmond’s career in aviation began in 1991 with Bop Air, the national airline of the ostensibly independent homeland of Bophuthatswana. Soon after the homeland’s reintegration into South Africa, Bop Air applied for a licence to operate in SA proper, facing competition from SAA, Flitestar, Comair and Nationwide.

This looks like a rollicking account of a career and a really interesting book.

Saltblood, by Francesca de Tores (Bloomsbury/ Jonathan Ball)

In 1685, in Portsmouth, baby Mary Read is born as her half-brother is dying. Her mother makes the split-second decision to turn Mary into Mark, so she will continue to collect his inheritance.

Mary becomes a footman in a great house and later joins the navy, but being a woman aboard a ship is a dangerous thing to be. Eventually she becomes a pirate.

The novel opens in 1721, with the pirate Mary/Mark in gaol, condemned to the gallows. It appears Mary Read was a real historic character.

Saltblood has had some ecstatic reviews, such as “a complete triumph. A glittering jewel of a novel; a treasure chest of delight”, but the one I liked best was: “Master and Commander meets Thelma & Louise”. Which sounds promising.

Birds of Greater Southern Africa, a Helm Field Guide, by Keith Barnes, Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe; illustrated by John Gale and Brian Small (Sunbird Publishers)

This is a magnificent tome, beautifully illustrated and featuring thousands of birds – resident, breeding and migrants, as well as vagrant species – found in nine African countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

It also includes birds found in the waters of the Mozambique Channel, the African sector of Antarctica, the Southern Ocean and the islands of these waters including Tristan da Cunha and the Prince Edward Islands.

There are maps, and discussions about landscapes and habitats. Each entry includes  pictures, physical descriptions of the bird concerned, the difference between adult and immature birds, their status and habitat, and the sounds they make.

Only one caveat: this is a field guide but you might need a porter – it weighs a ton (about 1kg).




Great and moving story about an island at war

Review: Vivien Horler

The Wartime Book Club, by Kate Thompson (Hodder & Stoughton)

The dynamics of World War II in the Channel Islands were extraordinary. The only part of Britain to be invaded by the Germans, its residents experienced a very different war from that of their countrymen just a few miles across the Channel.

On June 30, 1940, just over a week after 6 500 evacuees left the islands for the British mainland – many of them children, many of them men going to fight with the Allies – the tramp of jackboots was heard in the streets of St Helier, Jersey, for the first time.

At first things were not too terrible, as the Germans were able to import food from France. But after the D-Day landings in June 1944, things became very bad indeed as the islanders, and the German military, were effectively trapped on the islands, unable to leave or source food from anywhere else. Continue reading

Literature, travel and geography blend in this wonderful evocation our country

Review: Vivien Horler

Place – South African literary journeys, by Justin Fox (Umlazi)

Overberg Landscape, by Erik Laubscher

Where is your best place? When you die, where do you want your ashes scattered?

(If you believe in burial, I assume you would not want to be interred in the sandy wastes of Maitland Cemetery. Well, I wouldn’t.)

I grew up the daughter of a woman born in the shadow of Trencrom Hill in Cornwall, the site of an ancient hill fort. The family was not wealthy and toys were few, but the hill was where they climbed, walked and played. “Poor Granny,” my young son once commented. “She only had a hill to play with.”

I have lived on the edge of Zandvlei in Cape Town’s Lakeside for the past 24 years, watching the sun rise and set over the water, the coots and terns and cormorants. We have swum in the vlei (not so much now), paddled our canoes, and walked along its shores. Continue reading

SA’s tumultuous history told through the stories of nine women

Review: Annamia van den Heever

Moederland:  Nine daughters of South Africa, by Cato Pedder (John Murray Press)

To what extent is our present informed by the trauma of South Africa’s various pasts and its people’s very different histories – encompassing colonialism, slavery, racism, GBV and patriarchy?

Perhaps more important: what is our responsibility in creating this tumultuous present?

In this courageous book, which despite its title is in English, poet and former journalist Cato Pedder faces these questions head-on. The great-granddaughter of twice prime minister Jan Smuts explores the turbulent history of South Africa and her own family’s part in it. Continue reading

A tale of extraordinary talent, ambition, love – and heartbreak

Review: Vivien Horler

Diva, by Daisy Goodwin (Head Zeus)

I was a romantic-minded 16-year-old when I heard that the widowed Jackie Kennedy had married the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. I’d vaguely heard of the Greek opera singer Maria Callas, and she’d been ditched, but I loved the fact poor, beautiful Jackie had remarried. Just a pity the groom looked so much like a frog.

With no appreciation of opera, I had no idea of the story of Callas’s life and her magnificence as a diva. I know quite a lot more now, thanks to this novel. Author Daisy Goodwin makes it clear in a note that Diva is a novel, not a biography, and that while she has “stuck to the facts as far as possible”, she has taken some liberties with dates.

I can live with that. Continue reading

Bedside table books for May

It’s been a wonderfully book-rich month, and there are books on every surface in my house. These are some of the offerings that landed on my desk this month, of which I will review a few in full in coming weeks. The first two – Show Me the Place by Hedley Twidle, and The Comrades’s Wife by Barbara Boswell – are among Exclusive Books’s top reads for May, along with Diva by Daisy Goodwin, a novel based on the life of Maria Callas, which will be reviewed in full on Sunday June 2 on The Books Page website. – Vivien Horler

Show Me the Place – Essays, by Hedley Twidle (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Thirty-six “is no longer young, promising or even emerging”, writes academic and essayist Hedley Twidle in a delightful piece on learning to surf, 20 years too late.

No matter, it is fun, even when he and his friend Alex battle to cope with 2-foot waves off Milnerton lighthouse and have to dodge the odd nappy in the surf. It is also humiliating out there, “being whistled off a wave by a seven-year-old”.

It’ll take five years to get even half way good, says Alex gloomily, even if they surf every day. But they press on, till Covid strikes and the beaches are declared off limits. “The world needed people who loved surfing without feeling the need to surf themselves,” says a resigned Twidle.

Other essays are about seeking Rhodes’s chopped off bronze nose, attending an academic conference in Brazil where a British colleague is obsessed with relationships in her department back home, spending weeks in a Scottish bothy with a pair of grumpy anarchists, meditating for seven hours (it hurts, physically), and the tragedy of his mother’s dementia.

“Hedley Twidle is an essayist of rare brilliance,” is a shout on the cover of this book.

The Comrade’s Wife, by Barbara Boswell (Jacana Media)

This is a tautly plotted novel about a divorced Cape Town academic in her mid-40s who meets a delicious man of a similar age online. He is handsome, urbane, educated, apparently wealthy, and he fancies Anita big time, as she does him.

He turns out to be a rising star backbench MP for the ruling party, so that he travels a great deal. This becomes a problem for Anita who wants more of him, despite Neill pointing out that she knew he was a devoted comrade from the get go.

There are a couple of red flags, but Anita tells herself to be a grownup, because when she has Neill’s attention she has all his attention. He is also kind, generous and a tender and fantastic lover.

Within months of meeting, they marry, but sudden work commitments mean Neill is unable to accompany Anita on their honeymoon trip to Vic Falls.

And so it goes on. When the relationship is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad…

It turns out scorned wives are not powerless.

This is a triffic read.

Hunting the Seven – How the Gugulethu Seven assassins were exposed, by Beverley Roos-Muller (Jonathan Ball)

The 1980s were a terrible time in South Africa. The Struggle against the apartheid government was ratchetting up, and in response the authorities were becoming more viciously heavy handed.

Early on March 3, 1986, Gugulethu residents heard an explosion, followed by gunshots. Minutes later, all was quiet again. For those who were looking, seven bodies lay sprawled in NY1. There was an unusually high police presence.

What had happened? The official version was that seven heavily armed young black men had been planning to ambush a police van returning to the nearby Gugulethu police station.

But it happened that Chris Bateman, a Cape Times reporter who could speak isiXhosa, arrived at the scene and was amazed by the number of senior police milling about. This was unusual in an under-policed area.

The scene was overlooked by a hostel lived in by dairy workers. Bateman found three hostel dwellers who had seen what happened. Two men told a similar story: there had been an explosion, and they had run to the windows to see what was going on. Outside a man lay in the dirt under a big tree. A policeman walked up to him and shot him in the head.

A third hostel dweller said he had seen a man near the bushes on the opposite side of the road. A policeman confronted him, kneed and kicked him till he was down, and shot him.

These reports were key to establishing the truth of what really happened that day.

But most of this became known, thanks to testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Beverley Roos-Muller takes matters further: the men’s families denied they were activists. Why had the police shot them? Roos-Muller went hunting for answers.

When Love Kills – The tragic tale of AKA and Anele, by Melinda Ferguson (Melinda Ferguson Books)

Author Melinda Ferguson describes this tale as echoing a Shakespearean tragedy, “a story that broke my heart”.

The rapper AKA – Kiernan Forbes, 35 – was shot dead along with his friend, chef and entrepreneur Tebello “Tibz” Motsoane, in Florida Road, Durban on the night of February 11, 2023.

This was big news around the world. He was a talented rapper and producer, although he did not impress author and publisher Melinda Ferguson much. In an author’s note she writes: “…for me, his chaotic personal life had blurred his genius”.

Somehow, in all the publicity around his death, little was said about the death of his fiancée, Anele Tembe, more than 10 years his junior, who fell from the 10th floor of the Pepperclub Hotel in Cape Town in April 2021.

In fact not everyone was silent about Tembe’s death. There was speculation AKA’s assassination might have been an act of revenge. Was it an inside job? Was it a suicide, a dreadful accident, or a murder?

Ferguson says this book, which is controversial, is not a biography of either of the couple. “Rather it’s a twisted love story involving a highly talented and flawed man, a bright and flawed young girl and some significant characters who crossed their paths.”

Sizzlers – The hate crime that tore Sea Point apart, by Nicole Engelbrecht (Melinda Ferguson Books)

I was still working on the newsdesk of the Cape Argus when on January 23, 2003, ten men were tied up and attacked at Sizzlers, a gay massage parlour in Sea Point, Cape Town. It was a very big story at the time.

Extraordinarily, after the killers had left, one of the victims, Quinton Taylor, who had been shot in the head twice and had his throat slit, dragged himself to a nearby petrol station and raised the alarm.

Eventually two killers, Adam Woest and Trevor Theys, were arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

And then, in 2018, Woest became eligible for parole, despite the fact that none of the victims’ families had been contacted, much less consulted, and nor had Quinton Taylor. Eventually the sister of one of the victims, who lived in Canada, took matters in hand. Woest was not going to be released if she had anything to do with it.