Author Archives: Vivien Horler

Seven votes: the drama of South Africa’s entry into World War 2

Review: Archie Henderson

Seven Votes: How WW2 changed South Africa Forever, by Richard Steyn (Jonathan Ball)

The old House of Assembly in South Africa’s Parliament has been the setting for some dramatic events, none more bloody than the murder of Hendrik Verwoerd in September 1966 and none more profound than the vote on September 4, 1939, to go to war.

The vote of 1939 contained enough drama to fill an entire book but Richard Steyn has resisted the temptation and given the story a more contemporary dimension. With his fine feel for the current readership of South African history, Steyn has taken the vote drama beyond 1939 to the beginning of apartheid and the stirrings of militant black resistance.

He was inspired to write this book by one he had read 30 years before. At van Wyk’s Vyf Dae was all about the vote, but it was published only in Afrikaans. 

It is indeed odd that no one, until now, has thought of emulating Van Wyk in English. Elsewhere we have had snippets of those dramatic five days, most recently in the republication by House of Emslie of No Outspan, the third of Denys Reitz’s trilogy, Adrift on the Open Veld. Steyn has correctly judged that a drama loses nothing with age. Those five days – even six if you count the Friday on which Hitler’s panzers rolled into Poland – held not only South Africans in thrall. Britain and the Commonwealth looked on anxiously too, as did Nazi Germany no doubt. Continue reading

Wonderful tale of loss and loves in Trinidad

Review: Vivien Horler

Love after Love, by Ingrid Persaud (faber & faber/ Jonathan Ball)

This glorious novel is suffused with love and longing. There is marital love, maternal love, gay love, even love for the place you come from. And sometimes it turns up unexpectedly.

One of the central characters of Love after Love is the West Indian island of Trinidad, where Betty Ramdin, a teacher, lives with her abusive husband Sunil and young son Solo.

The flavor of the marriage is exposed on the first page when Sunil calls Betty. As she approaches him he kicks her on the shin and says: “Slow coach. You can’t come when I call you? What, you ugly and you deaf?”

Within four pages Betty has a broken arm and Sunil is dead. But he casts a long shadow throughout the novel.

Shortly afterwards Betty tells a colleague that she has a room to let in her big old house. Mr Chetan moves in with Betty and Solo. Continue reading

Some dark but gripping thrillers

Reviews: Vivien Horler

Camino Winds, by John Grisham (Hodder & Stoughton/ Jonathan Ball)

When She was Good, by Michael Robotham (Sphere/ Jonathan Ball)

The Silent Wife, by Karin Slaughter (HarperCollins/ Jonathan Ball)

If I can say it without sounding rude, John Grisham is a book machine. Camino Winds was published this year and his next thriller, A Time for Mercy, is due out next month. And the list of his titles runs to more than 40, including a single non-fiction book.

And they all – well the ones I’ve read – make for engaging reading.

Hurricane Leo is bearing down on Florida’s Camino Island, and the state governor gives the order to evacuate. But Bruce Cable, owner of Bay Books in the island town of Santa Rosa, decides to stay put.

The hurricane hits and is terrifying. Buildings collapse, the water and lights go off, trees are uprooted and a sea surge floods houses and shops. Twenty-four hours later around 12 people are dead, including Cable’s writer friend Nelson Kerr.

He is found on his patio with wounds to his head. Why would he have gone outside in the storm, puzzles Cable. Maybe his dog got out and he went after it? But Nick, a college student who works in Cable’s bookstore in the holidays, is a detective thriller devotee. He looks at the body and suggests the head wounds were deliberately inflicted.

The police are overwhelmed with the task of clearing up after the storm, and aren’t interested, but Cable and Nick become convinced Nelson was murdered. They find the manuscript of Nelson’s latest book on his computer, all about how care homes are giving dodgy drugs to old people to keep them alive so they will continue paying the high care costs.

Could this be true? Cable and Nick interview some care home staff and begin to suspect that Nelson was on to something, and that powerful interests didn’t want the book published.

The description of the evacuation of the island, the hurricane and its aftermath make for great reading, and then there’s also the murder mystery to solve. Camino Winds is a great read.

Michael Robotham’s thriller When She was Good is darker and has child abuse at its centre.

Cyrus Haven is a forensic psychologist who has befriended Evie Cormac, a teenage girl with a troubled past. The body of a small-time criminal, Terry Boland is found, tied up and gagged, in a house. He has been tortured. His body is removed and the house is cleaned up.

Then neighbours complain about things going missing: food, sweets, playing cards, and the police assume it’s kids. But a young special constable, Sacha, is suspicious. She arranges to spend a night in the house and discovers a feral child of about eight, living in a secret compartment built behind a cupboard.

No one has reported her missing, and she refuses to divulge her name. She is eventually made a ward of the court, given a new name and sent to a place of safety. Six years later she is a difficult teenager who is threatened with being admitted to a mental home.

Cyrus, who wants to protect her, interviews Sacha to find out if there were any details she remembers that may help Evie unravel her identity.

But powerful people with terrible secrets do not want that to happen. So while Sacha and Cyrus are seeking clues to the puzzle, Evie herself is convinced that they will lead Terry Boland’s killers to themselves and to her.

This is an often unsettling but compelling read.

Karin Slaughter’s The Silent Wife is also pretty dark. One likes to think that in real life there are very few of the kind of sicko who is behind attacks on young women in a small American college town.

It starts with a young student going for a run in the woods. She begins to feel uncomfortable and is right to do so – someone is watching her and attacks her. When she is found she is so badly hurt that at first police believe her to be dead.

Agent Will Trent and forensic pathologist Sara Linton are contacted by a man in jail for murder. He was convicted of a similar attack 10 years ago that left a young girl dead. The modus operandi in the two cases is identical, but the convict couldn’t have been second attacker.

So they start investigating the old case, and discover the original dead girl wasn’t the only one. Trent and Linton seem to have stumbled on the trail of a serious pervert who is also a serial killer.

It’s all pretty horrific, but again an engrossing thriller.




When the pestilence came to Stratford

Review: Vivien Horler

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press)

Hamnet Shakespeare was William Shakespeare’s only son, who died aged 11 in the British summer of 1596.

To our eyes the name is a strange one, accustomed as we are to the name of the Prince of Denmark in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. But Shakespeare scholar Steven Greenblatt has written that in Stratford records of the late 16th and early 17th centuries the names Hamlet and Hamnet are interchangeable.

Maggie O’Farrell, who won the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction with this novel, has taken the scant historical details of Shakespeare’s home life in Stratford and created a beautiful, slightly mystical story of a 16th century extended family.

At the centre of the book is Hamnet’s death and the devastation it causes, but there is much else besides in this telling, including the passionate love story between the son of a glove maker and a wild young farmer’s daughter who flies a kestrel, treats people with her herbal remedies, and feels most at home in the forest near her home. Continue reading

You don’t need isiZulu when making a Zulu movie – but it helps

Review: Vivien Horler

Starlite Memories – Misadventures in moviemaking, by Dov Fedler (Tafelberg)

What is the Zulu word for “furtive”?

This is one of the first challenges Dov Fedler confronts when he begins to direct a shoestring budget movie for black audiences called Timer Joe Part 3.

Fedler speaks no Zulu, but on the first day of filming in downtown Joburg, he is informed by the producer, the gum-chewing Moe Mankowitz, that the cast must be addressed only in that language. This is one of the terms of the subsidy given by the apartheid government to movie makers for the black market.

The year is 1983 and it is a long time before Google, so Fedler can’t look up “furtive”. He asks Moe if he can speak isiZulu. Moe chews harder and responds: “Do I look as if I speak Zulu?” Continue reading

Fine dining in the bush by legendary restaurateur


Review: Myrna Robins

Out of an African Kitchen, by Nicky Fitzgerald (Struik Lifestyle)

It couldn’t have come at a better time. As lockdown lifts and international travel beckons, it’s wonderful to receive a cookbook for review that is not only physically alluring, but offers a welcome glimpse of life on a luxurious safari lodge, perfectly perched on the edge of the Great Rift Valley overlooking the renowned Maasai Mara game reserve.

As we absorb the difficulties of producing great food in the Kenyan bush, we  admire the enthusiasm and skills of an impressive team of chefs, and drool over a fine treasury of recipes.

Angama Mara was the latest in a series of well known hotel and restaurant ventures. Nicky and Steve Fitzgerald presided over the rebuilding of the Arniston Hotel, and then Blues Restaurant on the Camps Bay beachfront, followed by the Bay Hotel.

Five years ago the Fitzgeralds launched Angama Mara, but two years later Steve died a month after having a heart transplant. Nicky has kept the flag flying, feeding her international guests with fine fare that isn’t fancy. Using her experience of more than two decades of catering, Nicky decided that culinary focus should be on authenticity… “less fancy imported ingredients, more locally grown. Less drizzles, gels and foams… less ego in the kitchen…”

Vegetables are sourced from the Kenyan highlands, tropical fruits from the coast, freshwater fish from Lake Victoria, honey delivered in five-litre buckets from local beekeepers. Menus make full use of indigenous Arab-inspired Swahili dishes from the coast and Indian cuisine from the large community that has called Kenya home for generations. A kitchen garden enables guests to pick their own ingredients and toss their own salads for lunch. At the other end of the gastronomic spectrum Angama caters happily for vegan, gluten-free and low sodium recipes, adapts meals to cope with food allergies, makes sure that exotic ingredients – think sumac, za’atar and almond milk – are stocked. Continue reading

Finding your voice

Vivien Horler

RW Johnson

A writer’s voice – that’s a tricky subject to tackle or even define.

Voice is the subject of the seventh module of the non-fiction writing course I’m doing under the auspices of crime writer, memoirist and biographer Mike Nicol. And even he, vastly experienced writer that he is, has some difficulty pinning down the concept of “voice”.

“What do we mean when we talk about a writer’s voice and how does this affect your writing? And then if I go on to say that this voice is largely dependent on the tone of your prose, you might say, enough now.”

Well, quite. Voice and tone, he says, are the building blocks of style.

“Voice” is the voice of someone with something to say about the world. It’s hard to figure out one’s own voice – the module assignment was to find a piece of our own writing and then analyse it.

But perhaps it’s easier when you’re reading someone else’s non-fiction. I was mildly affronted by the preface of commentator RW Johnson’s latest book Foreign Native. He had, he says, written and published, in London, a memoir about his time at Oxford University.

He then suggested his local publisher, Jonathan Ball, might like to bring out a South African edition.

This is the sentence that got me: “Jonathan read the book and liked it, but felt that Oxford was too far away from the usually more parochial concerns of South African readers.”

Well, that puts us japies in our place.

So far in the course, titled Writing Reality, we have looked at how to write stories, how to introduce characters (and make them characters), how to describe current events, how to draft scenes, and – importantly – how to write dialogue. Dialogue is what brings writing and characters to life. Or as Tom Wolfe puts it (as quoted in Nicol’s course notes: “…realistic dialogue involves the reader more completely than any other single device. It also establishes and defines character more quickly and effectively than any other single device”.

Back to voice. It emerges, says Nicol, from tone, lexicon and grammar. Sentence length is important. Voice and tone create style.

It’s all a touch nebulous – but I can recognise it when I see it, in RW Johnson’s writing at any rate. And what is Johnson’s voice?  It is smug, that’s what it is.

* For more information on Nicol’s courses (which include a fiction writing course, see or email him on






Zimbabwean activist and writer makes Booker 2020 shortlist

Vivien Horler

Tsitsi Dangarembga

So Hilary Mantel is not going to make history by winning the Booker Prize three times.

I’m a bit disappointed – I thought all three novels about Thomas Cromwell: Wolf  Hall, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & the Light, were absorbing, often terrifying and utterly brilliant.

Not even to get on to the shortlist for the 2020 Booker! I think she wuz robbed.

But thriller writer Lee Child, who was on the panel of judges, was quoted in The Guardian saying of The Mirror & the Light: “It is an absolutely wonderful novel, there’s no question about it. It’s a trilogy which will live forever. But as good as it was, there were some books which were better.”

Another two international novelists whose books failed to make the cut were Anne Tyler with Redhead by the Side of the Road, and Colum McCann for Apeirogon.

But closer to home, acclaimed Zimbabwean writer and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga is in with a chance to win the prize for her for This Mournable Body.  This is the third in a trilogy which includes Nervous Conditions (1988), named by the BBC as one of the 100 books that shaped the world, and The Book of Not, published in 2006. Continue reading

Clever columnist turns up the heat

Review: Vivien Horler

Is it Me or is it Getting Hot in Here? Great expectations and boiling frogs in South Africa.  By Tom Eaton (Tafelberg)

I worry about Tom Eaton’s blood pressure.

He’s a delightfully clever columnist and commentator, usually spot on, nuanced and often hilarious. Here’s an example, taken from his column in Times Select on Friday, September 11.

Referring to the disaster that is municipal politics in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), he says the appalling former mayor Mongameli Bobani managed “to achieve what almost no other politician in modern SA has, uniting the ANC, DA, ACDP, Cope, AIC and Patriotic Alliance in a motion of no confidence”.

The EFF however abstained from the vote, “perhaps because it had already flip-flopped several times that morning and was afraid of putting out its back”. Continue reading

Culinary legacy of the old SAR & H

Review: Vivien Horler

Loves & Miracles of Pistola, by Hilary Prendini Toffoli (Penguin)

For more than 60 years people have been flocking to La Perla Restaurant, first in the city centre and since 1969 in Sea Point.

Its existence – and that of many other Italian restaurants in South Africa – springs from a strange and almost forgotten episode in South Africa history, one exploited by journalist, food writer and now novelist Hilary Prendini Toffoli.

In the prologue to the delightful Loves & Miracles of Pistola, she explains that in the 1950s in apartheid South Africa, the SA Railways had a problem. They needed stewards for their long-distance passenger train service, which in those days criss-crossed the country and took travellers into neighbouring countries too. Continue reading