Author Archives: Vivien Horler

A dazzling depiction of Victorian colonial England

Review: Leighan M Renaud

The Fraud, by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton/ Jonathan Ball)

Zadie Smith’s latest novel, The Fraud, is her first foray into the world of historical fiction. The result is a stunning, well-studied examination of Victorian colonial England and some of its inhabitants.

As with other works by Smith, the novel takes a patchwork approach, with several interwoven plots taking place over a period of about 50 years. Centrally placed in the plot is the real-life and bizarre trial of a man claiming to be a Sir Roger Tichborne, thought to have died at sea and heir to a substantial fortune.

The absurd and very long trial, which had people from all communities in 1870s England hooked, is seen in the novel through the eyes of Eliza Touchet, cousin and companion of William Ainsworth, a novelist well known in Victorian England but relatively forgotten today. Continue reading

Saving the world, one child at a time

Review: Vivien Horler

One Life – The true story of Sir Nicholas Winton, by Barbara Winton (Robinson) 

In 1988 an elderly Englishman was presented with a gold ring on which the words “Save one life – save the world” were engraved.

The words come from the Jewish Talmud, and the ring was given to Sir Nicholas Winton to mark the fact that as a young man shortly before World War II he – and others – saved the lives of 669 Czech children, most of them Jewish, from the Nazis.

Winton, while technically Jewish – his mother was born into a German Jewish family – was not observant. In fact he had been baptised and confirmed as an Anglican. Later he became an agnostic. Continue reading

Discovering the last voice of the dead

Review: Vivien Horler

Blood has a Voice – Stories from the autopsy table, by Hestelle van Staden (Tafelberg)

Hestelle van Staden describes herself as a “normal, 40-something-year-old suburban Afrikaans-speaking woman” with two children, and yet she has a job she describes as “not always easy or nice”.

Well, no. She’s a forensic pathologist, and knew from when she was at high school in Pretoria what career she wanted to pursue. She credits Patricia Cornwell and her Kay Scarpetta books for inspiring her. Such was her enthusiasm for her job that on her first day at work she felt “like a kid in a candy store”.

Since then she was performed more than 7 000 autopsies, one of them on the reggae star Lucky Dube, who was shot dead in a hijacking in Johannesburg in 2007. She also testified for the state in the later murder trial. Continue reading

Potsdam: to Stalin the spoils

Review: Archie Henderson

Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe, by Michael Neiberg (Basic Books)

Potsdam, a city 25km south-west of Berlin, is a charming place of palaces, lakes, rivers, and green space with only a quarter of the area inhabited by its 183,000 residents. On a cold, blustery day, Michael Neiberg roamed the city and was enchanted, but also disappointed. 

Neiberg is a military civilian who teaches history at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and for 17 days in the summer of 1945 Potsdam was centre in the history of World War 2. But nowhere could Neiberg find any books about the history of the city and even elsewhere the offerings were meagre. So, he wrote one himself. Continue reading

Just because you CAN do something, should you?

Review: Vivien Horler

The Seventh Son, by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson Heinemann)

If you Google the significance of “the seventh son” in folklore, you find that from the 16th century a seventh son was believed to have psychic powers.

Seth, the boy and young man at the centre of this startling tale, does seem have such powers, but he is an only child and the identity of his father is a mystery. He is however the seventh subject in a bizarre scientific experiment.

At the beginning of this story, set slightly ahead of the present in 2030, Talissa Adam is a young American post-doc who is looking for a job. Her area is the “distant but discoverable human past”.

A Boston institute offers her a post, but there’s a catch – she will have to fund her first year herself. And there is no money for that. Continue reading

Who knows the secrets a mild-mannered neighbour might have?

Review: Vivien Horler

All the Broken Places, by John Boyne (Penguin Books)

Gretel Fernsby is a widow in her 90s, living in a pleasant flat in London’s Mayfair, and leading an ordered life. She keeps herself to herself, has few friends and rarely speaks of her past.

Gretel has a secret, which she has spent all her life trying to hide. She was born in Berlin before the outbreak of World War II, but tells the few people who might need to know that she had grown up in France.

This is because she is “the devil’s daughter”, and even 80 years on she suspects if her past were uncovered, it would be all over the newspapers. Continue reading

Bedside books for October

These are among the books that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later. All the Broken Pieces by John Boyne, Paperless by Buntu Siwisa and The Seventh Son by Sebastian Faulks, are among Exclusive Books’ top reads for the month. – Vivien Horler

The Seventh Son, by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson Heinemann)

Talissa Adam is a post-doc based in Manhattan who finds she has no clear career path ahead. Her field is the distant but recoverable past. She has been offered a post-doctoral research position by a new and admired institute, but a condition is that she will have to provide her own funding for the first year – an amount in the region of $70 000.

So she looks elsewhere. An English institute involved in genomics has proposed a study into the role of surrogate mothers in IVF. She would have to go to London and become a surrogate mother, hopefully being paid enough to fund the post-doc position she has been offered in the US.

It emerges that the head of the English institute wants to make a substitution – one man’s sperm for another’s in a bid for a human hybrid.

It’s not clear at the outset if Talissa is aware of dubious ethics of this plan; she goes ahead and gives birth to baby Seth, whose parents are delighted. But as he grows it becomes obvious he is not quite the same as his peers, and he begins to attract attention.

According to th cover notes, The Seventh Son asks the question: just because you can do something, does it mean you should? Intriguing.

All the Broken Pieces by John Boyne (Penguin Books)

Gretel Fernsby is an elderly woman who has lived in her posh Mayfair flat for more than 60 years. She keeps herself to herself, and is rather proper and formal, as this sentence on the first page of the book illustrates: “Mr Richardson and I had enjoyed the perfect neighbourly relationship in that we had not exchanged a single word since 2008.”

Gretel is of the generation which did not let it all hang out; consequently she rarely talks about – or tries not even to think about – her past growing up in Germany before and during World War 2, with a father who was eventually hanged for war crimes, and a brother who died young.

But now Mr Richardson downstairs has died, and the flat has been sold to a young family whose young son, Harry, brings back painful memories. She finds herself in a position where she can help save a young boy for the second time in her life, but what will this mean for her self-contained life?

This is a self-standing but sort of sequel to Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

I’ve just started it and I’m already absorbed.

Paperless – a novel, by Buntu Siwisa (Jacana Media)

Mostly set in Oxford, this novel looks at the experiences of African, undocumented and displaced characters living in the ancient British university town.

The novel opens with Luzuko Gobo, doing his doctorate at Oxford, on his way to hear a talk by Rhodesia’s Ian Smith in the Oxford Union on the topic: “Do African leaders govern for, or against, the interests of their people?”

But we all knew, says Luzuko, the Oxford Union was gunning for “the old boogeyman… His Excellency President Robert Gabriel Mugabe”, and all the black people in Oxford were going to hear Smith.

Siwisa’s first book was Rugby, Resistance and Politics: How Dan Qeqe helped shape the history of Port Elizabeth.

Paperless was shortlisted for the James Currey Prize for African Literature. I’ve read only a few pages and the writing seems pretty prolix – maybe he settles down or maybe I’ll get my eye in.

Soul Mandate – the extraordinary life of a property maverick, by Lew Geffen (Melinda Ferguson)

Judging by the photographs in this autobiography, real estate tycoon Lew Geffen has had a good life.

After a somewhat shaky early start, including a failure to get matric, he has gone on to socialise with celebrities, including holding his 60th birthday on Nicholas Cage’s yacht in the Med, golfing with Rafael Nadal in Mallorca, and selling homes for both Nelson Mandela and Gary Player.

He’s also athletic, climbing Table Mountain, running the Comrades, and being in the swimming team at school in Joburg. His career included a stint in the Israeli army, being a hawker, going into the construction business, being fired by his mother, the estate agent Aïda, and dealing with the fall-out of a murder at Lew Geffen Estates’ annual convention at Spier wine farm.

Over the years people told him he should write a book, and the lockdown provided the opportunity. So at 75 he says he is grateful to be healthy and in love, retired from his company but still chairman of Lew Geffen Estates.

He finishes this account: “If the question were to be asked, ‘Did you have a full and fulfilled life, taking into account all the highs and troughs?’ the answer would be: ‘Geffenitely yes!’ ”

Winning the Property Game – letters from an executive property mentor, by Koketso Sylvia Milosevic (Tafelberberg)

Koketso Sylvia Milosevic has the sort of name that was concocted by a prominent PR firm to spread fake news in SA during the State Capture years. But it’s genuinely hers.

She writes: “Who is this black woman with an Eastern European surname… I ask myself, what is a girl who grew up in Ga-Rankuwa in Bophuthatswana doing running a global business, travelling the world, and managing a property empire?”

In her foreword, transformational coach Lisa Nicols says she has helped a lot of people make the often-challenging journey from where they are in life to where they want to be.

“So I was thrilled to discover this book, which is pure rocket fuel for that crucial trip…”

She adds that anyone, no matter how challenging their circumstances, can rise above anything. How? “By being determined, by developing certain skills and by adopting useful attitudes – in short – by believing what Sylvia always says: ‘Success is your birth right’.”

Buy your First Home – SA’s ultimate property guide for newbies by Zamantungwa Khumalo (Tafelberg)

In her preface Zamantungwa Khumalo says she bought herself two properties for her 27th birthday.

“I took uMa to see them, and while we were at one of them, she said uGogo (her mom and my maternal grandmother) had been a domestic worker in that area. In that moment it hit me that we millennials really are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

She says at the outset buying property – and the fear of taking on a whopping R350 000 to R500 000 debt – was crippling.

Google was not much help. She looked up how to buy a house, how home loans worked, what interest rates are , what questions she should  an estate agent, and how long it took to buy a house.

The trouble was the answers came up for people living in the West, with almost no resources catering for South Africans.

So she learnt, and is now sharing the fruits of her research. Chapters include preparing yourself financially, what you can afford, the costs of homeownership, buying off-plan or by auction, First Home Finance, joint homeloans and being married in community of property.

Clear, straightforward and full of useful information, this little book will be handy for anyone contemplating buying their first home.

How a small Ukrainian town changed the course of the war

Review: Vivien Horler

A Small, Stubborn Town – Life, death and defiance in Ukraine, by Andrew Harding (Ithaka)

In the general noise, politics and statistics of war that we’ve seen lately – in Ukraine, Israel and Gaza – the individual experiences of those involved can be overlooked or lost.

And if you’re used to reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, set in previous wars – World War 2, Korea, Vietnam – you know what happened in the end.

In the case of Ukraine, and now the Middle East, we don’t know how things are going to turn out, which creates additional poignancy.

Andrew Harding, who recently left SA where he had been reporting for BBC News, found himself covering the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and then decided to write a book about one small but possibly pivotal battle near the little southern town of Voznesensk. Continue reading

Sleaze of 1920s Soho at centre of gripping tale

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

Shrines of Gaiety, by Kate Atkinson (Penguin Random House)

The glittering stores of Regent Street are the frontispiece to the sleazier Soho – tucked behind London’s teeming shopping area, and revealing a side of the city that is the heart of entertainment, dope dealing, nightclubs, girls on the beat and the dirty secrets of its residents.

Always an attraction to a tourist, exploring these streets reveals a tawdry, seamy side of a city, constantly awake for pleasure, selling and anything that might take your fancy.

Back in the mid 1920s one of the most notorious of the clubs, ‘43’ on Gerard Street, was owned and run by a Mrs Kate Meyrick who spent not a little of her life doing time for licensing misdemeanors. It is she who is the inspiration behind Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Shrines of Gaiety. Continue reading

If you like lemons, garlic and the high tales of a Greek tavern owner, you’ll enjoy this

Review: Vivien Horler

My Big Fat Greek Taverna – From diplomacy to ouzo, by Costa Ayiotis (Melinda Ferguson Books)

The customer is always right, right?

Except when they’re not. Costa Ayiotis – lawyer, diplomat, once Hout Bay taverna owner, and a man of strong opinions – really tried to believe in his customers, and mostly did, except when he didn’t.

Born in Egypt to a Greek father and a Dutch mother, he grew up in Johannesburg where he studied at Wits. In 1997, after returning from New York where he was a South African diplomat at the United Nations, he came to Hout Bay with his wife and two friends-cum-business-partners, and opened a Greek taverna.

It was the delicious, late-lamented Limonia, just a stone’s-throw from the beach. His father was a great cook and cooked what he says in this memoir were many memorable Greek meals for the family. Continue reading