Author Archives: Vivien Horler

Fascinating tale of the SAA heist and the whistleblower

Review: Vivien Horler

Hijackers on Board – How one courageous whistleblower fought against the capture of SAA, by Cynthia Stimpel (Tafelberg)

The wholesale looting that has made up the State Capture project is so overwhelming that among many media consumers, including me, there is a tendency, when coming across some new malfeasance, to roll one’s eyes and move on.

It’s not that I don’t care – I do. But it’s all too much to keep track of.

And then you come across one focused, coherent account that details one aspect of the project, and it’s as if someone has shone a spotlight on what has been going on.

The someone in this case is Cynthia Stimpel, who was head of treasury at SAA.

Everything she describes in this book is in the public domain, much of it at the Zondo Commission, but her detailed and chronological account makes for truly absorbing reading. And it made me wonder how I would have responded had I been in a situation where I had a bond and children at university, and where pressure was mounting at work to just “Sign here”, “Just do it, Cynthia.” Continue reading

Two SA authors make the longlist of the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction


Vivien Horler

South African writers Damon Galgut and Karen Jennings are among the 13 international authors whose novels have been longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction – Galgut for the third time.

This time it is for his novel The Promise, about the Swart family who live on a hardscrabble smallholding outside Pretoria, and whose story is told over 40 years in a series of snapshots, each one surrounding a family funeral.

At the heart of the story – and the family conflict – is a promise made to a domestic worker that she would get title to the house she lives in.

Galgut’s two previous longlisted titles were The Good Doctor (2006) and In a Strange Room (2010).

Jennings’s book is called An Island, and is about Samuel, a lighthouse keeper on an island off the southern African coast. One day a young man, probably a refugee, washes ashore and Samuel reluctantly takes him in. Their interaction forces Samuel to look back over his own life. Local author Joanne Hichens has described An Island as “a terrifying novel”.

Historian Maya Jasanoff, chair of the judging panel, said: “‘One thing that unites these books is their power to absorb the reader in an unusual story, and to do so in an artful, distinctive voice. Many of them consider how people grapple with the past – whether personal experiences of grief or dislocation or the historical legacies of enslavement, apartheid, and civil war.

“Many examine intimate relationships placed under stress, and through them meditate on ideas of freedom and obligation, or on what makes us human. “It’s particularly resonant during the pandemic to note that all of these books have important things to say about the nature of community, from the tiny and secluded to the unmeasurable expanse of cyberspace.

“Reading in lockdown fostered a powerful sense of connection with the books, and of shared enterprise among the judges. Though we didn’t always respond in the same way to an author’s choices, every book on this list sparked long discussions amongst ourselves that led in unexpected and enlightening directions.”

The longlist was chosen from 158 novels published in the UK or Ireland between October 2020 and September 2021. The Booker is open to writers of any nationality, writing in English and published in the UK or Ireland.

Apart from Jasanoff, the judges were writer and editor Horatia Harrod, actor Natascha McElhone, twice Booker-shortlisted novelist and professor Chigozie Obioma, and writer and former archbishop Rowan Williams.

Other longlisted authors who have made the list before, other than Galgut, are Kazuo Ishiguro (won in 1989 for The Remains of the Day; shortlisted in 2005 for Never Let Me Go, in 2000 for When we were Orphans and in 1986 for An Artist of the Floating World); Mary Lawson (longlisted in 2006 for The Other Side of the Bridge); Richard Powers (shortlisted in 2018 for The Overstory and longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo); and Sunjeev Sahota (shortlisted in 2015 for The Year of the Runaways).

Two debut novelists made the list: Nathan Harris with The Sweetness of Water and Patricia Lockwood with No One is Talking About This. 

The six books on the shortlist will be announced on September, and each author will wina total of  £2 500 (about R51 000).

The overall winner will get their prize at an award ceremony on November 3. They win £50 000 (about R1.02million), and in the po-faced words of the judges, “can expect international recognition”.

The full list of 13 novels is:

Continue reading

What is it about women in their mid-50s?

Review: Vivien Horler

Unbecoming, by Joanne Fedler (Penguin Books)

Grandmothers, by Salley Vickers (Viking)

These are two novels about ageing women, written by mistresses of their craft. They are well worth reading, although your enjoyment might be helped by being an ageing woman yourself.

But many people interact with ageing women – their partners, their spouses, their friends and their children, and Unbecoming, especially, gives insight into how women in their 50s and 60s often change and become somewhat mystifying to those who love them or interact with them.

Or as SA-born Australian writer Joanne Fedler says in her “Author’s Warning”: “You’ll declare that what you used to want isn’t doing it for you anymore; that you have changed your mind. The urge to empty your pockets of friendships, sexual orientations, expectations and life goals will make you feel like a nutcase. In the tussle you’ll regret the half century you’ve spent being polite, responsible and dutiful (as a daughter, wife, partner, mother, caretaker) and realise that, frankly, you’re fucking over it all.”

And at this point your second life begins, says Fedler.

Jo is married to Frank and they have two children in their early 20s. Jo is fond of Frank, but he is not exactly a soulmate and is he enough for the rest of her life? And the children haven’t turned out as she expected: daughter Jamie has won a short-story competition with an offering about a young woman who wished she’d been aborted, and son Aaron is planning to join the military.

As Jo says: “Neither of my adult children is comprehensible to me.”

Jo’s unease with where she finds herself prompts her to take a three-month sabbatical from marriage and motherhood, and she leaves Sydney for Queensland to work out where her life is going. Continue reading

Bedside table choices for July

These are among the books that have landed on my desk this month. Not all have been read yet, and some will have fuller reviews. – Vivien Horler

The Grief Handbook – A guide through the worst days of your life, by Bridget McNulty (Self-published)

At a time of pandemic, when grief stalks the land, Cape Town-based Bridget McNulty has penned a timeous book to help the bereaved cope. Death is always with us, yet most of us have no idea what to do and how to react when someone close to us dies. Her mother was 72 when she started having odd symptoms. A physician diagnosed cancer and just 13 days later her mother died. McNulty, her father and her brothers were knocked sideways. She sought books to help her through, but suffering from the fog of grief she found books on death were either too dense, philosophical or religious. McNulty concedes she is not an expert on grief, but she has consulted many such experts and this slim volume contains suggestions that helped her and will probably help others. For example: treat yourself gently. Eat and go to bed at normal times. Move your body. And don’t question your feelings: what you’re feeling is right for you.

Ougat – From a hoe into a housewife and then some, by Shana Fife (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Writes Shana Fife at the beginning of this memoir: “I promise this book will have all of the elements that make for a real Coloured skinnerstorie.” It’s about growing up on the Cape Flats and the mixed messages passed on to a coloured girl child. The opening lines are: “The very first rule you are given as a Coloured child who has a vagina is that no one is allowed to touch it. Ever. Even with your consent. Especially not with your consent.” Fife, now 30, had two children by different fathers by the time she was 23, and was trying to emerge from a viciously destructive relationship with her second child’s father. At a low point she began writing a blog about who she was and where she was going, and this changed her life. She writes of how toxic masculinity can shape and trap a woman “from the cot to the cot because our whole purposes, from when we are babies, is to eventually have our own babies”. This memoir is shocking, frighteningly honest and disarming.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.

Unbecoming, by Joanne Fedler (Penguin Books)

In what would usually be called an “Author’s Note” and is here labelled an “Author’s Warning”, SA-born novelist Joanne Fedler says our second life begins when we hit 50 or so and realise: “Shit, I’m running out of time.” This is when we start to question our values and certainties, spouses and friends, and wonder if having kids was worth it. This, she says, is where our second life begins and where this novel kicks off. Jo takes a three-month sabbatical from her life – as a wife and mother – and is invited to join her friend Fiona and her mates on a sacred walk in the Australian bush to mark Fiona’s 57th birthday. Jo isn’t that keen – she doesn’t know Fiona’s friends – but she figures she could manage one night. And then a stranger joins them around the fire in their overnight camp, and there are all sorts of unintended consequences as they ponder life, midlife and truth – ánd, as the cover blurb puts it, wonder what to do with vaginas that are not ready to be put out to pasture just yet.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.

Still Life, by Sarah Winman (4th Estate)

I think I chose this novel because it’s by the women who wrote the gorgeous When God was a Rabbit. But this one is not set in Cornwall, it’s set in Tuscany in 1944. Elizabeth Skinner is in her 60s, an art historian and possibly a spy who has come to Italy to salvage paintings from the wreckage of war and remember the time she met EM Forster there. She comes across a young British soldier, Ulysses Temper, and they talk of truth and beauty, a conversation that will affect the rest of Temper’s life, and of those who love him. Still Life looks wonderful, although I wonder why writers dispense with quotation marks.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.

Lean Fall Stand, by Jon McGregor (4th Estate)

This novel opens with a blast, or more accurately, a blizzard. Doc, Tom and Luke are on an Antarctic research mission and have set off on skidoos from the hut, taking pictures. With the three men barely a few dozen metres apart, a storm sweeps down off a glacier and they are blinded by a white-out. Tom tries to move towards where he believes Luke is, but suddenly there is water ahead of him instead of ice. Something is wrong. This moment has terrible consequences for the men and their families. In a shout on the cover Hamnet author Maggie O’Farrell writes: “A spectacular book… it does what Jon McGregor does so well: examine the widening ripples of a single event. I read it again, as soon as I’d finished it.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.


Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead (Doubleday)

This is the story of an air-splitting fictional female pilot ­– think Amelia Earhart – who flies Spitfires during World War II, does dare-devil stunts over the forests of Montana, and who dreams of flying a great circle, a pole-to-pole circumnavigation of the globe. But as she is about to fly the last leg, from Antarctica to New Zealand, she crashes. Interwoven with Graves’s story is that of young Hollywood star Hadley Baxter who, 50 years after Graves’s death, is cast to play Graves in a bio-pic. It turns out the two women have a lot more in common than one would think. This is a novel of freedom, danger and obsession against the sweep of history.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 40 top book choices for July.


The Chibok girls – surviving as Boko Haram hostages

Review: Vivien Horler

Bring Back Our Girls – The astonishing survival and rescue of Nigeria’s missing schoolgirls, by Joe Parkinson & Drew Hinshaw (Swift)

On March 2 this year the New York Times reported: “Hundreds of girls who were abducted last week from their boarding school in Nigeria by a group of armed men have been released…”

In a piece about the same event, the BBC reported: “Such kidnappings are carried out for ransom and are common in the north of the country.”

These kidnappings might be common now, and get only the briefest of mentions in international news stories, but the kidnapping carried out by Boko Haram on girls from the Chibok Government Secondary School for Girls on April 14, 2014 became not just a major news event but a movement. Continue reading

The pattern of the stones: a look at Southern Africa’s ancient history

Reviewer: Myrna Robins

Palaces of  Stone, by Mike Main and Tom Huffman (Struik Travel & heritage)

This fascinating jam-packed softback’s subtitle is: “Uncovering ancient Southern African kingdoms”, and contains a wealth of information on both the stone palaces in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa and the legacy of their early inhabitants, from AD 900 to around 1850.

Whereas most of us know about Great Zimbabwe, the others are lesser known, as are their ancient civilisations. Authors Mike Main and Tom Huffman have uncovered more than 566 of these stone palaces, many of which exhibit intricate and beautiful stonework, illustrating exceptional craftsmanship for building in stone without mortar.  Readers find out not only about the architecture, but – contrary to popular belief – that this African hinterland was the scene of much activity involving mining, commerce, transportation, farming and hunting.

The story begins on the fertile floodplain at the junction of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers, near the current border shared by Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. This was the setting for human occupation from the Early Stone Age but it was around 900 that the first Bantu-speaking villagers settled in the area where fragments of their pottery have been found. Continue reading

If dictionaries, words and love please you, you’ll enjoy this book

Review: Vivien Horler

The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams (Chatto & Windus)

When I was a news editor, a crime reporter whose mother tongue was not English,  wrote an article about a hold-up and said the victim had been “gunpointed”.

I was delighted by the word: its meaning was plain, and it was more concise than “held up at gunpoint”.

But I didn’t let it through, because “gunpointed” was not a proper word and I didn’t think it belonged in the newspaper. I was wrong.

The both moving and delightful Dictionary of Lost Words is about all about the compilation of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, a project that was set to take 10 years and eventually took 70. It was published in 12 volumes, which came out fitfully over the years and was completed in 1928.

The novel is also about the words that for one reason or another didn’t make it into the first edition of the dictionary. Continue reading

How a single family fuelled the US opiod crisis

Review: Vivien Horler

Empire of Pain: the Sacklers, Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, by Patrick Radden Keefe (Picador)

I’d never heard of the Sackler family until I picked up this book. But it seems I should have. They were famous American philanthropists whose name adorned art galleries including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum; buildings at Harvard, Tuft’s and Oxford and even a museum of art and archaeology in Beijing.

They were richer than the Vanderbilts or the Carnegies had ever been, and gave away hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet as New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe points out, the precise origin of the Sacklers’ wealth was somewhat mysterious.

This was because they went to great lengths to avoid having their family name associated with the family business: a pharmaceuticals company known as Purdue Pharma which developed and sold a powerful anti-pain drug called OxyContin.

Continue reading

Uncovering the terrible truth of a secret massacre

Review: Vivien Horler

Bloody Sunday – the nun, the Defiance Campaign and South Africa’s secret massacre, by Mignonne Breier (Tafelberg)

Mignonne Crozier has brought all her skills as a journalist, academic and researcher to uncovering the dreadful events of a massacre in East London on November 9, 1952.

She believes it is likely many more people died on that and subsequent days than the 69 who were killed eight years later at Sharpeville. But the official figures were eight Duncan Village residents shot or bayoneted by police, and two whites killed in retaliation, one of them a nun.

In the late 1940s and early 50s conditions in the tightly packed “locations” of East London were dire and people were angry. In June 1952 the ANC launched the Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws.

The idea was for people to deliberately break apartheid laws, be arrested and overwhelm the jails. The campaign started peacefully, but from October there had been violence, first in Port Elizabeth, then Johannesburg and, on November 8, in  Kimberley. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for June

THIS is a selection of books that have been sent to me recently. They have not all been read. Some will be reviewed in full in due course.  – Vivien Horler

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Chatto & Windus)

The story of the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary is well known. Published by the Oxford University Press, it took many more years than the 10 originally planned, and began in a garden shed grandly known as the Scriptorium. The walls were lined with shelves which housed millions of slips of paper sent in from around the world giving the use and meaning of individual words. In The Dictionary of Lost Words Pip Williams invents a young orphan called Esme who spends her days under the sorting table in the Scriptorium. One day a slip of paper flutters to the floor containing the world “bondmaid”. Eventually Esme realises some words, especially those relating to women and their experiences, somehow never make it into the dictionary. So she starts collecting them for another dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

The Bomber Mafia – ­ a story set in war, by Malcolm Gladwell (Allen Lane/ Penguin)

We’ve all heard of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought World War II to an end. But I didn’t know anything about the incendiary bombing of scores of Japanese cities, including Tokyo, which must have killed hundreds of thousands of people, in the months between March and August 1945. The bombing, by the Americans, was the brainchild of General Curtis LeMay and was springboarded from the Marianas islands which, after they had been wrested from the Japanese in 1944, finally put Tokyo within flying distance of B-29 bombers. And yet all this is not really what The Bomber Mafia is about. It is about a dream that went wrong, and what happens when technology and good intentions collide.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

Suitcase of Memory, by A’Eysha Kassiem (Kwela Books)

Cape Town journalist A’Eysha Kassiem has a way with words. This is how she opens this novel, set mainly in Stellenbosch: “The smell of death is always the same – camphor and incense. These are the first hosts that will meet you at the door.” Set during the height of apartheid, the book tells the story of Bastian Bredenkamp, heir to a farm, and a man who has the unusual ability to remember everything that has ever happened to him since birth. And then his heart is captivated by Rashieda. Which is going to make things very tricky indeed.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

The Promise, by Damon Galgut (Umuzi)

The Swarts are an ordinary white family, clinging to what they call their farm on the outskirts of Pretoria. The story of their decline is told in four snapshots, each one involving a family funeral, and each one happening in a different decade of South Africa’s recent past. The protagonists get older and life grimmer, and at the novel’s heart is a promise made years ago, and not kept. One reviewer says the prose is “leavened with languid comedy, as thought Galgut had collaborated with Tennessee Williams. The effect is utterly compelling.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

Empire of Pain – The secret history of the Sackler dynasty, by Patrick Radden Keefe

This is what Wikipedia has to say about Oxycontin: “Oxycodone, sold under the brand names Roxicodone and OxyContin among others, is an opioid medication used for treatment of moderate to severe pain. It is highly addictive and is commonly used recreationally by people who have an opioid use disorder.”  The Sackler family are the owners of Purdue Pharma, the developers of Oxycontin, and this book is about three generation of the family and their legacy. It is said that the company helped spark an opioid epidemic that has killed nearly half a million Americans in the past 20 years.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021

The Scandalous Times of a Book Louse – a memoir of childhood, by Robert Muponde

Telling stories staves off hunger, which is just as well as Father doesn’t have a job and Mother’s miserable maize plants aren’t going to feed many. This is a coming-of -age novel set in Gushure Village, in rural Zimbabwe in the period from the Second Chimurenga to independence, and according to the cover, features malevolent mermaids, eccentric shamans, outrageous relatives, fearsome teachers and men who transform hippos.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’ 25 recommended titles for June 2021


Go Away Birds, by Michelle Edwards (Modjaji Books)

Go Away Birds is a lovely read about Skye, a young woman who’s more or less lost the plot. She is suffering from grief for a loss she has never been able to talk about, not even to her husband Cam. She and he own a restaurant in Cape Town, but then an unwise remark in a magazine interview upends the business. Meanwhile during a Christmas with Cam’s family at Misty Cliffs, things unravel. Skye flees back to her family home in Mpumalanga, where her decidedly strange mother is running writing retreats and is possibly going bankrupt. Her brother is deeply suspicious of what is going on and is in some trouble too. Skye is convinced her marriage is over, and there is a rather nice chap on the farm next door, but things go awry there too. Maybe it’s time for her to stop running. Set in modern South Africa, the novel is nuanced and warm.

Midlife Money Makeover, by Kim Potgieter (Tafelberg)

Most of us worry about money. And we especially worry about whether we will have enough money to retire on. In her introduction Kim Potgieter, a financial planner, says starting to think about your money at 60 is too late (so that’s me, then) and she adds: “The earlier you start, the more options you have.” She says her book is a call to action, a reminder that one’s second chapter is a chance to create one’s best life. Midlife, she says, is the perfect time to pause, tune in and decide what you’re going to do next.