Author Archives: Vivien Horler

History hidden in stone

Review: Vivien Horler

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

We’ve all heard of the Zimbabwe Ruins, today known as Great Zimbabwe, but who knew there were more than 500 stone palaces across a swathe of Southern Africa, stretching from Botswana to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique?

Mike Main, born in Britain and now living in Gaborone in Botswana, has wandered around Africa for decades. Years ago, through meeting archaeologists in Botswana, notably the late Dr Alec Campbell of the National Museum and Monuments in Gaborone, Dr Catrien van Waarden, and Wits University emeritus archaeology professor Tom Huffman, he became fascinated by the ruins and was determined to find out more.

With his Swedish wife Kerstin Jackson-Main, he set off across the southern continent to record these remarkable stone palaces.

Some are well known, like Great Zimbabwe and Mapungubwe, and some are barely recognised at all. All are fragile.

  • See also what happened to one of the eight Zimbabwe birds – apparently languishing in Cape Town (below) Continue reading

Festive, Fascinating, Fabulous

Review: Myrna Robins 

Friends. Food. Flavour  – Great South African Recipes, by Michael Olivier with Roelien Immelman (Penguin)

This treasury had its origins more than two decades ago, when Michael and Maddy Olivier presented a buffet-style Cape Table at the Margaret River Wine Festival in Western Australia. The menu reflected a feast of South Africa’s heritage fare which had some ex-pats in tears, said Olivier.

Part of this delectable hardback is given over to those heritage recipes, being Olivier’s workings of traditional dishes with 21st-century treatment, while there is a bigger section of contemporary South African cuisine, sourced from a variety of cooks, bloggers, caterers, food writers and friends, many reflecting family connections to Portugal, Italy and other far-flung places. Continue reading

Sweeping tale of people caught up in history

Review: Vivien Horler
Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim (Oneworld)
Against the dispiriting news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Wikipedia entry on the Korean War of 1950-1953 makes chilling reading.

The countries of Korea, both North and South, are often in the news, the North usually for all the wrong reasons, but I know very little about them. However I’ve learned a bit reading this beautifully written but somewhat slow novel set in the country between 1917, just 10 years after the Japanese occupation, and 1965.

When Japan was defeated in World War 2, the Soviet Union and the United States divided the country into two occupation zones along the 38th parallel, with the zones eventually becoming the countries of North and South Korea.
In 1950 the (North) Korean Peoples Army invaded South Korea, with support from the Soviet Union, while UN and US forces (and soldiers from other Western allies) supported South Korean troops.

Wikipedia says the war saw about three million deaths, and a larger proportion of civilian deaths than in World War 2. It also saw the destruction of virtually all Korea’s major cities.

How will the Ukraine crisis pan out? Impossible to know for now, but the Korean conflict didn’t work out so well for the people of North Korea.
In fact this war is barely mentioned in Beasts of a Little Land, although the effects are described, with a ruined Seoul, cholera outbreaks and general hardship and hunger.

At the centre of the novel are Jade, sold by her family to Miss Silver’s courtesan school in cosmopolitan Pyongyang, and an orphan boy called JungHo, who wants to make something of himself and who finds a mentor in a man fighting for Korea’s liberation from Japan.

Also central to the story are a couple of senior Japanese soldiers, one of whom is relatively decent, and one of whom is a vicious thug. One night he goes to the courtesan school and rapes one of the girls, leaving her pregnant. Silver resolves to send three of the girls, including Jade, to Seoul, to her cousin Dani’s establishment.

There Jade acquires performing skills, and becomes an accomplished actress, admired far and wide. But she remains fond of JungHo, whom she met as a child, and falls in love with a rickshaw driver whose humble occupation belies his family’s illustrious rank.

The Beast of a Little Land is something of a saga and describes how the characters interact and are borne up and buffeted by the history of the first half of the 20th century.

Author Juhea Kim was born in South Korea and moved to the US when she was nine. She heard the stories of her country as a child, but learnt in the US how to write lyrical English. Her descriptions of landscapes and atmosphere are like paintings.

Here’s one paragraph with Jade: “One night I found it hard to sleep. It was the sound of waves crashing. As soon as the sky began to lighten, I went for a walk. The sun was just below the sea and the world was awash in orange and pink. My feet led me to the cliff, and standing there amid the fluttering new grass was a pair of chestnut-coloured wild horses. They stared at me for a long time…”

A beautiful book, carrying with it a timely reminder of the death, destruction and pain wrought by war and revolution.



Age, violence and delight in this deftly handled tale of derring do

Review: Archie Henderson

The Man Who Died Twice, by Richard Osman (Viking)

Richard Osman’s first two novels, with a third on its way, are a bit like Famous Five Go On Pension. There are only four of them, however. They have grown up, grown old, ditched Enid Blyton and been taken on by an author who has given them Blytonesque adventures, touched with the wisdom of age and not a little violence.

Readers were introduced to the four in Osman’s first novel, The Thursday Murder Club. They were a disparate lot that Blyton could never have dreamed up: a retired nursing sister for whom the glass is always half full, a dyed-in-wool trade unionist who thinks Arthur Scargill was something of a wuss and who is also a West Ham supporter so is used to being a loser, a retired psychiatrist from Egypt and a steely former spy.  Continue reading

Bedside table books for February

February Bedside

These were among the books that arrived on Vivien Horler’s desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later. All are among Exclusive Books’s top 22 books for February.

The Postmistress of Paris, by Meg Waite Clayton (Harper)

Like the deeply moving The Last Train to London about the Kindertransport, this new novel is set in Paris during World War 2. It was inspired by real-life Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold who helped to smuggle artists and intellectuals out of France. In a 1940s book Crossroads to Marseille she wrote: “Once back in Paris I learned that most Americans were scurrying home. I decided to stay on…If the French could take it, so could I. Besides, too many extraordinary things were in the making, and I didn’t want to miss out.”

Nanée is wealthy and living a great life among artists in Paris when war breaks out. She joins the Resistance and is dubbed the Postmistress because she delivers messages to those in hiding.

One of those she helps is a brilliant Austrian photographer and widower, Edouard Moss, who has fled to Paris with his toddler daughter only to be interned as an enemy alien. As the blurb has it, his life “collides with Nanee’s in this sweeping tale of romance and danger in a world aflame…”

I’ve started it and so far it’s great.

The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont (Mantle)

Everyone knows that in 1926 the writer Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days. To this day no one knows exactly what prompted it, although there was speculation it was to punish her philandering husband.

This novel is narrated by one Nan O’Dea, the husband’s mistress. O’Dea is brought up in London and flees to Ireland during the Great War. But a private tragedy there prompts her to fight her way back to England, where she focuses on Agatha Christie. As the blurb says: “Because Agatha Christie has something Nan wants. And it’s not just her husband…”

This looks fun.

Death on the Trans-Siberian Express, by CJ Farrington (Constable)

Conor Farrington is a rail groupie. He was inspired to write this novel after travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express, the longest railway in the world, which goes from Moscow to Vladivostok across the snowy wastes of Siberia. That journey was done in 2015, and he followed it up with the Silk Route by rail in 2017.

This debut novel tells the tale of Olga Pushkin, a railway engineer, who spends her days in a rail-side hut in the snowy village of Roslazny, with only a hedgehog for company. She dreams of a better life as a writer, but there does not seem to be much hope. And then one day Olga arrives at her hut to be knocked unconscious by a passenger falling from the Trans-Siberian, a man who turns out to be an American with his throat cut from ear to ear.

And Olga is on it.

Mothers, Father, and Others – new essays, by Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)

The Literary Review has described Siri Hustvedt as “a 21st century Virgina Woolf” (although she is a robust woman unlikely to meet Woolf’s unfortunate end). This is a collection of essays on feminist philosophy, literature, family love and hate,  prejudice and cruelty and borders. It is also about, according to the blurb, “the broader meanings of the maternal in a culture shaped by misogyny and fantasies of paternal authority”.

I’ve dipped into it, and there are some charming memories of her mother and grandmother, as well as some rather rigorous ponderings on Covid, the future of literature, states of mind and one essay titled: “What does a Man Want?” Indeed.

How a dream of ‘something better’ changed the world of fashion

Review: Vivien Horler

The Chanel Sisters, by Judithe Little (H Review)

This historical novel about Coco Chanel and her younger sister Antoinette is dedicated in part to Antoinette “so she won’t be forgotten”.

American author Judithe Little was inspired by a biography of Coco Chanel. She expected to read Coco – real name Gabrielle – came from a privileged, glamorous  background. But to Little’s surprised, she read that Coco and Antoinette were born into a family of peasants and had been abandoned as children in a convent orphanage in rural France, where they spent years as charity cases.

“To me, this part of Coco’s biography made her eventual success all the more stunning,” she writes in a historical note at the end of the novel.

Since Coco always indicated she came from a wealthy family, Little decided she could not be the honest narrator of the novel, and so she turned to the supportive and hard-working Antoinette. “Only a sister who had stayed loyally by her side could know, for example, that Coco’s lies about her childhood were also a way to escape the pain of their abandonment.” Continue reading

When idle hands changed the future for half a million children

Review: Vivien Horler

A Path Unexpected – A memoir, by Jane Evans (Jonathan Ball)

Jane Klein was the women’s page editor of the Rand Daily Mail when she met Anthony Evans at a party in Joburg.

They clicked immediately and within months were talking of marriage. There was a snag though – Jane was a nice Jewish city girl, and Anthony was an Anglican cattle farmer based near Viljoenskroon, a tiny town in the Free State.

Her father told her: “Don’t get too excited. Men like Anthony don’t marry Jews.”

He did, though, and soon Jane had resigned her job and gone to the farm Huntersvlei with him. They settled in a cottage on the farm, while Anthony’s widowed mother, Sybil, elegantly coifed and immaculate, lived in the main house.

On the first day after their honeymoon, Anthony immersed himself in work. Sybil had her chores, and Jane was at a loose end. She had no idea what she was going to do. Continue reading

Tartan noir and a different world

Review: Vivien Horler

The Dark Remains, by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin (Canongate)

It’s autumn 1972 and Glasgow is a far cry from the city that will be named the European Capital of Culture in 1990.

Tall sooty buildings, rival gangs and incessant drizzle characterise the world of Detective Constable Jack Laidlaw and his colleagues.

The body of lawyer Bobby Carter is found in an alley behind a pub called The Parlour near the city’s shipyards. The pub used to be busy place, six deep at the bar, but with the decline in ship-building “you could prefix ‘Funeral’ to the pub’s name and it would not seem out of place”. Continue reading

Art, colour and incredible detail of feathers

Review: Lyn Mair

Birds,  by  Tim Flach (Abrams, New York /Jonathan Ball )

Birds is a magnificent coffee-table book as much about art and colour as it is about birds.

The photographic medium is the perfect way to show, up close, the incredible diversity and complexity of the fantastic creatures we see every day.

They flit about so quickly that it is impossible to appreciate the variety and tiny details of their feathers, but as author Tim Flach tells us in the prologue, the images were taken of captive birds. Continue reading

Bedside Table books for January

These are among the book that landed on my desk this month. Some will be reviewed in full later.

The Women of Rothschild – The untold story of the world’s most famous dynasty, by Natalie Livingstone (John Murray)

In the Frankfurt ghetto in the late 1700s Gutle and Mayer Amschel Rothschild had five sons, who between them set up banking empires in Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt, Naples and London, generating vast wealth. But they also produced a handful of daughters, about whom little has been written.

Natalie Livingstone, a historian and author of the best-selling Mistresses of Cliveden, about the women of the house where the Profumo Affair played out in the 1960s, was intrigued by the lack of information about the Rothschild women, and began researching this tome. The women featured – some of whom were born Rothschilds and some who married into the family (and the many who married their cousins and were Rothschilds on both sides) – tended not to have money or power of their own. But they knew how to use their “soft” power as women, and hobnobbed with the elite of European society.

Livingstone has focused on the British thread of the family, women who counted prime ministers, queens, lords and ladies among their friends. But she says they always felt excluded, to a certain extent, from society, being both female and Jewish. This was at a time when Jewish men could not be elected as MPs because they were not Anglican. (Of course no women of any description could have been elected.)

Yet the female Rothschilds achieved a vast amount, being instrumental in the founding of the state of Israel among other things. In her introduction Livingstone writes: “They had choreographed electoral campaigns, witnessed revolutions, and traded on the Stock Exchange. They had advised prime ministers, played a pivotal role in the civil rights campaign that led to the election of Britain’s first Jewish MP, and written landmark works of feminist art criticism. One scandalised the world of women’s tennis by introducing the over-arm serve; one shocked her own family by becoming rather too deeply involved in the mid-century demi-monde of Manhattan jazz cafes and nightclubs; one reared foxes”, worked at Bletchley Park during World War II and became one of became Britain’s leading zoologists.

I occasionally lost the plot somewhat – in the traditions of the time women were often named after their mothers so that if you weren’t paying attention you could lose track of who was whom. But I let that wash over me and found the book to be an absorbing glimpse into a different world.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 top reads for January.

What Does Rain Smell Like? –100 fascinating  questions on the wild ways of the weather, by Simon King & Clare Nasir (535)

The weather is always a potent topic of conversation, but there’s a lot we don’t know about it, even if we all consider ourselves fine amateur forecasters. Simon King and Clare Nasir are both professionals with extensive training in the UK Met Office.

This book is full of interesting stuff like, for instance, the fact rainbows don’t actually exist – they are optical phenomena based on the interaction between sunshine, water droplets and your eye. Many interesting questions are answered – Is every snowflake special? How can water be below freezing but still liquid? Does hot water really freeze faster than cold water?

Just a word of warning: this is not a jokey book suitable for the average inquiring 10-year-old; the authors take their topics seriously and go into a lot of detail.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 top reads for January.

Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim (Oneworld)

In 1917 Korea, still a single country, is occupied by Japan. As famine looms, a family sells their daughter Jade to Miss Silver’s courtesan school in Pyongyang. After her training Jade flees to Seoul where she meets an orphan boy called JungHo, a beggar. They fall in love, but then their life paths start to diverge: Jade becomes a sought-after performer while JungHo is caught up in the battle for independence.

Publishers Weekly said of this novel: “Kim’s dreamy, intense debut is both a sure-footed historical account of the Korean struggle for independence from Japan and the emotionally fraught story of several people whose lives are inextricably tied together… The prose is ravishing.”

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 top reads for January.

The Dark Remains, by William McIlvanney & Ian Rankin (Canongate)

William McIlvanney was a Glasgow writer whose work includes the three crime novels featuring Inspector Jack Laidlaw. The first in the series, Laidlaw (1977), is considered to be the first of the Tartan Noir genre. However, when McIlvanney died in 2015 he had an unfinished manuscript featuring Laidlaw’s first case, a book that was intended to be a prequel to the Laidlaw trilogy.

Ian Rankin, who considered McIlvanney his mentor when he began writing his John Rebus detective series, has now completed the manuscript, and according to The Washington Post, “the result is a standout, lyrically bleak novel”. Or as another reviewer wrote: “Two legends of Scottish crime fiction blended like a deluxe whisky.”

I haven’t read any of the Laidlaw novels yet, but I’m looking forward to this one.

  • This is one of Exclusive Books’s 25 top reads for January.

Shooting Martha, by David Thewlis (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Someone once asked me why my book reviews tend to be admiring rather than critical. Was I trying to keep the publishers happy, she wanted to know.

The answer is no, not at all. It’s just that I tend not to read books I don’t like the look of, and occasionally when I start one and find I’m not enjoying it, I put it aside.

Shooting Martha was one of these. I got as far as p122 before thinking it was too weird for words and discarding it.

Jack Drake is a famous director who is devastated at the suicide of his wife, Martha.

Then he goes to see a play in London and is struck by how similar the actress, Betty Dean, is to Martha. Betty herself lives a complicated life of booze, drugs and a hopeless boyfriend, and her husband has removed their young son from her.

So when Jack proposes that Betty, for a fee, move to his mansion in the south of France and act as Martha, wearing her clothes, adopting her mannerisms and being available for Jack to talk to on video, she accepts.

Author Thewlis goes into great detail as to how Martha would light a cigarette, walk, drink a glass of wine. At this point I thought the whole book got so strange and spooky I gave up.

The cover blurb says: “As Martha comes back to life, she carries with her the truth about her suicide – and the secret she guarded to the end.”

Creepy – but you might find it great.