Category Archives: Reviews of new books

This category has reviews of the latest books

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.


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

Forget PlayStation – try stories, kindness and ice cream instead

Review: Vivien Horler

Prescription: Ice Cream – A doctor’s journey to discover what matters, by Alastair McAlpine (Macmillan)

In 2018 Alastair McAlpine, a paediatrician based in Cape Town, found five minutes of fame.

He worked as a palliative care doctor, helping children with terminal illnesses to die more comfortably – both physically and mentally.

This is a gruelling speciality, because everyone feels it is wrong for children to die, and yet they do. If they and their families can be helped through the ordeal, it is a good thing.

One day he was talking to seven-year-old Evangeline, whose medication caused appalling nausea, which meant keeping her fed and hydrated was fraught. Continue reading

Giving a voice to the voiceless

Review: Vivien Horler

James, by Percival Everett (Mantle/Pan Macmillan)

There are so many parallels in this book with South Africa’s history that the American writer Ann Patchett’s advice to every American to read it probably holds true for South Africans too.

It is a retelling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or perhaps it is more correct to say inspired by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this time from the point of view of the slave, Jim.

Percival Everett is a prolific and respected black American author, whose book The Trees was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, and whose novel
Erasure was adapted into the film American Fiction. He is also a professor of English in California.

I don’t know how long ago I read Huckleberry Finn, probably some time in high school, and some of the details of the story were hazy.

But it is essentially the story of a young and ill-educated white boy in Missouri in the 1850s, who has staged his own death to get away from his abusive father, and of a runaway slave who flees his post because he hears his owner is about to sell him and break up his family. Continue reading