Category Archives: Uncategorised

‘Only a girl’ didn’t stop the determined Bertha Benz

Review: Vivien Horler

The Woman at the Wheel, by Penny Haw (Sourcebooks)

In 1896, just 10 years after the first horseless carriage was demonstrated in the streets of Mannheim, Germany, by inventor Carl Benz, South African crowds welcomed the automobile – a Benz Vilo – to our shores.

The Velo, short for Velocipede, was a very different vehicle from the original Motorwagen which is depicted on the cover of this fictionalised piece of history.

For one thing it had four wheels, rather than the Motorwagen’s three, and was more powerful, but it still used a type of tiller for steering rather than a steering wheel (invented in France in 1894).

SA’s first Velo was put through its paces on a field in Pretoria before President Paul Kruger, and a century later I was present at the same field when Mercedes-Benz celebrated a century of the marque in the country.

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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

A story of war in the words of four brothers

Bullet in the Heart, by Beverley Roos-Muller (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

Books on war tend to be about armies, battles, generals and the statistics of casualties, but the stories that stay in your mind are those about people.

Bullet in the Heart has plenty of the above, but at its heart it is the story of four Free State farming brothers who found themselves caught up in a war against what was then the world’s mightiest fighting machine. Continue reading

Stalingrad – the war (not Zuma’s tactics)

Review: Archie Henderson

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman (Vintage Publishers)

It is said that Russians write long novels because of the long the Russian winter. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad is just over 800 pages yet it can be read in a month (if you have the time) because its pages move smoothly and easily, the chapters are short, and some of the tedious parts can be skimmed.

When you reach the end, however, it’s not the end. There is a sequel, which almost everyone who has read it, says is a better book. Roland Hingley, writing in the New York Times about the second book, and expecting another gigantic Russian novel, feared it would be just a “gelded fictional brontosaurus”. He says he was pleasantly surprised to find it not so.

Stalingrad begins with Hitler planning a new offensive, a year after invading Russia. It ends with Hitler’s hordes at the gates of the Russian city on the Volga. Life and Fate, which is of similar length, is the sequel and tells how the Russians turned around the battle and, with it, probably World War 2. Those who have read both are right; by the end of Stalingrad I wanted to reach for Life and Fate, just to see how World War 2 ends – well, in the eyes, opinion and imagination of its author anyway. Continue reading

The quest to revive Sissinghurst

Review: Vivien Horler

Sissinghurst – an unfinished history, by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins)

Sissinghurst is probably best known as the celebrated garden in Kent created by Vita Sackville-West, former lover of Virginia Woolf and also of Violet Trefusis.
Vita and her husband, the British diplomat Sir Harold Nicholson, had a famously open marriage, which was chronicled by their son Nigel in his book Portrait of a Marriage.
Nigel’s son Adam is the author of this book about the glorious estate on which he grew up, and which, like many great estates in the United Kingdom, attracted crippling death duties when Vita died.
One solution was to hand the estate over to the National Trust, an organisation dedicated to heritage conservation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But Vita, who had served on Trust committees, was vehement that the Trust would not take Sissinghurst in her lifetime. She wrote in her diary: “Never, never, never. … Nigel can do what he likes when I am dead, but as long as I live no Nat Trust or any other foreign body shall have my darling.”
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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






How to rebuild your life, one straw bale at a time

Review: Vivien Horler
A Way Home, by Jillian Sullivan (Potton & Burton)
In an odd little general dealer-cum-coffee shop in a village in New Zealand’s south island I spotted this book and thought it looked interesting.
Newly divorced and 50-something writer Jillian Sullivan decides to fulfil a dream to build a straw bale house. She doesn’t know much about building, but her son-in-law Sam does, and she signs on as his apprentice. “This is a beautifully told and inspiring story, a book for anyone who needs to start again, or has a project bigger than they think possible.”
I didn’t buy the book, but a couple of days later spotted it in the home of friends near Dunedin. In half an hour or so I’d read enough to know I wanted to read it all. It turns out the little general store in Oturehua in Central Otago was down the road from the house Sullivan built, and we happened to be passing back through in a couple of days. So I bought their only copy. Continue reading

There’s no beating about the bush with this comprehensive guide

beat about the bushReview: Vivien Horler

Beat about the Bush – exploring the wild, by Trevor Carnaby (Jacana)

When my son was a small boy I explained to him that my Cape Argus colleague John Yeld was the environment reporter, which meant he knew all about the world.

A few days later I was puzzling over a problem. Thomas said: “Ask John Yeld.” Huh? Tom said: “Mom, you said John knows everything in the world”.

John is retired now, so if you need someone like him, Beat About the Bush is probably the book for you and anyone of a curious turn of mind, including small children. Continue reading

Beware hubris – and keep your secrets to yourself

anatomy of a scandalReview: Vivien Horler

Anatomy of a Scandal, by Sarah Vaughn (Simon  Schuster/ Jonathan Ball)

The advice most parents would like to give their children is: don’t do anything that could spoil your life. But it’s in the specifics that things become tricky.

Don’t drive drunk. Beware of drugs. Condomise. And you can just see them rolling their eyes: “Ja, ma,” they say, and all you can hope is that something from all those years of bringing them up has stuck.

And another thing. Never expect anyone to keep your secrets for you. Not even your best friend. Not even your spouse. Continue reading

Cops, a sangoma – this thriller could only have been written in Africa

Review: Vivien Horler

Knucklebone, by NR Brodie (Picador Africa)

Knucklebone takes the SA-based detective thriller to a whole new level.

Set in a vibrant and rather sinister Johannesburg, we have a burglary, a company that helps foreign big game hunters, and the butchering of poached animals.

Then there are also a coven of witches, a sangoma, and a tokoloshe.

Ian Jack is a former cop known to his friends as Cousin – I suspect you need Cornish links to get Continue reading