One family’s experience of living in eye of the storm of history

Review: Vivien Horler

Two Sisters – Into the Syrian Jihad, by Asne Seierstad (Virago)

two sistersThe awful news of a deathly attack on worshippers at the Malmesbury mosque on the penultimate night of Ramadaan – apparently by a Somali man – brings closer the world laid bare by Norwegian writer Asne Seierstad in this stark work.

We read the headlines about IS and the devastation of Syria every day, we hear of attacks and beheadings, we see Somali refugees on our streets, but rarely get a glimpse of the human stories behind the news.

Seierstad, a former Norwegian war correspondent whose book The Bookseller of Kabul sold more than two million copies, has detailed one family’s devastation in Two Sisters. It is her non-fiction account of how a pair of teenage sisters, of Somali descent but born and brought up in Oslo, left their family and travelled to Raqqa in Syria to join IS. Continue reading

Murder can be a deadly dish

Review: Myrna Robins

Death Cup,  by Irna van Zyl (Penguin Random House)

death cupHow could I resist? A thriller sub-titled Murder is on the Menu, set against an Overberg background dripping with fickle foodies, on-trend restaurateurs and self-important chefs, followed by a series of deadly dishes and human corpses.

This is Van Zyl’s second detective novel and is translated from the Afrikaans original, titled Gifbeker. I was impressed by the author’s culinary knowledge of gastronomic contests, trends  and top restaurants. Having raced through the book, I came across pages of generous acknowledgements where she listed cookbooks that afforded her culinary knowledge both trendy and basic, chefs who shared their passion and expertise, especially with regard to foraging of  both seafood and fungi and techniques like open fire cooking in the kitchens.

From page one the tension is tangible, as a well-known and not always popular food blogger keels over in a top restaurant and dies – a highly poisonous mushroom proving responsible for her untimely death. Continue reading

Spirit of Jewish life for literary festival

Author Rahla Xenopoulos who will speak about her book The Season of Glass at the Jewish Literary Festival on Sunday

Author Rahla Xenopoulos who will speak about her book The Season of Glass at the Jewish Literary Festival on Sunday.

No sooner is the Franschhoek Literary Festival over than news of upcoming Cape Town festivals emerges.

The first is the Jewish Literary Festival, which has a programme of more than 60 events over a single day on Sunday (June 17).

Then later this year comes the Open Book Festival which runs from September 5 to 9.

The Jewish Literary Festival is in its third year, Continue reading

A member of the ‘SABC Eight’ remembers his father, one of the murdered ‘Cradock Four’

Review: Vivien Horler

My Father Died for This, by Lukhanyo and Abigail Calata (Tafelberg)

lukhanyo calataImagine if you were a three-year-old and this was your first memory.

“Once at the gravesite I remember holding on to my mother’s dress, too afraid of letting go. The up-and-down stamping by toyi-toyiing mourners shook the ground under my feet. I had never felt anything like that before, and I remember being so afraid of the ground collapsing underneath me.”

Despite dredging his memory, Lukhanyo Calata cannot remember a single moment with the father who by all accounts doted on him. Fort Calata, one of the Cradock Four, was murdered by the South African security police in June 1985. His older daughter Dorothy was almost 10, Fort was three, and his younger daughter, Tumani, was not yet born. His wife, Nomonde, was just 26. Continue reading

Kate Turkington believes in having a go

kate turkingtonReview: Vivien Horler

Yes, Really! – A life, by Kate Turkington (Tafelberg)

If there is a message Kate Turkington would like to leave for posterity, it would probably be her mother Doris’s mantra: “Have a go!”

Turkington, an academic, TV presenter and veteran broadcaster, has done her mother proud – in her early 80s she’s still up for having a go, whether it be foreign travel, quadbike riding or praising the delights of multiple orgasms.

She has had two husbands, four children and multiple lovers; has lived in London, Ireland, Nigeria and South Africa, has taught English literature to thousands of Wits University students, presented TV programmes both here and in Ireland, and travelled the globe. Continue reading

Help choose the Man Booker Prize’s top novel from half a century of excellence

The Booker Foundation has launched a search for the best of the best to mark the English literary prize’s 50th year this year.

Sadly South African novelist JM Coetzee, the first writer to win the Man Booker prize twice – in 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K, and in 1999 for Disgrace – didn’t make the shortlist of five books nominated for the once-off Golden Man Booker Prize.

But Hilary Mantel, who won it in 2009 for Wolf Hall and in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to her Henry VIII/ Thomas Cromwell saga, has been nominated for Wolf Hall.

The idea of the Golden Man Booker Prize was to select the best book for each decade of the prize’s existence, and each judge was allocated one decade of winners to choose from. In a tribute to the power of the prize, all 51 winners are still in print.

The five books to make the shortlist are: In a Free State by VS Naipul (1971); Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987); The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992); Wolf  Hall by Hilary Mantel 2009; and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (2017).

Coetzee – and Australian writer Peter Carey who has also won the Booker twice – needn’t feel too badly about not making the shortlist. Novels their works were in competition with included Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974); The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch (1978); Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981);  The God of Small things by Arundhati Roy (1997); Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002); and The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (2014).

The five judges were writer and editor Robert McCrum (1970s); poet Lemn Sissay MBE (1980s); novelist Kamila Shamsie (1990s); broadcaster and novelist Simon Mayo (2000s); and poet Hollie McNish (2010s).

The shortlist was announced at the Hay Festival in the UK on May 26. From now until June 25 readers are asked to reread these top five novels, and then submit their vote for the overall winner of five decades of the prize, which will be announced at the Man Booker 50 Festival at London’s South Bank Centre on July 8.

To participate, send your vote to the Man Booker Prize website ( The website features videos of each judge discussing their choice. – Vivien Horler


Listen to the silence and be amazed

guide to garden routeReview: Vivien Horler

A Guide to the Garden Route – fifth edition, updated by Grahame Thomson and Julie Carlisle (Jacana)

The stretch of coastline from Mossel Bay to the Tsitsikamma area has been regarded as a “garden route” for more than 150 years.

As far back as 1840 one R Gordon Cumming, a member of the Southern Cape Hunting Expedition, wrote: “The Garden Route – a vast and endless world of loveliness, unseen, unknown, untrodden save by those varied multitudes of stupendous, curious and beautiful quadrupeds, whose forefathers have roamed its mighty solitudes from primaeval ages, and with whom I afterwards became so intimately acquainted.”

Today no one could call the Garden Route “unseen, unknown, untrodden”, but it is still a world of loveliness which includes places of solitude, provided you know where to look.

And this guide is designed to show you just that.

The Garden Route lies within a global biodiversity hotspot, the Cape Floristic Region, one of the smallest but richest floral kingdoms in the world. In his foreword, former CEO of SANParks Dr Robbie Robinson points out that 70% of the 9 600 plant species in the Cape Floristic Kingdom are found nowhere else.

Last year, as this guide was being prepared and while the Knysna section of the Garden Route was in flames, Unesco declared the Garden Route South Africa’s ninth biosphere reserve. This is an important declaration – biosphere reserves are given international recognition due to their unique nature, history and culture.

In his introduction to this fifth edition author Grahame Thomson says the preservation of the natural world of the Garden Route must be considered “a fundamental national priority”.

The guide begins with sections on sea life, plants, trees and insects, land mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians, to human history and the impact of humans.

It then has a series of maps of the areas covered, with attractions including museums in the various localities, cultural and historic sites, festivals and events, adventure tourism including boat trips and bungy jumping, and hiking trails including the famous Otter Trail, slack-packing trails, and guided and self-guided trails.

The Garden Route is a land of rivers and forests, and once teemed with game while its sea life was rich in diversity. The name Outeniqua comes from an ancient tribe of people who once roamed the area, and the word means “man laden with honey”.

As a result, say the authors, it is no surprise that humans have thrived here through the ages, starting with original modern man about 160 000 years ago, according to archaeological discoveries at the Pinnacle Point caves near Mossel Bay.

Published in a portable A5 format, the book is rich in gorgeous pictures of bays and estuaries, mountain passes and a wide variety of flora and fauna. It’s a wonderful resource for anyone heading to the Garden Route or living there.

It will help you, as Thomson says in his introduction, to “venture beyond the known tourism routes, listen to the silence, be amazed by the world we have been given.

“Choose the roads and paths less travelled, and you will find a world that will enrich your life forever.”

  • A version of this review appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on May 27 2018



Eleanor Oliphant may be completely fine – but there’s something wrong with this picture


Review: Vivien Horler

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman (HarperCollins)

Eleanor Oliphant may think she’s fine, but she isn’t, not by a long chalk.

She works for a graphic design company in Glasgow, but is not one of the creatives: she works in accounts. She comes to work at 8.30am, takes an hour for lunch, and leaves at 5.30pm.

She listens to a radio serial while she eats her supper – always pasta with pesto and salad – and then either reads, does the crossword, or occasionally watches television. She goes to bed at 10pm. Every Wednesday she speaks to Mummy on the phone. Continue reading

Novels bring fading memories of World War II to frightening life

alice networkReviews: Vivien Horler

The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn (William Morrow/ Harper Collins)

Everyone Brave is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave (Sceptre)

Wars that still echo down our history are slipping beyond human memory. No one alive remembers the Boer War, which continues to have a huge impact on South Africa today, nor World War I.

As for World War II, it ended literally a lifetime ago – 73 years ago this week – and there are fewer and fewer people who remember it.

Within a decade it will be gone from lived experience, and our only access to a conflagration that changed the world will be through novels that bring it alive.

everyone brave is forgivenTwo absorbing war novels demonstrate the courage demanded by people who lived through the war, not all of them soldiers.

The Alice Network is a page-turner about women spies in France during World War I, and how their experiences in that war affect their lives during and just after World War II.

It is London in 1947, two years after World War II has ended, and Charlie St Clair is a wealthy young American whose mother has brought her to Europe for an abortion. Continue reading

Franschhoek link in sweeping historical novel set in France

burning chamabers

burning chambers

Review: Adelle Horler

The Burning Chambers, by Kate Mosse (Mantle/ Pan Macmillan)

Fans of Kate Mosse – the author, not the model – will be delighted to know there’s another historical French trilogy on its way, with the first book, The Burning Chambers, released in May.

Happily for us in South Africa, part of the series will play out here – in fact, the entire story was inspired by Mosse’s visit to the Huguenot Museum while at the Franschhoek Literary Festival* several years ago.

“There, on the wall, was the name of a family I’d written about in my first historical novel, Labyrinth,’’ she says. “It was a shiver-down-the-spine moment.” Continue reading