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“I hope my story illustrates obstacles to the full realisation of the dignity of Black Women” – Trade Secrets contributor Ntsika Gogwana

Ntsika Gogwana was born in Mdantsane, South Africa in 1984 and educated at UNISA and the University of Fort Hare, in Agricultural and Animal Sciences. Currently, he works as a Food and Beverage Chemistry Analyst for Aspirata Auditing, Testing and Certification in Cape Town. He also volunteers for Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda, a grassroots peoples’ organisation based in Keiskammahoek that mobilises rural communities in the Eastern Cape on issues relating to communal land rights, traditional leadership, rural democratisation and sustainable development. He is interested in producing fiction that challenges normative gender and sexuality narratives. Joanne Hichens, curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, and Ntsika recently discussed writing from the point of view from a woman, society’s overly sympathetic approach to men, and how reading is a must for any aspirant writer.

Ntsika Gogwana

 

Your commended story, ‘Home Cooked’, about a troubled relationship between a husband and wife, brings into focus abuse of women by men and the rage of women against that abuse. What sparked this interest?

The story was inspired by Black Women whose unacknowledged, unremunerated work as wives and mothers underwrite the racial and patriarchal structure of South African capitalism. During the Fees Must Fall protests of October 2015, I had a conversation with Wanelisa Xaba, who features on the title page of my story pictured here. She detailed the marginalization, violence and erasure that Black Women and Queers experienced within the movement. I felt that, beyond the overtly political act of organizing protests, I had to stand in solidarity with women even if I could only do so in the field of literature.

Wanelisa Xaba on the cover of ‘Home Cooked’

 

Was there a particular driving factor for you when developing the story?

I hope my story illustrates obstacles to the full realisation of the dignity of Black Women, which is a blot on the progress of our entire society.

However, in your story, the wife and mother, Nomafa, creates a revenge scenario that could be considered just as heinous as the treatment she suffers from her husband. Why did you choose to do this?

In writing my entry I was inspired by several texts that feature male/female antagonism (in particular ‘Cruel Karma’ by Nduka Ekeh, ‘Eve Was Framed’ by Helena Kennedy, ‘The Huntsman’ by Anton Chekov and ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ by Roald Dahl). I wanted to produce a literary response to what I saw as ‘Woman as subject’ in these texts. I set out to make the woman the prime mover, a revolutionary agent, who uses the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.

What was it like for you to write from the point of view of a woman? How did you put yourself in Nomafa’s headspace?

I felt incredibly apprehensive about tell a ‘woman’s story’ in the first place, and so I chose to write from a third person perspective to connote a respectful distance from my male-self and the female protagonist. That said, I believe that subjection is a common South African experience given our history and that the oppression of women is objectively wrong. The conversations I have with Black feminists helped a great deal, but I still think that my story could have been told more authentically had it been written by a Black woman, especially with regard to the dialogue and Nomafa’s ‘voice’.

Do you have any sympathy at all with her husband, Sizwe?

Yes, I do. However I think society is overly sympathetic to men and that fragile masculinity is a patriarchal device to excuse abusive men. Given that I am a man, I understand the expectation that I should feel gender empathy with any and all men, but I think the reality of gender-based violence in South Africa required that I break ranks in telling this story. My ethical position is that there can be no symmetry between the violence of the subjugated and the violence in resistance to that subjugation.

As this is your first published work, are you inspired to write more?

Absolutely! I was greatly honoured and encouraged to be commended for my entry. However, it has been an incredibly busy year for me – mostly managing relocating from East London to Durban, and then to Cape Town. I just need to get some kind of regularity in my life so that I can concentrate on developing new stories.

What have you learned through this process?

I’ve learnt a great many things. From how to better structure my prose, to the intensive editing process it takes to get a story ready for publication… I suspect I still have much to learn.

As a ‘new voice’, if you could share a writing Trade Secret what would it be?

Read, read and read. The teacher of good writing is reading great stories.

Trade Secrets

Book details

Watch Trevor Noah’s acceptance speech for the Booksellers’ Choice Award

The Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award this year went to Trevor Noah for his memoir Born a Crime and other stories, published by Pan Macmillan. Noah was not present to receive the prize at the convivial awards evening on the 22 August, however his publishers were there, bursting with pride. Andrea Nattrass, Noah’s publisher at Pan Macmillan had arranged for him to record a short acceptance speech, which was shared with the audience at the awards. Noah thanked booksellers, publishers and the sponsors Nielsen Book for the award, along with his English teacher who inspired him to read.

Watch Trevor’s speech here.

PS – Trevor has also been shortlisted for the Thurber Prize for American Humor!

Born A Crime

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Call for applications for ANFASA Grant Scheme now open

ANFASA, the Academic and Non-Fiction Authors’ Association of South Africa, announces the next round of the grant scheme to benefit authors of academic and general non-fiction works

What is a “general non-fiction work”? Just as an example, it could be a biography or an autobiography; a history of a town or a region or a religion; a book about music or sport or theatre; a political or social analysis; an account of everyday life in a township; a book about nursing, or cooking, or fashion, or fishes, or traditional medicines, or cars – those are just a few of the many topics supported by the ANFASA grant scheme in the past.

If you are currently working on a scholarly or a general non-fiction work, you are eligible to apply. However, although we accept applications from authors whether or not they are ANFASA members, only ANFASA members may actually receive an award. The grants are intended to provide a sum of around R20 000 to R25 000 to be used for an author to “buy time” – to take leave, for instance, and devote herself or himself to writing; or to travel in order to conduct research. The grants are for research and writing and do not cover the cost of publishing the manuscript.

An independent committee will assess the applications and select the most deserving. The selection committee aims to offer awards to a wide-ranging group of authors and subjects, and the selection process will respect the need to treat new and experienced authors equally; to bear in mind authors writing in rural as well as urban locations; and to consider authors at all levels of education from the untutored to the degreed. The ANFASA grant scheme especially encourages writing by new authors. Applications for books written in all the official languages will be equally considered.

Visit their webiste to apply online or send an e-mail to info@anfasa.org.za. The closing date for applications is 30 September, and the successful applications will be announced in December.

Trevor Noah wins the Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice Award

Trevor Noah was announced as the winner of the 2017 Nielsens Booksellers’ Choice Award for his autobiography Born a Crime and Other Stories on the 22nd of August.

The award is bestowed upon a local author for a South African published book that booksellers most enjoyed selling or that sold so well that it made a difference to the bottom line of booksellers across the country.

The books are voted for by members of the South African Booksellers Association all of whom are booksellers; the booksellers vote for the book they most enjoyed selling during the year. The winner receives R20 000.

The following books were shortlisted for this prestigious award:

· Emily Hobhouse: Geliefde verraaier by Elsabe Brits (Published by Tafelberg)
· JAN: A breath of French Air by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen (Published by Struik)
· Kook saam Kaaps by Koelsoem Kamalie and Flori Schrikker (Published by Lapa Uitgewers)
· Koors by Deon Meyer (Published by Human & Rousseau)
· My own liberator by Dikgang Moseneke (Published by Picador Africa)

 

Book details

Stephen Coan reviews Commonplace, a new photographic book that provides a unique view of parallel universes which occasionally collide

A new photographic book provides a unique view of parallel universes which occasionally collide: life lived in a Johannesburg township and life on a farm near Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal. STEPHEN COAN reports. Originally published in The Witness

A man opening a door with one hand, in the other a lit cigarette. He looks directly at the camera; at you. An invitation to enter the book you hold in your hands? Turn the page. A short explanatory text for what will follow. Turn the page. Another photograph: a man in shorts, in one hand a camera in the other a bunch of leaves. Behind him, not far along a rural dirt road, is a car dating the taking of the photograph to the 1950s.

The man in the first photograph is black, in the second, white. They are photographs from two collections, The Ngilima Collection and the Drummond-Fyvie Collection.

In 1905 Temple Lascelles Fyvie bought a plot of land outside Estcourt in the then Colony of Natal. In the 1930s Ronald Majongwa Ngilima left the Eastern Cape and headed for Benoni on the East Rand. “The photographic collections that grew out of these two moves form the basis of our book,” write Tamsyn Adams and Sophie Feyder, authors of Commonplace.

Tamsyn Adam
Sophie Feyder

 
“Their placement, side by side, starts to suggest the varied ways in which lives lived in different times and places, and under very disparate circumstances, might nevertheless be tied to each other – if not in a common place then at least in their commonplaces.”

“Collection” may seem a rather formal word to apply to these photographs but Adams and Feyder were trying to find an alternative to “archive” and opted for “collection” as, according to Adams, “the word implied a sense of the messiness, especially of the Drummond and Fyvie photos – which were rather an ‘accumulation’ as opposed to a formal ‘collection’.”

In the latter case the old-fashioned word “snaps” would likely have been applied by the two families (united by marriage in 1941) to describe their “collection” however the Ngilima Collection had more deliberate beginnings. When Ngilima obtained one of the new houses in the location of Wattville outside Benoni in 1952 he set up a dark room in the bathroom. Otherwise employed at the Leonard Dingler tobacco company in Boksburg Ngilima took photographs in his spare time, cycling around the townships with his camera to take photographs of people in their own homes while others came to “Mr. Snappy”, as he was popularly known, in his home-based studio.

Location unknown, mid-1950s. Photo: Ronald Ngilima, Ngilima Collection.

 

Scottburgh, 1930s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection

 
When Ronald Ngilima died suddenly in 1960 his son Thorence took over and ran what had become a small business until his work for the ANC became all consuming. A street in Wattville is named after him.

Meanwhile 25 boxes of negatives were kept safe in the family home where Ronald’s grandson Farrell came across them in 1999. Realising their historical value he was instrumental in their being stored at the Historical Papers archive at University of the Witwatersrand and thus making them publicly accessible.

Scottburgh, 1930s/1940s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection

 

Wattville, Benoni, early 1960s. Photo: Thorence Ngilima, Ngilima Collection

 
The photographs in the Drummond-Fyvie Collection date back to the 19th century and were probably stored without any particular consideration other than being family photographs from whenever until Adams similarly realised they possessed an importance that went beyond “family snaps”.

Both Adams, who has a fine arts background, and Feyder began working with the collections collaboratively as part of a joint doctoral research project between the History and Anthropology departments of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

Location unknown, 1930s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection.

 

Wattville, Benoni, early 1960s. Photo: Thorence Ngilima, Ngilima Collection

 
Feyder, from Luxembourg and now resident in Brussels, Belgium, had long had an interest in southern Africa and studied political science and development. “But I realised you needed history to understand the situation today; to understand colonialism. I had a background in photography and at Leiden in the African Studies Program I was able to combine African history and photography.”

Feyder first encountered the Ngilima Collection in 2008 and arranged its digitization. Subsequently she and Adams worked with other colleagues from Leiden organising a conference in Johannesburg built around the relatively new discipline of visual studies. Their contribution would be to present their work with the two collections.

“We wanted to say that private archives, family photographs, are also interesting to look at in terms of history,” said Feyder. “They also have something to tell us; historic photographs are not just the famous photographs of iconic figures or of violent protests.”

At first Adams and Feyder intended presenting images from the collections separately but then decided it would be interesting to combine these seemingly non-political images within a larger context. Would it be possible to see apartheid reflected in these private photographs?

The answer was a qualified “yes”, according to Adams. “Putting the two collections together suggests another way of understanding them. It draws attention to the specific political context in which the photographs were taken. But it also highlights similarities in a way that hopefully doesn’t try to resolve the underlying tensions.”

Glenroy, near Estcourt, 1950s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection

 

Suburbs of Benoni, mid-1950s. Photo: Ronald Ngilima, Ngilima Collection

 

The resulting exhibition, Sidetracks: Working with Two Photographic Collections, went on display at the Market Photo Workshop in 2013. “For the book we drew on the same photographs but we worked with them in a slightly different way,” said Adams. “We also emphasised more social pictures. There is a perception that photographs from this period should focus on struggle – we were trying to give a different view.”

Feyder agrees. “Private photos like these suggest what it was like to live at the time. People did not go to the photographic studio to “resist” apartheid, they went there because it was fun. But you can say that it was part of a strategy of resilience, to construct a positive image of oneself in a context where you are being constantly told that you are inferior for not being white.”

Whereas the exhibition featured text and maps the book is determinedly minimal. Commonplace is a photographic book and the photographs dominate. Apart from those opening few words other text is to be found at the back of the book. Nor are there captions to the photographs; they too are at the back below thumbnail reference images.

Davies Social Centre, Benoni location, mid-1950s. Photo: Ronald Ngilima, Ngilima Collection.

 

Fyvie Farm near Estcourt, 1930s. Photo: Drummond-Fyvie Collection

 

The absence of captions was quite a leap for Adams and Feyder. “We were both reluctant at first,” recalled Feyder, “but Oliver Barstow, the book’s designer, encouraged us to keep it simple. As scholars the idea of having no captions horrified us, but we were also aware that scholars write all sorts of things about the images they are working with while forgetting to really look at them. “

For the viewer a lack of captions forces direct engagement with the images. You also discover how captions, when and if you refer to them, exert power and add bias thus mediating and manipulating your response. For example, you find that a full-length portrait photograph of a teenage Temple Fyvie in the late 1900s was taken shortly before he died, thrown by a horse. Does that knowledge add or detract to the image? It certainly changes how you “read” it. On a more prosaic level you discover the cigarette held by the man in that very first photograph has an added dimension: he is opening the door of the Leonard Dingler tobacco factory.

The many and various images in Commonplace either stand alone or on facing pages, such as the coy “pin-ups” of white women posing on sandy holiday beaches juxtaposed with those of black women on beds in their township homes; black or white their poses echo those of models in the swim- or underwear advertisements of the day.

Individuals, adults and children, couples, groups. Family photographs. In Adams case the family is her own. “Yes, they are private family ‘snaps’– and I feel protective of them in that sense – but they also bear witness to a particular past. In both the book and the exhibition we wanted to keep that sense of conflict.”

Feyder acknowledges the shared aspects of the photographs drawn from the two collections but the similarities are serendipitous rather than schematic. “There are similarities,” said Feyder, “but we are not out to make some redemptive statement about our shared common humanity with the book. We are more interested in the grey areas.”

Commonplace

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Trade Secrets contributor, Kerry Hammerton, on her short story, researching dagga, and South Africa’s political climate

Kerry Hammerton lives in Cape Town, South Africa. She has published poetry in various South African and overseas literary journals and anthologies – most recently Hallelujah for 50ft Women (Bloodaxe Books: 2015). She has two poetry collections These are the lies I told you (Modjaji 2010) and The Weather Report (2014). Kerry has an MA in Creative Writing with Distinction from the University currently known as Rhodes. ‘Spider Woman’ is her first published short story. Here, Kerry and Joanne Hichens, the curator of the Short.Sharp.Stories Award, discuss her futuristic crime romp, researching dagga, and South Africa’s current political environment.

Your story, ‘Spider Woman’, a futuristic crime romp in which your protagonist, Carey AKA Mrs Harvester, takes ‘entrepreneurship’ to the extreme, is great fun. What first inspired the story?

The daughter of a friend of friend delivered a suitcase full of cash to a smuggler at an airport (not in South Africa). The idea really intrigued me – how would you find such a person? How would you identify them at the airport? That opening scene wrote itself very quickly and established the personality of my main character, Carey.

Carey is certainly versatile when it comes to business. And she keeps a cool head. How did you research her role as ‘botanist’ in the fullest sense of the word?

I imagined the story set in the future with an authoritarian government that didn’t want interference from the outside. One of the big threats to such a society would be food security. To make Carey and her husband valuable to that society it made sense to give them jobs as botanists who are trying to feed the nation, jobs where they don’t need earn a lot of money. In this scenario Carey needed an activity that would give her a lot of cash. In an authoritarian society it would have to be something illegal. Growing and selling marijuana seemed to be the best option.

It is very interesting what you can find online via Google… I simply searched for websites that would tell me how to grow and harvest marijuana. There were several and they gave me the specific information I needed – how you would grow weed in a confined space, the lighting you would need to make it grow, how you would know when it was ready to harvest and how you would cure your product. This helped to add authenticity to the story.

What appealed to you about setting the story in the future?

The freedom to create a world that works in a particular way – I could create a walled-society with a ban on cars in the inner city, few jobs, very little money, a society that goes through a second revolution. It made the story believable.

It seems that the world Carey and Jamesy inhabit, and the rest of the cast of wacky characters, isn’t actually much different – on many levels – to the world we live in today. Would that be fair comment?

If we look at the world it feels as though we are going backwards – that we haven’t learnt from history. All the things in my future society have already occurred and may be occurring again. I think that there is a real possibility that the world in future could become more fragmented and turned inward – my story is just a reflection of that.

The ‘politics’ of the story reflects that of South Africa. Is this intentional?

That was the one element of the story which I deliberately introduced. The rest of the elements of the story seemed to introduce themselves to me. I thought the political element – in particular appropriating state funds for personal use – rounded off the story and at the same time made a direct comment on the current South African political environment.

In my story I recreate: the large gap between the haves and have-nots, the haves being seen as more worthy, and the use of propaganda to tell the state’s version of the truth. It sounds all negative I know but my future society does have positive aspects – the ban on cars in the inner-city, a multiracial and multicultural society where normal citizens respect each other and each other’s traditions, leisure activities that are free for everyone – while these may not be a reality in our society now they could be in the future.

The title is intriguing. Why this reference?

As you mentioned Carey has a cool-head, she organises the illegal activities she and her husband, Jamesy, are involved in; she is smart and knows what she wants. She is the super-hero of her own life. In the story spiders help Carey and her husband fulfil their dreams. Combining these two factors gave me the title.

As a poet, how did you translate your skill and craft to writing the short form?

Writing short stories is very different from writing poetry. In a poem often what you leave out enhances the poem. In a short story you need to flesh out all the details. I found my editing skills helpful – in poetry you have to edit a poem until you have the essence of the poem, until it flows. Reading and writing poetry develops your ear for language, pace and rhythm – I like to think that I have managed to bring these into my short story writing.

What writing Trade Secret would you like to share?

Be intrigued by the world. Listen to other people’s stories. Don’t pay attention to the obvious. And let your imagination wander.

www.kerryhammerton.com

Trade Secrets

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“I wrote it for all women of colour who have felt silenced” – a Q&A with author, activist, storyteller and actress Buhle Ngaba

Carla Lever recently interviewed Buhle Ngaba, activist, storyteller, actress and the author of The Girl Without a Sound, for the Nal’ibali reading campaign’s sixth column, as published in the Daily Dispatch and Herald. Buhle discussed the importance of children having access to stories in their own language, empowering young girls in collaboration with KaMatla Productions, and the absence of African literature written by women.

Buhle Ngaba, author of The Girl Without a Sound

 

Your book, The Girl Without a Sound, is about a silent young girl who meets a mysterious red-winged woman and begins to discover her own voice. What was your inspiration for the story?

My aunt handed me my first book when I was six and I don’t believe I would have been the same person without that introduction to stories. So the little girl in my book is me, but I wrote it for all women of colour who have felt silenced.
 

A page from Buhle’s remarkable The Girl Without a Sound

 
Why did you decide to start tackling community storytelling?

It felt like a natural extension of my job as an actress: to share stories as far and wide as I can and to teach others to do the same. Stories can and do change how we see the world, so we have to learn how to tell our own.

Can you tell us a little about the work you do with KaMatla Productions?

A group of us started KaMatla to aid the development of the arts and storytelling amongst young people. At the moment, we are collaborating with Nal’ibali in honour of Women’s Month, meaning Girl Without A Sound will now be freely available for download in English, Setswana, isiXhosa and isiZulu. Because internet access is not evenly distributed, we will also be taking printed copies of the book to schools across the country. Starting in September, KaMatla will be running free workshops at high schools across the country, bringing the empowering teachings of Girl Without A Sound to life. We’re aiming to provide young girls with a lifelong tool kit that can be used to own their unique voices.

Is there any particular moment or piece of feedback that made all your work worthwhile?

The reading club visit with Nal’ibali to Sea View Primary in Mitchells Plain last week was spectacular – to see the book in the hands that it was written for was so special.

Why is diverse representation – in featured characters, in written languages – so important, particularly in South Africa today?

It’s important so that children can see themselves and hear the potential for magic in their own languages. That way, they discover how they can be anything they want to be. The industry doesn’t publish enough women writers and even our sections on African literature no longer reprint books by women that are vital reading. I think that the only way forward is by women writers to actively saturate the industry with our stories. If you are a writer, write! The internet gives people a platform to be what they always wanted and, though it may be imperfect, it should be something we use. I use it to share as much of my work as I can, across borders, waters and skies.

Where to for you from here?

We will keep trying to get the book into as many hands as possible. As for me, I am going to perform a short season of my one-woman show “The Swan Song” in Joburg and Cape Town early next year then I am looking towards film!

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to enter its national multilingual storytelling competition, ‘Story Bosso’, running this September, visit www.nalibali.org.

11 quick questions with DJ Sbu

Published in the Sunday Times

Billionaires Under ConstructionBillionaires Under Construction: The Mindset of an Entrepreneur by DJ Sbu (Tracey MacDonald Publishers)

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
MoFaya. *chuckles*

If you could require our world leaders to read one book, what would it be?
Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.

Which book changed your life?
Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch.

What music helps you write?
It depends on the kind of writing I want to share. If it is about my life journey, then most of the time it is kwaito influenced.

Do you keep a diary?
No, my modern-day diary is made up of my daily social media posts.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?
Mzekezeke.

What book are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by Steve Harvey.

What’s more important to you: the way a book is written, or what the book is about?
Both, because it depends on what is written being written about.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
Yes, Robert Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad’s Cashflow Quadrant, which simplifies the concept of wealth creation.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?
Zakes Mda, Credo Mutwa and Sheryl Sandberg.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Do you finish every book you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?
No, I don’t finish every book I start. Most times it’s not that I decide to stop reading, but that I just get carried away by other books and things that come my way.

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Also available as an eBook.

The pull of Everest: Diane Awerbuck reviews Sarah Lotz’s The White Road

Published in the Sunday Times

Sarah Lotz’s new book pulls you into a death zone inhabited by ghosts and spirits, writes Diane Awerbuck

The White RoadThe White Road
Sarah Lotz, Hodder & Stoughton
*****

Why are mountains female? Because they’re a bitch to climb. Sarah Lotz gives the annoying Robbie character that punchline, but it’s as good a place as any to talk about the real issues of her new novel, The White Road: personal challenge, suffering, and how exactly you know when you’re going mad.

The journeys of discovery in the novel are parallel trips: underground, in the terrifying world of “the death caves” of Cwm Pot in Wales, and up Everest itself.

Lotz knows what she’s talking about. She did her research on climbing first-hand, and it shows in the detail of the claustrophobic cave sequences and the near-death experiences in the snow: “Food tastes so different up here. I feel like I need to add salt to everything, and find myself craving curry and sugar.”

Not only the characters’ appetites are sharpened: Everest exerts a terrible, compulsive pull on its climbers, even when they understand they are behaving in ways that will probably get them killed. The “death zone” is littered with bodies of climbers – like Green Boots, who died in 1996 in “the highest graveyard in the world”. Because the corpses are frozen they have to be chipped out: some teams charge $30 000 to retrieve a body, and the Sherpas “don’t like to touch them”.

How to reconcile lofty emotional ideals with physical frailties is a thread that runs through The White Road. Juliet Michaels, “the Angel of the Alps” finds herself dubbed “the Angel of Death” after her climbing partner dies. Her mission at the beginning of the book is to set a new record for a female climber, find sponsorship, and remove her son Marcus from his up-itself boarding school.

But she also wants to achieve her climbing goals “by fair means” – without supplementary oxygen, and not “on the backs of Sherpas”. Lotz also gets in her critical commentary about the mistreatment of Nepal by China, so we’ll not expect a Mandarin translation of The White Road any time soon.

What Juliet shares with the other main character, Simon, is the conviction that they are haunted by a version of TS Eliot’s “Third Man”, a ghostly figure who “walks always beside you”. The phenomenon was documented by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and, while other historical climbers describe the apparition as a companion, the constant presence for Juliet and Simon is punishing and vindictive: the worst voices of their conscience. Simon especially finds himself appalled at the shallowness of his old life, and determines to do the right thing for once.

Their progressive mental deterioration is documented in her notebooks and Simon’s posts for his sensationalist site, Journey to the Dark Side. Laying the ghosts to rest has become the mission for both climbers, though they belong to different generations, and we track their descent narratives with dread and fascination.

Stylistically, the publishers have given Lotz a freer rein. While The Three and Day Four are cult hits and great reads, they are occasionally frustrating because there’s a sense the writer has been told to hold back. The scenes in the Japanese suicide forest in The Three, for example, are the bits that make Lotz special, and The White Road is good because it’s this kind of writing. She never loses her grip on authentic, character-driven action, but it is that signature style – an apparently casual but really searing ability to strike the right image – that is impressive and indelible. Haunting, you might say, and spiritual, and cathartic.

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Book bites: 20 August 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The Wandering EarthThe Wandering Earth
Cixin Liu, Head of Zeus
****
Book fiend
This collection of award-winning sci-fi short stories explores human desire, distant galaxies and potential futures. The titular story’s grand premise is that the Earth’s rotation must stop and its orbit move away from the sun. In “For the Benefit of Mankind” an assassin is hired to kill specific targets before approaching aliens take over the Earth. The power of “The Wandering Earth“ lies not just in Liu’s scientific flights of fancy but his ability to get to the heart of the human condition. These are magnificent tales of people in love in the face of galactic doom. The stories will satisfy space geeks and sci-fi junkies yet are just as accessible to dreamers. – Efemia Chela @efemiachela

See What I Have DoneSee What I Have Done
Sarah Schmidt, Headline
*****
Book thrill
Long before OJ Simpson, Amanda Knox and Oscar Pistorius, the murder that garnered massive public interest was in 1892 when Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally killed with an axe in their Massachusetts home. Lizzie Borden, their daughter, was arrested and found innocent. It’s a story that’s been told in rhymes, movies, books and songs. This is Sarah Schmidt’s chance and she wins. This is a psychological thriller about the family dynamics told from key role-players’ points of view. It’s an emotional journey that shows there was a crisis, even before that fateful day. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

The Reason You're AliveThe Reason You’re Alive
Matthew Quick, Pan Macmillan
****
Book hug
Sixty-eight-year-old Vietnam vet David Granger is a layered man. Irascible, unlikable – he seems like an alt-right dream. One who loves guns and hates everything and everyone. But as he tells his life story and reveals his true character and the daily battles of living with post-traumatic stress syndrome, the reader cannot help but sympathise and like the old man. Quick has written another bestseller filled with characters so compelling and American, you can hear Robert de Niro talking. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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