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BooksLIVE has joined the Sunday Times’ website – and can still be enjoyed for free!

Stay up-to-date with leading titles from prominent South African publishers, international literary news, and local-is-lekker events on the brand-new site which can be accessed HERE.

We’re ecstatic to announce that BooksLIVE has joined the Sunday Times’ digital sphere and will henceforth be known as Sunday Times Books.

And yes, you can continue getting your daily dose of mahala book news as no paywalls will be implemented.

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Staunch supporters of book launches – keep an eye on the ‘Events’ sections to ensure that you don’t miss out on any forthcoming dos.

And most importantly of all – enjoy!

Michele Magwood remembers her friend and mentor Stephen Johnson

Stephen Johnson: the bon vivant bibliophile with a beautiful voice.

I was devastated to learn of the death of Stephen Johnson early in the new year.

When I was appointed Books Editor of the Sunday Times in 2000 he took me under his capacious wing. At that time he was the MD of Random House and we would meet in his office high on the Parktown Ridge, surrounded by bookshelves crammed with the greats: Brink, Van Onselen, Coetzee.

He talked me through how the book industry works – he had been MD of Exclusive books before that – and larded the information with much literary lore. And gossip, of course.

He was a bon vivant and had a beautiful voice; he loved classical music. He loved books as objects of art, not only their jacket design but their font, the weight of the paper. Most of all, he loved his authors.

He pushed and encouraged me as a book journalist, sending me to London to interview Sebastian Faulks and a hip young couple in their hip new restaurant called Moro; he knew they would make their mark and they have. Long before Ottolenghi, Sam and Sam Clarke put Mediterranean food on the British map. Years later he sent me back to London to the launch of Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, held in a smart nightclub and thronging with guests like Ian McEwan and Stephen Fry. When I returned he wanted to know every detail.

Over the years we shared many a meal and glasses of wine, but I saw less of him when he moved to Cape Town. I missed our discussions about who was writing what, and how well, or not.
He was a friend and a mentor and a great book man. He was a deeply cultivated man in an increasingly uncultured world. I will always be grateful to him.

When Stephen retired Antjie Krog made an outstanding speech at his farewell party in 2012. It was featured on BooksLive, and it is worth sharing it again:

It feels terrible to speak at something called a farewell function to Stephen Johnson. It immediately makes me feel like an orphan, like a minion without a Mafia Pappa, like a shareholder without her Magnate of the Published Word.

So I prefer to think about tonight not as a farewell, but as a celebration; and therefore want to present my contribution as a praisesong rather than a lament.

But first. A good praise singer goes out of her way to impress on the audience her bona fides – in other words what qualifies her to speak and how much weight her opinion should carry. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I have published at more publishing houses than a prostitute has had clients on the R310 to Stellenbosch. So I am experienced and I can compare. I have also learnt some lessons of which I will share only one: Beware of the very thin publisher!

You know what I am talking about. Those who arrive from finance departments with the demeanour of replaceable bank managers, displaying meagre spiritual egos born of housekeeping desire and bookkeeping abstraction. Those who move swiftly, leaving bleeding gaps and who prefer doling out to giving. They are clones; one cannot befriend them.

No, let us celebrate the not-so-thin ones, because the publishers with which I have taken the biggest risks and produced the greatest success are above all lovers of life. They carry in a perfectly congruous way mentally and physically the idea of joyous largesse, a certain superfluity and the pure pleasure of riot.

These publishers, of which Stephen is one, first of all LOVE books. They touch paper in a way which convey that their somewhat plumb fingertips are beehives bursting with lustful senses, they caress book covers with their knuckles as if they touch a beloved’s face, they talk about books always with heartbreaking maternal intimacy. For them, the heart of the book and the beauty of the book are inseperable.

Yes, the true lover of books is alive to the world. These rare publishers, of which Stephen is one, have distinguished tongues and discerning palates. Therefore, every writer blessed to have been published by someone like Stephen will remember som exquisite trance-like events steamed in the pleasures of merlot, marrow and metaphor. Writers who often have to mould themselves on rigid self-denying self-discipline, find it miraculous to be with someone who, like yourself, experiences the world sensually. At last you get spoilt and you rot willingly with noble bliss.

Whether at lunch or dinner, in a hotel room or a taxi, an office or a meeting – with Stephen it is always underpinned with exquisite textures slanting from windows, gleaming from porcelain, glowing from dark wines, cusping off glass. Yes, one finds oneself with somebody who, like the philosopher Martin Versveld, believes that we make the world human through food; that the world as food is the world and the word humanised; that an eaten world is an intelligible word, a word in which body and spirit are united.

Completing the full passion spectrum of these earth epicureans, of which Stephen is one, is the love for classical music. Not the run-of-the-mill Fine Music Radio favourites, but experts on German lieder, choral works, great pianists, operatic voices. A drive with them in a car is like unexpectedly encountering a diva: the fingers playing the notes molto espressivo on the steering wheel or bellowing the highest coloratura notes in ecstatic dewlapping whispers.

The good life, the righteous life then, as a publisher like Stephen knows so well – and through him, we – is the convivial life, because our very universe is actually a convivium – a meal together.

In my books – and remember I have been plying my trade for four decades 0 Stephen Johnson is a fantastic and successful publisher. Here are the facts of my before-Stephen and after-Stephen life: since he took me out for tea at Zerbans in the Gardens Centre seventeen years ago he changed me from a middle-aged penniless radio-reporting Afrikaans poet with the name of Samuel to a freelancing non-fiction battle axe with a terrible English accent, with access to Voyager miles and a separate income tax number, and the name of Krog. I still regularly get a cheque from Shuter and Shooter for R52.13, dating from my time before Stephen, but I now no longer get money BACK from SARS.

Apart from the fact that Stephen should be professor in How to Make Beautiful Books and Sell Them Successfully, he is a writer’s dream: he is as creative as yourself, he thinks about possibilities that have never crossed your mind, he is a discerning manuscript reader and can tell very quickly whether a manuscript is working. If it “works”, he throws himself behind the coming book with the neat and thrilling energy of a DA march. Nothing will be overlooked: not the font, not the launch, not the future of the book nor a potential clash with COSATU.

Once a woman stopped me at the Cape Town International Airport and said: would you please tell the people who made Country of My Skull that it is the most beautiful book I have ever held in my hands? I give it to people not too read, but to hold.

This happened because, for my first and second book (A Change of Tongue) Stephen put together nothing less than an astonishing A-team: the meticulous dedicated Douglas van der Horst who noticed everything, knew everything and talked about shades, fonts and paper like other men talk about rugby or babes. Then there was the inimitable Abdul Amien who would take from the shelf of the National Library a book with the title Atlas Ichtyologique des Indes Orientales Neerlandaises, volume 6, by P Bleeker, published between 1866 and 1872, for Tongue‘s cover. And with unfailing vision Stephen, already in those years, identified Ivan Vladislavic as the best editor in the country.

Stephen not only became my favourite publisher with his excellent literary intuition, but with his empathy and generosity he became my friend and directed the weal and woe of my English literary career with compassion, humour and objectivity. We went through tough times him and me, but whether we were in or out of the closet, in or out of fashion, swinging swords against accusations of plagiarism, we could do it with the knowledge that the other one holds his or her integrity in high regard. Stephen Johnson is the kind of person that I like to have at my side: for his joy at life, his incomparable English – whether speaking or writing – his sensitive creativity, his eye for beauty and last but not least, his character, more often than not burdened with integrity.

Let us drink a toast to a wonderful publisher!

Creative writing workshop with Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (25-30 January 2019)

The Talking Table is hosting a creative writing workshop presented by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen! The workshop will take place from 25-30 January in the eastern Free State village of Rosendal.

Facilitator: Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (novelist and head of creative writing at Wits)

Dates: 25-30 January 2019

Venue: DeTuinen country lodge in Rosendal, Eastern Free State

Progamme: A practical, playful, hands-on approach. Full programme at

Fees: R13 600 per single person and R12 200 pp sharing. Included accommodation, breakfast and a long-table meal daily and programme fee.

To book: Write to before 31 December 2018.

Bronwyn Law-Viljoen is Associate Professor and Head of Creative Writing at the University of the Witwatersrand, editor and co-founder of Fourthwall Books, and former editor of Art South Africa magazine.

She has a PhD in Literature from New York University and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Her first novel, The Printmaker, was published in 2016 (Umuzi) and shortlisted for the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Award.

The Talking Table is a creative hub operated by two South Africans on the Greek island of Lesbos.

It hosts workshop in writing, painting, photography, philosophy, business ethics and more. Frederik de Jager, former Publishing Director at Penguin Books and Douw Steyn, former CEO of media companies in Naspers, accommodate, cook and create a sympathetic space for participating guests.

Rosendal will be their second workshop in South Africa.

Rosendal is a beautiful eastern Free State hamlet in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains, three and a half hours’ drive from Johannesburg.

The Printmaker

Book details
The Printmaker by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen
Book homepage
EAN: 9781415209127
Find this book with BOOK Finder!

Win a Nal’ibali mini-library fully stocked with storybooks in different South African languages!

Reading is the apex of educational escapism; reading is fun and informative; reading creates thinkers and dreamers. Slotsom: reading rocks! (Bibliophile shot by Daniel Born.)

Nal’ibali, the nationwide reading-for-enjoyment campaign which aims to spark children’s potential through reading and storytelling, is supporting caregivers in kick-starting their children’s 2019 school year by giving away 20 mini-libraries fully stocked with storybooks in different South African languages.

Research shows that children who read for pleasure, do better across all school subjects, including maths.

However, to keep children reading, it’s helpful to understand what motivates them to read.

According to American researchers, Kathryn Edmunds and Kathryn Bauserman, the following factors influence children’s reading behaviours.

• Children are more likely to read a book they chose themselves

• Children enjoy books that match their personal interests

• Children are more likely to choose books that have exciting covers, great illustrations and action-packed plots, as well as books that are funny or scary

• What they could learn from reading a book was important to them

• Their interest in reading was sparked and encouraged by their family members (especially mothers), teachers and friends

• Children were often excited to read books they had heard about from friends

• Children enjoyed being read to by family members and teachers, even if they could already read

• Once they’d caught the reading bug, children continued to motivate themselves to read!

Nal’ibali mini libraries contain a carefully curated selection of books designed to expose children to a range of literacy and illustration styles.

Every library is bilingual in a bid to support a culture a multilingualism, and to help children build a strong foundation in their other tongue as well as English.

“Providing families and classrooms with their own mini libraries is just one of the ways we are nurturing a culture of reading in South Africa. Nal’ibali stories can also be accessed directly from its website, in its regular reading-for-enjoyment supplement or heard on the radio,” explains Jade Jacobsohn, Nal’ibali Managing Director.

To stand a chance to win one of 20 mini-libraries, send a short motivation on how you plan to enjoy your mini-library with the children in your life to by 21 December 2018.

Entrants must also include their name, physical address and contact number. Winners will be notified during the week of 7th January 2019.

For more information about the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, free children’s stories in a range of SA languages, tips on reading and writing with children, details on how to set up a reading club or to request training, visit,, or find them on Facebook and Twitter.

Bekendstelling: Die lig skyn daar buite deur Jacques de Viljee (13 Desember)

Die bekendstelling van Jacques de Viljee se debuutbundel Die lig skyn daar buite vind Donderdagaand 13 Desember by The Striped Horse on Kloof (fka The Vic) in Kaapstad plaas. Daar sal 19:30 ‘n gesprek wees tussen De Viljee en Hanno van Zyl, wat die kortverhaalbundel se ontwerp en illustrasies behartig het. Eksemplare van Die lig skyn daar buite kan by bestel word en sal teen R100 by die venue te koop wees.

Die vier verhale in Die lig skyn daar buite kyk deur die oë van ‘n handjievol jongmense na ‘n kontemporêre Kaapstad en Suid-Afrika, na die verwronge spieëls van die internet en aanlynlewe, en na nuwe weergawes van oorleef in ‘n moderne wêreld.

In “#malegaze” strompel Nicolaas Mijburg een aand halfbesope Die Vallende Ster binne. Van agter die kroegtoonbank herken Vink Minnaar dadelik sy skoolheld en -liefde, die debatkampioen wat nou ‘n prokureur is. Vanaand is sy kans, besef Vink terwyl hy Nicolaas se oog probeer vang, ná soveel jare van droom en wonder.

In “#thisiswar” sien Ryno Winterbach op Twitter dat ‘n landswye burgeroorlog pas uitgebreek het. Ryno, ‘n argitek in Kaapstad, moet kant kies, maar met sy meisie oorsee en sy boesemvriend gewond in die hospitaal teen die berg, is hy besig om van sy kop af te gaan.

Vir die oorlewing van sy pa se galery moet Innes Edelhart in “NG Kerk Tyrrhena Patera” vir Jean Kleinhaus, die wunderkind van die kunswêreld, by ‘n uitstalling in Breëstraat opspoor om een van die kunswerke vir die galery te kontrakteer. Hy vind die kunstenaar uiteindelik, maar ná twee cokelyne en te veel witwyn spiraal die aand uit tot ‘n warrelwind van karakters en gesprekke waaraan hy net-net nie kan vatplek kry nie.

In “Liewe Wessel” skryf Amelie Verwey, ‘n uitgesproke jong kunstenaar van Kaapstad, ‘n indringende inskrywingsbrief vir Wessel, ‘n deelnemer op Soort Soek Soort. Sy boor tot in sy diepste self, terwyl sy haarself ook aan hom oopmaak. Amelie is egter onbewus dat Wessel haar brief waarskynlik nooit sal kry nie.

Die karakters in Die lig skyn daar buite soek soos die titel suggereer na waarheid en betekenis wat iewers daar buite blink, maar hulle verdwaal telkens in die donker. Hulle is immers foutryke mense; nie rekenaarkode nie.

“Dit voel soos ek Kaapstad onthou. Hierdie shit is weird en ek like dit so. Hierdie is hopelik die eerste van baie weirder shit. Afrikaans kort weird.”

  • Hunter Kennedy

“Jacques de Viljee se kortverhale is rou. Eg. Meesleurend. Skerpsinnig. Diepsinnig. ‘n Hemingway vir die hashtag generasie.”

  • Mila de Villiers, BooksLive

Jacques de Viljee is ‘n skrywer van Kaapstad. Sy skryfwerk is al in New Contrast en op, LitNet en BooksLive gepubliseer. Die lig skyn daar buite is sy debuutbundel en word onafhanklik gepubliseer.

Die bundel se ontwerp en illustrasiewerk is deur Hanno van Zyl behartig. Hanno se uitleg- en produksiewerk sluit in June 16, ‘n herdenkingsboek oor die seminale fotograaf Peter Magubane se werk, Twenty Journey, ‘n fotoboek oor drie diverse jong fotograwe se reis deur ‘n twintigjaaroue demokratiese Suid-Afrika, en WAT BINNE IS, ‘n bundel wat gedigte van Jaco van der Merwe en foto’s deur Wikus de Wet vermeng. Sy illustrasiewerk is in 2016 as Pay Dirt by Salon 91 uitgestal.

A captivating biography about boxing’s underdog-turned-hero, Rocky Marciano: Anna Stroud reviews Unbeaten

Published in the Sunday Times 

Unbeaten: Rocky Marciano’s Fight for Perfection in a Crooked World *****
Mike Stanton
Pan Macmillan, R330

He was too old by boxing standards when he started, his arms were too short, his stance too wide, his feet too flat.

And yet, when he retired from boxing in 1956, Rocky Marciano became the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history with a record of 49-0. His title fight with Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952 was marred by controversy, but was also testament to his indefatigable will and endurance. The guy could pack – and take – a punch.

Rocky was always an unlikely hero; the son of an Italian shoemaker growing up during the Depression in Brockton, Massachusetts. His mother never once watched him fight, opting to pray for him instead.

At first, the press and boxing critics ridiculed his lack of technique and called him a brawler, not a boxer. But time after time his thunderous right – dubbed Suzie Q by his manager Charlie Goldman – punched its way into the history books and the hearts of Americans.

When he died in an aircraft accident on August 31 1969 – the day before his 46th birthday – sportswriter Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Start the count, he’ll get up. A lot of us today are wishing there were an honest referee in a cornfield in Iowa.”

These small details make Unbeaten a captivating read. Mike Stanton not only paints a compelling portrait of an underdog-turned-hero, he captures the spirit of the time – from the shady characters who pulled the strings behind the scenes of boxing to the exquisite art of sports writing.

Throughout his career, Rocky had to contend with corrupt boxing officials, Mafia bosses and his own demons at ringside.

Stanton lays bare Rocky’s triumphs as well as his tragedies with crisp writing and rigorous research. Mohammed Ali’s biographer Jonathan Eig calls it “an irresistible story”.

Agreed. @annawriter_

Book details

Louis Botha is depicted warts-and-all in this biography, writes William Saunderson-Meyer

Published in the Sunday Times

Louis Botha: A Man Apart *****
Richard Steyn
Jonathan Ball Publishers, R260

It’s a cliché that we must take lessons from the past. There are at least two problems with this.

The first is hubris. Each generation feels that is unnecessary, since it is clearly wiser and more competent than the previous one. Until, of course, the passage of time proves it wrong.

The second is a growing, priggish moralism that demands right-thinking and right-speaking. Swathes of history are ignored, especially in SA, simply because the protagonists don’t fit into contemporary mores.

Richard Steyn seems to have a particular contrarian interest in the political giants who have fallen foul of such dismissive revisionism. This is his third biography, following upon his well-received works on Jan Smuts, then the friendship between Smuts and Churchill.

But Steyn is no hagiographer.

In enviably clear and unadorned prose his is a warts-and-all depiction, especially as regards the casual racism and assumed superiority of the white man.

While always sensitive to historical context, he examines in detail the failures and blind spots of Botha, including his “mixture of respectful paternalism towards any individual with whom he came into contact … and a disbelief that blacks as a group should enjoy the same political rights as whites”. It was an attitude that culminated, under his premiership, in the pernicious Native Land Act of 1913.

Following the Anglo-Boer War, it was Botha’s first priority to heal the deep divisions between Afrikaans- and English-speaking whites, as well as between the vanquished Boers and the victorious British.

His determination to achieve this took him along a remarkable, painful path: taking the former Boer republics into a union with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal; taking the Union into World War 1 on the side of the British, against the Germans who had nominally supported Boer independence; suppressing with force of arms the resulting Afrikaner rebellion; and conquering German South-West Africa.

Steyn makes the point a number of times that during the Anglo-Boer War those who called most stridently for war were those who most rapidly melted away when they got their wish. Whereas men like Botha, who had opposed the war, were the ones who were left to prosecute it.

Botha, the most brilliant of the Boer generals, paid a high personal cost for a war he never wanted. His health was shattered by the privations of those gruelling years. The family lost their farm and his brother was killed.

But what perhaps wounded him most grievously was the long, slow process of estrangement from fellow Afrikaners, who felt he betrayed them by allying SA to the Empire.

Reconciliation is never universally popular and there are always those who flourish in exacerbating divisions, rather than minimising them. As we are beginning to see with the increasingly strident repudiation of Nelson Mandela as “sell-out”. @TheJaundicedEye

Book details

Markus Zusak discusses his new book’s origins and gives insight into its themes with Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

Bridge of Clay *****
Markus Zusak, Doubleday, R365

Markus Zusak wanted ‘glories and tragedies and courage, all in a suburban setting’. Picture: Supplied

What was the genesis of the story?

I was 20 years old, and always felt really committed to being a writer. I used to take long walks around the neighbourhood I lived in and, once, on one of those walks, I saw in my mind a boy building a bridge. I named him Clayton. I thought I would call the book Clayton’s Bridge, and then a few months later, I thought: No, not Clayton’s Bridge – make it Bridge of Clay. And that was the instant when a whole new depth of meaning and emotion entered the idea.

I saw a boy making a bridge of stone or wood, but also of himself. He would mould his whole life into that bridge and within that idea there was the idea that Clay is both a name and a material – and clay (the material) can be moulded into anything, but it needs fire to set it … I was seeing new beginnings forming, and a definite ending. I just wasn’t ready yet to write it.

Which elements of the book were there from the start, and which came later?

I actually did write a version of this book in my early 20s, but I knew already then that what I’d produced wasn’t what I was looking for. You’re always looking for what you feel in your mind is what you then feel in the pages.

It was in 2006, after The Book Thief, that I started collating new ideas for the book, including a family of five brothers, a mother who had travelled to Australia from Eastern Europe, and a father who had once been obsessed with Michelangelo and, in particular, the Statue of David and his unfinished works, the Slaves (or Prisoners).

The elements of The Iliad and The Odyssey greatly enrich the story. Are these works that have influenced your own life?

It started because of nicknames. I seemed to immediately gravitate towards giving all the Dunbar brothers nicknames (for example, Clay is the Smiler, Rory is the Human Ball and Chain, Matthew – who narrates the story – is the Responsible One, and so on), and it reminded me of how in The Iliad and The Odyssey, Achilles is never just Achilles; he’s the fast-running Achilles, and Hector is the tamer of horses, or Hector of the glittering helmet.

I started to feel a sense of suburban bigness to things. We often think our lives are small and mundane, or that we live in places or houses where very little happens. But then you start to realise the amount of travels that have been made to arrive in these places, and that we all fall in love, we all have people die on us. We laugh and live and love, and all of these things loom hugely, at times, inside us. And I wanted to write about those things.

I wanted to write a big and big-hearted story in what Matthew sometimes calls the suburbs-world. I wanted glories and tragedies and courage, all in that suburban setting.

Can you expand on the use of the bridge as a metaphor?

I think I’ve always thought of bridges being part of books and stories. As the narrator of Bridge of Clay, there are times when Matthew talks to the reader a lot, about the distance between him as the writer of the story and the reader as the recipient. I’ve always imagined that as well – that I’m writing in one place, and the words are stretching to wherever the reader is reading the book. In that way, the reader is part of the book, even in the act of writing it.

In a more direct and story-oriented way, the bridges in Bridge of Clay are everywhere. Clay, especially, is building a bridge for his family, to bring it back together, but he’s simultaneously finding his own way of leaving. It’s both a bridge towards home and beyond it. And Matthew is building his own bridge, not only to an understanding of his brother, but to a new understanding of just how much he loves him. It’s why he’s writing the story: the words are a proof of love.

I read Bridge of Clay directly after finishing Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut and I feel it raises similar themes of masculinity, the question of how to channel young men’s energies and sensibilities. In short, how do we raise good men? Could you comment on that?

Probably the first way is to tell the truth, which isn’t to say that boys will be boys, and be done with it. My first priority is always to write from the inside out, which is to serve the characters of the book, and the story. What I’ve arrived at later is an understanding that if I was subconsciously trying to do anything, it was to write about boys in a way that shows them both how they are, and how we’d like them to be.

The Dunbar boys are rough and boisterous and raw, but I hope they’re beautiful too, and full of love and loyalty, and even tenderness. Maybe the first way to address this idea of positive masculinity is that it’s actually pretty complex.

One of the bigger lines in Bridge of Clay is when Matthew says, “It’s a mystery, even to me, how boys and brothers love.” Like everything else worth fighting for in our lives, the idea of raising good men feels to me like something that never ends. It will to and fro between triumphs and failures, but the centre feels a lot like Clay and his brothers themselves; they fight and scrap and argue their way through the world and each other, but they never give up on each other either, or on themselves. @michelemagwood

Book details

Ons Klyntji launch (5 December)

Established as a title in 1896, Ons Klyntji has risen, died, been reborn, died off again and finally been reinvented somewhere in the murky 1990s to become what it is today: a 144 page, pocket-sized annual of the doen en late of South Africans at home and abroad.

Afrikaans and English sit side by side (plus bits and bobs of other languages) to create a kind of restless vernacular in poem-form, short story-shape, photographs, cartoons, funny things, rude things, sad things and just plain truths too.

The 2018/19 edition of Ons Klyntji Internasionaal will be launched at The Book Lounge on Wednesday 5 December at 5:30 PM for 6 PM.

Zines will be on sale. RSVP to

Oh yes, there will be free wine!

Ons Klyntji is sponsored by Oppikoppi music festival and Woordfees.

Jenny’s Big Book Brunch (1 Dec)

Join Jenny Crwys-Williams at her annual Big Book Brunch for a morning of fabulous authors, interviews, books, brunch, bubbly, lucky draws, prizes and much more!