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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Book Bites: 16 September

Published in the Sunday Times

PontiPonti ***
Sharlene Teo, Picador, R285

In 2003, Szu Min lives shyly in the shadow of her beautiful mother Amisa Tan, a former B-movie actress and her Aunt Yunxi, who works as a medium. In 2020 Szu’s childhood friend Circe is put in charge of the media blitz for the remake of the 1970s horror film Ponti, in which Amisa plays the leading role. This drives Circe to reconsider her friendship with Szu Min and its bitter end. Split between several decades as well as Circe, Szu and Amisa’s perspectives, Ponti is a quietly tragic and slow-moving read exploring grief, abandonment and broken loyalties in Singapore. Though Teo’s debut is atmospheric in language and setting, it fails to satisfy in its resolution. Efemia Chela @efemiachela

A Double LifeA Double Life *****
Flynn Berry, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, R285

Lord Lucan’s disappearance in 1974 still fascinates true-crime aficionados. Berry’s story is told from the point of view of Claire, a London GP who has lived under a new name since her father vanished. Names and dates have been changed in this fictionalised tale but the crime in the novel mirrors the real case: in his absence a court found Lord Lucan guilty of murdering a servant. In this version eight-year-old Claire finds the body of her au pair and still bears the emotional scars. Berry flips between past and present as Claire pursues the only course of action that will free her from her father’s shadow. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

The Chalk ManThe Chalk Man ****
CJ Tudor, Penguin, R175

If Stephen King and the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things) had a British love child, her name would be CJ Tudor. The Chalk Man is spine-tingling and deliciously macabre; Tudor spins a tight yarn with remarkable constraint. A gang of pre-teens ride their bikes around town causing mischief when one day they stumble upon a body in the woods. There’s a strange new teacher who coaxes them into playing with chalk, and every time someone dies, creepy chalk men appear near the murder scene. Nothing is as it seems, and everyone seems to be nursing a secret. Right up to the very last page, The Chalk Man thrills and simultaneously terrifies. Anna Stroud @annawriter_

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In an exclusive interview, Kate Atkinson talks to Michele Magwood about spying, Brexit, and World War II

Published in the Sunday Times

Transcription ****
Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, R290

Kate Atkinson was immersed in the National Archives in London when a set of documents caught her eye. Part of one of MI5’s periodic releases of historical records, they concerned a WW2 agent with the code name “Jack King” who infiltrated fascist circles. He posed as a Gestapo agent and would meet members of the so-called “fifth column” in an innocent-looking flat with hidden recording devices. Next door a junior agent transcribed the meetings.

On the telephone from the UK Atkinson describes how it sparked the idea for the new novel.

“I have to have a title before I can even think about a book, so as soon as I’d read those transcriptions I had it. And then I looked up the OED definition and found it is also a word for broadcasting so it fitted perfectly, because I wanted to write about the BBC in wartime.”

Atkinson’s last two books Life After Life and A God in Ruins – both winners of the Costa Prize – were set in World War 2 and she’s nowhere near done with it yet.

Transcription is a story about ambiguity and duplicity, about idealism, loyalty and the lifelong price of those.

Juliet Armstrong is just 18 and an orphan when she is recruited by the secret service in 1940.

Initially she is the typist who transcribes the interviews taking place in the flat next door. She’s a sharp young woman with a delightfully derisive interior voice: for example, her boss is describing the fifth columnists. “Our own home-grown evil … instead of rooting them out the plan is to let them flourish – but within a walled garden from which they cannot escape and spread their evil seed.” A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. “Very nicely put, Sir,” she said.

“I never design a character,” says Atkinson. “I write very, very slowly at the beginning of a novel and that helps to get into that interior voice. I’m inside their heads. But I don’t construct them – they simply exist. I don’t understand the neurological process, the imaginative process that helps that to occur.”

Juliet is not particularly ambitious, she is more interested in romance and going to dance halls, but her boss promotes her to undercover agent. At first she thinks it is a bit of a lark but it quickly becomes deadly serious and she learns, appallingly, what the consequences of espionage can be. As the book moves forward to 1950 and even further to 1981, we wonder whether she can ever be free of the war.

“I’m really interested in the postwar period,” Atkinson explains, “the 10 years after the war. It was so dingy and hard, there was no sense of euphoria, no money, no food still.”

Romanian actress Nadia Gray in the BBC studios, London, England, December 14 1950. Picture: Underwood Archives/Getty Images.

Juliet goes to work for the BBC where she produces nostalgic history programmes for children. It’s a safe and uneventful life, until the intelligence services reel her in for one last job.

Atkinson is bemused by the prevailing Brexit jingoism, the idea of a brave Great Britain standing proudly alone in the war.

“I think the war makes us very nostalgic, and let’s not forget that our view of the war is filtered through the propaganda of the time: the Blitz spirit and so on. When in fact crime rates rocketed, illegitimacy rocketed, people complained a lot. Everything was destroyed. Also, we fought for Europe and now we want to let it go, that to me is slightly mystifying.”

Is there more to be revealed from archives?

“Yes, I think there is. The MI5 and secret service archives are sealed – it’s not like the public records where everything gets released after 40 or 50 years – they only release to the public what they choose to, so I imagine there’s a great deal more. But in a way it was an untried service in the war. They were still learning. When you think about what it must be like now, just the technological aspect of what they must be doing, we really don’t know.

“But we don’t know what we don’t know, do we?” @michelemagwood

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The shortlists for the 2017 UJ Prize have been announced!

Via the University of Johannesburg

The shortlists for the 2017 University of Johannesburg Prizes for South African writing have been announced.

The prizes are not linked to a specific literary genre. This may make the evaluation more challenging in the sense that a volume of poetry, a novel and a biographical work must be measured against one another, but the idea is to open the prize to as many forms of creative writing as possible.

Approximately 60 works were submitted this year, from which the following books were selected for the shortlist:

Main Prize:

Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo

Bird-Monk Seding by Lesego Rampolokeng

New Times by Rehana Rossouw

The Inside-Out Man by Fred Strydom

Debut Prize:

Grace by Barbara Boswell

Killing Karoline by Sara-Jayne King

The main prize is R75 000.

The debut prize is R35 000.

A formal prize-giving ceremony will be held at a function later in the year.

The adjudication panel comprised the following judges:

Sikhumbuzo Mngadi (UJ)

Ronit Frenkel (UJ)

Danyela Demir (UJ)

Rebecca Fasselt (UP)

Bridget Grogan (UJ)

Nyasha Mboti (UJ)

Thabo Tsehloane (UJ)

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Book Bites: 9 September

Published in the Sunday Times

The Killing HabitThe Killing Habit
Mark Billingham, Little Brown, R300

If you are hurrying through an airport bookshop looking for something to read on a flight, you can pick up the latest Mark Billingham and know he will deliver. Especially if it is one of the DI Tom Thorne series. In this, Thorne is assigned to solving a series of cat killings. At first he is incredulous – he is a homicide detective after all – but agrees with the received wisdom that often the careers of serial killers begin with torturing animals. If this person can be stopped at this stage it will prevent murders. He and colleague DI Nicola Tanner find themselves stumbling into a labyrinth that spreads far beyond the dead animals. Expertly plotted and satisfyingly twisting, it’s interesting to note that the book is inspired by the real-life case of the Croydon Cat Killer, who is still at large. Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

Watching You
Watching You
Lisa Jewell, Century, R290

Joey returns to the UK from Ibiza with new husband, Alfie, after a rave-fuelled work stint that ended in a whirlwind wedding. Now they’re back in a small town in Bristol, living with Joey’s brother and pregnant sister-in-law. Joey’s life takes on meaning when she develops a crush on her neighbour, Tom, principal of the local school. But she’s not the only one; his pupils are also gaga over him. There are voyeurs aplenty in this book. Tom’s teenage son watches girls through binoculars from his bedroom window. Then there’s the delusional mother of one of Tom’s pupils who spends nights in the bushes watching his house. Amid all this there’s a murder, a stabbing, and dark family secrets. Not the most convincing read, although the final twist is a shocking surprise. Gabriella Bekes @Gabrikwa

A Station on the Path to Somewhere BetterA Station on the Path to Somewhere Better
Benjamin Wood, Simon & Schuster, R275

Benjamin Wood is one of the hottest young British novelists. His gripping third book is about a father-and-son road trip – a week of aching unease that climaxes in horror. Daniel Hardesty, 12, lives with his mother; his parents have split up. His father, Francis, takes him on a jaunt to visit a TV studio. Francis is a masterly creation; mercurial, charming – and a monster poised on a knife edge. We see him through the boy’s eyes, and know something bad is going to happen. When it does, it’s worse than anything we expected. The tale unfolds over the next 20 years, as the sins of the father are visited on his damaged son. Tom Learmont

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“Don’t listen to anyone. Just write for yourself” – Wilbur Smith on ‘writing advice’, his characters, favourite authors and more…

Published in the Sunday Times

Author Wilbur Smith’s latest release Courtney’s War was published in August 2018. Pic supplied.

Which of your novels has been your favourite to write? All of them. However, working “with” Taita (character from the The Egyptian novels) is very amusing.

What inspired you to start writing? I always had an urge to tell stories, so I just sat down and wrote them.

Who has been the biggest influence in your life? My mother. She exposed me to the world of books and the wonder of storytelling.

What would you tell your younger self? Do it all again, and do it better.

The secret to your success? Tenacity, commitment and hard work.

A motto or mantra you live by? I thank the Lord for what I have, but for a little more I would be glad.

Do you plan out the plots to your books, or do you see where the story takes you? I know how the story will end, but my characters guide me there.

Who is your favourite character that you’ve written? Why? My old friend Taita. He is close to me and always talks to me.

How long do you spend researching your books? Each one is different. I use first-hand knowledge from the research trips I have done since 1950.

What is the best piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring writer? Don’t listen to anyone … just write for yourself.

You’ve had many amazing experiences in your life. The most memorable? Every Facebook message I receive from my fans around the world is the best thing to come out of the hectic digital age for me. To be able to connect with so many people who care for my stories and my characters is something I cherish every day.

Where do you write? In my head and seated at my desk.

How do you structure your writing day? Just sit down and write.

Favourite authors writing today? Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden.

A favourite book from your childhood? King Solomon’s Mines and Allan Quatermain by H Rider Haggard and Biggles by WE Johns.

What is Courtney’s War about? It’s about a heroic spy, lover and adventuress named Saffron Courtney.

You’ve written about World War 2 in Power of the Sword. Were you excited to return to that period? I’m always excited to write about my characters in difficult times of human history. Saffron is a strong female lead.

Are there strong women who have inspired your writing? It starts with my mother and runs through to Margaret Thatcher and to my incredible wife Niso, who is the strongest woman I know.

What drew you to the idea of having the two leads on opposing sides of the war? There are always two sides to any war. Why can’t lovers be on different sides of a conflict, fighting to be together? It’s in my characters’ natures to fight for what they want.

What drew you to writing about a Special Ops Executive? There are not many things more exciting than seeing an attractive and intelligent spy at work.

What kind of research did you do for this book? My knowledge of World War 2 dates back decades and includes travels to France and many other places featured in the novel.

Do you enjoy writing real people (for example, fashion designer for Queen Elizabeth II, Hardy Amies) into your novels? Yes, it’s necessary to the plot and it’s fun to bring these characters back to life.

Will there be more from Saffron? Yes, she is restless and driven to the edge of survival by her circumstances.

Courtney’s War by Wilbur Smith is published by Bonnier, R320.

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Book Bites: 2 September

Published in the Sunday Times

Presumed Dead ***
Mason Cross, Orion, R315

The rugged northeast of rural Georgia near the Appalachian Trail is perfect murder country. Between August 2002 and October 2003 nine bodies found in the dense forest were thought to be the work of the Devil Mountain Killer. Adeline Connor, then a teenage, was one of the victims, but her body was never found. And now, 15 years later, her brother is convinced he saw her alive and well in Atlanta. Carter Blake, a man who finds missing people, is hired to come to the small town of Bethany to investigate David’s claim that his sister is not dead. Someone has something to hide and the body count mounts. Who is out there with a .38 – re-emerging from the woods to kill? A gripping read that keeps you guessing till the end. Gabrielle Bekes @gabrikwa

The Gold Diggers ****
Sue Nyathi, Macmillan, R265

Disenchanted with life in a failing Zimbabwe, a miscellany of individuals make the treacherous crossing into SA, driven by a wily dealer in human cargo. Buoyed up by their hopes of being reunited with relatives or finding lucrative employment, they head for Johannesburg, the City of Gold. They are quickly disillusioned. The city is tough and sleazy; living conditions are squalid; xenophobia is rife; and it is difficult to secure employment without the necessary documents. Tenacity and sometimes duplicity are required and some fall prey to unscrupulous beguilers. Even those who achieve success pay a high price. Nyathi’s narrative has considerable pathos and provides insight into the plight of individuals forced by circumstances to take desperate actions. Moira Lovell

Caligula *****
Simon Turney, Orion, R295

Apparently insane Roman emperors continue to enjoy exposure in contemporary fiction, and readers can have their pick of perspectives. This look at Caligula differs from most considerations of the infamous tyrant in that author Simon Turney attempts, for as long as possible, to maintain a sympathetic view of his subject. Using Caligula’s loving, loyal sister Livilla as the first-person narrator goes a long way to making this a possibility, as she’s the last person in the world willing to wish him ill. Turney’s research paints a detailed picture of the perils of life at court under Caligula’s volatile predecessor Tiberius and of most of the major incidents in Caligula’s rule, confirming that Rome, for all the glamour its historical profile suggests, was a profoundly treacherous place. Bruce Dennill @BroosDennill

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“Fierce, sad, inspired” – Anna Stroud reviews Craig Higginson’s soul-stirring The White Room

Published in the Sunday Times

A man and a woman give each other fictionalised stories about themselves, revealing much more than they ever hoped to in Craig Higginson’s The White Room. Author picture: Christof van der Walt.


The White Room
Craig Higginson, Picador Africa, R265

In Craig Higginson’s fourth novel, The White Room, he reimagines and expands the story he started to tell in his 2010 play The Girl in the Yellow Dress. The novel opens when playwright Hannah Meade arrives in London for the opening night of her play about a brief period in Paris when she taught English to a young French-Congolese man named Pierre.

To complicate matters, she’s invited him to the premiere; but when she spots him with his gorgeous wife, she retreats into the wings and frets over how he will receive it.

“This book is so much about fiction and representation,” Higginson says in an interview.

“In the first half of the play before the interval, Pierre is pissed off with her because of the way she represented him, and stuck quite closely to the facts. But then in the second half of the play, he comes away feeling that something in him has been reached, even though the second half of the play wasn’t literally true.”

The play within the novel is structured around five grammar lessons. It opens when Pierre spots Hannah at the Sorbonne and, seeing her as a quintessential English girl, stalks her and convinces her to teach him. But the stories they tell each other about themselves are steeped in fiction, and beg the question whether we can ever truly know each other – or ourselves.

Yet sometimes the lies we tell are most revealing. Hannah’s self-representation leaves Pierre perplexed.

Higginson’s impressive use of language is demonstrated. On the surface it is spare but beneath the simplicity it cajoles the reader into playing a game of words. He writes: “There is an anarchic spirit in her, a kind of reckless impulsiveness that he will ponder over the weeks afterwards. Though she comes across as so perfect, so in control, a shadow seems to lie under everything she says and does.”

Hannah is a complex and moody character who hides from the world in books. The only time she’s truly alive is inside the grammar lessons, while outside everything is drab and dreary. Meanwhile Pierre (like Echo in the myth of Echo and Narcissus) loses himself in her and becomes a rock that reflects her voice.

Unlike the original female character in The Girl in the Yellow Dress, Hannah is not wealthy, or from the UK.

“By making her South African I was able to tap into my own memories of growing up in SA,” Higginson says. “There’s quite a lot of my own life in there … there’s a lot of me in there and yet the characters are very different from me.”

Like Hannah, Higginson was born in Zimbabwe and moved to SA at the height of the Soweto uprising. He also went to boarding school in KwaZulu-Natal, worked in the theatre, lived in England, did a TEFL course in Stoke, and taught English in Paris.

“A recurring theme in my work is the past and traumatic events or secrets from the past,” Higginson says. Hannah and Pierre attempt a relationship, but secrets and baggage from their past seep into the white room, causing them to hurt one another.

“Growing up in SA, one felt a kind of shame all the time. I mean, it’s that thing in The White Room where you’re in this abusive relationship but you don’t know if you’re the abuser or abused.”

The white room represents the room on stage where the action unfolds but it’s also the blank page, a clean slate. On another level, it’s about whiteness and the centrality it demands for itself.

Higginson explains that the novel touches on “the space that whiteness takes up in the world, the room that whiteness asks for itself, and how characters like Pierre have to negotiate that space”.

Yet, it’s a story that affirms the power of poetry, literature and theatre to reimagine and transform ourselves.

“I think we need to absorb fictions in order to heal and find a better vision.”

Fierce, sad, inspired The White Room stirs the soul. @annawriter_

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Launch: Moletlo Wa Manong by Sabata-mpho Mokae (1 September)

Sabata-mpho Mokae, a novelist, translator and academic, in partnership with Xarra Books, invites you to the launch of his latest book: Moletlo Wa Manong. The launch will take place at Xarra Bookstore on the 01st of September 2018 at 14:00. Xarra books is located at 264 Turbit Avenue, Halfway House, Midrand.

The title of the new novel Moletlo wa Manong means “A Feast of the Vultures”. It is a sequel to Sabata-mpho Mokae’s debut Setswana novel Ga ke Modisa [“I Am Not My Brother’s Keeper”] which won the M-Net Literary Award for Best Novel in Setswana as well as the M-Net Film Award in 2013. It was subsequently prescribed as required study material at some South African universities; North West University and Central University of Technology. It has now been translated into English in Boston, Massachusetts (USA) by Dr. Lesego Malepe. His signature style endorses Africanism, hence the significance of writing in Setswana (a southern African language) and English respectively.

The story is set in a newsroom in the city of Kimberley.

The protagonist, legendary journalist Otsile Mothibi, is investigating corruption in the post-apartheid administration. Top politicians are taking bribes for a lucrative vehicle rental tender and he is going to expose them. In the course of the investigation, one of his colleagues sells him out to the same politicians he is investigating.

The story gets messy when politicians offer his unemployed but educated wife a position in a government department on condition that he drops the investigation. Otsile refuses to drop the investigation, which causes unhappiness in his household and puts his life and that of his wife in danger. His main source, an ambitious politician who is eyeing a leadership position, dies mysteriously after a meeting with him. Lives are threatened, phones are bugged, fear and mistrust enter the newsroom. Otsile likens the corrupt politicians as vultures who are making a feast of the country and his duty is to end the feast.

The story ends with a hostage situation and a suicide as the corrupt politicians are cornered by the police.

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Book Bites: 26 August

Published in the Sunday Times

Perfect Death *****
Helen Fields, HarperCollins, R215

A naked girl freezes to death on a wintry hillside, but her killer doesn’t enjoy the actual murder. He is sustained by the grief of those who loved the victim. Readers are soon inside the head of the serial killer, and stay a step ahead of Edinburgh cop Luc Callanach. He has complex feelings for Detective Chief Inspector Ava Turner. She’s equally disturbed by the sexual tension, but both keep their guard up as deaths multiply, and police corruption emerges. The tale accelerates to a violent climax and a twist ending. It weaves a bright new thread into the school of “tartan noir” police procedurals and follows two bestsellers: Perfect Remains and Perfect Prey. Tom Learmont

The Tall Man **
Phoebe Locke, Headline, R265

According to a Daily Express quote on the jacket, Locke’s novel is the “must-read summer chiller”. But the only chills I felt while reading this “thriller” was that of Joburg’s winter. The premise is simple: in the early ’90s three girls pledge their devotion to a mysterious figure known as (yes, you guessed it) the Tall Man. This man (who is lank tall. Like, we get it) promises to make these girls “special”. Fast-forward a few decades where the disappearance of a young mother (in 2000) and a brutal murder possibly committed by a teenage girl (in 2018) might just be linked to that one fateful night in an English forest in 1990. The plot drags and Locke’s incessant references to the Tall Man’s height and pseudo-supernatural allusions make this a tiring and confusing read. Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind

The Anomaly ****
Michael Rutger, Bonnier, R265

Nolan Moore, host of a struggling online reality show investigating archaeological anomalies, leads his crew to a mythical cavern deep in the Grand Canyon, using a century-old newspaper clipping as his guide. In a scenario horror fans know all too well, once Nolan and co are deep inside the cave, rejoicing at their scoop, it all begins to go pear-shaped. Within hours, they are trapped deep under the earth with almost no food, light or water. Then they realise they are not alone … And the plot deteriorates into absurdity – with murders, monsters, and betrayals. But the writing is superb; sharp, witty and intelligent, with refreshingly good grammar. Think one of the more ludicrous episodes of the X-Files, but scripted by Oscar Wilde. Aubrey Paton

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Typos and a superficial engagement with the Karoo landscape undermine an otherwise sexy and smart novel, writes Anna Stroud of The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes

Published in the Sunday Times

The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes ***
Rachel Haze, MF Books / Joburg, R180

As a child of the Karoo and a closet reader of hygromans, can you imagine my delight when I found The Ecstasy of Brush Strokes by Rachel Haze (a nom de plume), hailed as Fifty Shades of the Karoo?

I loved the deliciously flawed character of Alex, who packs up her art supplies and flees to a town near Beaufort West to get away from her marriage and her restless mind.

I liked how unlikable Alex is – her inner dialogue and feelings are well-crafted and you feel empathy for her self-destructive tendencies. Haze creates a three-dimensional character that grows from a love-struck student to a disillusioned adult struggling to find her place in the world.

The vivid, imaginative and wonderfully over-the-top sex scenes between Alex and her Rhodes psychology tutor are enjoyable, as are those with her S&M-obsessed husband and others. The author clearly knows her art and uses it to illuminate the inner world of Alex and the lovers she inhabits.

However, the author fails to capture the nuances of the Karoo; it remains dry and dusty, the people in the township are all on social grants, and everyone’s suffering.

At times it feels like the author tries too hard to be clever, for example when she compares sex to biltong, or in her description of Grahamstown as “a small town in the middle of nowhere, far removed from the civilising hand of urban life” that had a “way of chopping students up into little pieces and then delicately throwing them out into some kind of colonial ether”. Huh?

Wayward typos (“throws of passion”, “spilt second”) and a superficial engagement with the landscape undermine an otherwise sexy and smart novel. @Annawriter_

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