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Archive for the ‘News’ Category

Chinelo Okparanta shares her 6 favourite books

Chinelo Okparanta
Happiness, Like WaterUnder the Udala Trees

Chinelo Okparanta, the award-winning author of Happiness, Like Water and Under the Udala Trees, shares her favourite reads.

There are so many books I love. But I will say that I particularly appreciate satires, or novels that are in some way reflective of the social issues of the time and also simultaneously transcend the time, so:

Candide, or Optimism
Candide by Voltaire, because it’s funny but so real. Bits about buttocks being cut off. It’s a book that cautions against misguided optimism.


Gulliver's Travels
Gulliver’s Travels by Swift, because it’s brilliant and inventive. It is a satire, and is a novel that is reflective of the social issues of the time and also simultaneously transcends the time.


The Little Prince
Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, because it is sweet and poetic and honest and simple (in a good way). And it’s about love, and it’s about a rose.


The Awakening
The Awakening by Kate Chopin, because it speaks to the plight of women in society, then and now.


Things Fall Apart
Things Fall Apart by Achebe, because, let’s face it, colonialism is still a problem.


God Help the Child
I am a huge fan of Toni Morrison. I love The Bluest Eye. But I also love God Help the Child. My favorite lines in all of literature just might be: “What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.”


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La Not So Dolce Vita: Michele Magwood on the ‘unforgettable epic’ of the Elena Ferrante novels



This story set in Italy has captivated readers around the world, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

It started quietly last year, with people pressing a book into friends’ hands. It wasn’t available in South Africa yet; some had bought it overseas or online, but My Brilliant Friend began to do the rounds, like a secret handshake, and the cultish, elusive word-of-mouth kicked in.

Dinner parties and book clubs were split into those who had read it and those who hadn’t; the ones who had fell into intense discussions with each other. Those who hadn’t, begged to borrow it, and as the next books in the series followed, the conversation around them grew louder.

Now, thankfully, all four of the novels in the series are in our stores. Thankfully, because once you start reading them you can’t stop. There again, you don’t read these novels so much as immerse yourselves in them. In their panoramic, intricately detailed style they’ve been compared to Dickens and Proust, and rarely have literary novels sparked such worldwide attention.

It’s rare, too, that books in translation sell anywhere near the millions these have, yet this story of two friends growing up in the slums of Naples has a potent appeal.

In the first pages of My Brilliant Friend Elena Ferrante presents us with an index of characters. She arranges them into families: the shoemaker’s family, the mad widow’s family, the carpenter’s family, and so on. Over four books and some six decades we will follow these characters and the tributaries of their lives, lives tinged with love for some, but with treachery, madness and obsession too.

Traditionally there is an arc to fiction: the beginning, the climax, the denouement. There is no single arc to this story, though. Rather, it is like life itself, a pullulating flow streaming onwards. The language is unadorned and neutral, with few lyrical flights or gorgeous tracts of description, yet there is an urgency to the writing, an engine of fury driving it.

Ferrante told The Paris Review, “I tend toward an expansive sentence that has a cold surface and, visible underneath it, a magma of unbearable heat.”

Part of the quartet’s allure is the anonymity of the author. From the outset of her career the pseudonymous Ferrante has refused to be identified or to promote her books. “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” This hasn’t stopped Italian commentators trying to guess her identity – one even proclaimed her to be a man – but so far she has steadfastly remained anonymous, granting few written interviews.

My Brilliant Friend opens in the present day. The narrator Elena Greco is in her 60s, a successful author living in Turin. She receives a call from the son of her childhood friend, Lila, telling her that his mother has vanished. She has wiped every trace of her life from their apartment, even cutting herself out of photographs. When, weeks later, she hasn’t reappeared, Elena is livid.

“Lila is overdoing it as usual, I thought … she wanted not only to disappear herself, now, at the age of 66, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind. We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself.” And with that she turns on her computer and begins to write the story of their friendship, beginning in the 1950s.

Lila Cerullo is the daughter of the local shoemaker, a skinny, scabby sprite of a child, preternaturally clever. “Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite … every one of her movements said that to harm her would be pointless because, whatever happened, she would find a way of doing worse to you.”

Elena is softer, given to pleasing, and is devoted to Lila. She’s intelligent, too, but dogged and disciplined. She persuades her parents to let her continue her studies – her eventual ticket out of the squalor – but Lila’s father forces her to leave school to work for him. Her ticket is the usual one for girls like her: marriage at 16 to a brute.

And so the two friends plunge into their lives. Their dolls will become babies, the boys who threw stones at them will be their lovers. They will orbit each other, sometimes colliding, sometimes swinging far apart, supporting each other, betraying each other, forever entangled by their childhood experiences. They grow into beautiful, forcible women, powerful in different ways.

Elena moves away, pursuing the life of the intelligentsia, but is pulled inexorably back to the neighbourhood that Lila can never leave but which she comes to rule. It is a deeply intimate examination of women’s friendship set against a backdrop of poverty, violence and heaving Italian politics. The lava that Ferrante refers to is their rage against their circumstances: the misogyny and shuttered horizons, the ambivalence of motherhood, the iron grip of class and their frustrated ambitions.

How Lila and Elena navigate the limitations of their lives, how they triumph and stumble, contest and acquiesce, makes for an unforgettable epic. There has never been anything like it.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

My Brilliant FriendThe Story of a New NameThose Who Leave and Those Who StayThe Story of the Lost Child

Ferrante fever

  • High-profile fans include Oprah, Alice Sebold, Richard Flanagan, Zadie Smith, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeffrey Archer.
  • The books have been translated into 42 languages.
  • Italian TV company Wildside has started production on a 32-episode series of the books.
  • A new Ferrante book is scheduled for December, a scary children’s book titled “The Beach At Night”. The story is told from the perspective of an abandoned doll.
  • The series has boosted tourism to Naples, once a city to be avoided. The New York Times even ran an article directing visitors to sites from the novels, including bookstores and pastry shops.
  • The latest – and some say the most plausible – guess as to Ferrante’s identity is that she is Marcello Marmo, a professor of contemporary history at Naples University. She has denied it.


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Stephen Leather chats about writing, music and why he stopped reading Stephen King

Published in the Sunday Times

Dark ForcesFirst ResponseBlack Ops


Which book changed your life?

I’m not sure it changed my life, but Trust Me I’m Lying certainly changed the way I look at the world. It’s by a guy called Ryan Holiday, a media strategist who understands the way today’s media can be exploited and manipulated. Before I became a full-time writer, I was a journalist for many years on some of the best newspapers in the world – including the Times and the Daily Mail in London and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. Back then being a journalist was a respectable profession and facts were sacrosanct. These days, not so much. Ryan Holiday explains how lazy and unscrupulous some journalists have become, and how you can no longer believe anything you see in print or online. I always knew that the internet was awash with faulty information but it wasn’t until I read this book that I realised how easily the media can be manipulated. I gave up reading newspapers several years ago and view pretty much everything I read online as being suspect. I never thought that was how the world would go, I assumed that the internet would give everyone access to facts and information and that as a result people would become smarter and better informed. What’s happened instead is that you are deluged with lies, misinformation and opinions masquerading as facts. Some of that misinformation is deliberate, some of it is mistaken. For instance, recently I posted on my Facebook page that I hurt myself falling off a Segway in a Cape Town vineyard. Several people posted on my timeline that the inventor of the Segway drove his off a cliff and died. That’s just not true. The inventor of the Segway – Dean Kamen – is alive and well and living in New Hampshire. It was the British guy who bought the company who died. But the lie that the inventor died is repeated again and again. As a former professional journalist I always get upset when facts are wrong. That’s not to say that mistakes don’t creep into my books because they do, but I am always gutted when errors are pointed out to me.

What music helps you write?

No type of music helps me write. I’ve never been able to write with music on. I’m a big fan of music, I have a huge vinyl collection and I go to see live bands all the time, but it’s never been an aid to writing. But I can’t write in silence. When I work I sit in front of the TV with my Mac on a coffee table. I watch TV as I write and always have done. I did most of my homework at school and university with the TV on, and most of my working life was spent in busy newspaper offices so I need a buzz around me as I work. Working with the TV on helps when I need to describe a character’s clothing and the credits are always a good source of names! I can’t watch music shows either – it has to be drama or comedy.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?

My book Fair Game is set partly on a container ship that is attacked by Somalian pirates. I booked myself onto one of the largest container ships in the world and sailed from Malaysia, around the Horn of Africa, along the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean and onto Southampton in the UK. It took 16 days and I could do all the research I wanted. As there was no TV, wifi or phone service, I had plenty of time to write and wrote almost half the novel while at sea!

Do you keep a diary?

Not really. I keep all the pages from my Filofax which tells me where I was on any particular day and any meetings I had. I did keep a diary for my daughter, starting on the day she was born and detailing all the milestones in her life – first steps, first taste of ice cream, first movie, first day at school, and so on. I stopped when she was 16 and will give it to her when she’s 21.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?

Sherlock Holmes. No question. I’ve read and reread the books countless times and I’m always transported back to another time and place. I love the stories, and the writing.

Which current book will you remember in 10 years’ time?

Probably none. That’s the way of the world, unfortunately. There are more books being published now than ever before, but I don’t think any will have the sort of longevity we see with the likes of Enid Blyton and Robert Louis Stevenson. Arthur Conan Doyle published the Sherlock Holmes stories well over a hundred years ago, but they are still well read and will almost certainly be read in a hundred years time. Robert Louis Stevenson was writing at the same time and his books will, I think, go on for as long as people continue to read. Will any of today’s writers still be read in a hundred years? I think not. I very much doubt that mine will! I enjoy the thrillers I read but they are for entertainment and I doubt that I’ll remember them in ten years time. I’ve read many a crime novel recently but none has created a character like Poirot or Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes. I wonder why that is? Maybe there are just so many books being published these days that it’s impossible for one to stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

When I’m writing I use “he nodded” and “he smiled” way too many times. I always do a word search when I’ve done my first draft and cut them in half. I went through a phase of always having cars “pull away from the kerb” but I’ve stopped that, pretty much. I always describe gun silencers as “bulbous” but that’s a tribute to thriller writer Jack Higgins who does the same.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

The Quran and the Bible. I have several copies of both and keep meaning to read them but never get around to it. I’ve flicked through them, though! Much of my thriller-writing at the moment involves Islamic terrorism so I really should know what’s in the Quran but I’m afraid I Google the bits I need. We did a fair bit of Bible studies at school and I always enjoyed the stories, so I’ve no excuse for not reading the whole book.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?

I was a biochemist before I became a journalist so I read a lot of medical stuff. I’m not a great fan of doctors generally, like journalists they have become a tainted profession over the years, with financial considerations often taking precedence over treatment. One book that changed my mind about the whole cholesterol argument is The Great Cholesterol Con: The Truth About What Really Causes Heart Disease and How to Avoid It by Malcolm Kendrick. For years the so-called experts have told us that low-fat high-carbohydrate diets are good for us and result in healthy hearts. But this is almost certainly a lie. The pharmaceutical companies came up with so-called “wonder drugs” – statins – which are widely prescribed to lower blood cholesterol levels in an attempt to protect against heart disease. Millions of people take statins every day, and the experts say they are safe and relatively free of side effects. That’s probably a lie, too, and this book demonstrates why. The sad fact is that these days you can no more trust doctors than you can trust journalists, and this book explains why.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?

Jack Higgins, Len Deighton and Gerald Seymour, the three thriller writers who influenced me the most when I started writing. My publisher sent my first novel Pay Off to Jack Higgins asking him for a blurb for the cover. He wrote back saying he was too busy to read it. I always through that would make a wonderful cover blurb – Jack Higgins: I was too busy to read it – but no one seemed to think that was a good idea. Years later he gave me a much better blurb for my break-out book The Chinaman, for which I’ve always been grateful.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?

The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. It’s the first book I remember, it was read to me at primary school, I guess I was five or six years old. I’ve never forgotten it and read it to my daughter when she was little. I went on to become a huge Enid Blyton fan and the first book I remember reading myself was a second-hand hardback copy of her book Shadow The Sheepdog. I think it was her Famous Five series that first got me interested in thrillers because I went from there to Ian Fleming (James Bond) and Leslie Charteris (The Saint). If you’d argue that The Faraway Tree isn’t literature, then I’d go for Kidnappedby Robert Louis Stevenson. When I was 12 I was given it to read during the school holidays. I kept putting it off and finally realised there were only two weeks to go before school started. I worked out that if I read 20 pages a day I’d finish it just in time. I forced myself to read the first 20 pages. The next day I read 20 more. The third day I was hooked and read it through to the end in one sitting. Brilliant storytelling.

Do you finish every book that you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?

It’s rare for me not to finish a book. I stop watching TV shows all the time (my Netflix account is littered with unfinished episodes) and I have walked out of cinemas midway through films, but books are different. I usually know before I start a book whether or not I’m going to like it. Generally I’d know the author, I’d have looked at the cover and the blurb, and flicked through it (if it’s a paperback) or read the sample (if it’s an ebook), so I’d have a pretty good idea what the book is about and how it’s written. One book I couldn’t finish was Stephen King’s Under The Dome. I was sailing on a container ship from Malaysia to the UK and wanted a good-sized book to get into because there was no TV, no internet and no phone signal. I wanted a good book to keep me occupied when I wasn’t writing. Under The Dome is just under a thousand pages but after three days I abandoned it. I was a huge fan of Stephen King in the old days and devoured the likes of The Shining, Salem’s Lot and It, but I found Under The Dome to be just plain boring. I started skipping pages, then chapters, then skipped to the ending and read that. It was as ridiculous an ending as I thought it would be so I was glad that I’d saved myself the days of reading to get there. I left it on the ship. I stopped reading because I didn’t care about any of the characters, a fatal fault in storytelling.

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Read ‘Space II’ – a new story by Masande Ntshanga

Read ‘Space II’ – a new story by Masande Ntshanga
The ReactiveThe ReactiveThe Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories

For today’s Fiction Friday, Masande Ntshanga has generously shared a new short story with Books LIVE.

Ntshanga wrote the story during the Caine Prize workshop in Zambia in March, and a version of it appears in the latest award anthology The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories.

The story is a sequel to Ntshanga’s 2013 PEN International/New Voices Award-winning story, “Space”.

Ntshanga’s debut novel The Reactive was published in South Africa by Umuzi in 2014, and by Two Dollar Radio in North America in 2016.

Read “Space II”:


Yesterday, Lona showed me a picture of her daughter, the second one, before she told me she couldn’t get wet for her boyfriend. We’d gone straight up without starting out at the bar with Lukhanyo, the bar-back, next to the slots, and I wanted to tell her that I didn’t ask, but she pressed my fingers against the side of her thigh, and before I could answer, the two of us got drowned by a siren wailing down from Claim Street. They’re shooting at more kids on that campus in Parktown, she said, before turning over to sleep, and while I sat next to her, I traced the small scab on her elbow with my front finger, picking at it a little, before she opened her legs and I waited for the siren to fade before we could start.


I go there once a week, now, and we always work it out the same way. Lona’s new; a few months on the job; and they keep her on the top floor with the premiums. That’s 22-year-olds from Mozambique and Swaziland, Bots and Zam; where she splits the blinds and tells me to undo my belt and drop my shoes next to the bin with the used rubbers and wipes. Lona tells me to turn off the light, too, and I do as she says, most times, but sometimes I’ll ask her if she wants me there and she’ll turn around, the covers hitching up against the crook of her waist, and a bruise brushing up from the small of her back up to her neck. I don’t even know you, I imagine her thinking, during those times, and I’ll start to feel a fever touching me at the base of my neck, but other times she won’t turn and I’ll feel her dry hands pulling on the loose skin between my legs, a way of bringing me back, I tell myself.


Once a week, after shedding half a grand on Lona at the club, I’ll get in touch with my father on the line. I’m edgy, Thembi used to say, and I’d tell her how Pa used to get me that way since I was young. He’d heave me up on his shoulders in our hallway, eBhisho, until my stomach would churn, the acid catching at the back of my throat from fear. I figure it’s the only reason we still get on – I act like he’s still got his old size and Pa believes he could push his palms through a wall. He likes to make claims, my father, harkening us back to things past and things shared, he apportions us blame, and places me here and himself there, before marking the events that lead to his collapse. I’ll let him, most times, but sometimes I’ll ask him how things were before Ma, just to set him off, and we’ll go through the seventies – his bachelor years in the hotel lobbies of Umthatha – with me acting like I can’t hear how deep he’s sunk into his nip, or that I wouldn’t find him scattered the same way the following day. Do you remember when we found her in the garage after the ‘rover crashed? It was ’02, back in the old house, and we had just the mattresses at the back behind the Nissan.
               I don’t, I tell him.
You don’t?
I don’t.
It isn’t unusual for us to fall silent over the line. Pa’s my last living relation, and we used to have him set up in a home in Port Alfred after his collapse, where it was the house policy for long distance clients to keep up with calls. I used try and negotiate them off it.
               He’s not really sick.
               He isn’t?
               It’s grief.
               There’d be silence on the line. We prefer to preserve a contented atmosphere.
               Is that realistic?
               He’s your father.
               I know he’s my father, I’d sigh.
               Eventually, when I lost my first job at the ISP in Victory Park, we had to cut Pa’s insurance down and move him out to a small two room close enough to a lake.
Clean air, he told me, meant he didn’t have to keep up with old friends.
               Fair enough, I said, but I knew by then the calls were a habit for him.


On weekdays, I do the admin support for a campus network in town, where we’re set up as an FET, a squat block with its windows lined opposite the soccer pitch at Ellis Park. It isn’t hard. We split the duties down the middle, myself and Colin, and take turns on the maintenance jobs, before we do our rounds at the computer labs with the first-years. Most of the time, we manage to tell ourselves that work is fine. We even have a sign. This department has not yet been outsourced, but you may want to refer to management for confirmation.


We’d met at some party, Thembi and I, the house warming of a distant acquaintance, a French-Canadian post-grad we’d both later discard without much thought. There were American students at the digs, pink and sweaty from excursions into the neighbouring townships, drawling give-me-fives in the living room and dressed in the robes of ancient pillages, spilling pink potato chip crumbs on the wooden floors under the high ceilings; and I guess celebrating Halloween there. I found Thembi in the kitchen, replacing a hidden bottle of Jameson in a cabinet below the basin; she was slender, with a fatigue vest, faded jeans.
               You always steal from your hosts?
               Only the wealthy ones, she said.
               Well, you’re in luck, then, I told her, and pointed at my chest.
               I don’t know. You don’t look like this word I just used.
               I’m in disguise.
I watched her get on the cluttered counter, nurse the drink in both hands.
               You from outreach?
               Well, here, she said, tossing me a t-shirt with a solar logo on it. It was hers, I figured.
Is that the move, though, these days?
What is?
Looking for kegs to crash at community outreach.
No, I know the guy, I said, and hooked a thumb over my shoulder.
Right, she said. James. Of course you do.
I grinned to show that I’d been caught. Then I reached behind her, got a glass and rinsed it; after Thembi poured us both a shot and stirred the ice in with her finger, I told her I’d seen her before.


On the way to work, today, we passed a taxi overturned in a ditch next to Empire Road. It was caused by a cell phone, our driver said, and some of us took photos of it as he drove past. I leaned my head back against the window after the wreckage had receded, and watched the road as we came to a stop at the following intersection, near Constitution Hill, where a line of men and women in red berets were holding up placards, chanting a protest song, and blocking our line of traffic from gaining passage through the crossing. From the cracked backseat, I remembered how this morning, on street lights across the city, the headlines from the dailies had reported the EFF’s call to return the ownership of the stock exchange to its workers. The march had started in Newtown and was set to end in Sandton, and up front, our driver drew down his window and hooted, whistling in support as he banged out a rhythm from the side of his door. The men and women laughed and began to separate in turn, and when I looked back again, they seemed to have grown into an even bigger mass. I closed my eyes, then, and remembered how my father had once tried to explain the stock exchange to me; in those days, Pa had been an economics lecturer at a Technikon in East London, and we’d both been sitting on the living room floor with a stack of his grading when the stocks had come up on TV.
               He called me, yesterday.
               It’s about your mother, he said. Call me back.
               I deleted the message and called Lona, but there was no answer. I called Pa back, but there was no answer there, too. Then I reached into my pants, but felt limp in my palm.
               I texted Lona.
               Nothing is as beautiful as the hood between your legs, I said.
Then I thought about it.
Not even you, I told her.
               Later, it took me over an hour to fall asleep, and when I woke up, I found a please call me from her number. I’d never got a response from Lona, before, or anyone I’d ever met at the clubs.


I walk into work late and find Colin with his legs crossed over our counter, watching the TV we took from one of the staff common rooms for indefinite repairs.
               How are things on the outsource front? I ask him.
               He uncrosses his legs. No labour brokers at the gate, sir.
               Hear, hear, I tell him.
Then I walk into our kitchen, rinse out a mug and scoop out Ricoffy and Cremora. I make it sweet, and waiting for it to cool down, open Lona’s message and call her back. The phone rings once before the call is declined, but I wait and get a text message from her a moment later. Meet me at the McDonald’s down from the club, she says.
I write to her that I will.
Then I sit down next to Colin and point at the TV.
               He shrugs. I left it on anything but the news.
               I look at the screen again, a beach scene blurred behind a veil of static, and think of how much Thembi used to like to travel towards the end. We’d part over the course of her different destinations, but before then, I remember how she told me she lost a phone in Zimbabwe once, close to the border, and how she couldn’t drink the tap water in Thailand, and how in Zambia, she’d taken so badly to a course of Malanil, that she couldn’t pet the cheetahs for all the time she spent over the sink in a lodge in Lusaka. The art was something to see, though, she’d added to me over the line.
I stretch my arms, now, and finish the coffee.
Who’s got lab, today? I ask Colin.
You’re on, he says, before leaning forward to turn off the TV.
I leave the IT room and make my way down the lino in the corridor.
I don’t always mention it, but you should see our students. Twice as many of them arrive for registration towards the end of Feb, and by the time we start on our second semester, they’ve been culled down in half; most of it from fees; the other cases from grades. It’s tempting to think of them as survivors, on certain days, braving the corridors of Ellis Park in Chuck Taylors and tank tops, but most of the time, I can’t help but think of them as pushing towards something rumoured. I stop at Mrs. Mokoena’s office and knock twice on the chipped door; I can hear her talking on the line before she pauses to invite me in.
Dumela, mme, le kae? I say at the door.
I’m fine, she says, and as usual, I watch her hand wave me towards the key cabinet, where I find the double set we use for the labs.
On my way out, again, I hear her calling for me.
Placing a palm over the receiver, Mrs. Mokoena looks at me and smiles. Tell me, she says. Isn’t it enough to be late once a day? You’ve had those students waiting for ten minutes in the corridor next to Mr. Dukisa’s class. You know he doesn’t like to be disturbed.
I scratch my head. I thought they’d changed the schedule.
You thought they’d changed the schedule, she says. Just go, will you.
I go and find half of them on the floor in the next block, leaning against the wall of the computer lab, their backpacks set between their legs, and their faces fixed on their phones. I tell them to get up. Then I look at my watch and join them on the wall.
If you start getting here any earlier, I say, I’ll be out of a job.
They laugh, and as they do that, I open the door to set them up for their tutorial class. It’s one of the introduction sets from Mr. Longela – they start a new chapter of Matlab the following month – and they get through the 45 minute exercise in half an hour. We spend the rest of the time watching the clock.
Teacher, did you hear two students were hospitalized from Parktown?
Yes. Not even rubber bullets. They’re shooting to kill us, now.
I nod, thinking of Lona, again, and open a browser and direct it to Google. Ever since the start of the protests, Lona’s filled her head with the plight of the students, and I’ve even come close to telling her of how I grew up in Bhisho during the year of the massacre; how I came to lose my mother to another version of this.
My head hurts. It says here they torched a bus, I tell them.
Yes, they did. The students need to be heard, now. This is a matter of free education and ending financial segregation. We cannot back down from colonial administrators.
This comes from Philani, an engineering student in a black track top, the zip left undone to reveal a yellow SASCO shirt. The ribbing on the sides of his sweater looks bright in the light, almost bleached, and his hair is shaved close to his skull and trimmed.
I nod at him and get up from my desk.
Right, I say. It’s time to pack up and log off.
Then I take another look at their scores.
You all did well, today, I say, but they can’t hear me over the sound of their packing; after they’ve cleared out, I lock up and get back to Mrs. Mokoena, before finding Colin asleep. I look at the TV and it’s back on, again, full of static, and set on the news.


I get in touch with Pa after work, and he lets the phone ring once before he picks it up, sounding out of breath, and I brace myself outside a spaza shop in Kew. Inside my line of view, the Joburg traffic is turned up, jammed at the crossing near Wynberg.
               You took your time, he says.
               I tried you last night; what’s wrong with your breathing?
               You sound like you’re losing air.
               I was out gardening.
               You were out gardening?
I listen to him laugh for a while. Yes. Madala does the garden in the yard next door and I asked him over and then I gave him a hand. I gave him two hands.
It’s past six, I start to say, but decide against it. You told me I should call you back.
We need to talk.
I heard that much.
I’m thinking of a trip.
               I cup my brow in my palm and choose each word. Where to?
               To my son, he says. The City of Gold.
               I breathe for a while. Fine. Let me arrange you a ticket.
               I’ve already bought a Greyhound, he says. I arrive tomorrow.
               I see.
               Then Pa takes a moment to clear his throat. How are you?
               I’m fine, I tell him. I have to go.


I take a taxi to Bree, before I connect to Hillbrow at the rank, and then I ride until the bus stop on Edith Cavell, and walk up Pretoria Street, where I find the McDonald’s at the corner of Claim. I look inside and find Lona sitting at a table towards the back, nursing a fountain soda and a copy of The Star. I use my hand to clear the crumbs from the seat in front of her.
               You South Africans used to be lucky, she says, but look at this, now.
               I look and see students standing in front of riot police in Soshanguve; sometime last week; and place a palm over her fingers, feeling surprised when she doesn’t flinch.
               I sigh. They were promised even more than we were, I tell her.
               It’s easy to see that.
That’s what we all say. Do you want to eat before we go upstairs?
               I can eat, she says, but can you?
               No one knows me, here, I tell her, but even if they did.
               Then what?
               Then nothing.
               I come back with a tray holding a pair of cheeseburgers and two cartons of fries. Placing them on the table, I refill Lona’s fountain Coke from mine.
               You look good in the light, I tell her.
               Well, you don’t; what happened to your tooth?
               I smile. It got knocked against a beer bottle. You’ve never seen it before?
               Of course I’ve seen it before. Does no one ever play with you?
               I laugh at that. Not that I can remember, I say.
               Later, I take my hand and push it between her cheeks like I used to with Thembi and she pushes it away; we carry on, twisting over each other as the dawn blushes her cracked window a pink shade, and we go at it twice before I get up to drop the plastic in the bin next to her door. I get back in the covers with her as the morning traffic begins to hum, and closing my eyes, I think of how the two of us could be trapped inside the hull of a giant machine, but Lona’s body feels warm against my own, and I decide to listen to her breathe.
               I need your help, she says, and still lying in bed, I don’t say anything back. Lowering the covers, Lona lifts her arm and shows me the bruise on its underside. I got this in the car accident, she tells me, but I didn’t tell you how it happened.
               How did it happen?
               I was drinking in Mbabane.
               I listen for more.
               My parents are in Joburg, this weekend, she says, and I want to see my daughter.
Then I think about what Lona tells me next for a while.
I’ll do it, I tell her.


I arrive at Park Station on time, but Pa’s bus is delayed, having broken down on the national road outside Kokstad. I go back to the parking lot, absorb the morning sun, and rest my head over my forearms. Then I get up to find him again, which I do, next to the escalators.
               I help him with his suitcase.
               These roads, he says. This country won’t run out of ways to kill us.
               I laugh to set the two of us at ease. You’re safe, at least, I say.
               That’s why you go with Greyhound, he tells me.
               That’s why you go with Greyhound, I echo him.
               Out in the parking lot, I take out my cell phone and call for a taxi; after the Uber arrives, I help pack Pa’s baggage into the boot. My father takes the back seat and I sit up front, on the passenger side, so I can direct the driver towards the shortest route. Then we drive out onto Rissik and merge into Victoria towards Parktown.
               I’ll start us off at the mall for something to eat, I say.
               I hope it’s affordable. I know you people like to spend.
               We join Oxford and head out towards Rosebank before Pa tells me he doesn’t understand why I don’t have a car. You’re definitely smart enough for it.
               I shrug. I’m working on affording the instalments, I say.
               Do you remember when you scored 139 for that IQ test?
               I thought it meant my life would be different, I tell him, but I don’t really like computers. Then I wait for him to answer, but Pa only leans back in his seat.
               We drive past Killarney, going through Riviera, and when we come to a stop at an intersection with an armless man holding up a sign with his chin, I look out of the window and where we are reminds me of an old colleague I used to have.
Chantel used to wear shaded glasses; she had a sharp chin and always shared her pack of Rothmans with the rest of us on the team. We were colleagues at MWEB, the second largest internet service provider in the country, and our offices were stationed in Victory Park, between Randburg and Parkhurst. Even though we’d been hired as customer service reps – most of us were latched onto tech support through inbound calls – our duties were extended to include sales, that summer, in order to facilitate the roll out of the country’s first uncapped ADSL service. It was during this time that Chantel and I were teamed together and scheduled on the same route close to town.
               We’d park our van at the start of each block, check the log for the houses that needed tech support, and we’d cover those first before we knocked on the doors of the rest, asking if they were interested in upgrading to the company’s latest broadband package.
               We’d get through them quick, most times. Chantel and I had both done well at A+ in college, and she had a way with the people who came from these neighbourhoods, too – Illovo, Parktown North, Riviera – that made them open their doors long enough for us to sell.
               We had a lot of downtime as a result. We’d park the van under a tree, share cigarettes and listen to the countdown on Y. Chantel thought she’d be rich from what we’d gone to school for, and I used to tell her that I thought she was thinking of a different time.
               It went on like this for most of the summer of oh ten, until one day, after I’d gone down on Chantel inside the van, we serviced the router of a client in Illovo who waited for us to drive off before she called our offices in Victory Park, lodging a complaint with client services that she’d picked up the smell of marijuana.
               The two of us were called in, having already decided that I would shoulder it for the sake of her son, and after my dismissal, Chantel gave me a contact number linked to her sister, who worked for a mobile clinic initiative in town, where they were looking to install a network for stock taking and keeping records for their returning patients.
               I joined Chantel’s sister Catherine the following week, and on my first day on the job, we took the clinic out to the corner of Commissioner and Polly, the first stop in a series of brothels that were getting HIV treatment in preparation for the World Cup. In the bus, during her break, I told Catherine about the first man I’d ever seen suffer from the illness it lead to. I was a child in Bhisho, I told her, and I’d seen the father of a friend of mine fade in a shed at the back of a tavern in ‘92. We headed up to Royal Park, after that, starting off at the Hillbrow Inn, before we parked outside The Summit, which was how I started going to the club, years before I would come across the Lona I know now, whom I’d find late one Wednesday evening, dancing on the floor without a top on under a blue strobe.


Our driver banks into Tyrwhitt Avenue and comes to a stop before the boom gates that lead into the parking bays at Rosebank Mall. I get out and help Pa with his suitcase. Then we walk past the Woolies store and settle ourselves under a sunshade at Café Europa, next to the craft market with its curios, and opposite the Mimmos Eatalian, where two businessmen sit in front of a chicken finger platter, taking sips from draughts of craft beer.
               You don’t like computers, Pa says. I always told your mother she was spoiling you with those videogames, but she broke her back for them. Now you don’t like computers.
               That’s different.
               I know it’s different, he says. You were clever. You needed the stimulation.
               I order an espresso from the waiter; Pa asks for a tea and gets honey to sweeten it. We sip on the drinks when they arrive, and I look out towards the lawn with the artificial grass.
               You made time for me, he says.
               I take a sip from the espresso. Then the two of us watch as two girls walk past the cafe, dressed in high-waisted jeans and black, printed tank tops.
               You used to have a girlfriend, he says.
               I blow on the coffee before I finish it. Then I leave both my hands in the sunlight.
               Ma never liked her, I tell him.
               Your mother always wanted happiness for people. It wasn’t realistic.
               We spent some time apart, me and Ma. Thembi was someone who understood that.
               Did she?
               We both didn’t understand our parents, I tell him, and in the end, when she said the two of us were too similar in our unhappiness, it was hard for me to disagree.
               I look at him and Pa traces his finger along the rim of an ashtray on the table.
               I could never talk to my father, either, he says. I suspect it could be this country.
               I lean back on my seat as a black jeep approaches the rear end of the mall, close to the FNB ATMs, and I hear “Face Down” by White Lung coming out from its speakers.
               I’ve moved from Port Alfred, Pa says.
               I look up.
               It’s true. I’ve gone home to eDutywa.                
               You have?
               The old plot was abandoned and growing weeds, he tells me, and I used my retirement on it. I feel it’s the best decision I’ve made in the last ten years.
               Pa looks at me, then, and smiles. I’ll be herding goats like my father, now, he says, and that makes the two of us laugh. We cause the table to rock until our waiter arrives to take our orders, and after lunch, when the taxi arrives and we pack his suitcase inside the boot, Pa tells me changing our focus doesn’t have to mean we’re forgetting. Then my father pauses again, and before he closes the backseat door, he tells me he doesn’t think it’s possible to.


I install him in my flat in Kew, take his suitcase to my bedroom, and sit him down on the couch in front of a soccer game in second half.
               No, I want to read, he tells me, and I turn off the TV.
               I walk to the kitchen and fill up a glass with ice before he calls me back to the living room. I close the tap, and when I walk to him, I find Pa holding up an old photo of himself; he has an afro in the picture, and his moustache is thick and glistening.
               This is what I looked like when I met your mother, he says.
               I nod and take a sip from the water.
               I was working as a sales rep, back then, before going back to school.
               I know, I tell him.
               Your mother was a beauty, Pa says, and packs the photo away.
               I take a seat next to him and turn the TV back on, pressing the volume down to mute the match. You never stayed with us at the house on Rharhabe Road, I say. It was her, Nana, and myself. I remember meeting you for the first time. That doesn’t seem right as a memory.
               It was a different time. We were living in an occupied country.
               There were things you could’ve protected me from.
               Pa sighs. It broke families, this place, and you could say it still does.
               We watch the flickering green of the soccer pitch, the ball leaping between players.
               Well, I’m glad you came back, I tell him.
               I’m glad, too, he says. You, your mother and I had a good ten years before her health problems started. You know, I had no idea, and sometimes, I think even she forgot.
               The only thing I remember about that year is trying to fail Afrikaans and seeing a dying man at Ma Thano’s, I tell him. I remember Ma working, too. I remember how she’d been promoted at her job and how she wanted to get me to a better school.
               Pa smiles before he lets his face drop again. It’s what made it all so surprising, he says. That she would do what she did on top of everything else.
               I tell him that I know.
               There was something remarkable in her, he says. Then he turns to look at me and tells me he’s certain it’s something I have, too.
               I smile enough to make him turn back, and then I switch off the TV.
               Later, after he tells me he’s tired, I set Pa up in the bedroom and take my laptop back to the lounge. There, I open my browser and look at my history tab: Roxy Reynolds, Ms Goddess, Harley Dean, Cassidy Clay, Jasmine Jae, Teanna Trump, Shazia Sahari, Sabrina Taylor, Maya Hills, Jazmine Cashmere, Valentina Nappi, Franceska Jaimes, Noemilk, Mya G, Leah Jaye, Sahara Knight, Marquetta Jewel, Loona Luxx, Ashlyn Brooke, Sophia Knight, Diamond Legacy, Penelope Cum, Giselle Mona, Lela Star, Sara Jay, Susana Caliente.
               The list goes on, and I remember how I couldn’t stop touching myself the morning we got up to bury my mother. It had started in a moment of inattention, I guessed, a disbelief that reached towards the force of habit – aiming to fend off that morning’s facts – but the act solidified into a respite that felt like putting her death on hold. I couldn’t tell whether or not it was the act or the anticipation – the rush of blood that changed the feeling of nausea into light-headedness – but after a while, the only thing that gave more relief than arousal or coming was sharing them with someone else.
               Ma had died fifteen years after sustaining a bullet wound at the Bisho Massacre in ‘92, when eighty-thousand protestors, led by the ANC and aiming to dissolve the last remaining Bantustan in the country, had been gunned down by the Ciskei Defence Force, killing twenty-eight and injuring over two-hundred in place.
               I hadn’t known about it on the day it happened; Ma was gone for a fortnight, that month, and my grandmother, Nana, and I got help from our neighbour, Sis’ Khethiwe, before my father arrived with his bags a week after Ma’s return. We moved towns after that, but Ma never told us that the wound had given her complications that would last her the rest of her life, and even ten years later, when she crashed the Land Rover – complaining of a momentary loss of consciousness – my father and I, who’d found her sitting alone on a mattress inside the garage next to our double cab Nissan, had been none the wiser.


I rummage for my passport in the cabinet below the TV. Then I sit down at the coffee table and write a note for Pa, which I take back to my room and tape onto the door for him to find. I watch him on the bed; he’s fallen asleep sitting upright against the wall, the book he was reading – The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle – split in half and sliding down his thighs. I place it on the bedside with a bookmark. Then I close the door and make it out of the apartment to the parking lot, where the air feels warm and moist on my skin.
               I call a taxi to Hillbrow, and on the way there, the driver asks me how life’s been for me in the city. I turn the question back on him and look out of the window, again, watching as the orange lights glow against the darkened skyline below the Vodacom tower.
               It’s about money, big man, he says, and I grunt in agreement.
               I’m saving up for my own car, he tells me. These white people have everything, you see, and all we can do is work, no?
               I nod, and we go silent for a while before the cab drops me off at the corner of Van der Merwe. I take out a hundred for the doorman and see Lukhanyo, the bar-back, next to the entrance after I’ve been patted down. I walk over to him.
               Long time, he says, and I nod.
               I ask him if he’s still working the slots.
               No, mfowethu, I gave that up. You can’t make money that way.
               The bass thumps against the walls around us, and the blue and pink strobes cut tapered beams through the dark. Lukhanyo lifts his forefinger and rubs it under his nostrils.
               I shake my head, saying no, and ask him if that’s what he’s doing, now.
               Ja, I sell a little here and there, but nothing to the girls.
               I nod. You have to be careful.
               You know me, he says, and I tell him that I do.
               Then I point a finger towards the ceiling.
               I haven’t seen her come down today, boss, but she should be up there.
               We shake hands and I walk towards the lift, where two girls eye me from inside the elevator car, and I smile back without taking on their offer. The two of them walk past me, then, into the club, and I make my way up to Lona on the top floor; when I knock on the chipped panel, she tells me it’s open and that I should lock the door behind me. I find her sitting up in bed, smoking a Dunhill Light and scrolling through her phone.
               Yesterday, when Lona told me her parent’s conditions for letting her see her daughter, I didn’t think much of the hour of pretence it would take from me.
               Now I sit on the edge of the bed, take out my passport, and flip through the pages in front of her, asking if her parents will believe her fiancé’s papers.
               Lona laughs, and later, when I can feel her sweat cooling down on my skin, she asks me if I don’t ever want to see the other girls, downstairs, or even the dancing.
               I tell her not more than anyone else.
               Maybe that means something, then, from what you’ve told me about yourself.
               I think about what she means by that for a long time.
               Then I tell her that maybe it does.

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Everything you need to know about the Abantu Book Festival

Abantu Book Festival

The inaugural Abantu Book Festival is taking place in Soweto from the 6-10 December this year.

The festival is the brainchild of Thando Mgqolozana (director) while Panashe Chigumadzi will curate the event this year.

UnimportanceSweet MedicineWe Need New Names

The Abantu Book Festival recently announced a partnership with the Goethe-Institut, which will include a Literary Crossroads event featuring NoViolet Bulawayo and Zimbabwean spoken-word poet Cynthia Marangwanda:

The Goethe-Institut is proud to announce its partnership with the Abantu Book Festival which will be taking place in Soweto from the 06-10 of December 2016. Furthermore the December edition of Literary Crossroads will take place at the festival on Saturday, 10th of December 2016 where authors NoViolet Bulawayo and Cynthia Marangwanda will be the featured guests. Make sure you check out for more information.

If you would like to contribute to the project, you can do so via PayPal or by emailing


The Abantu Book Festival started as a story, a work of fiction posted on Facebook in September 2015, in which author Thando Mgqolozana imagined a decolonised book event as a healing project for black writers and readers.

Now, the dream is about to become reality.

There has never been a mainstream literary festival in South Africa like Abantu. When it kicks off in December 2016 it will be a powerful counter to the status quo – where all meaningful literary activity has been the preserve of privileged readers, mostly in white suburbia.

But to build this new reality we need your help. Some partnerships have been established but we are far from raising the budget we need to make Abantu happen. Various grant-making institutions are considering our proposals, but we’re afraid time’s running out.

So we are asking you to put your hearts and purses into a common purpose to build a new way of being for our literature.

Any amount you can spare, however small, will be used to help establish this platform that will raise the voice of the next generation.

We will deliver a programme that brings readers and writers together in an inspirational and unique environment. We will also collaborate with community groups to present a groundbreaking programme of activities for readers of all ages.

Abantu cannot remain a fantasy.

With thanks,
The Festival Team

The authors and full Abantu Book Festival programme will be announced soon. Watch this space!

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The Rosa Parks Library Book Club celebrates Angela Makholwa and Lerato Tshabalala in Soweto

By Thato Rossouw

Angela Makholwa and Lerato Tshabalala

The Rosa Parks Library Book Club recently hosted Angela Makholwa and Lerato Tshabalala during the August edition of their monthly book club, held in the library’s Innovation Studio.

The Way I See ItBlack Widow Society

The library, which is located at the Ipelegeng Community Centre in White City, Jabavu, Soweto, is one of nine American Spaces run by the US Mission South Africa. It first opened its doors to the South African public in 1976, at the premises of the Orlando YMCA. It was moved to the Ipelegeng Community Centre in 1985.

This month’s event was held in celebration of women writers, and Makholwa and Tshabalala were asked to speak about their journeys in the world of literature.

Lerato Tshabalala

Tshabalala, whose debut The Way I See It has had the country speaking ever since its launch, spoke about what her book was really about.

“More than anything the book is about people understanding the plight of us as black people,” she said.

Angela Makholwa, who is the author of three books – and currently working on her fourth – spoke about the need for research grants for South African writers.

“I wish that was something we had. The ability to have the time and the money to go out there and interview our subjects,” she said.

Angela Makholwa


The event ended with a Q&A session where the writers answered questions ranging from their thoughts on the role of women in society to their choice of subject matter when writing.

Angela Makholwa, Lerato Tshabalala and the audience

Thato Rossouw (@Thato_Rossouw) tweeted live from the event:

* * * * *

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Young South African wins the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition


17-year-old Durbanite Inessa Rajah has won the 2016 Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition – the world’s oldest international schools writing competition – for her short story “Dr Congo-man”.

The winning essays were selected from approximately 13 500 entries spanning the five regions of the Commonwealth.

Representing nearly every Commonwealth country, entrants wrote about contemporary issues including the Syrian refugee crisis, conflict migration in Africa and finding a diasporic identity.

Rajah was named the Senior Winner. Senior Runner-up Esther Mugalaba, 19, comes from Lusaka, Zambia.

The Junior Winner and Runner-up, Gauri Kumar, 13, and Tan Wan Gee, 14, respectively, are both Singaporean nationals.

Entries were assessed by a pan-Commonwealth body of judges, drawn from more than 30 different countries across the globe. Judges described the entries as “inspirational”, “ambitious”, “profound’, “moving”, “imaginative” and stated that “the future of the Commonwealth is bright”.

The four pan-Commonwealth Winners and Runners-up will attend the traditional “Winners Week” in London in October of this year: a special programme consisting of cultural and educational activities. The week will culminate in an Awards Ceremony at Buckingham Palace where The Duchess of Cornwall will present the Winners and Runners-up with their certificates on behalf of The Queen.

Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society Michael Lake said: “The four young people chosen as the Winners and Runners-up of the Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition 2016 represent the very best and brightest that the Commonwealth has to offer. Their essays and poems explore contemporary themes with maturity, intelligence and depth beyond their years. We are proud of them and the thousands of other young writers who entered the competition this year from all around the Commonwealth.”

Rod Smith, Managing Director of Education at Cambridge University Press, said: “The Royal Commonwealth Society shares our vision of empowerment through education, and we’re thrilled to be sponsoring The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition once again. The quality of the entries this year were exceptional, and all of us at Cambridge University Press would like to extend our congratulations to the winners.”

Click on the author’s name to read their story:

The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition was founded in 1883 and is the world’s oldest international schools’ writing contest. The competition is sponsored by Cambridge University Press and received approximately 13 500 entries from almost every country in the Commonwealth.

The Junior category is open to entrants aged 13 years and under and the Senior category is open to entrants aged 14-18.

The overarching theme for 2016 was “An Inclusive Commonwealth”, which is also the 2016 Commonwealth Year theme, and a topical theme for today’s youth. Both Senior and Junior topics gave young people the opportunity to think about aspects of the theme such as: the significance of community; the importance of diversity and difference; the question of belonging; the values of tolerance, respect and understanding; and the sense of shared responsibility that exists within the Commonwealth today. The topics were a chance to develop critical thinking and to express views in a creative manner.

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Harry the difficult dad: Jennifer Platt reviews Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Our favourite wizard has grown up, but he still knows how to cast a spell, writes Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

Harry Potter And The Cursed ChildHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
JK Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne (Little, Brown)

If you are afraid that the eighth book will mess with your love of Harry Potter, don’t worry. JK Rowling has done it again. It thrillingly and effortlessly transports you back to the magical world filled with those much-loved characters and surprising storylines. Best of all, it’s fun!

Even though it is the script of a two-part play, with the story by Rowling but written by theatre greats John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, it has the heart of her novels. It’s also 330 pages long.

The story starts 19 years after Harry has battled Voldemort. It takes off exactly from the epilogue of the last book, The Deathly Hallows, with grownups Harry, Hermione, Ron and their families at King’s Cross Station on Platform 9 3/4.

Harry is now 37, world weary, and married to Ginny Weasley. They have three children, and the middle one, Albus Severus (named after Dumbledore and Snape), is off to his first year at Hogwarts. Worried that he will be sorted into the house of Slytherin, he gets iffy advice from his dad: “The Sorting Hat will take your feelings into account … it did for me.”

(Here come some spoilers …)

It doesn’t. Albus is immediately sorted into Slytherin, and this is the beginning of the deterioration of his relationship with his father.

One of the main themes of the Potter books was lasting friendship. Harry met Hermione and Ron on the Hogwarts Express on their first trip to the school. This time the theme is built around Albus’s friendship with Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius. Like Harry and Ron, Albus meets him on the train and they share sweets – “Schock-o-Choc, Pepper Imps and Jelly Slugs”. They become firm friends who have much in common – they both have to deal with who their fathers are, their reputations and legacies.

Albus struggles to live up to what he thinks his father wants him to be. He has difficulty flying, is lousy at potions and spells and hates being at Hogwarts.

Scorpius has to deal with being a maleficent Malfoy – or even worse, Voldemort’s child, according to rumours. Despite his parentage or rumoured parentage, Scorpius is lovable, charming, clever and kind – and foolhardy Albus is lucky to have him as a friend.

To prove to his father that he is worthy of being a Potter, Albus decides on a harebrained scheme of saving someone in his father’s past. Together with Scorpius they use a time-turner – a device that allows them to travel quite far back in time. (This is unlike the one in The Prisoner of Azkaban, which allowed Hermione and Harry to travel only hours back in time).

We are then placed firmly in the past in the Goblet of Fire book, where the Triwizard Tournament takes place. This is a good device for settling readersin and allowing fans to go back to their favourite place and time to meet characters long gone.

By their actions, Albus and Scorpius set off a butterfly effect. Their world now has been changed by the events of the past. And – like their parents – instead of consulting with the adults they try to fix the problems themselves.

The writers show that things do change, but Harry Potter and his universe are still as enthralling and magical as ever.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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Through a glass darkly: Michele Magwood talks to Sam Cowen about her memoir From Whiskey to Water

By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

Through a glass darkly: Michele Magwood talks to Sam Cowen about her memoir From Whiskey to Water

From Whiskey to WaterFrom Whiskey to Water
Sam Cowen (MF Books Joburg)

In January 2014 Sam Cowen came around after her first blackout in 12 years. She was facedown on the bricks of the Big Bay Surf and Lifesaving Club in Cape Town. It was all too familiar: her mouth was dry and tasted of vomit, her body hurt and she had no idea where she was or how she had got there. This time, though, there was no alcohol involved. This time she had passed out from hypothermia, having swum 7.5km from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand.

How she got there makes for riveting reading.

Cowen is one of the country’s best-loved media personalities: for many years the witty, laconic foil on the Highveld Stereo breakfast show, warm host of the TV show Great Expectations and author of several irreverent books on mothering. So there was some disbelief when it was announced that she had written a memoir of alcoholism and addiction. No one could be as sharp and sassy day in and day out if they had a drinking problem.

But she did, and in From Whiskey to Water she details epic benders and blackouts, crippling hangovers and a near-rape. “I was a high-functioning alcoholic,” she says. “I hate labels but this one is true.” She managed because she lived within a set of rules. “I was never drunk at work, for example, I never drank before lunchtime. I had hundreds of rules.”

Once she set out to drink a case of red wine in front of the television and almost succeeded before she passed out, another time she woke up on the floor of her study with the computer mouse in her hand, having tried to order a French maid’s outfit online. There are many such anecdotes illustrating what became a yawing free fall. It ended one night in her driveway, after she drove home on the wrong side of the road. She had vomit in her hair and a husband in tears, and that was it.

“I knew I’d broken every rule,” she says, “and I was going to lose my husband.”

With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous she began what is now 14 years of recovery, but that is by no means the end of the story.

She stopped drinking and started eating. And when she had ballooned to 102kg she started dieting obsessively and unsuccessfully. And then she started exercising manically, which became yet another addiction, and finally found long-distance swimming.

“It’s the numbness I like,” she says. “There’s a peace to it, an oblivion. It’s what I looked for in the alcohol, and what I sought and couldn’t find in food.”

Not content with simply swimming for health and enjoyment, though, she lashed herself ever further and faster, setting her sights on the Robben Island swim.

Why does she punish herself so? “I can’t answer that. I suppose if it’s not a challenge it’s not worth it. I can only be excessive.”

She’s quick to point out, though, that she lives on a regimen of anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications. “I was anxious before I started drinking and I’m still anxious now.” It seems a state of serenity will always elude her. “I have pockets of it, but I don’t think that’s possible for me. I just wasn’t built that way.”

Stringently honest, at times funny and at others frightening, From Whiskey to Water is an admirable story. And if Sam Cowen were to lift her head out of the water for long enough, she’d be deafened by the cheers.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

•Listen to Sam Cowen’s interview on the Magwood on Books podcast:

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Jacket Notes: Sam Scarborough on her book Trapped, a story about verbal and emotional abuse

Published in the Sunday Times

Sam Scarborough (Human and Rousseau)

My story is about verbal and emotional abuse. I wrote the book initially to help me understand what was going on in the relationship I was in. It was a diary of events and conversations that I felt I had to record so that I would not have to constantly question my sanity. I was being accused of things that I knew were not my doing, nor my fault, so I thought I was going mad. Adding to that, I could not believe that I had got myself into an abusive relationship, me, the strong one, the Leo, the independent woman. So I started writing a diary, to keep track of events and to make sure I was not imagining things.

Shattered dreams went into this book, along with written accounts of each day, my thoughts and emotions, while I waited to see what the evening would bring, when my partner, more often than not, came home drunk.

The inspiration to publish was because, many years ago, I helped a friend get out of an abusive relationship by giving her a book to read. I can’t remember what the book was, but it helped her. And this is why I published, because if this book helps just one person, then it was meant to be a book and not just a sad diary sitting on my laptop taking up megabytes. I hope that by reading about my experience, other woman may find the courage to get out of whatever situation they are in.

At times, I found writing and reading the book tedious because I could see the repeat pattern of behaviour. Yet it took time for me to come to grips with the situation and to finally leave. I was angry that I had allowed myself to get into the situation in the first place. And when I wrote the book, I was still very angry – the book definitely has this tone. And I tried not to edit the anger out, even though it didn’t make me look good at times.

This was the difficulty – including the truth of it, without making it sound glamorous, or better. Some people have asked me why I would want to tell people about what happened. Others have said I am very brave. But mostly, people have encouraged me to tell my story.

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