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Inaugural Kimberley Book Fair kicks off

nullThe first annual Kimberley Book Fair will take place at Sol Plaatje University from Friday, 30 September 30 to Saturday, 1 October.

Confirmed guests include publishers Rose Francis and Duduzile Mabaso, poets Mak Manaka, Poet Flow and Lesego Rampolokeng, Sol Plaatje scholar and award-winning writer Sabata-Mpho Mokae, Sesotho writer Kabelo Duncan Kgatea and Sarah Godsell.

The book fair has been organised to coincide with the global Banned Books Week, and acclaimed Saudi author Abdullah al Wesali, 2009 novel One Foot of Thickness was banned in his home country, will be the keynote speaker.

Poets will be encouraged to share their work and collaborate with poets from other parts of the country, and aspirant writers will be able to attend creative writing workshops.

Scroll down for the full programme.
 
 
Press release:

Literati descend on the inaugural Kimberley Book Fair to celebrate suppressed voices

Kimberley, home to South African literary greats like Sol T Plaatje and Ingrid Jonker, seeks to rekindle its place in the history of South African literature by hosting an annual Book Fair aligned with the global Banned Books Week. Boasting an impressive two-day programme, the fair’s organisers have secured an eclectic list of literary movers and shakers to mark the occasion. Confirmed guests include formidable publishers Rose Francis and Duduzile Mabaso, poetry royalty Mak Manaka, Poet Flow and Lesego Rampolokeng, Sol Plaatje scholar and award-winning writer Sabata Mpho Mokae, Sesotho writer Kabelo Duncan Kgatea, Sarah Godsell to name a few.

Hosted by the Earth Art Writers Guild, Kimberley Book Fair will take place at the Sol Plaatje University from September 30 until October 1. It is a first for the city and the province and should become an anticipated fixture on the South African literary landscape as it becomes more diverse and representative.

“We have decided to support the inaugural Kimberley Book Fair because of the impact it will have, not only on the arts and culture scene in the city, but also because of the positive benefits it will have on the economic development for that specific industry as well as the significant impact it will have on tourism in the Sol Plaatje Municipality, locally, as well as the rest of the province.” says Sello Matsie, Sol Plaatje Municipality spokesperson.

“From a tourism perspective, the Kimberley Book Fair presents a unique opportunity for lovers of stories to travel to our beautiful province to enjoy literature, the rich history and soak in some local culture – this province is really a hidden gem!” adds Northern Cape Tourism GM Peter Mckuchane; GM: Business, Tourism and Events.

Banned Books Week is an international campaign based in the USA, that mobilises libraries and public events around the issues of censorship and freedom of expression in literature. The Kimberley Book Fair will highlight these issues from an African perspective rooted in South Africa’s history of censorship.

Besides giving exposure to Northern Cape creative professionals and the unique heritage of the Northern Cape, KBF will serve as a vital mouthpiece for authors who are being silenced elsewhere.

“Our objective is to give suppressed voices and authors who have been banned in parts of the world, a platform for expression. In this day of “freedom of expression”, you’d be surprised how many writers and thinkers are still suppressed, whether by governments or by subtle erasure in the media and society. ” says publisher and organizer Ricky Groenewald.

Acclaimed author Abdullah al Wesali from Saudi Arabia will be the keynote speaker. Fiction writer Wesali’s 2009 book “One Foot of Thickness” was banned in his home country.

Kimberley residents are urged to attend the Kimberley Book Fair to mingle with writers and participate in some exciting discussions around igniting the culture of reading in the community. Local poets will have the platform to perform their poetry and collaborate with poets from other parts of the country. Aspirant writers in need of publishing and writing advice have been catered for through a series of creative writing workshops that will take place on the 30th September at Sol Plaatje University.

“We are grateful to the many sponsors who bought into our vision of stimulating literary culture in the Northern Cape – we anticipate that will be the beginning of exciting things in Kimberley! We’d like to inspire residents to start book clubs, have lively discussions about stories and hopefully, nurture the next generation of writers!” Groenewald says.

2016 Kimberley Book Fair by Books LIVE on Scribd


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The literature inspiring South Africa’s student protests

Memoirs of a Born FreeAmericanahDog Eat DogNervous Conditions
Where We StandUnimportanceThe Wretched of the EarthI Write What I Like

 

South Africa’s university student revolt has given new life to radical authors of previous generations as they draw on their ideas to fight fees and demand a “free‚ decolonised education”.

Among the works which are fueling the ideas behind the fees protests are the anti-colonialism writings of Frantz Fanon – originally from the Caribbean island of Martinique but who began writing scathing critiques from France in the 1950s – and Steve Biko‚ the celebrated Black Consciousness leader killed by the apartheid state in 1977.

But other writers include contemporary Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in whose 2013 novel Americanah‚ black women’s hair serves as a symbol to illustrate the central character’s struggle against racism.

South Africa’s students are also drawing on earlier works‚ like the early 20th century work of WEB du Bois‚ a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peopled in the United States and who produced influential writings railing against racism.

Tarryn de Kock‚ a researcher and postgraduate at the Centre for International Teacher Education as well as a former Politics and International Relations student at Rhodes University‚ said there was a wide range of both local and international thinkers “who have become part of the conversation around decoloniality and decolonised education”.

“There is a broad range of literature that South African students are using to inform their perspectives‚ both locally and from abroad‚ and spanning at least the last century or two‚” she said.

“Classic and contemporary authors on issues of racism and the psychosocial effects of race thinking include WEB du Bois‚ Aime Cesaire‚ Walter Rodney‚ Paul Gilroy‚ Marcus Garvey‚ Steve Biko‚ Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon.

“They wrote on the experiences of black people in places such as the USA‚ the Caribbean‚ Europe and Africa.

“Garvey‚ Biko‚ Rodney and Cabral also reflected on the economic effects of colonialism on black people‚ how underdevelopment and deprivation were secured as a generational default‚ and how structures of economic‚ political‚ cultural and educational power facilitated the suppression of colonial subjects.”

De Kock said Fanon has been especially popular because of “almost prophetic discussions” about the “postcolony” in his book The Wretched of the Earth‚ where he discusses what happens after liberation and how‚ based on the structures set up under colonialism‚ particular forms of power and power struggles come to characterise the newly liberated post-colonial state.

Ncedisa Mpemnyama‚ a University of the Western Cape student in sociology and psychology‚ who spoke to TMG Digital during protests at the University of Cape Town‚ said he had found inspiration in Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Biko’s I Write What I Like.

“What I have come to realise is that the cycle of poverty that is constantly perpetuated and structured on black people‚ gives us very little chance to succeed. It almost seems as though there is genocide on young blacks who have become so used to suffering.

“We need to change the conversation. We are often not taken seriously but we are indeed the future leaders of this country‚” he said.

Panashe Chigumadzi‚ activist‚ author of Sweet Medicine‚ and curator of the Abantu Book Festival‚ said that there was not always consensus about the relevance of literature in student protests.

Chigumadzi said there were often “contestations as to who has the right interpretation of what is being said‚ when you put literature into practice”.

“There’s a saying by Bob Marley, ‘He who feels it knows it’. Even as a writer I need to say that literature is great but I think you just need to walk outside and engage with what is currently happening‚” she said.

“If you just have a sense of empathy and you try to understand what black people go through‚ particularly poor black people‚ then you should understand.

“You need to be receptive to what people are saying. Students have tried to speak at nauseam and write pieces about this so a lot of it involves us looking into our hearts‚ beyond reaching for more books‚ speak to each other and I think we will get a whole lot more‚” Chigumadzi added.

Source: TMG Digital

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Books for the higher-brow selfie, by Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

null

 
It’s cool to be seen reading again. The trendy folks are putting down their smartphones and picking up a book. It’s hip to be square, to be seen having an identity outside the digital world, even if it is only to Instagram that you are reading in the real world.

The settings are important – gastro pub/coffee shop, yacht/rowing boat, beach/lake/pool, bus/train station, or just on your couch with your dog/cat.

And the cool authors have books out now – one can be a total lit geek and be trendy at the same time.

Here I AmJonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in 10 years has just been published, Here I Am. Set in a period of three weeks, it focuses on a family in Washington DC going through a moment of crisis (marriage, life, existential) and how they are connected to a massive earthquake that has devastated the Middle East. It is filled with hefty themes of identity and political crisis and is 571 pages long – so it ticks all the boxes for lit bragging rights. And there is also Foer’s mind-blowing exchange of emails with Natalie Portman that The New York Times has published. Some say it’s painful and pretentious. That’s just more ticks.

Heroes of the FrontierDave Eggers is loved for many of his literary endeavours. McSweeney’s has a page that is one of the most irreverent and funny sites to go to daily and have a laugh, but it is also his not-for profit publishing house. His latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, is about Josie, a woman who takes her two children on a road trip into the Alaskan wilderness. It’s an examination of modern life with Eggers’s keen sense of observation and humour.
 
 
 
Known and Strange ThingsIf you want non-fiction, and still want the literary street cred, Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things is a collection of about 50 pieces on his thoughts from politics to photography. His book is filled with references to Seamus Heaney, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, James Baldwin and more. Plus the cover is totes beautiful for Instagramming.
 
 
 
 
Homo DeusYuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens (which was praised for cleverly explaining where we came from), has written his follow-up called Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. It asks the ultimate question: where do we go from here? Besides delving into our scary digital future, the cover is also simple and beautiful and worthy of being on your Instagram.
 
 
 
 
And if you really want to impress, there’s always the Man Booker shortlist to get through.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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Slicing through the curtain: Bron Sibree talks to Madeliene Thien about her Man Booker-shortlisted novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien marries expression and experience in her new novel, writes Bron Sibree for the Sunday Times

Do Not Say We Have NothingDo Not Say We Have Nothing
Madeleine Thien (Granta Books)
*****

Madeleine Thien was barely 15 when she was gripped by the momentous 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as they unfolded on the TV screen of her family’s home in Canada. But it was the unresolved questions from her acclaimed 2011 novel about the aftermath of Cambodia’s revolution, Dogs at the Perimeter, that compelled her, some two and half decades later, to embark on the ambitious undertaking that is her new and third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. “These two novels are deeply connected,” says Thien, who views both as an attempt, in part, to track what has happened to her generation.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is at one level a saga about a family of musical prodigies whose lives play out against the tumultuous ructions of China’s revolutionary history. At another, concedes Thien, “it is a profoundly political novel”. A work that, as she infers in her acknowledgements, can be read as alternate history. How history is recorded and erased is a potent theme in this beguiling novel, which begins in 1989 with its narrator, Marie, a Canadian mathematician who also answers to the name Li-ling or Girl, recalling that fateful year when she was 10. The year in which her father, Kai, a once famous pianist in China, killed himself, and she and her mother obsessively watched CNN’s coverage of the events in Tiananmen Square.

But it is the revelations gleaned from a door-shaped notebook found among Kai’s papers, The Book of Records, that is to lure Marie to China many years later, in an adult quest to understand her father’s suicide. A quest seeded that same year of Tiananmen, when her mother shelters a young Chinese dissident, Ai-ming, who recognises the writing in The Book of Records as belonging to her own father, Sparrow. For Marie, as for the reader, this tract serves as a portal onto both her father’s secrets and that of Ai-ming’s brilliant composer father, Sparrow. Cannily mirroring time-honoured forms of covert communication, The Book of Records is like a melodic underscore to this illumined novel, opening onto an entire landscape of stories within stories and packing a subversive punch all its own.

Born in Canada to Malaysian Chinese immigrants, Thien knew she wanted to write by the age of 10. She first won acclaim for a collection of short stories, Simple Recipes (2001), followed by her 2006 debut novel, Certainty, then Dogs at the Perimeter (2011), which won the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 LiBeraturpreis. But not even that novel can prepare you for the power, intensity and emotional reach of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. In writing it, Thien charged herself with addressing “the gap between what language can express and the profound depths of what people experienced. Something that I feared I failed to do with Dogs at the Perimeter. Just the ways in which selfhood, family, identity and lives were torn apart wholesale, and feeling that a lot of that couldn’t be expressed in language, led me to think about the musicians in China, what it was that they felt they could express only through the language of music”.

Indeed, music is a palpable melodic force in this narrative, which is deftly anchored to the lesser-known details of that other great force, China’s revolutionary history. But for Thien, who has punctuated her narrative with fragments of text from other books, it is above all, “a book of books and this idea that on the one hand there’s the ideology which creates its own revolutionary language that everyone has to utilise. On the other, there’s this long history of literature and poetry which is also instilled in people, and in which they see shattered reflections of themselves in a cyclical pattern, returning again and again”.

Already at work on a new “very different” novel, this 42-year-old author admits that for her writing is a quest to find a moral way to live. “Asking what that moral life could be in the space of our regular day-to-day lives is difficult for, say, someone like me, who lives mostly in Canada. But there is a very thin curtain separating you from where you could be living another kind of life, because you look around society and you see that there’s no place for certain people, certain histories or even certain bodies,” she adds, softly. “And I just feel that literature can pull that curtain back.”

Follow Bron Sibree on Twitter @BronSibree

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Stories of a very great grandad: Kate Sidley talks to Daniel Browde about his book The Relatively Public Life of Jules Browde

Published in the Sunday Times

Stories of a very great grandad: Kate Sidley talks to Daniel Browde about his book The Relatively Public Life of Jules Browde

 
The Relatively Public Life Of Jules BrowdeThe Relatively Public Life of Jules Browde
Daniel Browde (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
****

Daniel Browde is a patient man. Or perhaps, a persistent one. The Relatively Public Life of Jules Browde was published this month, but the first interview he conducted with his grandfather, Jules Browde SC, the book’s ostensible subject, was 12 years ago. At the time, he was just “getting the stories down”, recording and transcribing the oft-told tales of a remarkable life – as a child in Yeoville in the 1920s, as a World War II soldier, and as a celebrated advocate and human rights campaigner in apartheid South Africa.

Daniel started to think of the stories as material for a conventional biography. “This idea, ‘now I’m writing a book’, came with a lot of weight. I’ve loved books all my life and always taken them seriously. There was this tension between my responsibilities, as I saw them. I wanted to honour my grandfather’s life and to make him happy, but I never wanted to compromise my own idea of what a worthwhile book should be.”

This proved an impossible task – at least the first time round. Browde experimented with structure, with voice, but never resolved the challenges. “I got so lost at one stage that when my computer broke and I lost six weeks of work, I didn’t even get upset,” he says.

The book that is now on shelves is a very different one from that early attempt. It interweaves Jules’s distinct stories, in his own words, with the framing narrative of Daniel’s own story. The book makes public the relatively private life of a young man juggling his own anxieties and writerly self-doubt with his family’s expectations and his desire to please and represent his beloved grandfather. “I realised that I am a character in the story of his life, as we are all characters in each other’s lives,” he says.

Jules led a remarkable life. His stories are peopled by the likes of Mandela, Kentridge, Chaskalson, and provide a fascinating slice of history. There’s a satisfying mix of history and family, coincidence and humour, loss and triumph. But it is Daniel’s candid and reflective narrative, as much as the stories he first set out to record, that makes this such an engaging read.

The book’s novelistic style is direct and personal, with occasional restrained evidence of Daniel’s talent as a poet. “I knew I couldn’t just write poetry for 300 pages. The challenge was to choose just the right moments to try to be lyrical.”

Once he had found the book he wanted to write, he progressed more easily. “A lot of it was learning to wait for things to settle: my concerns with the text as much as my anxieties beyond it. I started to see that you never really go backwards. Once you give yourself a break and say that you don’t have to sort something out this afternoon, it begins to resolve on its own.”

Over breakfast, we mull Philip Roth’s oft-quoted advice: “Write as if your parents are dead.”

“I couldn’t,” says Browde, firmly. “There is stuff I put in that I worried might hurt someone in my family, and there was some that I felt I could leave out and still honour the book. Someone else once said that if you’re not writing what scares you, you’re wasting your time. And I did that: I wrote what scared me. Somewhere between those two ideas I found what I needed to do.”

Without being hagiographic, at its heart this book is a true labour of love, the love of a child for his grandfather, of the young storyteller for the old storyteller. “My grandfather really was an overwhelmingly lovely person. He rarely spoke badly of people, or held onto slights. Yet he threw himself into action against what he thought was wrong, as he did in the courts against the apartheid state. Plus he had a real capacity for telling good stories, in which he frequently cast himself as a lucky man. He often said of himself, ‘What more could a man want from his life?’”

The stories we hold dear and repeat become their own artefacts, polished and fixed and familiar. Jules’s stories have that quality. Daniel writes of himself, “I am more of a dog’s-bone type of storyteller than your smooth-pebble man.” It is the combination and juxtaposition of these two storytellers that makes for an unusual and satisfying book.

Jules saw a late draft of the manuscript. It was not the conventional biography he had expected, even hoped for, but in the end, the old storyteller decided to trust the young storyteller, and in the days before he died, told him: “You really did a job, boy.”

Follow Kate Sidley on Twitter @KateSidley

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From Brooklyn to Chicago – News from Masande Ntshanga’s US book tour

 
The ReactiveThe ReactiveAward-winning novelist Masande Ntshanga is currently in the United States for the launch of the North American-edition of his explosive debut novel, The Reactive.

The tour, organised by Ntshanga’s US-publisher Columbus independent press Two Dollar Radio, started on Saturday, 17 September, in Brooklyn, New York, and ends in San Francisco on Wednesday, 12 October.

On Thursday, 29 September, the author will be in conversation with Toni Nealie, author of The Miles Between Me, at Curbside Books & Records in Chicago.

Last night, Ntshanga gave a reading from his book at the Village Theatre in Davenport and shared a few pictures of the event on Twitter:

 
Ntshanga has been a busy man. Earlier this week, he could be seen signing books at The Pygmalion Festival in Illinois and earlier this month he was spotted at the 2016 Brooklyn Book Festival where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Okey Ndibe and other prominent authors from all over the world. At the festival, he participated in a panel discussion entitled “Body Language – Heart, Eyes, Blood” with French writer Maylis de Kerangal and Chilean Lina Meruane.

 

 

Between all the book launches, signings and readings, Ntshanga has also been an excellent interviewee.

On Friday, 23 September, he was a guest on WOSU Radio in Columbus, Ohio, where he discussed The Reactive with host Christopher Purdy, WOSU book critic Kassie Rose and author Lina Maria Ferreira Castenga-Valdenas.

Ntshanga speaks about the title of the book and the special relationship between the characters. Rose says she was “greatly taken in by the voice” in The Reactive. “That voice took me through all of the book.”

Listen to the podcast:

 
During his visit to Columbus, the author was a visiting scholar at the Columbus College of Art & Design and he also chatted to Justin McIntosh for Columbus Alive.

Read the interview:

Violence buzzes in the background, though it’s mostly unnoticed by the characters, in the same way that, over time, you can learn to ignore the train that passes behind your house. Seen from above, Ntshanga notes, South African fields look like honeycombs because they’re dotted with so many empty graves. Cecilia, for one, isn’t disturbed by the gunshots so much as the lack of sirens that follow. Nathi tries to justify the brutality around him.

“This isn’t so much killing as it is cleaning up a mess,” he says. “These kids, all of them, they’re already dead.”

Today, Ntshanga will attend the Mission Creek Festival in Iowa City and tomorrow he’ll visit the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s creative writing students.

Next week, the author will do a reading at an event hosted by the University of Georgia Creative Writing Program and the Avid Poetry Series. He will also visit the Emory College Department of Arts and Sciences.

We have our Google alerts set and our ears on the ground, so watch this space for more exciting news on Ntshanga’s US book tour. You can also follow him on Twitter @mntshanga or see the complete tour schedule on Two Dollar Radio’s website.
 
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Read an excerpt from JM Coetzee’s new novel, The Schooldays of Jesus

JM Coetzee

 
The Schooldays of JesusFor today’s Fiction Friday, read an excerpt from JM Coetzee’s new novel, The Schooldays of Jesus.

Coetzee recently lost out on a chance to win a third Man Booker Prize, when The Schooldays of Jesus was left off the 2016 shortlist.

However, The Bookseller shared excerpts from all the longlisted novels, so you can get a taste of the book there.

The Schooldays of Jesus is a sequel to Coetzee’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus, featuring the same characters. Coetzee’s long-time editor Geoff Mulligan said of it: “The Schooldays of Jesus is an intriguing and wonderful novel and we are delighted to be publishing it.”

Read an excerpt:

The Schooldays of Jesus by J M Coetzee (Harvill Secker)

He was expecting Estrella to be bigger. On the map it shows up as a dot of the same size as Novilla. But whereas Novilla was a city, Estrella is no more than a sprawling provincial town set in a countryside of hills and fields and orchards, with a sluggish river meandering through it.

Will a new life be possible in Estrella? In Novilla he had been able to rely on the Office of Relocations to arrange accommodation. Will he and Inés and the boy be able to find a home here? The Office of Relocations is beneficent, it is the very embodiment of beneficence of an impersonal variety; but will its beneficence extend to fugitives from the law?

Juan, the hitchhiker who joined them on the road to Estrella, has suggested that they find work on one of the farms. Farmers always need farmhands, he says. The larger farms even have dormitories for seasonal workers. If it isn’t orange season it is apple season; if it isn’t apple season it is grape season. Estrella and its surrounds are a veritable cornucopia. He can direct them, if they wish, to a farm where friends of his once worked.

He exchanges looks with Inés. Should they follow Juan’s advice? Money is not a consideration, he has plenty of money in his pocket, they could easily stay at a hotel. But if the authorities from Novilla are really pursuing them, then perhaps they would be better off among the nameless transients.

“Yes,’ says Inés. ‘Let us go to this farm. We have been cooped up in the car long enough. Bolívar needs a run.”

“I feel the same way,” says he, Simón. “However, a farm is not a holiday camp. Are you ready, Inés, to spend all day picking fruit under a hot sun?”

 
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Book Bites: 18 September 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

The Midnight WatchThe Midnight Watch
David Dyer (Atlantic Books)
*****
This is an astoundingly good novel on the sinking of the Titanic, no doubt the most fictionalised ship of all time. Forget the romances, murders, mysteries and domestic dramas usually spun around that voyage: this book is based on real events. The SS Californian was within sight of the Titanic, close enough to see her lights. So why did she not go to her aid? Fictional journalist John Steadman interviews the crew, looking for answers. Real events, real people, meticulous research and excellent writing transform this roman à clef into a literary thriller. – Aubrey Paton

How to Find Love in A BookshopHow to Find Love in a Bookshop
Veronica Henry (Orion)
****
After his partner’s death, Julius Nightingale opens a bookshop in the Cotswolds. He had met the love of his life in a bookshop and believes that’s just what the town needs – love. 32 years later, his daughter Emilia finds herself stumped. The bookshop is running at a loss and there’s a property developer breathing down her neck to sell. But as more and more customers share their stories about what Julius and the bookshop means to them, Emilia realises that selling is just not an option. A feel-good novel with frills – the perfect antidote to a bad news-headlines kinda day. – SA Partridge @Sapartridge

Imagine Me GoneImagine Me Gone
Adam Haslett (Penguin Random House)
*****
When John is hospitalised for depression, his fiancée Margaret decides to marry him anyway. The story of this couple and their three children is told over decades by alternating family members, and the intimate and elegant prose captures the individual characters and their inner lives and struggles. John’s depression returns, with tragic results. The eldest son Michael shares his father’s illness, becoming increasingly anxious and, eventually, debilitatingly drug-dependent. The book is an empathetic and candid portrayal of the effects of mental illness on the family – the poignancy of the devotion and loyalty, as well as the relentless frustration and fear. – Kate Sidley @KateSidley

The King's AssassinThe King’s Assassin
Angus Donald (Sphere)
*****
Anyone who has missed the first six novels of The Outlaw Chronicles, and who loves medieval blood-and-thunder, had better get going with The Outlaw and work up to this one. Alan Dale (sweet singer and harder-than-nails warrior) still narrates, dictating to a monk, his story of the devilishly charming, ruthless and brilliant Robin Hood, mighty foul-mouthed Little John, and others equally interesting. Dark betrayal, torture and personal complications interlace with Donald’s usual roaring action. Never have the Robin Hood legends or the 12th century been as vivid, as bloodily real and as stirring as here. – David Pike @pikedavey

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They’re peculiar but there’s nothing to fear: Jennifer Platt chats to Jen Thorpe about her novel The Peculiars

Published in the Sunday Times

They’re peculiar but there’s nothing to fear: Jennifer Platt chats to Jen Thorpe about her novel The Peculiars

 

The PeculiarsThe Peculiars
Jen Thorpe (Penguin)
****

The Peculiars at a glance seems to be tapping into the zeitgeist of books about mental issues. But it’s an easy read, although Jen Thorpe doesn’t make light of any of the issues in her debut novel, which is part mystery, part romance, part family drama and part political thriller.

It’s about phobias and Thorpe has a deft touch discussing what is a debilitating problem for a lot of people as she had a fear of driving herself – the same phobia her main character Nazma has. “I understood how frustrating it could be to be limited by what type of public transport was available, and safe. This was all before Uber so I was often stuck wanting to go somewhere but limited by my own fear.”

Nazma signs up for group therapy sessions at the Centre for Improved Living. The centre brings together a quirky lot of other characters – among them Sam, whom Nazma and Ruth (the director of the centre who has to hide her own tics) have both taken a liking to. There’s also the racist Simon who has a fear of immigrants, and Nomboniso, a yoga teacher, who suffers from extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder. All of them are relatable and Thorpe gives them real phobias to work through.

“I obviously had my own personal experience and ideas about how I’d overcome it, but I wanted to make sure that a group setting like I’d envisioned could actually work for the characters. So I read up quite a bit … the book is certainly not meant to be taken as psychological theory, but I did make sure it was at least possible to try.”

And then there is Cape Town. It’s not the sunny, picturesque, postcard version. It’s the harsh winter – a windy, grey and rainy city. Thorpe makes it feel as if it is another obstacle to deal with when you have particular phobias. “I am originally from the warm, sunny North Coast, and all you see of Cape Town is sunny perfect pictures. Then I got here and my first winter felt like a lifetime of wet jeans and damp shoes. It really felt like a force to be reckoned with … when the wind blows here it still feels like a character to me.”

There are many threads that Thorpe pulls on: there’s Jericho, the homeless man who when not pissing on the wall outside the centre, spouts visions that seem to come true; Nazma’s mother who has a secret fear of her own; and the minister of wellbeing who was insulted by Ruth and now seems to be on the warpath.

Follow Jennifer Platt on Twitter @Jenniferdplatt

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Glowing all the way to the grave: Michele Magwood reviews The Radium Girls

Kate Moore gives us a cautionary tale of corporate evil, writes Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

The Radium GirlsThe Radium Girls
Kate Moore (Simon & Schuster)
*****

It usually started with their teeth. Young female factory workers in the United States were complaining of toothache, and it being early in the last century, when cosmetic dentistry was unheard of, the problem teeth were simply removed. But their mouths didn’t heal, and more teeth were rotting. The dentist in Newark, New Jersey, was confounded, until the day he tried to remove yet another tooth from a young woman’s mouth, and her entire jawbone came away in his hand.

The patient’s name was Mollie Maggia and she worked at the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. When she died soon afterwards, the doctors insisted the cause was syphilis.

In this gripping account of appalling corporate malfeasance and awing courage, Kate Moore presents a roll call of the bright young things who went to work in the factories producing luminous dials for clocks and watches and also for military instruments. The job was well-paid and glamorous. The paint they used contained radioactive radium, which made it glow. There was so much of it in the air that the girls’ clothes sparkled with it in the dark; and they used to paint their teeth with it to make them shine at the dances. They were told that it was completely safe, even beneficial, in small doses. As ludicrous as it seems now, radium was marketed as “liquid sunshine”, and infused into everything from face creams to chocolate, butter and lipstick. Radium-laced lingerie promised to perk up sex lives; taken orally it was claimed to act as Viagra.

To paint the dials the girls were instructed to suck the end of the paintbrush into a fine tip – “lip-pointing” – thereby ingesting the radium-laced paint, which settled into their bones.

The girls in New Jersey began to fall ill. Apart from tooth decay they grew grotesque bone sarcomas, their paper-thin skin split open, their leg bones shortened on one side. Their spines disintegrated and they had to wear steel braces. Death certificates stated random illnesses like diphtheria and heart attack as cause of death.

Then in 1925 a pioneering doctor, Harrison Martland, proved the connection between the paint and the illnesses, but the company denied responsibility. It lied to the workers, covering up evidence with its own “expert” advisers. The women didn’t have the money to pay lawyers – they could barely keep up with their medical bills.

Over in Illinois another radium painting studio opened, but the staff were unaware of the danger. There was little sharing of medical information at that time so doctors in the town didn’t make the connection, and after a few years the agonising ailments started up there, too.

This time a young lawyer took the case pro bono for a group of dial painters who had been given only months to live, accusing the company of “cold, calculating, money-making murder”. The press went big with it, dubbing the girls “the living dead” and igniting enormous sympathy. There were photos of dramatic bedside hearings, interviews with families, and a ghoulish demonstration of lip-pointing for the court by a victim who had had one of her arms removed.

The case was long and drawn-out but they finally won, after eight appeals, in 1938.

Moore started investigating the radium girls when she directed a play about them called These Shining Lives. She was shocked to find so little information about the women themselves, so she set about researching them, travelling to the US to visit the sites of the story, interviewing the girls’ relatives and raiding newspaper and court archives.

By centering her book on the girls themselves, their backgrounds, personalities, friendships and loves, she pays homage to their short lives. There is some comfort in knowing that because of them, proper safety standards were introduced to protect not only a new generation of dial painters, but also those working with plutonium in making atomic bombs. The girls’ case transformed workers’ rights in the US, leaving a crucial legacy of legislation to ensure safe working conditions. “The radium girls did not die in vain,” Moore writes.

There’s an eerie footnote to the story. Years after she was buried, Mollie Maggia’s remains were exhumed to test the syphilis diagnosis on her death certificate. When her casket was opened, they found her bones were still glowing faintly.

Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood

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