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Archive for the ‘Penguin’ Category

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

Published in the Sunday Times

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

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

 
What was the genesis of the story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Bites: 18 November

Published in the Sunday Times

The Break LineThe Break Line ***
James Brabazon, Penguin Books, R229

“Legally sane psychopath” Max McLean is suave and armed. He is such an asset to the espionage ecosystem that he’s a member of the elite intelligence operation referred to as The Unknown. But to err is human and when McLean cocks up an assassination assignment, he’s given one last task to prove himself. [Insert docket with TOP SECRET printed in big, fat, red letters here.] The gist of the mission is to travel to Sierra Leone to finish an operation which a former colleague of his – “the bravest man I know” – was unable to complete; so traumatised by what he witnessed that he’s been institutionalised. It’s a thrilling read and Brabazon revels in his depictions of the atrocities McLean happens upon (spoiler: it’s pretty sif), but the military references and lingo went straight over this peacenik’s head. Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind

The Baghdad ClockThe Baghdad Clock ****
Shahad Al Rawi, translated by Luke Leafgren, One World, R285

Imagine living under constant threat of disappearing. Set against a backdrop of war and despair, the story starts in 1991 when two girls form a lasting friendship in a bomb shelter in Baghdad. As they grow up through two wars and unrelenting sanctions, we see the disintegration of their neighbourhood through their eyes and in their dreams. Nadia and the unnamed narrator try their best to go to school, apply for university, write scented love letters and live their lives, but it’s not easy when your foundation is crumbling away. Shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, The Baghdad Clock is a deeply personal story that aims to capture and preserve the history of a neighbourhood. Anna Stroud @Annawriter_

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Liquid lunches, labouring over finding the right authors, and an objective to explore the lives of a remarkably varied set of people – Bill Nasson on co-editing Illuminating Lives

Published in the Sunday Times

Illuminating Lives
Edited by Bill Nasson and Vivian Bickford-Smith
Penguin Random House, R280

Now both ageing and growing grumpy, my fellow book editor Vivian Bickford-Smith and I had been feeling for some time that it would be a good idea to try something different in the field of South African biographical writing.

Avoiding the packed gallery of this country’s usual suspects – either worthy or dubious political figures – we decided to create a collection of fresh and attractively-written short biographies that would portray the rich and complicated South African lives of a dozen or so local men and women.

Having a go at a book which is a collection of pieces by a range of authors means that you have to start by taking a deep breath. Getting the whole thing done depends on the speed of the slowest tortoise.

Some contributors may write too much, while others may write too little. There is also the risk of writers changing their minds and handing you something you hadn’t been promised.

Pulling it all off needs a lot of planning.

We did this over numerous liquid lunches in a Cape Town bistro which has now closed down, possibly to save what was left of its wine stock.

We took our inspiration from the crusty old English historian GM Young, who suggested over 70 years ago that “the best record of a nation’s past that any civilisation can hope to produce is the biography or memoir of an individual’s life”.

In history, what mattered most is not what happened, but how people experienced it personally, and how they felt about the changing circumstances in which they found themselves.

With that settled, we had to choose whose stories we wanted to be told, and to find the right authors for interesting biographies. In the end, rather than try to act as an amateur dating agency, we decided to do it back-to-front.

We first hooked a distinguished group of writers to craft the collection of biographical essays which make up Illuminating Lives, and then asked each of them to select an individual whose story they would like to tell.

We had in mind an assortment of people as our subjects, some known, others virtually forgotten, and yet others unearthed and brought to life through brief biographies. Even the most ordinary among them would have some streak or other which was extraordinary. And in having their personal life stories illuminated, their often moving experiences would in turn illuminate the different South African worlds within which they moved.

What we wanted were memorable portraits to capture the imagination of readers, almost to visualise a vivid moment of a life captured on a potent page.

It might be the Xhosa Presbyterian missionary evangelist Tiyo Soga landing in Port Elizabeth in 1857 with his Scottish wife, Janet. Or the African landscape artist JK Mohl turning up with a painting for Princess Elizabeth during the 1947 Royal Tour. Or Jane Turner, mother of murdered anti-apartheid activist Rick Turner, running a tea garden on the Stellenbosch farm that she owned and managed in the ’50s.

As these examples show, our objective is to explore the lives of a remarkably varied set of people, coping with existence and livelihoods in both a distant and a more recent past. As we put a premium on variety, the individuals upon whom light would be thrown include a colonial administrator, a pilot, a teacher, a cricketer and a poet. Our authors also reflect variety – historians, journalists and novelists. South Africa needs the freedom of flowers. If not a thousand, may 11 bloom here as chapters of Illuminating Lives.

Book details

  • Illuminating Lives: Biographies of Fascinating People from South African History edited by Vivian Bickford-Smith, Bill Nasson
    EAN: 9781776092642
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Book Bites: 28 October

Published in the Sunday Times

Melusi’s Everyday Zulu ****
Melusi Tshabalala, Jonathan Ball Publishers, R220

Peals of laughter shook me. The cat ran off without looking back. “Doctor” Tshabalala takes politics head-on, wades through current affairs, family, being a “grown-up” (so many aren’t!) and muses on 21st-century life as a Zulu man with the same wild abandon and unexpected humour. You can learn a Zulu word a day (actually about three), on his site or his Facebook page and blog, as this comedian/social guerrilla infiltrates White Monopoly Culture. But it’s the light touch that does it, the gentle prodding that makes you wish you were learning the entire depth of the Zulu culture and language. A really, really fun read. Ngiyabonga kakhulu Melusi! Ungaphumalela na! David Forbes

The Last GirlThe Last Girl: My Story of Captivity and my Fight Against the Islamic State ****
Nadia Murad and Jenna Krajeski, Virago, R225

Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad’s childhood in the Yazidi community was a happy existence in a village of peasant farmers in an area of Iraq that was a curious melting pot of religions – Muslims, Christians and the ancient Yazidi sect – who in the main tolerated each other. But in 2014 that all changed when Islamic State fighters destroyed her village, killed almost all the men, including six of her brothers, and many of the women and took Nadia and other young women to be sex slaves; to be abused, raped and dehumanised. She eventually escaped, and a Sunni Muslim family risked their lives to get her to safety. Resettled in Germany, Nadia is now an advocate for the Yazidi cause and has spoken all over the world, including at the UN. Her story is a stark and compelling reminder that victims of war include more than the corpses you see on the evening news. Margaret von Klemperer

An Unquiet PlaceAn Unquiet Place *****
Clare Houston, Penguin, R260

Neglected, lost and fragile, Hannah Harrison leaves everything she knows in Cape Town for a bookshop in the Free State. There, she discovers a diary dating back to concentration camps from the South African War. Hannah is intrigued by the idea that she could unravel the mystery of the diary and what happened to the person who wrote it, but she encounters many obstacles: new love, an ex-lover and a deranged woman living on a farm nearby. Houston manages to weave together a complicated tapestry of events in an unexpected and rich way. So masterful is Houston’s writing that at the end readers will likely be inspired to research our history. Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

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“Just stick to cricket, Shane.” Good ol’ Warney has been indulged once more in this tedious biography, writes Archie Henderson

Published in the Sunday Times

No Spin: My Autobiography **
Shane Warne with Mark Nicholas, Penguin Random House, R320

Shane Warne deserves a good biography.

This is not it, even with Mark Nicholas as his amanuensis.

Nicholas, an accomplished broadcaster and writer, played a marathon innings, listening to his subject, recording him, transcribing their conversations and bringing some coherence to the garrulous Warne’s ramblings.

He fails to rein in Warne and a book of almost 400 pages (including seven of fascinating statistics) could have been half the length, enough to accommodate the best part of the book, the cricket.

Warne was a great cricketer – many aficionados believe he was one of the greatest – but he can also be a great bore.

His peccadillos with a variety of women and his affair with film star Liz Hurley are tedious.

His obsequiousness toward the rich (Kerry Packer et al) is embarrassing, especially his blatant pleading to be invited to Johann Rupert’s next golf outing at St Andrews.

And his participation during a TV reality show in the “jungle” near the Kruger Park is ludicrous and irrelevant.

Stick to cricket, a strong captain – Steve Waugh, perhaps, whom Warne loathes – might have advised.

But good ol’ Warney has been indulged once more.

When he does stick to cricket, he redeems himself and his book.

He is a deep thinker on the game, was a brilliant exponent of the difficult art of leg-spin bowling and would have made a very good Australian captain.

Sadly, part of his behaviour cost him that job. Now it’s cost him a good book.

One day, when time has created some distance for dispassion, Warne will get his deserved biography. It might even be by Gideon Haigh, the Australian who is as good a writer as Warne is a bowler and who has already compiled a series of essays on the player. In them Haigh describes Warne’s bowling action as being “both dainty and menacing, like Ernst Blofeld stroking his white cat”.

Now that’s a book that would be worth reading.

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What-if scenarios, the SSA, relationships, dagga & more – Mike Nicol on the ideas that sparked Sleeper

Published in the Sunday Times

Sleeper is crime writer par excellence Mike Nicol’s latest novel. Author pic: supplied.

 
Sleeper
Mike Nicol, Umuzi, R250

There were a number of ideas that sparked Sleeper.

The major one was the importance of whistle-blowers and how badly they fare when they expose corruption.

The second was a what-if scenario: what if Iran was surreptitiously looking to buy weapons-grade uranium on the international market?

And then another what if: what if we hadn’t destroyed all our weapons-grade nuclear stocks and some corrupt officials were open to selling the stuff?

There were other ideas, too, such as the ongoing relationship between the two main characters in the series, private investigator Fish Pescado and spy Vicki Kahn, and whether Vicki was still employed by the State Security Agency.

Could she, morally, have put aside her integrity to continue being employed by the state?

All this seemed to me to offer possibilities for a thriller.

Next came the constant question: how much to research? Well, I don’t like doing too much of that, especially as the daily news provides more than enough information.

When I’m writing a novel it’s about fiction, not reality, although I do have a lot of fun researching accessories, especially guns.

Which was when I came across a surprising video clip on YouTube, complete with a very cool soundtrack, put out by the Israeli Weapons Industry for their handgun, the Jericho. It’s worth a look.

However, the big surprise came somewhat into the plot when a character, of whom I was particularly fond and who has been in and out of a number of my crime novels, suddenly…

No, fear not, I’m not going to issue a spoiler alert, because I’m not going into specifics you’ll just have to find out for yourself what happened by reading the book.

Anyhow, this opened another opportunity to have another old hand return. “Nuff sed” for the moment. It’s actually one of the things about writing these sort of plot-driven novels which I really like – the unexpected walk-ons. You can never plan for them.

As for difficulties? There are always difficulties.

Just putting one word after another is difficult. And then there are instances – like did I really want to visit the Swartputs nuclear waste dump – where reality might have destroyed my story? No, I didn’t. I couldn’t afford to have the real world intrude on the story. Not completely at any rate.

So I’ll leave that for another day, and turn to a new plot development.

My main character, Fish Pescado, sells dagga to those who don’t want to buy their dope on the streets. In other words to people like oncologists, surgeons, lawyers, academics, advertising executives.

Since Sleeper was published a few weeks back, the world has changed a bit because of the recent Constitutional Court ruling on the private use of dagga.

After that was announced, I got a note from the publisher at Umuzi asking if this now meant that Fish would no longer be called a drug dealer but a florist.

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Kate Sidley on what new book lists tell you about the world

Published in the Sunday Times

Every month, publishers send out This Month’s Highlights e-mails to reviewers like me. The point of the mail is for us to select books to review, but I use it as a handy snapshot of the state of the world. It’s almost as effective as reading the newspaper, and a lot quicker. From recent months’ offerings, I have developed the following worldview:

We wuz robbed

Books about the pillage of the public purse are a thriving industry in SA. There’s at least one new one a month – Licence to Loot; How To Steal a City; Shadow State; Other titles with the words ‘plunder’ and ‘capture’ – and they barely even overlap, so rich is the seam to be mined. There’s enough meat for sequels – I imagine Licence to Loot More, How To Steal Another City and Even Shadowier State.

Veg is the new Banting

The lists are littered with vegetarian and vegan recipe books like The Plant-Based Cookbook and Vegan Christmas. OK, so the titles lack the finger-licking allure of How To Be A Domestic Goddess, which made the full-creamy Nigella Lawson a welcome presence in our kitchens, but no animals were harmed in their making. South African restaurants still relying on pasta arrabiata and the “vegetarian platter” (aka, a plate of fried brown things) as their extensive vegetarian menu, could learn a thing or two.

#MenAreTrash

The number of stories about spousal abuse and gender-based violence is simply appalling. Famous names like Tracy Going (Brutal Legacy) and Vanessa Govender (Beaten But Not Broken) – and lesser-known but equally brave survivors – are telling their stories.

But people are pretty awesome

There they are, overcoming cancer, fighting apartheid (100 Mandela Moments), swimming long distances in very cold water, challenging injustice, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and climbing mountains on their one remaining leg – not at the same time, just to be clear. And we get to read about it. It’s properly inspiring.

Except for the ones that are psychos

There they are, murdering, abusing children, running apartheid death squads, mucking up the country (The Lost Boys of Bird Island being a case in point). And we get to read about it. It’s properly depressing.

We drink too much

The Craft Beer Dictionary, The Bourbon Bible, The Vodka Lover’s Guide to Cirrhosis, and wine, wine, wine. The world is all boozed up, and increasingly adventurously so – no longer does one simply add some T to one’s G – you toss in lavender and star anise and burnt orange peel.

We need help!

People, we are struggling! And there are books to help. From colour therapy to feng shui, to spiritual guidance, to diet secrets, to career advice, they make big promises – like Mr Bitcoin: How I Became a Bitcoin Millionaire at 21. I can’t vouch for the success of the methods, but the category is booming.

We need escape

Leave the predictable daily grind for the mystery of novels where people who are thought dead turn out not to be, or whether the assumed killer is but a red herring. Be transported to Tuscany, into the chiselled arms of a handsome stranger. Or to a Chicago speakeasy. Or to suburban London. Any place, really. Any place but where you are.

Book details
Licence to Loot
Licence to Loot by Stephan Hofstatter
EAN: 9781776093120
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How To Steal A City

How To Steal A City: The Battle For Nelson Mandela Bay by Crispian Oliver
EAN: 9781868428205
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Shadow State

Shadow State: The Politics of State Capture by Ivor Chipkin, Mark Swilling
EAN: 9781776142125
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The Plant-Based Cookbook

The Plant-Based Cookbook by Ella Mills
EAN: 9781473639218
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Vegan Christmas

Vegan Christmas by Gaz Oakley
EAN: 9781787132672
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Brutal Legacy

Brutal Legacy: A Memoir by Tracy Going
EAN: 9781928420125
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Beaten but not Broken

Beaten but not Broken by Vanessa Govender
EAN: 9781431426799
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100 Mandela Moments

100 Mandela Moments by Kate Sidley
EAN: 9781868429028
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The Lost Boys of Bird Island

The Lost Boys of Bird Island: A shocking exposé from within the heart of the NP government by Mark Minnie, Chris Steyn
EAN: 9780624081432
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The Craft Beer Dictionary

The Craft Beer Dictionary by Richard Croasdale
EAN: 9781784723880
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The Bourbon Bible

The Bourbon Bible by Eric Zandona
EAN: 9781784724573
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Mr Bitcoin

Mr Bitcoin: How I became a millionaire at 21 by Mpho Dagada
EAN: 9781431426720
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Which turn will the 21st century take? Michele Magwood talks to historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari about the challenges facing humankind

Published in the Sunday Times

21 Lessons for the 21st Century *****
Yuval Noah Harari, Jonathan Cape, R320


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“In a world deluged by irrelevant information,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, “clarity is power.”

The slight, unassuming Israeli historian shot to fame with his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind which was originally published in Hebrew. He followed it up with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Together they have sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into 45 languages.

Harari is a boldly original thinker and credits the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation for his focus and insight. He meditates for two hours a day and for one or two months of the year takes a silent retreat with no books or social media. He is a vegan and chooses not to use a smartphone.

Now, having scrutinised the course of human history and forecast the future of the species, Harari presents 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which drills into the here and now and the immediate future of human societies. What are today’s greatest challenges and choices? he asks. Where are we heading and what should we pay attention to? Divided into sections like “The Technological Challenge”, “Despair and Hope” and “Resilience” the book presents a deeply disquieting view. “As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes – but I can try and offer some clarity.”

Yuval Noah Harari. Picture: Olivier Middendorp.

 

Here he answers questions for the Sunday Times:

What do you believe are the high-road and low-road scenarios in the 21st century? What is the best we can aspire to and what is the worst to fear?

The twin revolutions in biotechnology and information technology will give us godlike powers of creation and destruction. But technology doesn’t tell us how to use it. In the 20th century, some societies used the powers of electricity, trains and radio to create totalitarian dictatorships while other societies used exactly the same powers to create liberal democracies. Biotech and infotech can also be used to create very different kinds of societies.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is that humankind will split into different biological castes, resulting in a situation far worse than apartheid. Artificial intelligence will push hundreds of millions of people out of the job market and into a new “useless class”. People will lose their economic worth and their political power. At the same time, bioengineering will make it possible to upgrade a small elite into super-humans. Revolt and resistance will be almost impossible due to a total surveillance regime that constantly monitors not just what every individual does and says, but even what every individual feels and thinks.

The best-case scenario is that the new technologies will liberate all humans from the burden of disease and hard labour and enable everyone to explore and develop their full potential. Bioengineering will focus on curing the needy rather than on upgrading the rich. Artificial intelligence will indeed eliminate many jobs, but the resulting profits will be used to provide everyone with free basic services, and to allow everyone the opportunity to pursue their dreams, in the field of art, sports, religion or community-building. State-of-the-art surveillance will be used to spy not on the citizens, but on the government, to make sure there is no corruption.

Which of these scenarios will come true?

At present, we seem to be heading towards the dystopian scenario, mainly due to growing global tensions. You cannot regulate bioengineering and artificial intelligence on the national level. For example, if most countries ban genetic-engineering of human babies, but China allows it, very soon everybody will copy the Chinese, because nobody would like to stay behind. The only way to effectively regulate such disruptive technologies is through global co-operation.

What role will religion, ethics and morality play in the 21st century? Are we “playing God”, for example, with bioengineering?

Ethics will be more important than ever, because humankind will be more powerful than ever. When you have the power to re-engineer life, your views on “right” and “wrong” acquire cosmic importance. But you don’t need religion in order to have a good moral compass. For morality doesn’t mean “obeying God” – morality means “reducing suffering”. In order to act morally, you just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.

Secular people abstain from murder not because some god forbids it, but because killing inflicts suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because “God says so”. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches or gays?

And it is noteworthy that secular morality really works. The most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world such as Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands are secular. In contrast, deeply religious countries such as Iraq and Pakistan tend to be violent and poor. @michelemagwood

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Book Bites: 16 September

Published in the Sunday Times

PontiPonti ***
Sharlene Teo, Picador, R285

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in the Sunday Times

Transcription ****
Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, R290

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there more to be revealed from archives?

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

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

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