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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Dark mirrors: readers are lapping up stories about our bleak times

Published by Jennifer Platt for the Sunday Times

Dystopian fiction has knocked the glistening vampire off the young adult shelf. It is hardly a new genre – think Lord of the Flies, 1984 – but there has been a steady uptake of these novels for young adult readers. Maybe it is because these novels are mirrors of our world, which is a terrifying place.

Dystopian fiction recognises the crisis we are in today and through an alternative prism allows the reader to play out worst-case scenarios. The protagonist is often a young person trying to overcome odds like love triangles and fighting the controlled social structure of the new broken world.

It gives the younger reader a chance to relate; a way to view society and possibly solve problems.

But it’s not only younger readers who are immersing themselves in these bleak realms. Many people enjoy a good yarn and most of the stories are just that. These lesser-known novels will hopefully appeal to most dystopian fans.

AsylumAsylum, Marcus Low
Set in the Great Karoo, Low’s story plays out in a not-too-distant future in which a lethal, incurable illness kills off most of the population. Barry James is one of the sick – imprisoned and quarantined in an asylum where he is expected to die.
The PowerThe Power, Naomi Alderman
The Baileys Prize-winning novel imagines a world where women have the ability to electrocute men at will. It’s a work of contemporary feminism that confronts today’s patriarchal system.
Station ElevenStation Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
A travelling theatre troupe, a deadly strain of swine flu and destructive relationships are the basis for this award-winning novel set in the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada.
Apocalypse Now NowApocalypse Now Now, Charlie Human
Baxter’s life as the 16-year-old drug kingpin of his school changes when his girlfriend Esme is kidnapped. To save her, he goes into the dark, supernatural underground of Cape Town. Trippy.
Who Fears DeathWho Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
Okorafor tweeted that her novel has been optioned by HBO to develop as a TV series with Game of Thrones author George RR Martin as executive producer. Dealing with race, ethnicity and female sexual empowerment, it focuses on 16-year-old Onyesonwu who must learn to navigate life in post-apocalyptic Sudan.
The RaftThe Raft, Fred Strydom
Humanity has lost its memory. Civilisation collapses. Kayle Jenner has vague visions of his son and as he sets out to find him, he discovers the truth about the world’s memory loss. Set partly in the Tsitsikamma forest and Kroonstad, The Raft explores existential and philosophical questions.
The Knife of Never Letting GoThe Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness
The first of a series called Chaos Walking. Todd is the last boy in Prentisstown, where everyone can hear each other’s thoughts through something called the Noise. About information overload, it’s relevant as we are swamped by the noise of social media.
Dark Windows, Louis Greenberg
The Gaia Peace Party has been in power in South Africa for 10 years, promising a cure for crime. A contractor for the party is given the job of blackening the windows of several Joburg buildings. The dark windows project shows the cracks in the ruling party. A too-close-to-home political thriller.
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Fraught relations: Tiah Beautement speaks to Zinzi Clemmons about her book What We Lose

Published in the Sunday Times

What We LoseWhat We Lose
Zinzi Clemmons (Fourth Estate)

This is a debut work of great beauty and depth, a poignant fictional memoir that began as a series of journal entries Clemmons wrote while caring for her mother. Like the main character Thandi, Clemmons is an American-South African who loses her mother to cancer. It was this experience that brought home to Clemmons the disparities in US healthcare. She explains: “Oppression in the US tends to operate under the surface, usually through policies that ensure that minorities, and blacks especially, do not have access to the same opportunities as whites… by the time a black person is diagnosed, their conditions are more advanced, and they aren’t able to access proper treatment.”

Clemmons’s story masterfully illustrates grieving. It is raw and brutal, devoid of platitudes. Thandi reflects, “I realised that this would be life; to figure out how to live without her hand on my back; her soft, accented English telling me Everything will be all right, Thandi. This was the paradox: How would I ever heal from losing the person who healed me? The question was so enormous that I could see only my entire life, everything I know, filling it.”

The writing style of What We Lose – a series of vignettes, peppered with charts and e-mails – contributes to the portrait of grief. “My only thought during the entire [writing] process was to tell the story in the way that felt right to me, and it was only later in the process that I realised that this style mirrored the way that grief fragments memory and thought,” Clemmons says.

What We Lose has been described as a coming-of-age story. Clemmons believes this to be a fair description as “losing parents is an event that forces us to grow up, that accelerates adulthood”. But the story’s greatest strength is in its unromanticised depictions of motherhood and its complex portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship.

“I think [my mother and I] both compounded that conflict when we saw ourselves not living up to some idealised version of how our relationship should be… These expectations we as women place on ourselves – in many aspects of our lives – ultimately cause nothing but harm.”

Thandi’s story, however, is not Clemmons’s. Thandi’s grief-stricken journey contains her own mistakes. She is an intelligent and sympathetic character, honest and open about her sexual needs. “It was absolutely a conscious decision to present Thandi as a sexually powerful person,” Clemmons says. “I think that authenticity – that unwillingness to bend to the male gaze – is unfortunately rare, but it’s necessary.”

The story is set in both the US and South Africa. Thandi, raised in a well-to-do US suburb, is hypersensitive to the contrast between her home and Johannesburg. This American lens means that Thandi’s observations on Oscar Pistorius, for example, will undoubtedly be controversial for some South African readers. By contrast, many South Africans will empathise with Thandi’s observations on identity and race, because she is not only stretched between two countries and cultures, but her very skin leaves her dislocated from her peers – either too light or too dark. As Thandi says: “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless.”

Follow Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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Book Bites: 27 August 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The Age of GeniusThe Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind
AC Grayling, Bloomsbury
Book buff
The book of the year for history buffs and closet philosophers. The question at the centre is: how did the events of the 17th century radically alter the way people thought about the world and their place in it? Grayling offers a detailed yet riveting account of the history of ideas; how ideologies transformed despite – or because of – the tumultuous events of the 1600s. The 17th century is known for its battles between Catholics and Protestants, and Catholicism and science. But it was also a triumphant time that gave rise to, among many other things, the postal service. – Anna Stroud @annawriter_

A Fast Ride out of HereA Fast Ride out of Here: Confessions Of Rock’s Most Dangerous Man
Pete Way
, Constable
Book real

Pete Way is a colourful character who played bass for ’70s rockers UFO and a number of other bands. In his day he was capable of – as detailed throughout this book’s 250 or so pages – ingesting enough drugs and alcohol to make even Keith Richards arch a concerned eyebrow. It’s a direct, old-fashioned sex and drugs and rock ’n roll tell-all. It entertains and frustrates in equal measure – Way’s lackadaisical “that’s just how I was” attitude to his excesses and the pain he caused often comes across as selfishness rather than as a request for the leeway sometimes required by an artistic nature. – Bruce Dennill @BroosDennill

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11 quick questions with DJ Sbu

Published in the Sunday Times

Billionaires Under ConstructionBillionaires Under Construction: The Mindset of an Entrepreneur by DJ Sbu (Tracey MacDonald Publishers)

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
MoFaya. *chuckles*

If you could require our world leaders to read one book, what would it be?
Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success.

Which book changed your life?
Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch.

What music helps you write?
It depends on the kind of writing I want to share. If it is about my life journey, then most of the time it is kwaito influenced.

Do you keep a diary?
No, my modern-day diary is made up of my daily social media posts.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?

What book are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by Steve Harvey.

What’s more important to you: the way a book is written, or what the book is about?
Both, because it depends on what is written being written about.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
Yes, Robert Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad’s Cashflow Quadrant, which simplifies the concept of wealth creation.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?
Zakes Mda, Credo Mutwa and Sheryl Sandberg.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Do you finish every book you start? If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?
No, I don’t finish every book I start. Most times it’s not that I decide to stop reading, but that I just get carried away by other books and things that come my way.

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The pull of Everest: Diane Awerbuck reviews Sarah Lotz’s The White Road

Published in the Sunday Times

Sarah Lotz’s new book pulls you into a death zone inhabited by ghosts and spirits, writes Diane Awerbuck

The White RoadThe White Road
Sarah Lotz, Hodder & Stoughton

Why are mountains female? Because they’re a bitch to climb. Sarah Lotz gives the annoying Robbie character that punchline, but it’s as good a place as any to talk about the real issues of her new novel, The White Road: personal challenge, suffering, and how exactly you know when you’re going mad.

The journeys of discovery in the novel are parallel trips: underground, in the terrifying world of “the death caves” of Cwm Pot in Wales, and up Everest itself.

Lotz knows what she’s talking about. She did her research on climbing first-hand, and it shows in the detail of the claustrophobic cave sequences and the near-death experiences in the snow: “Food tastes so different up here. I feel like I need to add salt to everything, and find myself craving curry and sugar.”

Not only the characters’ appetites are sharpened: Everest exerts a terrible, compulsive pull on its climbers, even when they understand they are behaving in ways that will probably get them killed. The “death zone” is littered with bodies of climbers – like Green Boots, who died in 1996 in “the highest graveyard in the world”. Because the corpses are frozen they have to be chipped out: some teams charge $30 000 to retrieve a body, and the Sherpas “don’t like to touch them”.

How to reconcile lofty emotional ideals with physical frailties is a thread that runs through The White Road. Juliet Michaels, “the Angel of the Alps” finds herself dubbed “the Angel of Death” after her climbing partner dies. Her mission at the beginning of the book is to set a new record for a female climber, find sponsorship, and remove her son Marcus from his up-itself boarding school.

But she also wants to achieve her climbing goals “by fair means” – without supplementary oxygen, and not “on the backs of Sherpas”. Lotz also gets in her critical commentary about the mistreatment of Nepal by China, so we’ll not expect a Mandarin translation of The White Road any time soon.

What Juliet shares with the other main character, Simon, is the conviction that they are haunted by a version of TS Eliot’s “Third Man”, a ghostly figure who “walks always beside you”. The phenomenon was documented by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and, while other historical climbers describe the apparition as a companion, the constant presence for Juliet and Simon is punishing and vindictive: the worst voices of their conscience. Simon especially finds himself appalled at the shallowness of his old life, and determines to do the right thing for once.

Their progressive mental deterioration is documented in her notebooks and Simon’s posts for his sensationalist site, Journey to the Dark Side. Laying the ghosts to rest has become the mission for both climbers, though they belong to different generations, and we track their descent narratives with dread and fascination.

Stylistically, the publishers have given Lotz a freer rein. While The Three and Day Four are cult hits and great reads, they are occasionally frustrating because there’s a sense the writer has been told to hold back. The scenes in the Japanese suicide forest in The Three, for example, are the bits that make Lotz special, and The White Road is good because it’s this kind of writing. She never loses her grip on authentic, character-driven action, but it is that signature style – an apparently casual but really searing ability to strike the right image – that is impressive and indelible. Haunting, you might say, and spiritual, and cathartic.

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Fine, feminine forces: Tiah Beautement interviews Colleen Higgs and Ambre Nicolson about A to Z of Amazing South African Women

Published in the Sunday Times

A to Z of Amazing South African WomenA to Z of Amazing South African Women
Ambre Nicolson and Jaxon Hsu (Modjaji)

It is not often you hear of a South African book selling 1000 copies before it hits the bookstores. A to Z of Amazing South African Women has accomplished just that. This inspiring book, featuring 26 women, was the brainchild of Ambre Nicolson. She, along with Jaxon Hsu, who illustrated the book, and Colleen Higgs, publisher of Modjaji, crowdfunded the project to great success, right on time for Women’s Month.

: As Modjaji, it totally fitted in with what we stand for, as a feminist press – and I love that this is a celebratory, feel-good book.

It took endless discussion over many cups of coffee (and wine). We wanted to ensure the book was demographically representative and have a mix of contemporary and historical figures. It was also essential to show a wide range of human endeavour – from artists to activists, athletes to scientists. We had one added criteria: is she a badass? By this we meant, does she have agency, does she take initiative? We wanted women who were not victims of their circumstances, however dire, but rather powerful protagonists.

Caster Semenya. In fact I twisted Ambre’s arm because we have her surname as the letter – ie S is for Semenya – when all the other women have their first name, eg Z is for Zanele. But we couldn’t leave Caster out.

I hope the book provokes the question: if women and girls in South Africa were less subject to the vast structural inequalities of this country, how many more Ruth Firsts or Lillian Ngoyis or Caster Semenyas would we have?

Follow Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

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Festering divisions in the American South: Bron Sibree talks to Karin Slaughter about her latest novel The Good Daughter

Published in the Sunday Times

The Good DaughterThe Good Daughter
Karin Slaughter (HarperCollins)

Karin Slaughter has been in a class of her own since her debut crime novel Blindsighted, which became a surprise bestseller in 2001. It revealed a willingness to write about violence with unflinching honesty and an unparalleled ability to create strong, believable female characters.

She rocketed to international stardom, and sales of her books now exceed 35 million copies in 36 languages. From the outset, says Slaughter, “I wanted to write tough stories from a woman’s perspective because I think that women look at the world differently.”

Her latest novel The Good Daughter takes her interest in character and in social issues to a new level. A standalone work that is her 17th novel to date, The Good Daughter doesn’t so much slip the moorings of the crime genre, but realigns its ties to them in refreshing ways. It cleverly links the stories of two sisters, Charlie and Sam, and their experience of two violent, murderous events – one in the present, one in the past – in a cannily layered thriller.

Yet it is almost Victorian in its social scope and depth of characterisation. Even its size, a whopping 527 pages, is more akin to the literary traditions of a bygone era. “This is my longest book,” says Slaughter. “I always say a story needs to be as long as it needs to be.”

Already being hailed as a tour de force, it reveals Slaughter at the top of her game, and was seeded in part by the death of a former English teacher who was her mentor for many years. “I wanted to talk about the fact that even if someone dies your relationship with them doesn’t end, it continues after they’re gone. So it started with thinking about the relationship between Charlie and Sam and their mother, and how, with their mother gone, she has such influence on them.”

All her novels are anchored in the landscapes and sensibilities of the American South, but The Good Daughter probes the festering, and very real divisions between the middle class and those left behind in Pikeville, Georgia, where much of the novel is set. “That was very important to me,” says Slaughter, whose own father grew up in “the Holler”, the poorest area in Pikeville.

“He was one of nine kids and his father was always being chased and beaten up by either the clan because he wasn’t taking care of his family, or by the government because he was making moonshine. They would squat in shacks with no running water and live on squirrels. So I know how people who are trapped in that kind of poverty work their asses off and never, ever get ahead.”

Steeped in the history, lore and literature of the region, the 46-year-old author has been on mission to “honour the South” from the outset, as well as to highlight the chilling facts of violence against women. Part of the reason she feels so at home in the crime genre “is because I want to talk about social issues, and I think crime fiction’s job has always been to hold up a mirror to society. I grew up reading Flannery O ’Connor, and she used shock and violence as this fulcrum to prise the scab off the human condition, and I absolutely think when I write, that that’s my job.”

Follow @BronSibree

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Book Bites: 13 August 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

The CallerThe Caller
Chris Carter (Simon & Schuster)
Book thrill
Author Chris Carter is a Brazil-born criminal psychologist turned crime writer who is making a name for himself among the krimi giants. After a two-year hiatus, The Caller is his eighth page-twister in a series that follows LA detective Robert Hunter as he tracks down the baddest of the bad. This time around, the bad guy is exceptionally diabolical – a serial killer who knows his way around social media and likes to play gruesome games with his victims. This thriller is gratuitously gory in parts, but crime fans will delight in the chase. – Sally Partridge @sapartridge

The Nowhere ManThe Nowhere Man
Gregg Hurwitz (Michael Joseph)
Book thrill
Orphan Evan Smoak was raised as an assassin in a secret government project but now, rich and contrite, he uses his training to help anyone in need. Evan has just bust a child sex-slave ring and is on his way to rescue the final victim when he is kidnapped and held captive in a luxurious mansion where his every desire is met – except freedom. The Nowhere Man is the second in the series and is as fast-paced and slickly written as the first, Orphan X. This is a wonderful old-fashioned escapist adventure. – Aubrey Paton

Temporary PeopleTemporary People
Deepak Unnikrishnan (Simon & Schuster)
Book buff
The United Arab Emirates is filled with riches most can only dream of: skyscrapers and designer shops line the streets. And yet the people who built the city, who paved the roads, who dedicated their lives to making it oh so glamorous are not citizens. Temporary People is a collection of short stories about migrant workers in the UAE. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

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Jacket Notes: Daryl Ilbury on his book Tim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick

Published in the Sunday Times

Tim Noakes: The Quiet MaverickTim Noakes: The Quiet Maverick
Daryl Ilbury (Penguin Random House)

He may be on the front cover, and his name in the title, but The Quiet Maverick is not just about Tim Noakes. Writing a book about South Africa’s most famous scientist would have been easy. He’s been a hot topic and a friend of the media for more than 40 years.

But I wanted this book to be as much about the readers as the man on the cover. I wanted it to be about their relationship with science, an increasingly disrupted media, and the food shaping their lives.

Noakes may have had the leading role, but this was a play with a cast of thousands, each one equally important. There was a bigger story to share than that of a tweet about weaning a baby.

However, merely delivering a sequence of points about science wouldn’t work. When you simply tell someone something, one of four things happens: they accept it, reject it, ignore it, or consider it. Three of those were no good to me. I wanted the reader to think about what they read. That was the challenge of this book: getting the reader to think about science.

The secret, I believed, lay in the narrative. If I could lay down the plot as the threads of a bigger story, and then encourage the reader to pick up those threads and weave them together, they should arrive at the same conclusion as I did, but because they were part of the crafting, that conclusion should hold firm in their mind.

But science isn’t a destination for most choosers of books, so how could I place my book at the front of a store? That was the other motivation to write about Noakes: the story of forces conspiring to ruin the career of the country’s leading researcher earned its place alongside the crime and politics normally reserved for the current affairs section of leading bookstores.

It is the story of society’s historical distrust of science, the fractious relationship between science and mainstream media, the intricacies of human nutrition, and the brutal fallout when a soft-spoken scientist with a taste for social media and a flair for challenging convention voiced his maverick opinion. Compelling enough? Read it.

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Accessing the doors to our dreams: Dave Mann reviews Douglas Reid Skinner’s Liminal

The first thing that comes to mind when reading Douglas Reid Skinner’s new collection is that writing can be a pretty tough gig. But it’s only as tough as living.

Liminal, the latest release from the South African poet, is a collection of 39 poems, broken up into four parts, and spread across 72 pages. Now depending on how you read your poetry, this could be something you enjoy over a single day, or maybe even a week. Me? I read it through the evenings and then, over the course of a few quiet days, I read it again.

Skinner is a name that’s not foreign to the South African literary scene. Liminal is his seventh collection of works and, to date, he’s had work appear in numerous local literary journals as well as in British, American, French and Italian publications. Taking his long and steady writing career into account makes it easier to understand what’s taking place on these pages.

Liminal is a pensive collection, full of small thoughts on boundless topics, crafted down to bite-sized poems. Skinner, in equal parts severity and humour, is engaging in much thinking, dreaming, and agonising on the process of writing itself. Moreover, he delves into the many pains, progressions, and pure moments of chance that serve as prerequisites to the act of sitting down and putting pen to paper and how, often, those moments can seem so dreadfully distant.

Here’s a taster:

“If I could only recall exactly what they were,”
He whispered to himself, “those words that I saw,

“Now that I’m ready with a pen and a blank page.”
But there are no doors into our dreams.
Each mutely drifts along on its own sea.

Beyond the act of writing, there are many stories and themes in Liminal, and each time you read it through, you’ll uncover more. Of the ones I’ve discovered so far, there are outings with good friends, wistful takes on travel, lonely musings over morning headlines, and reflexive takes on nostalgia (‘those relatively rich acres of time, days, turn out to be ephemeral, small spaces that keep on falling straight out the backs of our heads’).

Some read like short stories while others appear on the page as they might’ve looked when they were first typed out or scribbled down. Like all good narratives, they’re familiar in one way or another.

There’s a rigour to Skinner’s work that’s evident throughout. This is no doubt due to his long journey with writing, but it’s also evident in the quiet, pensive tributes to those who have come before him – whether they’re writers, family members or independent pieces of literature. Ultimately, form and motif are brought together through the collection’s segments – each one unpacking a particular set of narratives.

All of these elements considered, Liminal is an easy and eloquent read and it’s a collection that’s perhaps best read in motion. Take a poem or two with your morning coffee before work, or on the bus or train home. Read it when you’re longing for a hillside, but you find yourself stuck in the city. Then again, if you do happen to be on a hillside with nothing specific to do, Liminal would go down just as well. – Dave Mann, @david_mann92

Liminal is out this August. Visit uHlanga for more details.

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