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Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

Tiah Beautement interviews Rahla Xenopoulous on her new novel

Published in the Sunday Times

Season of Glass is Rahla Xenopoulus’s third book. Picture: Joanne Olivier.

The Season of Glass *****
Rahla Xenopoulos (Umuzi, R250)

It is difficult to believe that we have Chanel lipstick and the TV series American Horror Story to thank for the epic novel, The Season of Glass, but life works in mysterious ways. Xenopoulos first refused to watch the series, but her best friend bribed her to do so – with lipsticks.

As Xenopoulos white-knuckled her way through, she was fascinated by the way the series recycles settings, themes, and unfinished business, which returns until properly resolved. This re-emergence left her pondering reincarnation. She explains: “The first rule of physics is that nothing can completely disappear. Everything becomes something else, so then what happens to a person, who lives and loves and learns and walks this earth interacting with other souls?”

What emerged from the television experience is Xenopoulos’s finest novel yet. Two souls are sent to Earth in the form of Jewish twins with the potential to change the world. The boy and girl appear in the cruellest of times, and it is humanity’s actions that dictate whether they will succeed. While the twins are drastically different people in each new life, their souls remain the same: the boy a grounded protector, the girl possessing every story ever told in the past, present and future.

Declared a “modern Scheherazade’s tale”, the story spans the ages from ancient Ethiopia to the Spanish Inquisition, to the brink of Austria on the eve of World War II, to times we have yet to live. There are pirates, warrior princesses, rabbis, artists, and monstrous giant mantises. Each section is a new story.

Every section displays humanity at its worst, while still filled with hope. “Perhaps the greatest goal a writer can have is that their work brings hope and love,” Xenopoulos says.

She explains: “All ages are cruel. What’s different about this age is that things are happening exponentially faster, and there are no filters, it’s all thrown in our faces. That’s why I think faith and spirituality are so important, and why we have to take breaks from the screens to smell the roses, listen to music, read a book, hold someone’s hand. We need to detach ourselves from the chaos and take stock. What’s important is kindness, and laughter, and how we treat our neighbour.”

Unsurprisingly, The Season of Glass required an enormous amount of research to write. What some may not realise, however, is that this was necessary even for the section that is set in the future. “Science fiction can seem so outlandish,” Xenopoulos says, “the reality is that these things have and are coming to pass.”

Throughout the story, love and physical human connections are shown to be vital to our humanity. Not an easy balance to achieve at the same time as existing on social media, Xenopoulos admits, as she herself used Facebook to help guide her through the research. But she is adamant we must continue to seek out the good in each other and in ourselves, and that cannot be accomplished if we don’t step away from screens. This theme is what ties the story together, at the end.

She explains: “If we’d been alive during the 14th century the headline of every newspaper, if they had had newspapers, would have been about war and a tyrant. But the important thing happening was in a small town in Germany where a man called Johannes Gutenberg was developing the printing press. People create war, we use religion the way we use money and other resources as an excuse to fight, but that isn’t all we are doing. There are crazy, exciting and beautiful things going on out there.”

Winter can be hard on many. The Season of Glass is a wonderful way to return warmth to your soul. @ms_tiahmarie

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Book Bites: 1 July

Published in the Sunday Times

When She Was GoneWhen She Was Gone
SA Dunphy, Hachette, R285

David Dunnigan is in turmoil when a shoe belonging to his niece, Beth, is delivered to his doorstep. Thing is, she was wearing the shoes when she was kidnapped 18 years earlier, while she was with him. He has never forgiven himself and that has ruined his relationships and his career as a criminologist. Who left the shoe and why? Is Beth still alive? Dunnigan’s hopes revived, he delves into Dublin’s seedy underworld where his quest takes him to a chilling psychiatric asylum run by a mad shrink and his psychotic sidekick. Then to an Inuit village in frozen Greenland where trafficked slaves are worked to the bone in a fish factory. A thrilling read that takes you to the extremes of human cruelty. Gabriella Bekes @gabrikwa

The Long ForgottenThe Long Forgotten
David Whitehouse, Pan Macmillan, R285

A cantankerous professor discovers a black box flight recorder of a plane that went missing 30 years ago, and unlocks a story that spans decades, generations, and continents. A young man named Dove works in an emergency dispatch call centre until he starts getting excruciating headaches that present themselves as flashes of someone else’s memories. Twenty years hence a cleaner by the name of Peter Manyweathers discovers a love letter with a list of rare flowers in a library book, and sets off on a quest for adventure – and love. How do these stories fit into each other? Beautifully intertwined and skilfully crafted, Whitehouse spins a narrative that leaves the reader aching for more. Anna Stroud @annawriter_

The ReckoningThe Reckoning
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Hodder & Stoughton, R300

There is something relentlessly grim about Sigurðardóttir’s Icelandic noir novels. The setting is a cold, mostly unfriendly atmosphere of grimy police stations, dimly lit parking garages and a country that is as isolating as it is small and claustrophobic. The characters are unfathomable yet fascinating. This is the second book in the Children’s House series. The detective Huldar and child psychologist Freyja’s careers have both suffered because of the last case they worked on and now they are investigating a chilling case – family secrets and gruesome murders with severed hands and feet found in odd places. Their feelings for each other also complicate matters. Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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“Books really can change your life” – a Q&A with Jean Williams, executive director of book donation NGO, Biblionef

Published in the Sunday World (03/06/2018), Daily Dispatch (04/-6/2018), Herald (07/06/2018)

By Carla Lever

Jean Williams has run Biblionef for many years and is now retiring. She is responsible for donating many storybooks to kids over the years and in all South African languages.


You are the only national organisation that make books available to children in all eleven of our national languages. That’s no mean feat! How do you manage to source quality, exciting content across such a wide range of languages?

We actually get our books from a variety of sources, including purchasing or accepting donations. Early in 1999, when we discovered how scarce storybooks in all African languages were, the Founder of Biblionef, Max Vegelin Van Claerbergen, suggested we commission publishers to print some of the most popular titles we had in South Africa into indigenous languages. Thanks to generous funding, we’ve been able to print 93 titles in indigenous languages! We really believe in making high quality books with lots of colourful illustrations and we’re proud of the fact that the majority of our books are locally written, illustrated and produced – in fact, our latest book was Kgalagadi Tales in all 11 languages, funded by the Lotto.

Why do you believe so passionately that access to books is the key to a child’s future?

Books really can change your life. They open your mind and that changes your attitude towards life and the world around you. Once you taste the joy books bring you, you’ll become a life-long reader and readers are normally good citizens who can act wisely.

What are some of the impacts and success stories that have made you the proudest over your years of operation?

We get a lot of amazing responses from people at schools, some of whom have never had books donated before. A principal heard about how we have more than 300 isiXhosa books and he actually drove here after school just to look at and touch them. He had tears in his eyes because he’d never seen so many books that weren’t textbooks in his mother tongue language. What a moment!

Studies have shown that boys often have significantly lower reading skills than girls at school. How can we change that, together?

We need to offer them books that cover topics that they are interested in! Boys – like girls – have a wide range of interests, but let’s make sure we have great stories about football, boxing, local heroes and so on. At Biblionef, we have six books that cover a soccer story, we have books about Nelson Mandela growing up as a herd boy as well as a children’s version of Long Walk to Freedom.

Can any public organisation apply to receive books from Biblionef?

Any children’s organisation that has a need for books in mother tongue but not the means to get them can apply. Write us a request letter! Tell us why you don’t have funds and tell us how you plan to use and care for the books when they arrive.

You have said that no area is too remote for you to get books into: that sounds like a challenge! How do you make sure that books are delivered directly into the hands of school children, no matter how far away they are?

It’s a simple plan. We pack our books in cardboard boxes with a weight of 30 kilograms or less and they’re all sent via the postal system. Each organisation is informed they must collect their books at their local post office. Believe it or not, we’ve had a 98% success rate using this system.

It’s one thing donating books, but quite another making sure that they are able to be stored and looked after. Biblionef has some ingenious storage and maintenance solutions – tell us a little more about them.

Experience has taught us that most places don’t have adequate storage space on their premises for their new book donations. Obviously, books last much longer if good quality storage space is available, so we started suggesting alternative shelving options. One of our favourite is providing steel trunks where books can be packed neatly away – they are inexpensive, transportable, sturdy, lockable and accessible. Trunks can be swapped between schools to offer a larger selection of books to more children. We also have mobile units on wheels and suggest things like suitcases, cloth bags and even bread crates!

Buying books is expensive and you note that over 85% of South Africans don’t have access to a public library. I can’t imagine not being able to pick up a book when I felt like it. What can regular people do to promote book equity in South Africa?

If you want to promote book equity in SA, you can support one of the many NPOs helping to build a culture of reading amongst children. You can visit second hand bookshops and buy books for a crèche or school or after care centre. Join a book club and share your resources with other people! Or my favourite: give children books as birthday presents and put some money inside it, so when they read it they get a nice surprise inside.

From Sunday April 15, Nal’ibali will be publishing its supplements in two new languages. An English-Setswana edition will be published in the Sunday World in the North West, and an English-Xitsonga edition will be donated to reading clubs in Limpopo. Clubs in both provinces will collect their copies from select post offices. The post offices (10 in each province) will also have 50 additional editions each to give away to member of the public.

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Launch – Short Story Day Africa’s ID: New Short Fiction from Africa edited by Nebila Abdulmelik et al. (5 July)

Join Short Story Day Africa for a celebration of African fiction at the launch of their latest anthology, ID: New Short Fiction from Africa.

Edited by Nebila Abdulmelik, Otiene Owino & Helen Moffett, the theme of this year’s anthology centered around identity and exploring African identity, in all its facets.

Featured writers Michael Yee, Susan Newham-Blake and Lester Walbrugh will be joining co-editor Helen Moffett in conversation at the Book Lounge on Thursday, 5 July.

Event Details

  • Date: Thursday, 05 July 2018
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6:00 PM
  • Venue: The Book Lounge, 71 Roeland Street, Cape Town | Map
  • Guest Speakers: Michael Yee, Susan Newham-Blake, Lester Walbrugh, Helen Moffett
  • RSVP:

    Book Details

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RIP David Goldblatt (29 November 1930 – 25 June 2018)

David Goldblatt, captured by Francois Guillot / AFP.

Prolific South African photographer, David Goldblatt, has passed away aged 87.

Goldblatt gained recognition for his photos documenting apartheid-era South Africa, as of 1948 through to the present.

His body of work includes On the Mines (co-authored with Nadine Gordimer), Some Afrikaners Photographed (with essays by Antjie Krog and Ivor Powell), In Boksburg (with Sean O’Toole), South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, and The Transported of Kwandebele: A South African Odyssey (in collaboration with Brenda Goldblatt and Phillip van Niekerk.)

Goldblatt is survived by his wife, three children and two grandchildren.

On the Mines

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Some Afrikaners Photographed



In Boksburg


South Africa: The Structure of Things Then


The Transported of KwaNedebele


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“Kindness is the core of Gail Honeyman’s superb novel.” Russell Clarke reviews Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Gail Honeyman, HarperCollins, R205

Now available in paperback, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has performed astonishingly well on the bestseller lists, and recently won the Costa Award for a debut novel. And for good reason. Miss Eleanor Oliphant lives an ordinary, if slightly odd, life. Written as a first-person narrative, Eleanor is about to turn 30, lives in a flat in Glasgow and works as an accounts clerk.

She’s someone we all know; she rarely interacts with her colleagues, thinks and speaks with a terribly stiff formality, and sees the world in completely different ways. Eleanor is also routine bound. She works quietly all week, eats the same food. On Friday nights she buys herself a frozen pizza and two bottles of vodka, and avoids the world until Monday morning, when she goes back to work and begins the week again. Not much of a life, really.

It takes a little while to figure Eleanor out – she embodies what has become a standard unreliable narrator (think The Girl on the Train, and then banish the thought entirely). Just when you think you’ve got a grip on her, you realise she’s not the unreliable character you’ve taken her for at all. What reads as eccentricity is in truth Eleanor’s detachment from society, and her slight bewilderment at how other people live. And her detachment is in fact rooted in a loneliness and isolation that’s no fault of her own.

An encounter with Raymond, the IT fellow from her office, and the unfolding of human interactions that arise from this encounter, points the way to the core of Gail Honeyman’s superb novel – kindness. Small acts of human kindness; unthinking, unconditional kindness and the micro-interactions – human touch, thoughtfulness – that make modern life bearable.

Eleanor’s story is about mental illness and isolation, but it is about heart – and it’s also funny and touching without being sappy. Eleanor Oliphant will stay with you for a long time. Russell Clarke @russrussy

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Shortlist for the 2018 Short Sharp Stories Awards announced

Via Short.Sharp.Stories

We are happy to announce the shortlist for the Short Sharp Stories Awards. This year’s theme is “Instant Exposure”. We received over 120 entries for this year’s anthology, and our judges selected the stories they felt spoke best to the brief. Congratulations to the writers, whose stories will be included in Instant Exposure, and who are shortlisted for this year’s awards.

Vamumusa Malusi Khumalo
Shubnum Khan
Femi Agunbiade
Christine Coates
Michael Yee
Chantelle Grey van Heerden
Stephen Buabeng-Baidoo
Donve Lee
Rochelle Mungar
Thandekhile Ntshangase
Arja Salafranca
Sam Murray
Ambre Nicolson
Martin Botha
Bernard du Plessis
Lynn Joffe
Paul Collings
Melissa Siebert
Ian Sutherland
Tiah Beautement

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The box unlocked: there are many similarities in the lives of the author and his main character, writes Michele Magwood of John Hunt’s The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head

Published in the Sunday Times

The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head
John Hunt, Umuzi, R260

John Hunt’s second novel is set in Hillbrow and Berea in 1967. Picture: Joanne Olivier

Advertising maestro John Hunt could probably walk to Hillbrow from his gracious Westcliff home, but the distance he has come from his childhood in that suburb is immeasurable. The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in His Head is set in Hillbrow and Berea in 1967, a thronging, multicultural community where streets of tin-roofed houses are being broken down into skips and confident new buildings thrust skywards.

Eleven-year-old Stephen Baxter – known as Phen – lives in a worn Deco block of flats on O’Reilly Road. He’s a watchful, hypervigilant child who is learning “to listen with his eyes”. Phen’s father is dying in his gloomy, book-stuffed bedroom, an erudite and humorous man, looking for all the world like a Spitfire pilot behind his oxygen mask. His thick glasses are held together with sticky tape. “His magnified eyelashes stuck to the lenses like the bent legs of spiders waiting to scurry away.”

As his father slowly deteriorates, Phen must navigate a confusing world where adults speak in riddles and the atmosphere is thick with unspoken meaning. Pre-pubescence is a delicate time. “You can be lost in your Meccano set,” says Hunt, “but you also know that there’s something in the adult world you have to start understanding.”

He has borrowed generously from his childhood for this fine novel, but he prefers to keep the lines between fiction and lived experience blurred. Like Phen, Hunt’s father was terminally ill. Like Phen he would read for hours to his father, classics and adult books like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

“Even though you could read the words, adult books had secondary meanings,” says Hunt. Phen has a severe stutter, Hunt was dyslexic, both are – or were – highly sensitive and sensitised boys. “I think the situation made a sensitive boy more sensitive, an aware child more aware,” says Hunt. It was a time of such heightened emotion and anxiety that 50 years on he is able to render the boy with crystalline empathy.

“When these things happen as a boy, in order to cope you keep them in a box. I wanted to go back and unlock the box and it just exploded from there. It was as if it was deep-frozen. It hadn’t gone away.”

Going over an old map of Hillbrow in the ’60s, memories came flowing back. Clarendon Circle, Estoril Books, the cafés and movie house. Wilson’s toffees. Mills Special cigarettes. Ford Cortinas. An immigrant from Florence named Romolo: “He was immediately renamed Romeo in acknowledgement of his tight pants and sleek hair, jet black and shaped in the front like the bonnet of Margaret Wallace’s parents’ Pontiac.”

We are reminded that Hillbrow was always a landing ground for immigrants coming to South Africa. Hunt paints this world with assured impressionistic strokes, and his characters leap off the page: Phen’s grandmother, a doughty Scotswoman, given to observations like “When life turns as black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat, you don’t want a man who’s all bum and parsley”; the school groundsman with shrapnel in his head from the Korean war; the shoving, mocking, almost-hormonal schoolmates and his just-coping mother.

And then there is Heb Thirteen Two, the character around whom the story revolves, an eccentric homeless man who Phen meets in the park. He might, or might not, exist in Phen’s imagination. He might be an unsavoury old hobo or he may be an angel sent to guide a boy through an unbearable time.

While Hunt received warmth and support in his childhood from the neighbourhood adults, “I’d love to have met someone like Heb in the park.”

Instead he is able to look back over the decades and pour the wisdom he needed then into this figure.

His writing is poignant without being sentimental, moving without being mawkish. This is a perceptive, affectionate view of a splintering world through a child’s wide-open eyes. It’s also a homage to the power of books and words to contain and comfort us.

It would seem that Hunt has made a life out of the words he imbibed at his father’s bedside – first as a copywriter and visionary adman (he was a co-founder of TBWA\Hunt Lascaris) – and now as an award-winning playwright and author of two novels. He is a steadfast believer in the value of reading over watching, of pages over screens.

“When you read you engage your brain differently,” he says. “You release a sort of imaginary serotonin. It’s different from when you’re watching something on an Ipad. Between the written word and the reader there’s something in between. You think not just about the characters but about yourself, where you are in the world.” @michelemagwood

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Author Q&A: Chris Carter

Published in the Sunday Times

Chris Carter, author of Gallery of the Dead.

If you could require our world leaders to read one book, what would it be?

Any book that could teach them to be humble, tolerant and understanding. It seems that most of the world has been lacking in those basic human attributes of late.

Which book changed your life?

To be honest, no book has really changed my life. I never read very much — as a child or as an adult. Writing became part of my life more by chance than by choice.

What music helps you write?

I can listen to just about anything, but if I have a choice then definitely rock music.

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

I have done a lot of strange things while researching for a book. Mind you, I’ve done a lot of strange things while not researching for a book as well, but maybe lying inside a coffin to see how it feels would be top of the list. That was a little odd.

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

Can it be musicians? They are much more interesting than writers. In that case I would have Marilyn Manson, Rob Zombie and Nikki Sixx. Can you imagine the party afterwards?

What’s the best book you’ve received as a gift?

I would have to say I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. Great story.

What is the last thing that you read that made you laugh out loud?

An article about Brexit in the UK. All of it is a joke.

What are you most proud of writing?

Every single one of my novels. For someone who never even considered writing a short story, writing nine novels so far is quite an achievement. I am very proud of that.

What keeps you awake at night?

My cat. He keeps jumping on and off the bed.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

I would tell myself to start earlier. I started writing when I was 42 years old.

What did you edit out of this book?

A lot. My editing process is very thorough. With every book I write, I end up editing a hell of a lot out of it. I can’t remember exactly what I cut, but it amounted to about 15000 words.

How do you select the names of your characters?

At complete random, but I do use a rule. I only use names that are easy to pronounce no matter in which country the reader is. I once stopped reading a book because I could not pronounce many of the characters’ names. It was annoying. All my characters have easy names no matter which country you’re in — Mark, John, Jennifer, Carlos, Barbara, etc.

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2018 Sunday Times Literary Awards winners announced

Johannesburg, 24 June 2018: The winners of the prestigious Sunday Times Literary Awards were announced at a gala dinner held at The Venue, Melrose Arch, on Saturday 23 June.

Bongani Ngqulunga received the Alan Paton award for non-fiction for his book, The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, while Harry Kalmer was named the recipient of the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize for his book, A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg. Both titles are published by Penguin Books.

The Sunday Times Literary Awards are considered the most prestigious literary accolade in South Africa.

“This year’s judging was tough but what was evident was the recognition of the art of writing. South Africa’s rich history and diverse stories are being rigorously explored, examined and celebrated,” says Jennifer Platt, Sunday Times Books Editor.

Now in its 29th year, the Alan Paton Award recognises exceptional non-fiction writing as displayed by Bongani Ngqulunga’s story The Man Who Founded the ANC: A Biography of Pixley ka Isaka Seme.

The Alan Paton judging panel consisted of Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron; journalist Paddi Clay; and award-winning writer, journalist and filmmaker, Sylvia Vollenhoven.

They said Ngqulunga’s book was “a revelatory, inspiring study of a man and a movement that reverberates right up to today. It is a scholarly, well-researched book that illuminates our flawed roots and our flawed nationhood, presented through the complex and mercurial character of Seme.”

The Barry Ronge Fiction Prize panel was chaired by popular radio personality, Africa Melane, alongside Love Books owner Kate Rogan and award-winning writer Ken Barris.

“Johannesburg emerges as a fascinating beast of a city, and this is a novel way of celebrating it. The outstanding writing and innovative structure – along with memorable characters – make this an instant classic,” said the fiction prize panel of Harry Kalmer’s A Thousand Tales of Johannesburg.

Kalmer is the 18th recipient of the Sunday Times fiction prize, named for Barry Ronge, arts commentator and one of the founders of the Sunday Times Literary Awards.

Recipients of the 2018 Alan Paton Award and Barry Ronge Fiction Prize each receive R100 000.

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