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Q&A: John Kane-Berman

Published in the Sunday Times

John Kane-Berman, author of Between Two Fires: Holding the Liberal Centre in South African Politics, on his favourite literary characters, content vs talent, and describing Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a waste of time…

Which book changed your life?

With luck, I learnt a bit from each one.

What music helps you write?

I cannot listen to music when I am writing.

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

I holed up in a remote cowboy town called Billings in Montana in the US to meet a deadline for my book on the 1976 Soweto upheavals.

Do you keep a diary?

Nope. I don’t take photographs either.

Who is your favourite fictional hero?

Hercule Poirot as played by David Suchet, with Jeeves as in Jeeves and Wooster a close second.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

These should not be repeated in a family newspaper such as the Sunday Times.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

None. I’m embarrassed only that I once wasted time reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover when it was banned.

What’s more important to you: the way a book is written, or what the book is about?

I would normally never even start a badly written book. The worst-written book I ever read was by a journalism professor, but I ploughed through it as the subject matter – cover-ups by the New York Times – intrigued me.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?

Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown taught me to respect military intelligence as used in World War 2.

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

Winston Churchill in his guise as historian, Benjamin Disraeli as novelist, and Queen Victoria as diarist.

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

The Circus of Adventure by Enid Blyton.

Do you finish every book that you start?

I finish 99% of all the books I read and do not start unless I am pretty sure I will like the book.

Between Two Fires

Book details

Between Two Fires is also available as an eBook.

Shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 announced

The Man Booker International Prize revealed the shortlist of six books in contention for the 2017 prize, which celebrates the finest works of translated fiction from around the world.

Each shortlisted author and translator receives £1,000. The £50,000 prize for the winning book will also be divided equally between its author and translator.

The author, translator, and title of the shortlisted novel, as decided upon by the panel, are as follows:

Mathias Enard (France), Charlotte Mandell, Compass (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

David Grossman (Israel), Jessica Cohen, A Horse Walks Into a Bar (Jonathan Cape)

Roy Jacobsen (Norway), Don Bartlett, Don Shaw, The Unseen (Maclehose)

Dorthe Nors (Denmark), Misha Hoekstra, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (Pushkin Press)

Amos Oz (Israel), Nicholas de Lange, Judas (Chatto & Windus)

Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Megan McDowell, Fever Dream (Oneworld)

The list includes one writer who was previously a finalist for the prize in 2007, Amos Oz. He is one of two writers from Israel (the other is David Grossman) who have been shortlisted, along with a writer from South America, Samanta Schweblin, and three from Europe: two Scandinavians, Roy Jacobsen and Dorthe Nors and a Prix Goncourt winner, Mathias Enard from France.

The settings range from an Israeli comedy club to contemporary Copenhagen, from a sleepless night in Vienna to a troubled delirium in Argentina. The list is dominated by contemporary settings but also features a divided Jerusalem of 1959 and a remote island in Norway in the early 20th century.

The translators are all established practitioners of their craft: this is the 17th novel by Oz that Nicholas de Lange has translated and Roy Jacobsen’s co-translators Don Bartlett and Don Shaw have worked together many times before.

The shortlist includes three independent publishers, Pushkin, Oneworld and Fitzcarraldo. Penguin Random House has two novels through the imprints Chatto & Windus and Jonathan Cape, while Quercus’s imprint Maclehose has the final place on the list.

Nick Barley, chair of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize judging panel, comments:

Our shortlist spans the epic and the everyday. From fevered dreams to sleepless nights, from remote islands to overwhelming cities, these wonderful novels shine a light on compelling individuals struggling to make sense of their place in a complex world.

Luke Ellis, CEO of Man Group, comments:

Many congratulations to all the shortlisted authors and translators. We are very proud to sponsor the Man Booker International Prize as it continues to celebrate talent from all over the world. The prize plays a very important role in promoting literary excellence on a global scale, as well as underscoring Man Group’s charitable focus on literacy and education, and our commitment to creativity and excellence.

The shortlist was selected by a panel of five judges, chaired by Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and consisting of: Daniel Hahn, an award-winning writer, editor and translator; Elif Shafak, a prize-winning novelist and one of the most widely read writers in Turkey; Chika Unigwe, author of four novels including On Black Sisters’ Street; and Helen Mort, a poet who has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Prize, and has won a Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award five times.

The winner of the 2017 Prize will be announced on 14 June at a formal dinner at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, with the £50,000 prize being divided equally between the author and the translator of the winning entry.

A book synopses and biography of the authors, as per the press release:


Mathias Enard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Published by Fitzcarraldo Editions


As night falls over Vienna, Franz Ritter, an insomniac musicologist, takes to his sickbed with an unspecified illness and spends a restless night drifting between dreams and memories, revisiting the important chapters of his life: his ongoing fascination with the Middle East and his numerous travels to Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus, and Tehran, as well as the various writers, artists, musicians, academics, orientalists, and explorers who populate this vast dreamscape. At the centre of these memories is his elusive, unrequited love, Sarah, a fiercely intelligent French scholar caught in the intricate tension between Europe and the Middle East. An immersive, nocturnal, musical novel, full of generous erudition and bittersweet humour, Compass is a journey and a declaration of admiration, a quest for the otherness inside us all and a hand reaching out – like a bridge between West and East, yesterday and tomorrow.

Mathias Enard, born in 1972 in Niort, France, studied Persian and Arabic and spent long periods in the Middle East. He has lived in Barcelona for about 15 years, interrupted in 2013 by a writing residency in Berlin. He won several awards for Zone, including the Prix du Livre Inter and the Prix Décembre, and won the Liste Goncourt/Le Choix de l’Orient, the Prix littéraire de la Porte Dorée, and the Prix du Roman-News for Street of Thieves. He won the 2015 Prix Goncourt for Compass.

Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry, and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot, and many other distinguished authors. She has received many accolades and awards for her translations, including a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Zone. Born in Hartford Connecticut in 1968, she lives in New York State.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar
David Grossman
Translated by Jessica Cohen

Published by Jonathan Cape

A Horse Walks Into a Bar

The setting is a comedy club in a small Israeli town. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration, a man crumbling before their eyes as a matter of choice. They could get up and leave, or boo and whistle and drive him from the stage, if they were not so drawn to glimpse his personal hell.
Dovale Gee, a veteran stand-up comic – charming, erratic, repellent – exposes a wound he has been living with for years: a fateful and gruesome choice he had to make between the two people who were dearest to him.

David Grossman is the bestselling author of numerous works, which have been translated into 36 languages. His most recent novels are To the End of the Land, described by British academic Jacqueline Rose as ‘without question one of the most powerful and moving novels I have ever read’, and Falling Out of Time. He is the recipient of the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the 2010 Frankfurt Peace Prize. He was born in Jerusalem, where he currently resides, in 1954.

Jessica Cohen is a freelance translator born in England in 1973, raised in Israel, and living in Denver. Her translations include David Grossman’s critically acclaimed To the End of the Land, and works by major Israeli writers including Etgar Keret, Rutu Modan, Dorit Rabinyan, Ronit Matalon, Amir Gutfreund and Tom Segev, as well as Golden Globe-winning director Ari Folman. She is a past board member of the American Literary Translators Association and has served as a judge for the National Translation Award.

The Unseen
Roy Jacobsen
Translated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

Published by Maclehose

The Unseen

Ingrid Barrøy is born on an island that bears her name – a holdfast for a single family, their livestock, their crops, their hopes and dreams. Her father dreams of building a jetty that will connect them to the mainland, but closer ties to the wider world come at a price. Her mother has her own dreams – more children, a smaller island, a different life – and there is one question Ingrid must never ask her. Island life is hard, a living scratched from the dirt or trawled from the sea, so when Ingrid comes of age, she is sent to the mainland to work for one of the wealthy families on the coast. But Norway too is waking up to a wider world, a modern world that is capricious and can be cruel. Tragedy strikes, and Ingrid must fight to protect the home she thought she had left behind.

Roy Jacobsen has twice been nominated for the Nordic Council’s Literary Award: for Seierherrene in 1991 and Frost in 2003. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Dublin Impac Award for his novel The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles. He was born in Oslo in 1961, where he currently resides.

Don Bartlett lives in Norfolk, UK and works as a freelance translator of Scandinavian literature. He has translated, or co-translated, Norwegian novels by Karl Ove Knausgård, Lars Saabye Christensen, Roy Jacobsen, Ingvar Ambjornsen, Kjell Ola Dahl, Gunnar Staalesen, Pernille Rygg, and Jo Nesbo. He was born in Norfolk in 1948.

Don Shaw is a teacher of Danish and author of the standard Danish–Thai/Thai–Danish dictionaries. He has worked with Don Bartlett on translating Erland Loe.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal
Dorthe Nors
Translated by Misha Hoekstra

Published by Pushkin Press

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Sonja is an intelligent single woman in her 40s whose life lacks focus. The situation must change – but where to start? By learning to drive, perhaps. After all, how hard can it be? Very, as it turns out. Six months in, Sonja is still baffled by the basics and her instructor is eccentric. Sonja is also struggling with an acute case of vertigo, a sister who won’t talk to her, and a masseuse who is determined to solve her spiritual problems. Frenetic city life is a constant reminder that every man (and woman) is an island: she misses her rural childhood where ceilings were high and the sky was endless. Shifting gears is not proving easy.

Dorthe Nors was born in 1970 in Denmark, and studied literature at the University of Aarhus. She is one of the most original voices in contemporary Danish literature. Her short stories have appeared in numerous international periodicals, including the Boston Review and Harper’s, and she is the first Danish writer ever to have a story published in the New Yorker. Nors has published four novels, in addition to a collection of stories, Karate Chop, and a novella, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, which were published together in English by Pushkin Press. Karate Chop won the prestigious P. O. Enquist Literary Prize in 2014. She lives in rural Jutland, Denmark.

Misha Hoekstra, born in the US in 1963, has won several awards for his literary translations. He lives in Aarhus, where he works as a freelance writer and translator, in addition to writing and performing songs. He also translated Minna Needs Rehearsal Space for Pushkin Press.

Amos Oz
Translated by Nicholas de Lange

Published by Chatto & Windus


Set in the still-divided Jerusalem of 1959-60, Judas is a tragi-comic coming-of-age tale and a radical rethinking of the concept of treason. Shmuel, a young, idealistic student, is drawn to a strange house and its mysterious occupants within. As he starts to uncover the house’s tangled history, he reaches an understanding that harks back not only to the beginning of the Jewish-Arab conflict, but also to the beginning of Jerusalem itself – to Christianity, to Judaism, to Judas.

Amos Oz was born in Jerusalem in 1939. He is the internationally acclaimed author of many novels and essay collections, translated into over forty languages, including his brilliant semiautobiographical work, A Tale of Love and Darkness. He has received several international awards, including the Prix Femina, the Israel Prize, the Goethe Prize, the Frankfurt Peace Prize and the 2013 Franz Kafka Prize. He lives in Israel and is considered a towering figure in world literature.

Nicholas de Lange
has been translating Amos Oz’s work since 1972, and Judas is the 17th novel by Oz that de Lange has translated. He has also translated fiction by Aharon Appelfeld, A.B. Yehoshua and S. Yizhar. He was born in Nottingham, UK in 1944, and still lives there.

Fever Dream
Samanta Schweblin
Translated by Megan McDowell

Published by Oneworld

Fever Dream

A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. The two seem anxious and, at David’s ever more insistent prompting, Amanda recounts a series of events from the apparently recent past. As David pushes her to recall whatever trauma has landed her in her terminal state, he unwittingly opens a chest of horrors, and suddenly the terrifying nature of their reality is brought into shocking focus.

Samanta Schweblin was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1978. In 2001, she was awarded first prize by both the National Fund for the Arts and the Haroldo Conti National Competition for her debut, El Núcleo del Disturbio. In 2008, she won the Casa de las Américas prize for her second collection of stories, Pájaros en la boca. Two years later, she was listed among the Best of Young Spanish Writers by Granta magazine. Her work has been translated into numerous languages and appeared in more than twenty countries. She lives in Berlin.

Megan McDowell has translated many modern and contemporary South American authors, including Alejandro Zambra, Arturo Fontaine, Carlos Busqued, Álvaro Bisama and Juan Emar. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, Mandorla, and Vice, among others. Born in Mississippi in 1978, she now resides in Chile.
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Jonathan Jansen se Lied vir Sarah: Lesse van my Ma sy eerlikste en mees intieme boek tot op hede

In hierdie boek, Jansen se persoonlikste en mees intieme boek tot op hede, daag Suid-Afrika se geliefde professor die stereotipes en stigma uit wat so maklik op Kaapse Vlakte-ma’s van toepassing gemaak word as luidrugtig, wellustig en sonder tande – en bied hy dié deernisvolle verhaal aan as ‘n lofsang vir ma’s oral wat op moeilike plekke gesinne moet grootmaak en gemeenskappe moet bou.

As jong man het Jansen gewonder hoe ma’s dit regkry om kinders onder moeilike omstandighede groot te maak – en toe besef die antwoord is is reg voor hom in die vorm van Sarah Jansen, sy eie ma.

Deur haar vroeë lewe in Montagu en die gevolge van apartheid se gedwonge verskuiwings na te speur, werp Jansen lig op hoe sterk vroue nie slegs daarin geslaag het om gesinne bymekaar te hou nie, maar hulle kinders ook met integriteit groot te maak.

Met sy kenmerkende fynsinnigheid, humor en eerlikheid, volg Jansen sy ma se lewensverhaal as ‘n jong verpleegster en ma van vyf kinders, en wys hoe dié ma’s hulle verlede verwerk het, hulle huise ingerig het, sin gemaak het van die politiek, die liefde bestuur en kernwaardes gekommunikeer het – hoe hulle hulle lewens gelei het.

Om sy eie herinneringe te balanseer, het Jansen hom op sy suster, Naomi, beroep om haar eie insigte en herinneringe te deel, en daardeur spesiale waarde tot hierdie roerende memoir toe te voeg.

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Call for submissions for 2018 Golden Baobab Prize now open

Golden Baobab is pleased to announce the call for submissions for the 2018 Golden Baobab Prize. The Prize discovers and celebrates African writers and illustrators of children’s stories and confers awards for their work…

The 2018 Golden Baobab Prize offers three awards:

– The Golden Baobab Prize for Picture Books, for the best story targeting a reader audience of ages 4-8.

– The Golden Baobab Prize for Early Chapter Books for the best story targeting a reader audience of ages 9-11.

– The Golden Baobab Prize for Illustrators for the best artwork that matches illustration briefs provided, intended for children ages 4-11.

Winners of the 2018 Golden Baobab Prize will receive a cash prize of 5,000 USD. In addition to press publicity, winning stories are guaranteed a publishing deal, finalist writers are connected with publishers across Africa and finalist illustrators participate in exhibitions and workshops.

Click here for the submissions guideline

Mischling reignites the debate about whether the Holocaust is a suitable subject for fiction, writes Margaret von Klemperer

This review was published in the Witness

AFFINITY Konar’s debut novel is an extraordinary piece of writing, powerfully imaginative, cleverly constructed and lyrical…but it is not an easy read. In places, it is close to unbearable.

The novel opens in 1944 with Polish identical twins Pearl and Stasha travelling to Auschwitz in a cattle truck with their mother and grandfather. On the verge of adolescence, they are immediately taken from their family and handed over to Dr Josef Mengele, whose name will resonate through time as one of the most evil people who has ever lived, and who is, of course, a man who never faced justice.

As part of Mengele’s so-called Zoo, the twins may have certain privileges not granted to other inmates of the death camp, but they will also be subjected to unspeakable horrors and experiments.

Konar, who has used many testimonies of Auschwitz survivors as source material, tells the story in alternating voices. Pearl is the gentler twin, the child who loves to dance, while Stasha is physically stronger and more imaginative.

The author controls the two streams of narrative skilfully as we read of the damage done to the children and the growing carapace of hatred that they, and particularly Stasha, grow in order to survive.

Then, with the end of the war coming closer, Pearl vanishes from a concert organised by Mengele. All Stasha has to cling to is the possibility that she is still alive somewhere, and when the camp is liberated, Stasha and Feliks, another surviving twin, escape from the Death March and set off on an odyssey of their own to the ruins of Warsaw with two aims in mind: to revenge themselves on Mengele and to find Pearl.

Nothing is spared of the sheer horror of the feral existence of the refugees in war-ravaged Europe, making the second half of the novel no easier to stomach than the earlier part set in Auschwitz.

This book reignites the debate about whether the Holocaust is a suitable subject for fiction. It is a debate that leaves me slightly conflicted: while Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful came in for a lot of criticism for using humour to tell its story, it worked for me, but I disliked John Boyne’s manipulative, heavy-handed and implausible 2006 teen novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Certainly Affinity Konar trivialises nothing, nor does her manner of telling the story manipulate our feelings.

Whether a novel is a good way of describing the horrors of Auschwitz is something people have to decide for themselves, but this book may persuade you that fiction is a legitimate and a powerful tool to remind the world of the existence of evil. – Margaret von Klemperer

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Submit your manuscript for publication by Modjaji Books

Modjaji Books is a singular publishing house which only publishes work by women and people who identify as women, and only those who live in southern Africa, or who are originally from southern Africa, or whose work reflects a major relevance to southern Africa.

This independent feminist press is currently seeking manuscripts for publication.

If you are a southern African woman, or identify as a woman, and have recently written a novel, collection of short stories or poems, or a work of creative non-fiction, you are eligible to submit your manuscript for possible publication by Modjaji Books.

Interested? Click here for more.

Submissions for entries close on April 30.

Atul & Ajay Borgia? Sarah Dunant’s In the Name of the Family redresses the historical reputations of the infamous Borgia family

Published in the Sunday Times

Bron Sibree on Sarah Dunant’s latest historical novel which asks ‘who was this family, the Borgias, that everybody loved to hate?’

In the Name of the Family
Sarah Dunant
(Little, Brown, R255)

SARAH Dunant is famous for bringing the Renaissance to life in her bestselling historical novels. Page-turning stories so richly anchored in historical fact that they’ve received accolades from scholars and literary critics alike, and have been translated into 30 languages.

“The same energy that gave you the wonder of the Renaissance also gave you the horror,” she says on the eve of the launch of her 11th novel In the Name of the Family. The second in a duology about that infamous family, the Borgias, she sums it up as: “Hanging Catholic history out to dry. We wouldn’t have the Sistine Chapel, for instance, without church corruption — you couldn’t fit a credit card between the corruption and the creativity.”

British-born Dunant was an established thriller writer when she moved to Florence in 2000 during a moment of crisis. “I no longer wanted to write thrillers, and it was out of being really lost in Florence, in all senses of the word, that I began to ask what happened there 500 years ago.”

And in so doing, she gave voice to the story of a 15-year-old girl in The Birth of Venus. It became a surprise bestseller, inspired two more novels about the forgotten histories of women, and was credited with making the ideas of the Renaissance dangerous all over again.

But it is the new perspective she brings to the dangerous ideas of that other notorious Renaissance figure, Niccolo Machiavelli, in In the Name of the Family that is garnering her some of the most lavish praise of her career.

“One of the wonderful gifts of working on this book,” says Dunant, “was the discovery of Machiavelli as an impoverished young man; that this man who wrote arguably the most famous treatise on statecraft, The Prince, didn’t come out fully formed. He learned some of those ideas by being a not very well paid, not very important diplomat.

“His job was to be the eyes and ears of the Florentine state during a period of terrible insecurity when Florence might be picked off by Cesare Borgia’s army. So he was writing batches of letters back and forth, and I was able to find his voice through those letters.”

In the Name of the Family also goes a long way towards redressing the historical reputation of Lucrezia Borgia, the impulse that seeded Durant’s desire to write her 2014 novel Blood and Beauty. It was only when she began to contemplate writing about Lucrezia as part of her series about Renaissance women, says Dunant, “that I began to realise that some really big conspiracy had taken place in history to slander her”.

“So I started to think, ‘Who was this family, the Borgias, that everybody loved to hate?’ And how far back, as always happens when the victors write history, do you have to go to find out what really happened?

“And what I discovered is exactly what I’m describing in In the Name of the Family which is yes, they’re brutal, yes, they’re corrupt, yes, they don’t behave well, but nobody else around them is behaving well either, and that’s the bit we forget. And that’s the bit that was so fascinating.”

Dunant is intrigued by the historical facts of Lucrezia’s story — unlike the gossip about her as vamp and poisoner which has reverberated through the ages. “She emerged, just as Machiavelli said of her, as the last Borgia standing.”

Yet it was the corruption of Lucrezia’s father, Pope Alexander VI, who juggled mistresses, political intrigue and bloody wars with unholy zest, that compelled her to write of the Borgias as a family. “I wanted to look at the phenomenon of this historical moment, because it is that level of papal corruption that triggers the 1517 Reformation. So this is a very important moment in church and Italian history.”

She is now embarking upon a BBC radio series about the discipline of history, how rich it is, how much it is changing. “I couldn’t have written these books 25 years ago, because so much of this history has emerged since then,” she says.

Dunant is as keen to acknowledge her debt to academia as she is to highlight the perils of our current age, which she views as one of half-truths and gossip.

“We need to understand how history is made more than ever now when the present is as dangerous as it is.” @BronSibree

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Book Bites: 16 April 2017

Published in the Sunday Times

History of Wolves
Emily Fridlund (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Fourteen-year-old Linda lives in an isolated ex-commune with her parents. Ostracised by her peers and suffering from a healthy bout of impending teen angst, she’s intrigued by the family that moves into a nearby cabin, ultimately forming a bond with their young son, Paul, who – spoiler alert! – dies. Fridlund’s decision to include foreshadowing falls flat as the climax of the novel is both disappointing and uninspired. What could have been a thought-provoking read on the relationship between science and religion is reduced to a mildly interesting story about a young girl trying to make sense of humanity and the mysteries of the physical world. There is some excellent trivia on wolves, though. – Mila de Villiers @mila_se_kind

A Dark So Deadly
Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins)
Stuart MacBride is best known for his police procedurals featuring Detective-Sergeant Logan McRae of Aberdeen – but A Dark So Deadly is one of his few standalone thrillers. And what a thriller it is! At over 600 pages this book is no lightweight: one senses both the writer – and his editor – are covering unknown territory and it might take a while for the reader to get caught up in the story. Detective-Constable Callum MacGregor takes the blame when his pregnant girlfriend screws up, and is assigned to the misfit mob. When a mummy is discovered in a rubbish tip which turns out to be of recent provenance, the game is on. Callum perseveres in the investigation through personal disaster and series of twists and turns that will leave the reader gasping for more. Excellent! – Aubrey Paton

Delilah Now Trending
Pamela Power (Penguin)
Pamela Power is back with this laugh-out-loud offering. Lilah, single mother to 12-year-old Daisy, is f-bombing her way through life with success. But things go sideways when her daughter is accused of intentionally injuring a classmate. Readers will snort and cheer as Lilah battles through this rough period: armed with champagne, espresso, and many merry friends, so loyal they’ll even help you wax in a pinch. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love
Per J Andersson (OneWorld)
The cover is deceptive. This is not just a feel-good book filled with love and sitars. It has quite an edge, giving an extensive history of a village in India and how awful life was there for those from the “untouchable” caste. It’s also the true story of how a man from this village named PK fell in love with Lotta, a Swedish tourist. Unfortunately she has to go back to Sweden, so PK, determined to be with her again, gets on his bike and makes sure he gets to Sweden. Heartwarming and filled with unexpected detail. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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A teeming, enthralling and storied city: Michele Magwood reviews Istanbul – A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

Published in the Times

IstanbulIstanbul – A Tale of Three Cities
Bettany Hughes (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

As any visitor to Istanbul will tell you, the past lies very close to the surface of this storied city. There are the dreaming spires of the vast mosques and sites such as the Hippodrome, setting for frenzied chariot races from AD 200, city walls standing since the 5th century or simply a blazing gold frescoe in a church in a run-down suburb. It is nigh impossible, though, to imagine the myriad incarnations of the city, with its convoluted history of warfare and stunning architectural and engineering achievement, of sackings and sieges but of high art and exquisite culture too. Archaeologists have measured more than 40 human habitation layers in the settlement, including Phoenicians, Genoese, Venetians, Jews and Vikings.

The award-winning historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes has written a majestic biography of the first truly global city, where East meets West and North meets South. She has the exceptional skill of leavening meticulous research with vivid anecdote and atmosphere as she guides us through its three phases: Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul.

So, while the historical events are recorded, she also segues into such detail as the silk trade. A stinking business and the city smelled of sea snails boiling in urine and the faeces of silkworms. It took 12000 snails to colour the hem of a single purple robe. “Medieval Constantinople must have been rank,” she observes.

There was a zoo at the Kynegion, an amphitheatre that was at times used for public executions, but where battles with animals provided entertainment.

“When we think of Roman Byzantium, she notes, “we should conjure the cityscape punctured by the yowl of big cats and the screech of distressed elephants – animals imported to satisfy a gruesome Roman pleasure in live-action death.”

The pages are stuffed with memorable characters, such as the Athenian general, the wide boy Alcibiades of the 50th century BC, who she describes as “feckless, over-sexed, immoderate, dazzling, raffish, louche”. There’s the proto-feminist Empress Theodora, exotic dancer and daughter of a bear tamer, who caught the eye of the Emperor Justinian and who reformed women’s property rights, built safe houses for prostitutes and upped the punishment for rape – as well as helping to design the staggering Hagia Sophia.

It’s a teeming, enthralling book, written with verve and a reminder that the Queen of Cities has endured much worse in her history.

Follow @michelemagwood


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Behind the words of Africa: an interview with the editors of Short Story Day Africa’s latest collection, Migrations

Published in the Times

Diane Awerbuck asks its editors – Bongani Kona, Efemia Chela and Helen Moffett – some difficult questions.

MigrationsMigrations: New Short Stories From Africa
Edited by Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona, Helen Moffett (New Internationalist Publications Ltd)

Which is your favourite story?

Kona: Today it’s “Diaspora Electronica” by Blaize Kaye. It’s set in the future where people are migrating to a better digital world, but there’s a lingering sadness at the core of the story. Despite Twitter, Instagram and new technologies of connection meant to bring us together, we somehow feel depressed and more alone.

Moffett: In “Naming” by Umar Turaki, words from multiple languages weave together the lives of men, women, children and even a rooster on a lethal journey that bristles with beauty and menace.

In “Exodus” by Miriam Bahgat Eskaros, an unusual narrator tells the story of a refugee child with poignance.

I tear up every time I remember it. Izda Luhumyo’s “The Impossibility of Home” is superb – the most original quest and women’s friendship story I’ve read in a while.

Chela: “Naming” plays around with temporality in a fascinating way and Umar Turaki’s writing is incredibly cinematic. Stacy Hardy’s “Involution” masterfully explores womanhood, eco-futures and invasion. It’s unsettling and unique.

What makes these stories African?

Kona: The writers are looking at the world from an African perspective.

Moffett: “African” stands for multiple voices, telling of often precarious lives in the wake of past and ongoing pillaging of a continent, of human movement (often forced), of outsiders and insiders, of reinventing the “heart of darkness” and subverting the western gaze – done with humour, panache and context.

Chela: African writing is so diverse that African doesn’t mean any particular voice, themes or style will necessarily be present. Migrations will surprise you.

What did you learn about editing?

Kona: Writing is a collaborative process. Before a story ends up with the reader it’s gone through an editor, proofreader, typesetter, the writer’s last last-minute changes.

A number of people work in the service of the story. It’s magical to witness.

Chela: My fellow editors have an almost telepathic knowledge of what the writer is trying to achieve. Often less is more. A great story can be told without a lot of ornamentation.

Moffett: The serenity of leaving in errors when these reflect the embedding of local languages, images and idioms in multiple Englishes. The courage to wade in and clean up muddled syntax that is obscuring brilliant storytelling. The wisdom to know the difference.

What did you learn about your own writing?

Chela: There’s so much talent in African writing. As a writer myself I have to watch my back.

Kona: Don’t worry too much about making mistakes. It’s part of the process, and mistakes can be fixed.

Moffett: To finish the damn book/story/poem and push it out there.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Moffett: READ. READ. READ. And read local.

Chela: Write what scares you. Be an active part of the nebulous, far-flung African writing community: buy and read books by African writers (and not just ones who write in English, please); create a writers’ group; start a funky literary zine. You’ll never know if you don’t put yourself out there.

Kona: Is there any better advice than “just write”?


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