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Alzheimer's, guns, fantasy and hard rain are the subjects of the four novellas in Joe Hill's great collection, writes Diane Awerbuck

Published in the Sunday Times

Strange Weather
Joe Hill, Orion, R295

Joe Hill’s new collection of four novellas, Strange Weather, is a great one – and not only if you’re a Capetonian staring down Day Zero with its poverty porn, blame and bad neighbourliness.

The first novella, Snapshot, is a reverse Alzheimer’s metaphor.

Butterball teen Michael Figlione finds himself taking care of his childhood nanny, Shelly Beukes. He realises that it’s not just her dementia talking: there really is a creepy stranger, Polaroid Man, with a special camera like a gun that takes photos of people to steal their souls. In a parallel process, as the Polaroids famously develop – and Shelly’s memory gets patchier – Michael finally understands how much she really loved him.

Shelly’s worried husband is a Schwarzenegger-esque South African expat cheekily named Lawrence Beukes. While that’s not incredibly significant, it illustrates how much Hill actively enjoys writing.

Named Joseph Hillstrom King (after the activist and songwriter) by his famous parents, Stephen and Tabitha King, Joe Hill writes under his own name. In-jokes, thought experimentation and sarky political commentary aside, writing is also a serious commemorative act – for the dead, and for our own dead selves. That goes double for horror, and triple for horror as beautifully rendered as Joe Hill’s.

Look here: “There is no system of measurement that can adequately quantify how much resentment I carried in my heart when I was young and lonely. My sense of personal grievance ate at me like cancer, hollowed me out, left me gaunt and wasted. When I set off for MIT at 18, I weighed 330 pounds. Six years later I was a buck-70. It wasn’t exercise. It was fury. Resentment is a form of starvation. Resentment is the hunger strike of the soul.”

We see it particularly in the second novella, Loaded – a didactic, heavily sexual exploration of America’s “national hard-on for The Gun”. Hill says that he “had that one in my head ever since the massacre of 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut”. The story is incredibly powerful: a young woman’s affair with her jerk-off boss ends in tears and bloodshed for everyone in the mall, including a Muslim mother with her baby strapped to her chest, the carrier conveniently mistaken for a suicide bomb.

The weakest – most deliberately fluffy – novella is Aloft, set mostly on a cloud. A one-sided crush on his fey bandmate, Harriet, makes Aubrey Griffin determined to skydive with her. At the last minute Aubrey tries to back out, but there are technical difficulties with the plane and everyone is forced to jump.

Aubrey lands on a cloud (cold, and a bit like mashed potato) and must confront his sad realisation that he can touch either terra firma or Harriet’s boobs again, but not both. The novella is a palate cleanser and a spot of stylistic showing off, but it’s no great shakes other than as a continuation of the real theme of all the novellas – how to let go.

The brilliant Rain completes the quartet. Boulder, Colorado, suffers a rain of fatal and needle-sharp shards of space-age rocks. Hill has fun with our beliefs and what we need to tell ourselves in order to survive. The histrionic president blames cloud-seeding religious fanatics, while the crazed comet cult next door accepts all comers. We follow Honeysuckle Speck, whose angelic girlfriend Yolanda was one of the first to die, impaled by the celestial spikes.

Honeysuckle must deliver the news to Yolanda’s minister-father, travelling a highway of murderous shards.

Joe Hill – and Capetonians – understand that only hard rain will fall.

Book details

"I think a child without anyone to tell them stories is an abandoned child" - a Q&A with author and JRB City Editor, Niq Mhlongo

Nal’ibali Column 6, published in the Sunday World (18/02/2018), Daily Dispatch (19/02/2018), Herald (22/02/2018)

By Carla Lever

Niq Mhlongo, author and City Editor of the Johannesburg Review of Books

How do you think storytelling helps us understand place – can it make sense of where we are from?

It’s really fundamental. If Joseph Conrad didn’t write Heart of Darkness I don’t think people like Donald Trump would have had the audacity to call African countries ‘sh*tholes’. Perhaps is he had been forced to read Emecheta, Laye, Mphahlele, Ngugi and others he would have had a clear understanding of Africa.

So much of our cultural geography is imported – TV shows and novels glamorise places like New York or Paris. At the same time, African cities tend to be written about, often in negative terms, by outsiders. Why is it important that we write about African places and cities and create our own literary maps?

Someone once told me that the biggest commodity that America was able to sell to Africa was its culture. I agree. Cultural geography, as you call it, is a very powerful tool that powerful countries have used to dominate other countries. When South Africans today talk about ‘decolonization’ I think it is a legitimate appeal to break away from, among other things, the shackles of cultural dominance. So when authors write about African places and cities they contribute a lot in creating our own literary maps that have been disregarded by the imposed colonial narratives of places and spaces that we live in.

Your upcoming book Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree, takes us into the places you were born and raised in. Can you tell us a little about why you wrote the book and how it felt to be making a place meaningful to people through your writing?

I wrote Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree because I could not find a good written story about Soweto that I could read and actually identify with. I was tired of the meaning of Soweto always being confined to Vilakazi Street and the Twin Towers. I decided to write that story I was searching for myself – in fact, as an insider, it made perfect sense that I do it!

You have weaved African oral traditions, cultural practices and storytelling traditions into your previous novels, too – I’m thinking here particularly of your novel Way Back Home. What does it mean to you to be called an African author? Is that a useful description or one you find unnecessary?

There is no problem being called an African author. It all depends on the context in the context in which the name is used. If it means that my writing is inferior compared to the so-called ‘European author’ or ‘American author’, then such a name is already loaded with negativity.

I know you write adult fiction, but you have written for children too! Can you tell us a little about writing for the TV series Magic Cellar and why projects that get young people excited about stories are so important?

Ah, let me not exaggerate my involvement with Magic Cellar. In fact, I only wrote one script for them. But the project trained me as a children’s story writer. During the same period I actually wrote a script for children based on African folktales. It was animated for a children’s program on SABC 2…so I suppose I learned something!

I think a child without anyone to tell them stories is an abandoned child. Stories make all of us happy, and give us a sense of belonging in society. They guide us and give us hope in the world. Any project that give young people that kind of wholeness deserves full support from everyone.

What changes would you like to see in the South African literary scene? Are there things (maybe organisations, new spaces for writers or publishing initiatives) that you find exciting?

I would like to see a full government involvement in the South African literary scene by supporting any literary project, especially projects that make children read. I would like to see government officials and schools reading and prescribing more South African literature. I would like to see more political leaders at the ABANTU Book Festival this year and years to come. The JRB, ABANTU, Nal’ibali, Longstory Short are some of the most important literary projects in South Africa today which give me a right to write.

How can we get more children excited about reading, particularly proud of our own, rich African literary heritage?

We need to prescribe more South African books and make things like Shakespeare optional in our school curriculum. In that way we can show them our rich African literary heritage.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success! For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign, or to access children’s stories in a range of South African languages, visit:

Book details
Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree


Way Back Home

Book Bites: 18 February

Published in the Sunday Times

What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky
Lesley Nneka Arimah, Headline, R305

Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut is a vibrant collection of 12 compelling stories set in the US and Nigeria. From fantastical myths to a post-apocalyptic world, all the shorts are varied but cleverly connected by the theme of complexities in relationships, focusing on women in particular. “When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters. He did not know how quickly it would wick the dew off her, how she would be returned to him hollowed out, relieved of her better parts.” Women find themselves in extraordinary situations: a daughter whose mother’s ghost appears to have stepped out of a family snapshot, another woman, who, haunted by childlessness, resorts to fashioning a charmed infant out of human hair. Arimah is a new literary talent to watch out for. – Nondumiso Tshabangu @MsNondumiso

Can I Speak to Someone in Charge?
Emily Clarkson, Simon & Schuster, R285

Emily Clarkson was tired of seeing clothes that only catered for size 12 women. She was surprised at the emergence of online trolls and, like many women, had tons of thinspiration. So, she started a blog, Pretty Normal Me, which led to this book. It is a series of letters to herself, Hollywood, trolls and, well, just about everything and everybody who is living and affected by various societal norms. It’s often funny, sometimes sad but always honest. – Jessica Levitt @jesslevitt

Keep You Safe
Melissa Hill, Harper Collins, R285

Hill jumps straight into modern-day controversy, pitting anti-vaccination parents against pro-vaccination. Two five-year-olds come down with the measles. The first is Clara, whose parents didn’t vaccinate their children due to personal choice. Three days later, Rosie, who is allergic to the vaccination, is ill. But unlike Clara, Rosie doesn’t get better and ends up in hospital fighting for her life. Tension fills the small Irish village while internet opinions explode: should Clara’s parents be held accountable for what happened to Rosie? A fast-paced drama with twists. – Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

Book details

Launch: Knucklebone by NR Brodie (22 February)

Sangomas and cops don’t mix. Usually. But this is Joburg, a metropolis that is equal parts flash and shadow, and where not everything can be easily explained. Ian Jack, a disillusioned former police officer, teams up with Reshma Patel, a colleague from his old life, to investigate a routine housebreaking gone bad. But when they uncover links to a possible animal poaching and trafficking syndicate, things go from complicated to dangerous to downright evil.

Set against the richly textured backdrop of a livewire African city, this fast-paced thriller offers a disturbing contemporary take on justice and morality. To be read with the lights on.

‘A cracking novel. Brilliant original writing, free of clichés. The pace is insane – in a good way.’ – Sarah Lotz, author of The White Road, Day Four and The Three .

NR BRODIE is a veteran journalist and best-selling author of five books.

Event Details

"Why Life and Times of Michael K?" A Q&A with Nthikeng Mohlele


‘Those in the know claim Michael K disembarked from a diesel-smoke-spewing truck one overcast morning, looked around, and without missing a beat, chose a spot where he set down a small bucket (red, burnt and disfigured) that contained an assortment of seedlings, some fisherman’s twine and a rudimentary gardening tool – probably self-made.’

How is it that a character from literary fiction can so alter the landscapes he touches, even as he – in his self-imposed isolation – seeks to avoid them? How is it that Michael K, bewildered and bewildering, can remain so fragile yet so present, so imposing without attempting to be so?

In this response to JM Coetzee’s classic masterpiece, Life & Times of Michael K, Nthikeng Mohlele dabbles in the artistic and speculative in a unique attempt to unpack the dazed and disconnected world of the title character, his solitary ways, his inventiveness, but also to show how astutely Michael K holds up a mirror to those whose paths he inadvertently crosses. Michael K explores the weight of history and of conscience, thus wrestling the character from the confines of literary creation to the frontiers of artistic timelessness.

Nthikeng was recently asked a few thought-provoking questions about his anticipated book; take a visual tour of the insightful interview on Pan Macmillan’s Facebook page.

Here’s a sneak peek…

Book details

Crime Beat: Krimi workshop on the Greek island of Lesbos

lesbosWanna write a thriller? And talk to other krimi writers? And laze in the sea? And drink wine? Then here’s the deal: A krimi workshop, June 7 to 14, on Lesbos, yes, the Greek island.

It’s part of The Talking Table series of workshops. Interested?

Here’s how things should run:

What I want to do with this seven-day workshop is to help you generate enough material to get your crime novel on the go. Not only should the workshop be a lot of fun as we will all be crime fiction addicts, but you’ll leave with your storyline, a plot, characters, in fact, everything you need to keep on writing your crime novel.

On the first day, the discussion will be about the crime novel: where it is today, what it does, what it can do. There are a range of ways into a crime story: there’s the cop procedural, the PI investigation, the gangster underworld; there’s state corruption, financial corruption, and murder most foul. If that doesn’t grab you, you might choose to focus on psychological conflict within relationships, stalkers, addicts, serial killers. Knowing the kind of story you want to write is the best start you can make.

The second day will focus on characters and setting. Both are important. Characters drive the story and because there is conflict between them you will never be at a loss for words. And then there is the setting: a sense of place is vital. Readers like living in imaginary worlds, those places found in the never-never land between reality and fiction.

Day three is about story and plot. We all need some sort of story no matter how vague it might be. Even something as simple as Sam kills Evelyn is the beginnings of a story. Consider all the questions: who is Sam? Who is Evelyn? Are they male or female? How do they meet? What happens between them? How does the crime occur? What happens next? And then comes the business of the plot, the way the story is told. Here there are those who want to plan the smallest detail or there are those – like me – who fly blind. Which is scary, and exciting.

Day four. The crime novel is the most democratic of novels. Characters talk to one another all the time. So day four is about that all important subject: dialogue. Nothing is more exciting than zipping through a dialogue exchange between two characters about to do one another serious grief.

By day five you’ll have a fair amount of material in your laptop. You’ll have characters with names; a setting where the action takes place, you’ll have an idea of your story, and even how that story will develop. So here’s were we get into that tricky part: how do you kickstart this story?

Day six, time to handle a bit of aggro. Writing violence is a challenge, even more of a challenge than writing sex. And, of course, you are going to have to write some sex too. This day gets down to the dirty stuff: choose your weapons – guns, knives, axes, bombs, bare hands, rope, poison.

On the final day we’ll give Frederik (our co-host who used to be a book publisher) some time to talk about the publishing scene and with a bit of luck we’ll also listen to the beginnings that have been so carefully crafted over the last two days.

There will be a number of short exercises during the course, some of which will happen in the workshop and some of which will be homework. Fear not, there’ll still be time for swimming, sitting about drinking wine, and dreaming up different ways to kill.

Just so you know a bit about me: I’ve run workshops on writing crime fiction at the University of Cape Town’s Summer School, a number of times at Bloody Book Week in Johannesburg along with Jeffery Deaver, John Connolly and Michael Robotham, at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, the Hermanus Fynarts Festival and the Knysna Literary Festival. I tutor online short courses in creative writing and non-fiction narratives for PenguinRandomHouse/GetSmarter, and together with editor Claire Strombeck run the Writers’ Masterclass – now in its sixth year. To date our writers have had five books published by leading publishers in South Africa and Germany with more due out this year.

For all the information about the krimi workshop check it out here.