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Some people take Susan Lewis’s novels with them to the grave, writes Jennifer Platt

Published in the Sunday Times

The Secret Keeper is veteran author Susan Lewis’s 43rd novel.

 

The Secret Keeper ***
Susan Lewis, Century, R215

There are people who love Susan Lewis’s novels so much that they ask to be buried with them.

“I’ve never had this happen to me before. I don’t know how many writers this has happened to. But a reader told me recently that she just buried her sister-in-law and that her sister-in-law’s request was to take some of my books with her. Isn’t that amazing? I am so blown away by that – that you can touch someone with your books so much. It’s so extraordinary how readers do respond.”

No doubt people will respond to her latest book as well.

The Secret Keeper is Lewis’s 43rd book (including two memoirs). Set in Lewis’s fictional Kesterly-on-Sea, this time the focus is on Olivia, who is unwittingly drawn into intrigue. Her first love Sean is back on the scene, after she learnt to live without him for years. He is disrupting the life she has made with her husband, Richmond, and two children in the picturesque seaside town. Like Cabot Cove, there are quite a few murders in Kesterly-on-Sea but this book focuses more on how this tiny town gets dragged into the higher stakes of corruption and money laundering.

Lewis said she invented Kesterly-On-Sea when she started writing books about child abuse and social services.

“The best thing was to make it fictitious so I was never pointing a finger at any specific social services department. And then it moved on to writing something about the police, someone in the medical world, and I realised this was an extremely useful place to have as I didn’t offend people. And now I feel like I’m the mayor of Kersterly. The hilarious thing is that people write to me and say that they love Kesterly and want to know how to get to the city. People latch on to it.”

Lewis wanted this book to focus on how crime and corruption seep into our lives.

“Money laundering is a big issue. My book is a story of gullibility, and of how a man can get himself into a complete mess. I think it’s a warning to men.”

Lewis brings back one of her readers’ favourite characters, the ex-detective with a heart of gold, Andee Lawrence.

“When I introduced her in Behind Closed Doors, I never thought she would be a recurring character. Readers enjoy her and feel comfortable with her. Each time I bring her into a book it’s like reconnecting with an old friend.”

As for the title of the book, Lewis said she came up with it before she wrote it. “But having said that, I do think there is one person keeping a lot of secrets.”

Lewis is a prolific writer who releases two books a year. “I’ve been doing it a long time. I get into a rhythm. I have to deliver a book in June and one in December. I think the pace of that keeps me going. If I only did one book a year maybe things would collapse. Although maybe I’d have a life …” @Jenniferdplatt

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Anna Burns awarded Man Booker Prize for Milkman

Anna Burns has been announced as the winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her fourth novel, Milkman!

Booker chair of judges, Kwame Anthony Appiah, described Burns’ winning title as “incredibly original”, lauding the author’s ability to “challenge conventional thinking and form”.

Burns told the BBC that she was “stunned” to be awarded this coveted prize, presented to her at London’s Guildhall on 16 October.

Burns is the first author from Northern Ireland to win the Booker.

About the book

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous.

Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman.

But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous…

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

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La Bastarda: the Equatorial Guinean novel that defied the censor’s order to shut up

Published in the Sunday Times

By Tiah Beautement

Trifonia Melibea Obono’s La Bastarda has won universal acclaim for its commentary on the harmful nature of genderised societal norms.

 
La Bastarda ****
Trifonia Melibea Obono, translated by Lawrence Schimel, Modjaji, R220

Calling a novel brave has become a cliché; but La Bastarda truly is a work of courage. It’s written by Trifonia Melibea Obono, the first Equatorial Guinean woman writer to be translated into English. Yet Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country banned the book.

“This novel was a scandal in my country,” Obono says, via her book’s translator, Lawrence Schimel. “It was forbidden to discuss its homosexual content in the media. It had a great success in Spain and reached Equatorial Guinea on the rebound. Its success was such that even though I have written four novels, nobody forgets La Bastarda. It’s the book of rebellion, they say.”

The story follows teenager Okomo. Defying her maternal grandmother, Okomo attempts to locate her biological father, not considered her dad in Fang tradition. During her search, she meets her gay uncle, who has been cast out of the community.

Through friends and acquaintances, Okomo finds herself questioning traditions in village society and Fang culture. This leads her to revelations about her own sexuality, taboo in her society.

In one of the story’s most heart-wrenching moments, Okomo discovers that while her culture has a word for gay men, there isn’t one for women. The teen laments: “If you don’t have a name, you’re invisible, and if you’re invisible, you can’t claim any rights.”

Obono explains: “In Okomo’s tradition, women are not people but just property of men. A woman’s sexuality is in the service of her ethnicity, of reproduction. Okomo, who represents womanhood, vindicates the right to be visible, to be an activist, and to enjoy a fundamental right: sexuality.”

The story came at huge personal cost to the writer. “I already lived openly,” Obono says. “But a book like La Bastarda in a closed society pulls you out of the closet on an institutional level. Relatives and friends called my mother to tell them her daughter disobeyed tradition and her place as a woman inside it, writing this filth.”

She continues, “I feel alone as a woman who writes about a marginalised group. I feel alone for not being heteronormative. I feel alone because I have lightish skin and don’t fit into the racial categories of my country: black, white, mulatta. I feel alone for not lightening my skin. I feel alone for not putting on make-up or wearing high heels. I feel alone for not belonging to the masculine gender nor the female: I’m a mix of both.

“The moment comes when you decide to be yourself, without complexes or categories. And you’re happy. I have friendships that don’t abandon me, books, writing – by loving them so much I keep myself sane.” @ms_tiahmarie

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Which turn will the 21st century take? Michele Magwood talks to historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari about the challenges facing humankind

Published in the Sunday Times

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


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

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

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

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

Yuval Noah Harari. Picture: Olivier Middendorp.

 

Here he answers questions for the Sunday Times:

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

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

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

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

Which of these scenarios will come true?

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

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

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

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

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

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The 2018 Man Booker Prize shortlist has been announced!

The six authors shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize have been announced!

First awarded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is recognised as the leading prize for high quality literary fiction written in English.

This year’s list features four female writers, among which the 27-year-old British debut novelist Daisy Johnson – the youngest writer ever to be in reckoning for this £50,000 literary award.

The six authors, of which three are from the UK, two American and one Canadian, vying for this esteemed award are as follows:

Anna Burns (UK) for Milkman

Esi Edugyan (Canada) for Washington Black

Daisy Johnson (UK) for Everything Under

Rachel Kushner (US) for The Mars Room

Richard Powers (US) for The Overstory

Robin Robertson (UK) for The Long Take

The winner will be announced on Tuesday 16th October in London’s Guildhall.

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

Published in the Sunday Times

Transcription ****
Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, R290

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there more to be revealed from archives?

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

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

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