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Paulo Coelho chats about his new novel The Spy - the story of the enigmatic Mata Hari

Published in the Sunday Times

The Spy•Paulo Coelho
The Spy (Penguin Random House)

Why did you choose Mata Hari as the subject for your new novel?
Mata Hari was one of the icons of the hippie generation – the bad girl, the different, the stranger, wearing those fancy dresses – and we were all fascinated by her. I was having dinner with my lawyer, and he mentioned the many cases of innocent people who were condemned to death during World War I, which we are only learning about now because they are declassifying wartime documents. Mata Hari was only one of his examples, but because she had always interested me, I did some quick research. The next day I bought some books and spent my weekend compulsively reading anything about Mata Hari. I did not know then that I was (sort of) doing research for a book; I only realised it when I decided, as an exercise of imagination, to put myself in her shoes.

How did you research her life and that era? What did you find most surprising about her life?
The most surprising thing is how a woman who had been abused till she was 20 could overcome this situation and become who she became. As for the Belle Époque Paris, it was an era of “everything is possible”. I was intrigued by it, and I worked to keep the book centered in its main character. The tendency of a writer is to describe too much. I give an idea about her era, and I try to situate the reader without overloading them with information.

Where did you stray from the historical record, and why?
The facts in the book are correct, the historical track is correct, but I did put myself in the shoes of someone else. I believe I was very, very close to what she was thinking. About two months ago, a museum in the Netherlands made public some new letters of Mata Hari. One reviewer said that it was as if I had “channelled” her.

How did it feel to write from Mata Hari’s perspective?
She became my companion, night and day, while I was reading about her era. And I began to understand how, being who she was, she would justify her attitude.

What are the lessons we can learn from this complicated woman?
That 1) every dream has a price; 2) when you dare to be different, be ready to be attacked; 3) even when you face a hostile (masculine) world, you can find a way to circumvent this.

Can you imagine a different outcome for her life?
She fulfilled her destiny, and that is what counts.

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Image: Xavier+Gonzale

Inside the Boss: Carlos Amato reviews Bruce Springsteen's rollicking autobiography Born to Run

Springsteen gives fans a good hard look at himself, writes Carlos Amato for the Sunday Times

Born to RunBorn to Run
Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster)

He ain’t gonna bag a Nobel with his lyrical output – or with this rollicking autobiography – but if he ever did, The Boss would hurl his medal deep into the crowd, beyond the golden circle. Springsteen aims his musclebound artistry at the lowest common denominator, in the best sense of the phrase: the committee he cares about can be found at the barroom jukebox, on the factory floor, in the motel parking lot.

The book is as lucid as his music – and fans will savour its accounts of his emotional and musical formation in Freehold, New Jersey. He was a worried kid (nicknamed “blinky” for his jumpy eyelids) with a drunken Irish-American dad and a formidable Italian-American mother. He got her mighty will, and his seeping darkness. Rock ’n roll balmed the adolescent Springsteen’s frayed nerves: not as an escape into decadent revolt (afraid of his dad’s fate, he was a teetotaller) but as a sanctuary of creative labour.

He cut his teeth on the Jersey bar circuit with soul rockers The Castiles, who straddled the frontier between the soul-digging Italian “greasers” of deep Jersey and the Wasp-dominated surfer kids of the Shore. Through the ’60s, his soundscape was brewing: the Beatles and the Stones colliding with Motown, Roy Orbison and Dylan.

Springsteen spins plenty of comical anecdotes, but he is best when analysing the wiring of the music itself. He repeatedly chews on the open secrets of his power: a considerable but by his own admission unspectacular talent that he elevated with an obsessive devotion to the mechanics of songwriting, performance and working-class decency.

And he scorns the other route, of glamorous abandon. “The rock death cult is well loved and chronicled in literature and music, but in practice, there ain’t much in it for the singer and his song, except a good life unlived, lovers and children left behind, and a six-foot hole in the ground. The exit in a blaze of glory is bullshit.”

Instead, we are shown the inner workings of sustainable glory. There is a terrifying account of his first gig abroad, at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975, where the hyperbole of his billing as a rock demigod made for a doubt-stricken performance, the footage of which he couldn’t bear to watch until 40 years later. “Inside, multiple personalities are fighting to take turns at the microphone while I am struggling to reach the ‘fuck it’ point, that wonderful and necessary place where you set fire to your insecurities, put your head down and just go.” But it was a stellar show, saved by his refusal to collapse.

Things got a lot worse on the eve of the release of Born in the USA, when a full-blown breakdown made landfall. He took the step that working-class heroes don’t like to take: “I walk in; look into the eyes of a kindly, white-haired, mustached complete stranger; sit down; and burst into tears.”

As with everything he does, he followed through. Springsteen is still in therapy, still married to his former backing singer Patti Scialfa, still redeeming the mythologies of ordinary Americans. He is the antidote to the Trump nightmare; a rabble-rouser of reflective white masculinity.

To be frank, much of Springsteen’s music bores me. But his presence defies resistance. I was up in Row Z when he played the SuperBowl halftime gig in Tampa in 2009 – a performance so preternaturally huge it prompted him to write this book, in an effort to fathom his own power. It comes pretty close to doing so.

Follow Carlos Amato on Twitter @CarlosBAmato

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Image: Art Maillet

Book Bites: 20 November 2016

Published in the Sunday Times

Heroes of the FrontierHeroes of the Frontier
Dave Eggers (Hamish Hamilton)
Book Buff
Egger’s latest book is an absorbing road trip novel, and in that genre’s best tradition it focuses on the personal but reflects the zeitgeist of uncertainty and discontent pervading the US. Josie, a single mother who “used to be a dentist”, packs her young children – Paul, gentle and wise, and Ana, almost feral – into a rented RV and heads for Alaska, the final American frontier: “At once the same country but another country.” On the face of it, Josie is escaping her spineless ex-boyfriend and a malpractice suit, but she is also searching for people of substance, “a plain-spoken and linear existence centred around work and trees and sky”. Her haphazard parenting style and the dilapidated state of the RV, in conjunction with the perils of the wild landscape and threatening locals, charge the novel with a sense of danger that is almost unbearable. But our protagonists are miraculously kept from harm. All Josie knew where she had come from, Eggers writes, “were cowards”. She never finds the land of magic and clarity she was looking for, but Heroes of the Frontier is a celebration of a rare moment of bravery. – Jennifer Malec @projectjennifer

The Pigeon TunnelThe Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life
John le Carré (Penguin Random House)
Book Real
I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone who has led a more remarkable life than David Cornwell – alias John le Carré. Leaving his English private school for Switzerland to study German, he was recruited by British intelligence at 17. Writing from his chalet in the Swiss Alps, Le Carré, now 84, is back in his beloved home from home after a career that took him from Beirut to LA and, of course, Bonn. Few people can boast of having met two heads of the KGB, as well as luminaries like Richard Burton and Alec Guinness, who starred in his films. An entertaining bunch of stories by a consummate storyteller. – Yvonne Fontyn

The PrintmakerThe Printmaker
Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (Umuzi)
Book Buff
There’s a faint dolour that seeps through this quiet, precisely calibrated novel, the melancholy of lost love and loneliness, of dislocation and neurosis. At the heart of it is the compulsion of making art, specifically printmaking, with its persistent repetition, persistent perfecting of an image. Law-Viljoen employs several voices in the telling of this affecting story that flicks backwards and forwards over the years. There is the reclusive artist March; his lifelong friend and executor Thea; his single mother Ann, a respected Johannesburg milliner; and Stephen, a refugee from Zimbabwe who pierces March’s isolation. When he dies, a young gallerist must draw together the leaves of his life. – Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

The CallThe Call
Peadar Ó Guilín (David Fickling Books)
Book Fiend
It’s a hodgepodge of all the young adult/sci-fi faves. The premise is like The Hunger Games, only in this series (this is Book 1), all the teenagers have to fight for their lives – not just a chosen few – including Nessa, who has a disability due to contracting polio. And like the TV show Stranger Things, they have to go to a grim underworld full of monsters, called the Grey Land – a place where the Irish folk banished all the fairytale folk. It’s bloody and sadistic, with loads of gore. – Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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No ordinary psychological thriller: Diane Awerbuck reviews The Apartment by SL Grey

By Diane Awerbuck for in the Sunday Times

No ordinary psychological thriller: Diane Awerbuck reviews The Apartment by SL Grey

The ApartmentThe Apartment
SL Grey (Pan Macmillan)

Horror is supposed to come in two kinds: the evil from somewhere else that attacks you for no reason (Dracula; The Ring; Stranger Things), and the evil that was always inside you, biding its time (The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; The Shining). SL Grey’s newest offering merges the two types of evil in the seamless and terrifying The Apartment.

SL Grey is a collaboration between Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg. The novel plays on that particularly South African fear with its peculiarly American name: the home invasion – a burglary that’s often accompanied by torture. While the family in The Apartment escapes any really bloody showdown with their physical attackers, the guilt and shame of the father, Mark, manifests itself in a far creepier way. The attack triggers his latent post-traumatic stress over the unrelated death of his first daughter years ago, and he spends the rest of the book finding ways to get rid of his new family.

When Mark and Steph, his ex-student and current wife, do a house swap so they can get away from it all, they go to Paris – but the French couple has mysteriously disappeared and they end up coming home with more baggage than they reckoned on. “I’m sorry it had to be you,” damaged people keep telling them, and the sense of their destiny and doom permeates the book.

It plays on the eternal question asked by victims and survivors: Why me? The answer, according to SL Grey, is because you were there. That’s pretty chilling; it sets up a universe deaf to pleading, one from which there is no escape. Evil is just the agent of some greater, impersonal revenge, and no amount of therapy will fix it.

This has come to be the underlying theme of SL Grey’s output. The Mall, The Ward, The New Girl and Under Ground are all satisfyingly gory, but here the style has matured; the language is more elegant, more precise. The Apartment is primarily a psychological thriller, and it touches some other nerve entirely: personal safety is just the beginning.

The novel ratchets up the uneasiness from the beginning, and it’s a compelling slow burner. Take this domestic scene: “I pick out the soap and turn on the hand shower to rinse the tub. The water’s draining slowly, blocked by Hayden’s hair in a drain hole. I pick it out and it comes away in a satisfying mat; it shines with a blue gleam, full of life. I can’t bring myself to throw it away so I squeeze the water out and take it with me.”

What SL Grey excel at is the intersection of traditional horror tropes (the murdered girl bent on revenge; hanks of bloodied hair) with familiar South African details: in a comic scene with tragic consequences, a white sangoma named Marlies comes to cleanse the house, for example. It is in Paris, the romance capital of the world, that Mark finds out first-hand what he always tells his students, that “the construct of polite society is the flimsiest veneer that covers a cesspool of abuse and corruption”.

The Apartment turns out to be very close to home.

The MallThe WardThe New GirlUnder Ground


Book details

Call for entries: University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English

The Dream HouseSigns for an ExhibitionHunger Eats a ManRachel’s BlueThe Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself

The University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English is now open for the submission of works published in 2016.

The prize is open to works in any genre, in two categories: “main” and “debut”.

Entries close on 30 November, 2016.

See the press release for more details:

Please send your submissions (5 copies of each) to us by 30 November 2016. Second (and last date) for submission: 30 January 2017.

Works may be submitted in either or both of these categories:

  • UJ prize for South African Writing in English; and
  • UJ debut prize for South African Writing in English.

The value of the prizes is:

  • UJ Prize: R75 000
  • UJ Debut Prize: R30 000

The selection panel

The selection panel comprises the following five members:

  • Three members of the Department of English, UJ
  • Two academics from other universities; or one academic from another university and one member from the media industry or publishing


We do not link the prizes to a specific genre. This may make the evaluation more difficult in the sense that, for example, a volume of poetry, a novel and a biographical work must be measured against one another, but our intention is to open the prize to as many forms of writing as possible.
Please send all submissions to Mrs Nicole Moore at the address listed below:

  • By courier:

Nicole Moore
University of Johannesburg
English Dept
B-Ring 721
Kingsway Road
Auckland Park

  • By mail:

Nicole Moore
University of Johannesburg
English Dept
PO Box 526
Auckland Park 2006

Phone: 011-559-2063
Enquiries: Nicole Moore (


Related stories:

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By mail:

Nicole Moore
University of Johannesburg
English Dept
PO Box 526
Auckland Park 2006

Phone: 011-559-2063
Enquiries: Nicole Moore (


Related stories:

Book details

Covers revealed for local and UK editions of Fred Khumalo's new book, Dancing the Death Drill

Cover revealed for Fred Khumalo’s new book, Dancing the Death Drill
#ZuptasMustFall and Other RantsSeven Steps To HeavenThe Lighter Side of Life on Robben IslandZulu Boy Gone CrazyBitches' BrewTouch My Blood

Alert! Fred Khumalo has revealed the cover for his new novel, Dancing the Death Drill.

The book will be published in February 2017, by Umuzi in South Africa (left) and by Jacaranda Books in the UK and Ireland (right).

Cover revealed for Fred Khumalo’s new book, Dancing the Death DrillCover revealed for Fred Khumalo’s new book, Dancing the Death Drill

Dancing the Death Drill recounts the tragic story of the SS Mendi, a passenger steamship that sank in the English Channel in 1917 killing 646 people, most of whom were black South African troops heading for France to serve in World War I.

February 2017 will mark the centenary of the disaster.

Jacaranda Books founder Valerie Brandes said: “We are delighted to work with Umuzi and Penguin Random House South Africa on such a brilliant novel that will help shine a light on this dark moment in our history.”

Khumalo revealed the lovely looking covers on his Facebook page, saying: “What a journey it has been: writing, fighting with publishers and editors, editing, fighting some more … finally sighing in relief.”

We can’t wait to lay our hands on Dancing the Death Drill. Keep your eye on Books LIVE for more details as they emerge.

Book details

  • The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island: Banter, Past Times and Boyish Tricks by Fred Khumalo, Gugu Kunene, Paddy Harper
    EAN: 9780620540537
    Find this book with BOOK Finder!