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Hitchcock meets Harlem: Michele Magwood reviews AJ Finn's twisty and slick The Woman in the Window

Published in the Sunday Times

By Michele Magwood

The Woman in the Window

The Woman in the Window
AJ Finn, Harper Collins, R285

In the book world, success stories don’t get much better than this. Editor at leading publishing house writes a thriller under a pseudonym, a bidding auction breaks out on the synopsis alone and even before publication film rights are sold and foreign rights in dozens of countries. His own publishing house buys it for a cool two million – not realising it’s been written by the guy down the corridor – and the book is blurbed by supernovas Stephen King “Unputdownable!” and Gillian Flynn “Astounding.” It debuts at No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The Woman in the Window tells the story of Dr Anna Fox, once a respected child psychologist and now an agoraphobic, alcoholic shut-in. Her husband and eight-year-old daughter have left her and she drifts through the days drinking merlot and popping pills, watching the world outside her Harlem townhouse through the zoom lens of her camera. And then, one night, she witnesses – she’s damn sure she witnesses – a murder in an apartment opposite her. The victim is a woman Anna knows, but no one believes she ever met her, let alone saw her get stabbed to death. Crippled by addiction and mental illness, she must solve the mystery.

“Anna’s a mess,” says the author in an email interview. “Yet she owns her mess. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s self-aware.” Readers he meets find her relatable and intriguing, he says.

He deftly subverts the “male gaze” of so much crime fiction. “I was keen to create a female lead who isn’t passive, reactive or an obvious victim,” he writes, “and I wanted to describe her as a woman in the title – not a girl. With a few exceptions, including Gone Girl (a title that bristles with irony), these ‘girl’ books seem to condescend to women readers. Can you imagine if we referred to grown men as ‘boys’? Creepy.”

Daniel Mallory – AJ Finn – was working as a crime editor at William Morrow in New York. For 15 years he had grappled with debilitating depression which was eventually diagnosed as bipolar disorder. While adjusting to new medication he took some time off work and stayed at home, watching old movies. One day as Hitchcock’s Rear Window was playing, he noticed a woman in an apartment across the street. While Jimmy Stewart was spying on his neighbours on screen, so Mallory found himself watching the woman across the way. The idea for the novel came to him right there and then, and it took him just two days to write an outline.

There’s a delicious slippery Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith aspect to The Woman in the Window. Mallory was heavily influenced by Highsmith (The Talented Mr Ripley) when he studied her at Oxford, and he is a lifelong fan of Hitchcock’s films. “Highsmith’s work fascinates and disturbs me because it subverts the forms of detective fiction,” he says. “The Woman in the Window is not as subversive but it does reflect, I hope, Highsmith’s lean, succinct style, and her willingness to peer into the dark corners of the human mind.”

What this book does do, with great effect, is explore the darkness of depression and psychosis, something Mallory knows only too well. Thankfully his condition is now under control.

“What’s enormously gratifying is to meet and hear from my publishers and readers around the world, and also to have the chance to speak to audiences about mental health, a topic that’s too little discussed.”

Twisty and slick, and ever so clever, The Woman in the Window is a one-sitting read. @michelemagwood

Book details

"This book will forever alter the way you see the people who live on the margins in Johannesburg" - Gayle Edmunds reviews Vaya


Vaya the Film
is based on the lives of four young men from the Homeless Writer’s Project: David Majoka, Anthony Mafela, Madoda Ntuli and Tshabalira Lebakeng, and rooted in their experiences of coming to Johannesburg. Vaya the Book brings you the people and stories that inspired the award-winning film.

Through personal stories that are intimate and hard hitting, Vaya will both surprise and shock you. It offers a rare lens into life in Johannesburg and amplifies the voices of people who live on the city’s margins. The book will ignite conversations and debate about what the city means to millions of ordinary people who navigate its streets with courage and humanity.

Developed by the Homeless Writer’s Project, and containing accessible history, debates and interactive activities, here are the stories and people that inspired the award-winning film.

Vaya will both shock and inspire.

The Homeless Writer’s Project was started in 2010 by filmmaker Robbie Thorpe and joined soon after by Harriet Perlman. It gives a voice to the voiceless by creating opportunities for stories to be developed into films and published media. The group meets once a week to share stories and ideas and create a safe place for discussion. The film script for Vaya began in story workshops, where participants shared and told stories over a period of six years. These lived experiences were written down and crafted into a film script.

Gayle Edmunds recently reviewed this remarkable book for City Press; read an excerpt here:

Home. A place to call home. This book will forever alter the way you see the people who live on the margins in Johannesburg, and your concept of home.

The book, and the movie of the same name it complements, is the product of an initiative started in 2009, The Homeless Writers Project.

The programme offers people a space to tell their stories of living and surviving on the streets of the city. Those stories were workshopped into the film, and the making of the film brought about the book.

Four of the co-authors of Vaya – David Majoka, Madoda Ntuli, Anthony Mafela and Tshabalira Lebakeng – share their experiences of coming to the city in search of those fabled jobs and opportunities. What each of them find is an existence they didn’t expect. Each man has a different story of homelessness, but each triumphs over his circumstances in unexpected and varied ways.

The stories of the four main protagonists are interspersed with essays by experts, such as Peter Delius and Sarah Charlton, that offer context for why the city is the way it is, how the lopsided infrastructure development justified by racist laws still rule the way many people on the margins of society experience the city.

In her essay, Understanding Homelessness, Charlton explains the nuances of homelessness, showing up the ignorance of those who assume those who “sleep rough” have some addiction or character flaw.

Continue reading Edmunds’ review here.

Book details

Book Bites: 4 March

Published in the Sunday Times

Head Case
Ross Armstrong, HarperCollins, R285

“‘Pre-bullet’ I was directionless. ‘Post-bullet’ I had a lust for the world.”So says trainee community support officer (a nonofficial rank on the bottom rung of Britain’s bobby brigade) Tom Mondrian after being shot in the head. The shards of metal lodged in Tom’s brain make some things difficult for him, most notably walking, reading and recognising faces, but in its subtle rearrangement of his grey matter the bullet also turns the former apathetic loser into a driven workaholic with heightened senses (he can smell carbon monoxide) and preternaturally sharp instincts. If Arthur Conan Doyle and Nick Hornby collaborated on a book, it would probably turn out something like Head Case. Tom is an endearing and often very funny narrator, but can we trust a man with a severely altered brain to solve a crime involving abducted girls when he can’t control his own impulses or even remember what his partner looks like? Wait and see. Sue de Groot @deGrootS1

The Maid’s Room
Fiona Mitchell, Hodder & Stoughton, R295

“There are more than 200000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore. The majority of them are from the Philippines and Indonesia,” notes Tala, the anonymous writer of the blog Maidhacker. She and her sister Dolly work abroad to send money home to their children. Dolly tries to toe the line, and Tala tries to fight back against the systematic abuses foreign domestics suffer. But is Tala’s blog putting herself and the women she champions in danger? Award-winning journalist Mitchell has researched the subject in depth, creating a page-turner that does not succumb to the “white-saviour” narrative. Tiah Beautement @ms_tiahmarie

The Bedlam Stacks
Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury Circus, R305

Injured explorer Merrick Tremayne is spending his days in a rundown greenhouse facing an uncertain future when he is offered a chance at another adventure. His mission is to go into an unmapped area of Peru in search of quinine to fuel the British Empire. He travels through a fantastical landscape, finding a life he could not have imagined. Everything slips quietly into place, like clockwork. If you loved her first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and are worried her second can’t live up to it, don’t worry, it does. Jem Glendinning @jemathome

Book details

Hardly Working will have you wanting to both travel the continent and devour its rich literary wealth, writes Tiah Beautement

Published in the Sunday Times

Hardly WorkingHardly Working: A Travel Memoir of Sorts
Zukiswa Wanner, Black Letter Media, R160

“If the African school my son studied in would not offer Africa to him, we would give him Africa,” writes Zukiswa Wanner in her travel memoir, Hardly Working. So Wanner, her partner Tchassa and son Kwame leave Kenya to travel to various literary events. They work their way through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda and Nigeria, using public transport as much as possible. They sleep rough, join a protest, ride on the back of a lorry, and at one point can’t access cash.

Yet the three remained upbeat. “I admit that there were times I thought ‘this adulting is hard’,” Wanner reflects. Her son brings comic relief to the trip, telling his uncle, “These animals would have looked the same on YouTube,” after being treated to a safari.

Even packing for the journey was tricky. Crammed in the family’s luggage were Wanner’s books. “Getting access to literature from a neighbouring African country tends to be tougher than it is to get books from abroad. I always try to take a suitcase of books across African borders. The security at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport no longer asks me what’s in my suitcase when they do a security scan. ‘Ah, it’s you and your books again’,’ she says.

As readers laugh, cringe, and ponder the tales, they may find their stomachs rumbling at the rich descriptions of food. Wanner is unapologetic about this: “Nigerian food is all the wows.” But hunger is the best spice; in one memorable scene, Wanner watches in awe as her son feasts on ulusu (curried tripe), a dish he would never have eaten at home. She writes: “A meal is as delicious as one’s hunger.”

She wanted to write the book for two reasons: “I hoped to highlight that writing is a real profession, and some of the struggles that come with it. I also hoped to highlight the wonder and beauty that is this continent and its people. I know many people who have been to Phuket or New York, for instance, but have never been to Zimbabwe or Malawi.”

Hang on to your wallets, as this book will have you wanting to both travel the continent and devour its rich literary wealth. @ms_tiahmarie

Book details

Claire Robertson’s third novel is an absorbing, eloquent story that lingers, writes Michele Magwood

Published in the Sunday Times

Under Glass ****
Claire Robertson, Umuzi, R270

At the centre of this story – its very pistil, the author might say – is a secret. A secret wrapped in an enigma and obscured, frustratingly, from our view. “You enter an honourable pact with the reader,” observes Claire Robertson. “You can misdirect them but you may not mislead them. You can’t lie but you can suggest other theories about what is going on. I so enjoyed it – felt this sort of glee writing it.”

Under Glass is Robertson’s third, eagerly awaited, novel. Her first, The Spiral House, won both the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and a South African Literary Award. She followed it up two years later with the splendid The Magistrate of Gower, which narrowly missed out on another Sunday Times award.

She started writing fiction relatively late in her career as a journalist, yet her sui generis style sprang fully formed onto the page: subtle, precise, fine-grained.

Robertson’s historical settings have moved from the Cape to the Free State and now, in Under Glass, to the colony of Natal.

It is 1857 in the makeshift settlement of D’Urban. Mrs Chetwyn, a resolute young wife, has arrived with her small daughter and her Indian ayah after a testing sea journey. They are to meet up with her husband Captain Chetwyn, who has been on safari, searching for suitable land to establish a sugar estate.

The money for the estate has been staked by his father back in England and carries with it a strict stipulation that will shape the destiny of the whole family.

“The book is about the steps Mrs Chetwyn takes to secure her family’s future,” says Robertson, “the way she tests the limits of her power and breaches those limits.”

One of the overarching themes of the novel is that of genesis and fecundity: of planting and reaping crops for the mother country, and of settler women reproducing, their bodies relied upon for the peopling of the colony.

Mrs Chetwyn meets an eccentric botanist, McQuarie, with hair “of such dark ruddiness as to seem bloody”. His hands hang at his sides, she writes, “putting Mrs Chetwyn in mind of a spade and fork on the walls of a shed, inert, yet somehow holding the sense of work as they hang there”. She becomes enthralled with botany and cultivation and forms a strong bond with him that will change the story dramatically.

Robertson is a demanding writer, in that you cannot read her quickly or casually. She has a taut, oblique style and weighs every word, creating memorable images of startling clarity such as this description of visiting suitors: “On they come in their elliptic collars and tethered studs, their bloodstone-buttoned vests. They come in pairs for courage and the sport of it, or singly and, on finding other fellows already there, light cigars to smoke them out.”

Her descriptions of the straits of settling a new land are vivid: mattresses made of seaweed, tinned butter, ticks and flies and snakes and the “prickly heat sprinkled with flour until she is a crusty, sour mess”.

The Zulu worker Fuze makes this observation about the colonists: “The popular idiom is that they are birds, but they are like cats … smacked on the nose, they freeze and wait and creep back. They do exactly as they please and stubbornly stay, beyond the limits of good sense.”

Underpinning the story is the question of land, and ownership. “I was very aware of what’s going on in South Africa now,” says Robertson. “Aware of this great drumbeat of injustice, of the great decisions that were taken so carelessly, and of people like myself and my children who have to work out their feelings of legitimacy as inheritors of something they recognise as a crime. Colonialism and Empire – how do you resolve those things?”

Under Glass – the title refers to the enormous glass cases that transported plants to and from Africa, and to the hothouses that the colonies were – lacks the emotional heft of both The Spiral House and The Magistrate of Gower, but it is an absorbing, eloquent story that lingers long after you have closed the book. @MicheleMagwood

Book details

Light, quirky and suitably tasty - Margaret von Klemperer reviews Robin Sloan's Sourdough

Published in the Witness

SourdoughRobin Sloan’s previous novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which I haven’t read, did very well, receiving positive reviews and being hailed as cool and hip, adjectives that are likely to be heaped on Sourdough as well.

The central character, Lois, is an ultimately nerdy software engineer, coding whatever is needed to make robotic arms do all kinds of repetitive things and thus free up newly obsolete human workers for something else, unspecified. The arms do have their limitations – they can’t be programmed to crack and separate an egg.

Lois lives in a desolate apartment, and does pretty well nothing except go to work where the canteen feeds the staff on Slurry, a nutritionally perfect food that comes in the form of a greyish gloop.

Then one day, she finds a flyer for a takeaway outlet and begins to order their soup and bread.

It is run by two strange brothers, reclusive and somehow foreign, belonging to a culture known as Mazg. When they relocate from Silicon Valley to Edinburgh, they leave their sourdough starter with Lois, with instructions to feed it and bake bread. And things start to happen, with Lois eventually running a bread stall in an alternative marked located in a decommissioned nuclear weapons storage facility, helped along by one of the robotic arms which she has finally taught to crack an egg.

The other stallholders are an eccentric lot, doing all kinds of weird things, and the brains behind it, Mr Marrow, is invisible, only to be seen on a screen in the guise of a talking fish.

It’s all quite lively and fun, though the stuff about robotics and coding left me far behind. Sloan is making a point here about technology and creativity, and whether they can ever mesh. And also looking at the issue of how an ever-expanding global population can, and should, be fed. Slurry or bread made from living cultures?

While these are interesting and important debates, some of Sloan’s treatment of them is a trifle heavy-handed. And the vague love story that is tacked on seems rather perfunctory. Still, as a light and quirky read, Sourdough is suitably tasty. – Margaret von Klemperer

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