Monthly Archives: September 2017

Topolino, book-spine blue

‘If you want a really good thriller,’ Geoff said, ‘try Mick Herron.’ I trust Geoff’s literary taste, so unsurprisingly, soon after our conversation, I got Slow Horses, the first in Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, at the Book Lounge. But it had to wait its turn, no matter how promising it looked on the to-read pile in my bedroom.

Around this time, I was also making one of the most important decisions of my life: a new car. I caused a terrible car accident almost two years ago: fortunately, I was the only one hurt, but the car was a write-off. It was an old, heavy, safe car – it probably saved my life.

Buying a new car, I was looking for three things: it had to be safe, small, and affordable. I wanted a new car with a warranty and no worries. I never had one before. I wanted to know what it’s like to drive and not worry about the condition of your car, to have other people take care of everything for a few years. I wanted to feel safe.

My heart whispered Fiat 500. I had driven two of them across France and Germany as rentals and loved both times – think Normandy to Paris and Görlitz to München (there are no speed limits on some stretches of the Autobahn; the little Fiat is quite comfortable with 160km/h). It is definitely small. I checked the safety ratings. They were perfect: seven airbags, standard. The affordability surprised me, although I had to think carefully how to go about financing it. Finally, end of July, I was ready.

Tyler of William Simpson in Cape Town assisted with the purchase. We went for a test drive and the car felt as good as I’d remembered it. Tyler was very patient in explaining everything; he answered all my weird questions and understood my quirks. My decision was made. Blue is my favourite colour, so I was set on getting the Fiat 500 in the available Azzuro Cappelini and placed the order. A few days later, Tyler informed me that he was terribly sorry, but they would not be able to provide the model I wanted in the colour I desired. They were all gone and the availability in the next shipment was also uncertain. We spoke. ‘I will probably live with this car for the next decade or beyond,’ I explained why I wanted it to be perfect. He promised to see what he could do. In the meantime, to my utter delight, I found out that, in Italy, the Fiat 500 is often referred to as “Topolino”. So Szczurek (little rat) would drive a Topolino (little mouse). We were meant for each other!

The solution Tyler came up with for the body of the car was a colour wrapping that is usually used for higher price range cars. But what is good enough for an Alfa Romeo is good enough for a Topolino. Tyler promised me a Fiat 500 in Azzuro Cappelini and that is what he would deliver – the car would be colour-wrapped for me in the desired blue. Once I heard about this option, I asked whether, in this case, I could perhaps have my absolutely favourite blue…? ‘Sure,’ Tyler said, ‘just please bring me something that is exactly the shade of blue you want.’

I put down the phone and glanced around me. The first thing I found sporting my favourite blue was the spine of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses

The next day in his office, Tyler had a look at the book spine and said, ‘It will be done. Do you also want it matt, like the book?’

‘Is that possible?’

‘Anything is possible.’

‘Then yes! A resounding yes!’

He had a closer look at the novel in his hands. ‘Do you mind if I read it while it is in my possession?’

‘Of course not! Enjoy. I hope it is really good. I haven’t read it yet, but it was recommended to me by people I trust.’

A few days later, Tyler sent me a note, saying that he was enjoying Slow Horses very much.

Trust me to find a reader to sell me a car.

Trust me to buy a car the colour of a book spine…

When Topolino arrived, it was love at first sight.


That day, I wrote the following message to Tyler:

‘My life in the last two-and-a-half years has been tough, to say the least. My husband died in February 2015 and I have been through hell and back since then. There haven’t been many opportunities for joy or laughter, but today I am happy – truly happy. It is a good feeling to experience. Thank you for my perfect Mick-Herron-book-spine blue Fiat 500. I am thrilled to have it and I am looking forward to driving it across South Africa, my home. Thank you for making the entire process of acquiring a new car so easy and pleasant.’

My first trip was to the Book Lounge – obviously! – where I had to pick up some books in preparation for the Open Book Festival. It rained that day. A blessing.


The first time I filled up Topolino, I overheard the following exchange between the two attendants helping me:

‘Nice colour.’

‘Nice blue.’


Book-spine blue.


I have now read Mick Herron’s Slow Horses. Sheer brilliance. I can’t wait to read the other books in the Jackson Lamb series and everything else Herron has written.


Thank you, Geoff, Tyler and Mick Herron from Topolino and Szczurek!


Niki Malherbe

Finding this so hard, to précis my thoughts on this book. Should have done it the minute I put it down two days ago. That’s when the real, connected emotion was fresh.

Having a go now…

So there’s this beautiful Polish born woman who has fallen in love with South African literature and South Africa itself and is the obvious choice to meet Andre Brink (sorry, can’t find the accent on the e) and accompany him on a train trip from Vienna to Salzburg where he is to partake in a symposium which she has co-organised. He’s 69, a mere 42 years her senior.

And so begins a love story of tenderness and sharing and travel which she documents alongside her journey of becoming fully fledged writer,… “more than anyone else, he has inspired me to say, proudly and out loud: I am a writer’… until his tragic death ten…

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Review: The Life of Worm & Other Misconceptions by Ken Barris

Life of Worm

I cannot remember when last I took so much pleasure from a short-story collection. Expect the unexpected: flying rooms, mustard reviews, book timeshare plans, the sense of beauty, or a talking baboon.

The life of Worm & other misconceptions by Ken Barris offers a beautiful range of tone. Readers might be relieved to learn that “there are many ways to cook a pterodactyl”, even if you find yourself in a flying room like the narrator of Atmosphere. Two long-term friends hike the Klipspringer Trail in Puff adder. Although there is nothing funny about the outcome of the story, I loved the dry humour of its unfolding. In the allegorical Cat got your tongue, guilt and unspeakable acts are articulated in silence and gestures.

The collection opens with a piece about writing itself. The narrator of To see the mountain attends a writing workshop. He is struggling to write. Patience, one of the other workshop participants, tackles the serious issue of patriarchy in her work. They both attempt to see the mist-veiled mountain from the place where they are staying. Each writer has a unique strategy for how to accomplish the task. For the narrator, the act of imaging the local geography and a hike up the mountain are enough to unlock his creativity. Patience channels her energies differently…

Continue reading: LitNet

Review: Encircling 2 by Carl Frode Tiller

Encircling 2The second instalment in Carl Frode Tiller’s Encircling trilogy, this novel follows the predecessor’s structure by allowing three different narrators to tell us about their lives around the month of July 2006 in the small Norwegian town of Namsos. While they relate their present-day stories in occasionally minutiae detail, they also reveal more or less relevant facts about themselves through the letters they write during this time to David, a man they all knew at some stage in their lives. They respond to a newspaper article in which David, supposedly suffering from amnesia, asks those who knew him to help him regain his memory.

In the first of the three books, his two teenage friends and his step-father contact him. In the second, it is Ole, a farmer from the same municipality; Tom, another close friend from his childhood; and Paula, who lives in an old-age home and used to be friends with David’s mother. Paula is assisted by Harald, who has his own reasons for wanting to write to David. The individual narrators assemble a collage of partly overlapping, but also partly conflicting stories, and the enigmatic young man they all refer to moves in and out of our focus. It gradually transpires that not only are the memories and motives of the storytellers unreliable, but perhaps a lot more is at stake and not entirely as it seems.

The first part of the trilogy was published in Norway a decade ago and has garnered much acclaim. Carl Frode Tiller has been compared to the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard. His descriptions of contemporary life in Norway intrigue, but it is the depiction of universally recognisable everyday misunderstandings and cruelties between people that I found most gripping. Although at times over-written for my liking, some of the situations narrated were stunning in their portrayal of how we fail at communicating our intimate, crucial truths. The last of the books is supposed to be published next year and I am most curious to find out how the trilogy will end and what it will reveal about David and the people who address him.

Encircling 2

by Carl Frode Tiller

Sort of Books, 2017

Review first published in the Cape Times on 22 September 2017.

Book Review – The Fifth Mrs Brink


Karina M. Szczurek

The Fifth Mrs Brink is a memoir of grief, love, life and loss.

Karina Szczurek’s story begins with diary entries immediately after the death of her husband André P Brink. The grief is raw, taking its toll on her physically and emotionally. The memoir is a searingly honest account of life before André, during her marriage and after his death.

The love which they shared is something many of us dream of. I would not have guessed that André had such a soft and caring side. His immediate search for Rudolf the Bear in the wee hours of the morning brought tears to my eyes. His caring for Karina during bouts of pain, a testament to a love that ran deep.

They also shared a passion for tennis, rugby and chocolate, which is a running theme throughout the memoir (as are the trio Mozart, Salieri and Glinka!)…

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Review: Killing Karoline by Sara-Jayne King

Killing Karoline“What happens when the baby they buried comes back?” The question is asked on the cover of Sara-Jayne King’s stunning memoir, Killing Karoline. The story King relates is simultaneously heart-breaking and inspiring. A child is conceived during an illicit relationship in apartheid South Africa. Named Karoline, she is “born with a large, black question mark over my head”. Her biological parents – a white woman and a black man – are forbidden by law and custom to be together. Her official parents – both white – decide to hide the mother’s “indiscretion” with her black lover and smuggle her to the UK under false medical pretences. They proceed to give her up for adoption and return to South Africa, lying to all concerned that Karoline had died.

The image on the cover of King’s book – of the young Karoline, renamed Sarah Jane by her adoptive parents – spreading her arms in joy, as if to embrace the universe with her gorgeous smile – says everything about this incredibly resilient person, who refused to be killed by the “deception and denial” of the people who brought her into this world and the inhuman system that governed their decisions and fears.

Sarah Jane is adopted by a couple who were unable to have biological children. Earlier they also adopted a boy, Adam. No other book on adoption I have read made the complicated dynamics involved in this kind of family structure as tangible to me as King’s memoir. She confesses what it means to be a “consolation prize” to her adoptive mother: “Not just enough, but that our becoming her kids was actually sufficient to eradicate, or at least usurp her own disappointment at not being able to have her own biological children.” Feelings of insecurity persist. They are complicated by her parents’ inadequate handling of a vital side of their adopted children’s reality: “And so while we knew we were loved, my parents’ ignorance and inability to acknowledge our skin colour as being crucial to our identities ultimately led to both Adam and I navigating, in isolation and confusion, a painful and self-destructive path to make sense of who we were as individuals and in the world at large.” For Adam, the journey ends in tragedy.

When the ground beneath your feet keeps shifting, it is impossibly hard to keep stable, to know who you are. King is constantly faced with the necessity of reframing her beliefs. It can be something as obvious as finding out that when you are born in August in South Africa, you are not a summer baby. Or it can be as soul-crushing as your biological mother’s refusal to give you the answers you crave. Adoption, King writes, “creates gaps of assumption, false imaginings and, ultimately, disappointments.” It confronts King with the fact that for her biological mother “saving face held greater importance…than hearing me say my first word, or watching as I gingerly took my first step.”

She clings desperately to things that give her comfort like her childhood blanket. To escape reality, she flees into books, her “first addiction”; then others follow. She struggles to maintain a healthy relationship with food, drinks excessively, tries other substances and starts self-harming. Feeling inadequate and ashamed, she becomes a “people pleaser”. She enters toxic relationships. Around her families fall apart. Her adoptive parents separate. As she finds out while trying to trace her biological parents, the woman who gave birth to her goes on to have another child. Establishing contact with her siblings and her and their extended families proves to be extremely difficult, as one can imagine. But there are moments of joy. If anything, King’s story proves the adage that friends are the family we choose.

King is honest and extremely generous about sharing her experience of adoption, loss and addiction. It is humbling to follow her life as it unfolds through the stories she chooses to tell. She is not sentimental, which could have easily been the case. Above all, she narrates a story of great courage in standing up for oneself. Exceptionally talented, she completes her university studies, begins working, and when everything goes haywire, she is brave enough to accept the help she needs to recover. This comes with challenges of its own, but seeking treatment brings her back to the country of her birth where she eventually settles and where she finally claims for herself the name she’d always wanted to be known by: Sara-Jayne.

“I just want someone to see me”, she writes. Sara-Jayne refuses to disappear. She gradually surfaces into acceptance and acknowledgement. She realises that it is her biological mother’s loss for not wanting to know her. It is our gain that she allows her readers to see her extraordinary strength and beauty.

King is now based in Cape Town and shares her life with another adoptee, her dog Siza. She is a journalist and broadcaster, hosting her own show on CapeTalk.

Killing Karoline is not just a powerful story which could have been told in almost any fashion to thrive, it is a well-crafted text which testifies to the love of literature and the remarkable skill of this emerging creative writer.

Killing Karoline

by Sara-Jayne King

MFBooks, 2017

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 15 September 2017.

A Conversation with Frankie Murrey

Sarafina Magazine

Frankie Murrey worked in the book trade for a number of years before becoming the Festival Coordinator of Open Book Festival, which runs from September 6th until the 10th right in the heart of Cape Town. In addition to working on the core festival programme, she works closely with others on CocreatePoetica, Comics Fest and the Youth Fest. She is the facilitator of the Mentoring Programme and the Open Book School Library Project. In 2015, she was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

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