Category Archives: What I’ve Written

LitNet: The yumness of the Kingsmead Book Fair 2022

KBF

Even for Capetonians, it is doable in a day, and the access could not be more perfect: you take an early flight to Joburg, get on the Gautrain, arrive at the Rosebank station, and Kingsmead College is right opposite its exit. The college is the venue of the Kingsmead Book Fair (KBF). It is a one-day affair, so in the evening you can go straight home. This year was the first time I decided to attend, and I loved every second of it, despite the journey and the freezing cold and rain that accompanied the event.

LitNet

LitNet: Real Fiction – The revival of the Franschhoek Literary Festival

I wrote about the FLF for LitNet:

“Other people do not walk around with fictional characters and stories occupying the majority of their headspace. Writers do. Tuned into alternative realities, often the most intimate relationships they have are with their Muses. As readers, we are fascinated by them and the beauty, perception, solace and entertainment they can offer through their stories. We attend literary festivals to rub shoulders with these strange creatures and to discover what inspires them, what makes them tick.”

LitNet

FLF

FLF

Interview with a former refugee, Karina Szczurek

LitNet: You were a refugee, fleeing from an oppressive regime. Please share with us what those thousands of women and children who are now seeking refuge must feel like?

Karina Szczurek: I was a child when my parents decided to flee Poland in the 1980s. My brother was six and I was ten at the time. It was very difficult to comprehend what was happening to us, but at least we were secure in the knowledge that our parents were with us at all times and would take care of us, no matter what. Our lives were never in danger. Watching Ukrainian parents evacuate their children to safety while staying behind to fight for their future breaks my heart. I cannot imagine the levels of anxiety and distress this kind of separation causes for a family. These people will never fully recover from this, even if they survive.

LitNet: Do you know Ukraine at all?

Karina Szczurek: A little bit. I spent three weeks in the beautiful Lviv on a student exchange in 1997. We also travelled outside this historic city. It was a formative experience. During these three weeks, I experienced for the first time the real closeness of the two languages – Polish and Ukrainian – met Charlotte, who remains a very dear friend, and discovered my love for opera and ballet at the stunning Ivan Franko Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet (renamed since then). I specifically remember how friendly and welcoming everyone I met there was, and I will never forget their delicious black bread (I couldn’t get enough of it).

Continue reading: LitNet

Book review: Cosmonauts Do It In Heaven by Keith Gottschalk

Keith Gottschalk’s poem “As the sun sets” ends with the following lines: “as the sun sets/ the astronomers eat breakfast,/ set off, start work.” It is one of the first poems in his recent collection, Cosmonauts do it in heaven. The few simple phrases read like an invitation to follow not only the astronomers, but also the poet, into the night sky in order to accompany the author on his quest to honour the scientists who, throughout the ages, have observed and studied the stars above us, as well as to expose the challenges and prosecutions they have faced along their paths to understanding …

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Review: Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit

I cherish the day I discovered Rebecca Solnit’s voice. And so, as a woman and a writer, it was chilling for me to read the words that present her latest book, Recollections of My Non-Existence, to the reader as follows: “An electric portrait of the artist as a young woman that asks how a writer finds her voice in a society that prefers women to be silent.”

Solnit’s voice is a voice of reason, compassion and celebration. She could not be silenced. She is the author of over twenty titles, ranging from books about hope and walking to women’s rights and storytelling. Her oeuvre is a torch that lights the way through the darkness of this world.

Recollections of My Non-Existence tells Solnit’s personal story and weaves the history of feminism into it, empowering readers to follow in her extraordinary footsteps and yet find their own path. With every page you turn, you feel more inspired, and if you are a woman, you feel seen and recognised. The connection allows you to comprehend the ultimate need for “freedom, equality, confidence” that reality all too often denies us, but we must never abandon the desire to seek them out and make them our own.

Recollections of My Non-Existence

Rebecca Solnit

Granta, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Times on 24 December 2020.

Review: My Mother’s Laughter – Selected Poems by Chris van Wyk

My Mother’s Laughter: Selected Poems by Chris van Wyk, compiled and edited by Ivan Vladislavić and Robert Berold, is one of those literary gems that you will want to have on your bookshelf. Most readers will know Chris van Wyk as the author of Shirley, Goodness & Mercy and its sequel, Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch, both memoirs published in the decade before Van Wyk’s untimely death of cancer in 2014.

He was a versatile writer of children’s books, autobiographical works and other non-fiction, as well as fiction. As editor of Staffrider, the literary and cultural magazine founded in the late 1970s (in existence until 1993), Van Wyk mentored a whole generation of emerging writers. In 1979, he published his only poetry collection, It Is Time to Go Home.

And now, My Mother’s Laughter brings together a selection from the debut volume, also the poems which appeared in Van Wyk’s memoirs, and includes previously unpublished work, showcasing the much-loved author’s poetic talent.

Inescapably, many of the poems from It Is Time to Go Home are set against the socio-political landscape of its time, but even decades later they radiate an energy of awareness and resistance that seems timeless and inspires to action against injustice. My Mother’s Laughter opens with “Metamorphosis”, a poem signalling transgenerational concerns about how historical events such as the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto Uprising influenced and politicised whole generations of South Africans – a young son, “fidgeting around his [father’s] work-worn body / asking questions at his shaking head”, as a teenager trying to make sense of the world “after June 16”, ends up comprehending what was and is at stake: “I nod my head. / I understand.” Despite the horrors witnessed and the struggles which followed, the sense of hope for a better tomorrow does not abandon the poet. One day, he assures, hearts “will throb / to the rhythm of a drum / And all of Africa will dance”.

The political poems are interspersed with tender love poems, dedicated to Kathy, Van Wyk’s future wife. They were married in 1980 and had two sons. “I am happy here; / just being against your navel”, the poet declares in “You Must Never Know I’m Writing You a Love Poem”.

The previously uncollected poems evoke a strong sense of home and community, how the world infiltrates both with its deeply troubled realities, but also how family bonds and friendships as well as commitment can, if not shelter you from the worst, at least allow you to confront it. They are tributes to heroes of the struggle and heroes of the everyday alike. Van Wyk remembers his “ouma’s yard” and how the “black words / on the white sheets” of the books she bought for them were “like coal strewn across a field of snow.” Equally, his “mother’s laughter” sustained the family throughout the harsh winter of oppression.

My Mother’s Laughter: Selected Poems

Chris van Wyk

Deep South, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Times on 4 September 2020.

Review: Sea Star Summer by Sally Partridge

The award-winning YA author, Sally Partridge, has been writing about the trials and turbulences of growing up since her debut novel, The Goblet Club, in 2007.

Partridge’s latest novel for young adults, Sea Star Summer, is her seventh and tells the story of the sixteen-year-old Naomi on holiday with her parents in Jeffreys Bay, where all she wants to do is enjoy some solitude and read good books. Yet, a dashing but dubious local surfer, another unusual and wonderful holidaymaker called Elize, and her intriguing brother, have other plans in store for Naomi. There is nothing more magical than falling in love for the first time. Equally magical can be reading about it in a novel when the book manages to capture, as Sea Star Summer does, that unforgettable and intoxicating mixture of wonder, revelation, anxiety and possibility that is young love.

“There’s only one person out there, a dark-haired girl about my age, kicking her feet through the incoming tide. The way she’s laughing and shrieking, clearly in a world of her own, makes it look like she’s having a great time. I envy her lack of inhibition. If it was me, I’d be worried about who’s watching.” This is how Naomi first encounters Elize. Meeting her sets in motion a chain of events and discoveries that allows Naomi not only to find herself and what she wants, but also to find the courage to proclaim it, even if only softly, to the world.

“Even the sea and sky seem larger, more real than before, like I’ve been walking around half asleep this whole time and have only just woken up.” The sea moods and beach adventures of Jeffreys Bay are vividly portrayed in this sensitive and empowering story that will appeal to young people and those young at heart alike.

Sea Star Summer

Sally Partridge

Human & Rousseau, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Times on 14 August 2020.

Review: Leaving Word by Steven Boykey Sidley

As Steven Boykey Sidley says in the acknowledgments of his latest novel, Leaving Word, it is true that “writing a book with a fiction editor as its main protagonist is asking for trouble, on many levels”. Writing a book about the publishing industry as a whole might be asking for even more trouble. But, if anyone can pull it off with aplomb, it is Sidley. And Leaving Word, his fifth novel, is a rollicking read because of it…

Continue reading: LitNet

Leaving Word
Steven Boykey Sidley
MF Books, 2019

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Review: A Poor Season for Whales by Michiel Heyns

42It is a poor season for just about everything, but not for reading if you can manage to keep enough headspace intact to engage and enjoy it. And the latest novel by Michiel Heyns, his ninth, is pure literary delight. “Margaret Crowley, handsome, clever, rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly fifty-six years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. It was therefore hardly to be foreseen that in her fifty-sixth year she would kill a man with a kitchen knife.”

And so begins A Poor Season for Whales, taking you straight to the heart of the “last outpost of the white middle classes”, Hermanus, where Margaret Crowley has moved after an amicable divorce to start a new life away from her usual social circles in Cape Town. One day, while she is walking her dog Benjy, her canine companion gets into trouble and is rescued by Jimmy, a mysterious stranger, who takes an unsettling interest in Margaret and her life.

At first grateful for his assistance, ambivalent about her own reactions to the young man, Margaret cautiously allows Jimmy into her home, while he does everything he can to become indispensable to her. Her friends and her grown-up children are not impressed, and there are moments when she also suspects ulterior motives, but Jimmy intrigues her beyond the initial hesitation. And when her ex-housekeeper, Rebecca, demands her assistance in providing her with a home, and her over-the-top sister-in-law decides to descend on Margaret and her children for Christmas, Margret does not feel that she has a choice but to allow Jimmy to help her handle the situation.

As you joyously and nervously turn the pages of A Poor Season for Whales, the question throughout persists, of course, about who is going to end up with a kitchen knife in his back, especially after the said knife appears on the set like a Chekhov’s gun. The title suggests that whales might also make an unexpected appearance. Or not.

The plot is carried by pitch-perfect dialogue. Imagine Jane Austen meets Before Sunrise and Heyns’s own A Sportful Malice. The running socio-political commentary felt spot-on. Heyns has a beautifully wry sense of humour and I found myself laughing out loud every few pages. After Jimmy’s condemnation of Margaret’s cooking skills, I might never be able to allow iceberg lettuce into my kitchen.

On a more serious note, the novel also reminded me of The Talented Mr Ripley and perhaps a lesser known but stunning novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard, Falling. The way Heyns depicts the relationship dynamics in his novel made me think – with discomfort – about a few people in my life who have the tendency to push one into previously unimagined corners and get away with it. But a kitchen knife is seldom an option.

A Poor Season for Whales

by Michiel Heyns (2020)

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 15 May 2020.

Review: Three Bodies by NR Brodie

Three BodiesThe second Reshma Patel and Ian Jack thriller by NR Brodie, Three Bodies, is here and, if you enjoyed the first one as much as I did, you can get excited. Yes, it’s also available as an ebook and Brodie has announced on social media that she will be donating all her royalties from the sales during the lockdown to the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce supporting sex workers in this time of crisis when they are at risk more than ever.

In Three Bodies, the risk to the three women who are discovered dead in different bodies of water around Gauteng comes from a dark source. At first, the cases seem unrelated and, when Ian Jack comes across the first one during an investigation in which he helps to trace a security guard gone missing, and his partner Reshma Patel discovers a severed finger and a stash of money and guns next to two corpses deep underground in Johannesburg’s tunnels while also pursuing a missing person case, they find it difficult to connect the dots. Both finds are accidental, but Reshma’s has immediate consequences for her career when she takes a bold step behind her superior’s back and contacts another unit to investigate the gruesome crime scene she stumbles upon.

As in Knucklebone, the first book in the series, Brodie offers a cast of fascinating characters. Is Myburgh, the ex-cop turned head of security for a group of housing estates, past his best? Despite his impeccable credentials, can Super Sobukwe be trusted after it comes to light that he might have put Reshma and her new colleague, Wayde Claassen, carelessly in lethal danger? And who is the fierce Angela de Bruyn from the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin trying to protect? Do mermaids exist?

It was good to see MaRejoice from Knucklebone return with all her wisdom and intuition. And Joburg is there in all its gore, grit and glory again. Having written a lot of non-fiction about South African cities, Brodie knows a thing or two about how to portray a metropolis like Johannesburg with aplomb. There were a few descriptive passages of characters’ comings and goings when the writing slowed down to a pace that reduced the impact of the narrative, but the vivid cash-in-transit heist scenes and the final showdown of the novel made up for a lot in the page-turning department.

Knucklebone does not have to be read before you can dive into Three Bodies, yet the private and professional relationships between Reshma and Ian are better understood if you know how they have developed since the spectacular ending of Brodie’s debut novel. The magic realism elements of the first book are toned down in the latest, but are used to a great effect towards the end of the novel, allowing us to wonder at the reality we think we know.

Three Bodies

NR Brodie

Macmillan, 2020

Review first published in the Cape Times on 8 May 2020.