Category Archives: What I’ve Written

Review: Wilder Lives – Humans and Our Environment by Duncan Brown

WilderLivesNot all is well with the world. In moments of dark disillusionment, it is easy to give in to despair and just do nothing. But it is worthwhile to remember that if all of us, or at least most of us, institute even the tiniest of changes in our lives, we can make these lives better and we can make the world a better place, for ourselves and others.

Duncan Brown will be known to readers as the author of Are Trout South African?, which partly informs his latest book Wilder Lives: Humans and Our Environments. It is difficult for me to pinpoint why this book made me feel happy, but it did. Perhaps it was because Brown does not preach. He is a generous writer who shares his observations and research in a way that is empowering. The fact that his book made me feel better about my completely wild (or “neglected”, as many visitors seem to think) garden might be another reason.

Divided into ten highly accessible chapters, Wilder Lives focuses on ways we can “re-wild” our lives, whether through conservation, language, or in re-examining ethics. The concept of “rewilding” looks for definitions of “wild” that have “positive value (self-propagating, growing sustainably, self-reliant, independent, and so on)”. In this sense, rewilding champions a nourishing of the self-sustaining ecological process.

Brown also examines our misconceptions about “wildness” and what we often think are its opposites: culture, civilisation, or simply us, humans. The belief that wildness can only exist “where humans are absent” is still prevalent but, as Brown explains, it is rendered “questionable as a concept in which human influence is omnipresent”. What is definitely of essence is that we realise we are not as important as we want to believe. Humility might be the trait that could perhaps save us from ourselves. Brown makes it clear that rewilding is, in the words of George Monbiot, “not about abandoning civilization but enhancing it.”

Deeply aware of the “contradiction, ambiguity and paradox, especially in their entanglement in South Africa with colonial and apartheid histories”, Brown presents us with ideas about wildness and our role in it that are balanced and not intimidating. In the chapter on wildness and language, he shows what a difference just paying attention and being able to name and describe the environments we engage with – “a place literacy”, in Robert Macfarlane’s words – can help us live more rewarding lives. It reminded me of the joy I experience when watching and naming the birds visiting my ecologically uncontrolled garden.

We can all profit in the end, and in ways that we don’t necessarily immediately recognise as profitable. What is it that makes our modern lives so rough to process? Maybe a more conscious, re-evaluated way of existing within our environments can lead to simpler and much more fulfilling journeys. Wilder Lives assuredly offers one of “possibility, affirmation and excitement.”

Wilder Lives: Humans and Our Environments

by Duncan Brown

UKZN Press, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 30 August 2019.

Review: Pretend You Don’t Know Me by Finuala Dowling

Pretend You Dont Know MeIf you are a reader of poetry, the last thing you should do is heed the instructions of the title of Finuala Dowling’s latest collection. Pretend You Don’t Know Me: New and Selected Poems brings together a selection of some of her best poetry from four previous volumes (three of them out of print now) and twenty-two new poems, each of which will make you want to know her work – not only the poetry, but the prose as well. Dowling is also the author of four novels, with a fifth to be published later this year. She is the recipient of the Ingrid Jonker, Sanlam and Olive Schreiner Prizes and is rated as one of the most significant South African poets writing in English today.

Dowling is like the lighthouse on the cover of Pretend You Don’t Know Me. Her words shine a light for souls lost at sea. She has the ability to hold vast expanses of human experience in a few lines, and to make it look effortless. That is what made me fall in love with her work a long time ago, and I was delighted to encounter many of my favourite poems from her older collections here. Her new poems – full of loneliness and sadness, but also warmth, courage and fragile hope – continue to satisfy like no others. Let me quote just one example. In Q&A for an Unfair World, not only the individual sense of helplessness is captured, but our global anguish: “Will this meeting ever end? / No. / What are we saying goodbye to? / Everything. / Is the wrong person in charge? / Yes.”

Through her keen insights and rare sensitivity, Dowling allows us to smile despite all that, and it’s no coincidence that Pretend You Don’t Know Me ends with the word “welcome”.

Pretend You Don’t Know Me: New and Selected Poems

by Finuala Dowling

Kwela, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 30 August 2019.

Review: All the Places by Musawenkosi Khanyile

musawenkosi-khanyile_all-the-places_coverIt was by chance that I read Musawenkosi Khanyile’s debut poetry collection on a rainy morning, still tucked up in my bed. But it was no coincidence that the juxtaposition of the comfort of my bedroom and the realities described in the volume repeatedly moved me to tears. Unapologetically autobiographical, the poems included in the book trace the author’s journey from childhood to adulthood, from his rural family home, through the township, to the city. A journey undertaken by many, but not often evoked in poetry with such distinct tenderness that it takes your breath away.

All the Places offers you a glimpse into the heart of what it means to grow up with the odds staked against you, but does so without an ounce of self-pity and, perhaps more strikingly, without gratuitous exposure. The subtlety and restraint with which Khanyile approaches his subject matter is remarkable. He captures lifetimes into a few lines and makes you feel, acutely – not so much the difference between the stories he tells and those of privilege, but the common humanity of all our dreams: “In the class without a door, I took the exercise book of a little girl / who smelled of paraffin and looked at the tree she had drawn – / a leafless tree with no bird in it” (A School Visit). When asked what she wanted to be one day, the girl tells him: doctor.

Khanyile himself is a clinical psychologist with another degree in creative writing. But coming from Nseleni, he recalls the gaps in his family home’s walls, the constantly leaking roof, the demeaning trips to the outside toilet, and that in order “to survive the streets that gush out blood / and open into graves” you had to know how to “outrun the rain”. All the Places is dedicated to Khanyile’s brother Zamo: “I left you the dining room floor / and graduated to a bed / after our sister left for varsity” (Find the Truth).

As the collection’s title suggests, many of the poems focus on specific geographical spaces. In Nseleni, Khanyile states “that the goal is to make it out alive.” But even if you do escape and beat the odds, negotiating hard-earned privileges comes with its own challenges. In The World Opens Up, he asks: “What are the side effects of surviving the township?” The titular poem opens with the lines: “All the places he goes to / remind him of where he comes from.” And in Bantry Bay, a man at a guesthouse cries at the sight of the sea: “Why all this sentimentality about what’s not his? / The sea is not his. This balcony is not his. / All that he has is himself – / when does he cry about that?”

A great gift to its readers, All the Places allows you to look at the world with fresh eyes, with compassion.

All the Places

by Musawenkosi Khanyile

uHlanga, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 16 August 2019.

Review: The Wickerlight by Mary Watson

The WickerlightThe Wickerlight is the second book in Mary Watson’s The Wren Hunt series for young adults. In the first book, the protagonist Wren is chased and taunted by a few boys in the woods around Kilshamble, the village where they all live. Set in modern day Ireland, but one in which magic is as real to the novel’s characters as social media, the next instalment in the series picks up the story of one of these boys, David. He is a member of the judges, one of the ancient draoithe clans. Their sworn enemy for centuries are the augurs.

When a new family settles in Kilshamble and the older daughter Laila dies under mysterious circumstances on the village green, the judges and the augurs are set for another confrontation. Laila’s sister Zara tries to unravel the puzzling clues she receives about her sister’s death. Grieving and desperate to find out what happened, she stumbles into a world of magic that is beyond her comprehension and control. Falling in love with David puts her at the centre of the merciless battle for power between the draoithe clans. She enters a “new real, with its beating intensity”, which proves impossible to resist.

Through her spellbinding storytelling, Watson not only reveals a moving tale of love and redemption, but tackles a serious contemporary issue: toxic masculinity, how it is instilled into young minds and souls, and how difficult it is to live with for all concerned. David worries how he is drilled to believe “that strength and ambition are more important than kindness. That feelings are something to be overcome.” It will take great courage to break free from those shackles.

‘Wickerlight’ is defined as threshold time, like stepping “into pure magic”. It is exactly what reading Watson’s novels feels like.

The Wickerlight

by Mary Watson

Bloomsbury, 2019

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 8 August 2019.

Review: Remnants Restante Reste by Annette Snyckers

Remnants-Restsante-by-Annette-SnyckersIt isn’t often that you can delight in a poetry collection in three languages, but Annette Snyckers’s debut Remnants Restante Reste invites you to do precisely that. Writing in English, Afrikaans and German, Snyckers explores the possibilities of translation and creative expansion. Not all the poems included are presented in all three languages, but the ones that are add a magical layer to the poetry as the individual manifestations enhance and augment one another. The author notes: “Where a poem appears in more than one language, the first version is not necessarily the original version. Poems were written in different languages as I felt the need to write them, and all subsequent translations were done by me.” I feel fortunate to be able to enjoy all three versions in meaningful ways, but even if one of them eludes you, the remaining offerings in the collection are rich enough to suffice for a satisfying read…

Continue reading: LitNet

Remnants Restante Reste
by Annette Snyckers
Modjaji Books, 2018

Montagu Book Festival

I love going to literary festivals, whether it is as a writer or a reader. I love interacting with readers when I am attending as an author, and vice versa. Festivals are always such inspiring, informative and fun gatherings. They often take place in beautiful towns or cities that are worth seeing in their own right. And so it is with the Montagu Book Festival/Boekefees.

I first visited Montagu a few months ago when the local book club asked me to talk to them about The Fifth Mrs Brink. I received such a warm welcome and I met so many remarkable people that I knew I would have to come back for the festival, no matter in what capacity. What I could not have anticipated was that I would be there as a publisher!

MBF3

Karavan Press is up and running, or rather travelling, at a dizzying speed. First book launch, first interviews and first reviews behind us; it was time for the first literary festival, and we could not have done better than with the enthusiasm of the Montagu Book Festival organisers and readers. Great attendance, generosity of spirit, beautiful venues and the town itself: a Litte Karoo delight. Did I mention that the audiences are welcomed to the afternoon and evening events with a glass of local muscadel? Other terrific food and wine has been had – the pizzas at Burgundy Gherkin had the most amazing toppings, and the BluVines Restaurant was a delicious highlight of the visit (and a sponsor of the festival!). I loved their Mimosa wines, especially the bubbly and the red blends. A few bottles made it back home and will be enjoyed with good memories in front of evening fires. The balmy winter weather was a reprieve from Cape Town’s wintery storms. And the Milky Way presented itself in its full glory above the gorgeous landscape, luckily deprived of artificial light at night.

The programme was fantastic. Something for every literary taste. I attended four sessions apart from the one at which I interviewed Karavan Press’s author, Melissa A. Volker, about her life and her writing, specifically her novels, A Fractured Land and Shadow Flicker. I had been dreaming of talking to Melissa about her writing at a literary event for years now, and it made me so happy to finally experience it, not only as a huge fan of her beautiful novels, but also as their proud publisher.

mde

Poets: “Julle is die lig van die wêreld”

sdrThe other sessions were Finuala Dowling reading from her latest poetry volume, Pretend You Do Not Know Me, a ‘best of’ collection which also includes stunning new work; followed by John Maytham performing “Being Human”, a poetry script compiled by Finuala; Wilhelm Verwoerd talking about “that last name”; and Duncan Brown encouraging us to “rewild” our lives. While John was still in the audience, listening to Finuala, I was reaching for a tissue to deal with the emotions her poetry was evoking in me and glanced at him wiping away his own tears. We were both incredibly moved. And then, John made us laugh and cry with his exquisite reading of the poetry Finuala prepared for him. There was one particular poem that made us all crave chocolate cake so much that some delicious sinning was happily indulged in at lunchtime.

Wilhelm made me think a lot about my troubled memories of my paternal grandfather. And Duncan’s ideas made me feel very proud of my exuberantly wild garden.

Montagu8

An obligatory swim in the delightfully hot springs of Montagu (I am an Aquarius after all) was the perfect finish to another great visit. Can’t wait for the next occasion to visit Montagu!

Review: Joe Country by Mick Herron

Joe CountryThere aren’t really many among the cast of characters in Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb spy thriller series that you would want as a friend. On the whole, they are a bunch of losers. It’s almost always certain that they’ll either let themselves or their colleagues down. Yet, you can’t help but follow their (mis)fortunes with feverish anticipation.

Judging by Herron’s previous books, he has never been reluctant to kill off one of Lamb’s slow horses, as the Regent Park’s spy rejects are called. So when it says on the cover of Herron’s latest that “they’re heading into joe country” but “they’re not all coming home”, and the first chapter ends with two people being dead and Slough House needing “some new slow horses”, you suddenly begin picking favourites and calculating who you could bear to lose as a character. And so, it was with a sense of heavy foreboding that I started reading Joe Country. Until the very end the tension was nerve-wracking.

“Lamb had been given Slough House, and had been squatting here since, a grim overlord to the Service’s washouts”. The latest addition to his stable is Lech Wicinski. Officially, he has committed an unforgivable crime, and since he can’t prove otherwise, his life turns to hell. Meanwhile, the wife of one of the previously killed slow horses reaches out to Louisa Guy for help in finding her missing adolescent son. What at first looks like a straightforward runaway tale turns sinister when an old enemy shows up and once again threatens to spill slow horse blood.

With his wicked humour and masterful suspense build-up, Herron has once again given us an irresistible thriller. Just when you think he can’t get better, he does and makes you care about his Slough House misfits more than you ever bargained for.

Joe Country

by Mick Herron

John Murray, 2019

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 26 July 2019.

Review: The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo by Ingrid Winterbach

The Troubled Times of Magrieta PrinslooOpening an Ingrid Winterbach novel fills me with excitement every single time. She is one of my favourite contemporary Afrikaans writers and I am immensely grateful that her work is available in English.

Expect the unexpected is the slogan that runs through my head whenever I am reading Winterbach’s exhilarating and wise narratives. The latest, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo, was no exception. From the first page to the very end, the novel astounds. How about this for an opening sentence: “Magrieta Prinsloo, daughter of the biology teacher, tall, firm of calf and buttock, dark hair, right eye inclined to wander slightly outwards when she’s overworked, doctor of zoology, head of laboratory with twelve people under her, in early January, after a run-up of several months, gradually grinds to a halt.” Who could possibly resist reading on?

Magrieta is in trouble. Whether it is her depression or the wrong medication prescribed by her doctor or the unease she is feeling in her marriage, it all becomes too much to bear and, one day, after a spectacular blow-up with her boss, she quits her job at the university. There is no ready excuse and there doesn’t seem to be a way back for her, so she begins working for the Bureau for Continuing Education. Her new boss is peculiar, to say the least, and runs the bureau like “an espionage outfit”, assigning more and more work to his associates while solving Sudoku games all day long in his office. Eventually, he disappears mysteriously, and Magrieta and her colleague Isabel have to pick up the pieces at the bureau.

A man is murdered on a beach at Jameson Bay where Magrieta saw a beached humpback whale. On one of her walks, she encounters a woman who has pitched up a tent in the vineyards behind Magrieta’s house in Stellenbosch. She has no idea what any of this means, but she continues with her work and, after a bad spell in the relationship, Magrieta realises that she does not want to lose her husband. In several public toilets she finds strange whale graffiti drawings that she interprets to be signs left behind for her to find, but why? “You’re lucky…that the universe communicates with you like this behind toilet doors”, Isabel tells her.

Then, one day, while she is searching for clues of her boss’s whereabouts, Magrieta sees a baleen whale leap out of the sea and is transformed by the experience.

Winterbach has a knack for creating the most unusual characters and inventing odd loops for them to jump through, and yet it all seems uncannily familiar in the end. It is impossible not to care for them and not to keep on reading.

A novel about change and the essentials that make our lives fulfilling, The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo reads beautifully in Michiel Heyns’s translation.

The Troubled Times of Magrieta Prinsloo

by Ingrid Winterbach

translated by Michiel Heyns

Human & Rousseau, 2019

An edited version of this review was published in the Cape Times on 26 July 2019.

Review: The Drop by Mick Herron

The DropThe sixth Jackson Lamb thriller, Joe Country by Mick Herron, is hitting our bookshelves. The Drop is a novella in the series that only a few months ago introduced a new character into the cast of Regent Park’s drop-outs whiling away the time as “slow horses” in Slough House, where Jackson Lamb rules supreme. Whereas most of them arrive on Lamb’s doorstep after a major screw up in the field, the new addition ends up in the dubious care of the obnoxious Cold War spy through a set of weird coincidences. His fate is sealed after Solomon Dortmund, an old spook, observes an envelope changing hands in a way that stirs all the retired spy’s hard-wired intuitions into action.

“A drop, in spook parlance, is the passing on of secret information. It’s also what happens just before you hit the ground”, the novella’s blurb tells us. What it does not give away is that sometimes it is information which is planted without your awareness that can have the direst consequences for your future. Slough House is a dead end for most.

Before you turn to Joe Country, treat yourself to The Drop, a slim gem that you can devour in one sitting. Herron is the best thing to happen to the spy thriller genre since Graham Greene. Each book in the series can be read independently, but once you start on any of them, you will want to read them all. Characters, plots, crisp writing and especially the humour are irresistible; I’m totally hooked.

The Drop

by Mick Herron

John Murray, 2018

Review first appeared in the Cape Times on 19 July 2019.

Review: Talk of the Town by Fred Khumalo

Talk-of-the-Town“Now, there are storytellers, and there are Storytellers”, the narrator of Water No Get Enemy, one of Fred Khumalo’s stories collected in Talk of the Town, tells us about Guz-Magesh, a larger than life character who features in two of the pieces: “His well of tales is bottomless.” He has that in common with his creator. Khumalo is the author of four novels. His short stories have been considered for prestigious awards and featured in several magazines and anthologies. Talk of the Town is his debut collection.

The titular story of the volume is told from the perspective of a child who witnesses how his enterprising and hard-working mother sets their family apart by not having the furniture she buys repossessed by creditors. When her luck changes, the mother relies on her unsuspecting children to protect her from the fate of most of their neighbours.

Khumalo’s range of settings and characters is versatile. He moves between the apartheid past to the present, and between several countries. Water Get No Enemy and The Invisibles are set in present-day Yeoville, but the former moves back in time to the Liberation Army camps in Angola.

The stories of This Bus Is Not Full! and Learning to Love take place in the US, where two South African men end up living, but not entirely fitting in. The longest story in the collection is set in neighbouring Zimbabwe and has the feel of an abandoned novel in the making.

Reading Khumalo’s stories, one’s imagination and sense of political correctness can be both challenged to their limits, and it is to his credit that he can make us curious and care about even the least likable characters. At the same time, his stories can be poignant and excruciatingly funny. That is what keeps one returning for more.

Talk of the Town

by Fred Khumalo

Kwela, 2019

Review first published in the Cape Times on 19 July 2019.