You are invited to send in your short stories. Happy writing!
For the submission form, please email: email@example.com
You are invited to send in your short stories. Happy writing!
For the submission form, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Woman Zone Book Club meets every second Saturday to discuss recently read books. The women of the book club also invite guest authors to speak to them about their lives and work. I had the privilege to have been invited yesterday afternoon and had a fantastic time.
For obvious reasons, I chose to speak about a few of the women in my life who shaped my creativity and were instrumental in paving my way towards a career in writing, editing and publishing. It was impossible to honour all of them in a short time, but these are the women who featured in my talk yesterday: my grandmother, Babcia Marysia, and my Mom, both of them nurtured my creativity in indirect but significant ways; Mrs Nellie Fahy, the librarian who awakened my passion for reading; Nadine Gordimer, whose writing brought me to South Africa for the first time; Maureen Isaacson, who first gave me the opportunity to hone my craft as a book reviewer when she was book page editor of the Sunday Independent; Lyndall Gordon, whose work and friendship showed me how to continue being a writer in the world when I was doubting that I could; Rachel Zadok, who believed in me as an editor and through work kept me sane when my world lost nearly all connection to sanity; and Joanne Hichens, who was a stranger when I asked her to visit me in an hour of utter despair nearly five years ago, but we became friends and are now co-editors of an anthology of short stories we published together: HAIR: Weaving and Unpicking Stories of Identity.
The other books I mentioned during my talk were:
During the book club reviewing session, I also briefly spoke about the book I had finished reading that morning: Desiree-Anne Martin’s remarkable We Don’t Talk About It. Ever. She was there at the meeting and it was great to tell her in person how I felt about her memoir and to ask her to sign my copy.
It was my first visit to the WZ Book Club, but I hope that there will be many, many more in the new year. Located at the Woman Zone Library at the Artscape it is a generous and beautiful space for discussing all things literary with the most wonderful women.
“There is nothing boring about this anthology!” writes Consuelo Roland (author of The Good Cemetery Guide, Lady Limbo and Wolf Trap) on Goodreads, and continues: “Many of the stories are partially embedded in time and space against the background of South Africa’s apartheid legacy, but there is also spontaneity, humour and mystery, and a sense of how one might wriggle out from under the weight of our hair (the burdens of past and present). As the first brilliant story ‘The Collection’ by Alex Latimer reminds us hair is something dead and yet it makes us alive and present. Other stories that stayed with me (yours may well be different, this collection is that good!): ‘Before We Go’, ‘Spa Ritual’, ‘The Wisdom of Sunday’, ‘A Woman’s Glory’, ‘At Length, Hair’s Breath,’, ‘That Famous Winter Brown’, ‘Let The Music Play On’, ‘Reunion’. And then there’s the soulful, beautifully written (not an unnecessary word) ‘Lila’, by Bongani Kona, that felt like someone had thrown a brick at my chest so that I could hardly breathe with the sadness of it…”
To read the entire review, please click here: Goodreads
The collection has also been chosen by Nancy Richards as one of “ten top local titles” for “holiday reading” in the December issue of Country Life. The magazine is running a competition in which you can win a copy of HAIR among a few other fabulous local titles. Click here for details: Win this Holiday Reading Books Hamper.
Photo: Country Life
It’s Open Book Festival time! Another amazing programme beckons. I am super-excited because this time, apart from launching a book as co-editor and chairing a session, I will be participating for the first time as a publisher.
The anthology we, Joanne Hichens and I, are launching at the festival as co-editor is HAIR: Weaving and Unpicking Stories of Identity.
And these are the events at which Karavan Press author, Dawn Garisch, will be speaking about her latest novel Breaking Milk:
DISTRUSTING THE PRESENT: Tracey Farren, Dawn Garisch and Masande Ntshanga speak to Alex Dodd about how the dystopian present informs their work.
THERE IS NO TEXTBOOK: Patrick Flanery, Dawn Garisch and Julia Martin speak to Pippa Hudson about the impossibility of preparing for some events.
GENE THERAPY: Oyinkan Braithwaite, Nicole Dennis-Benn and Dawn Garisch speak to Bonnie Mbuli about dealing with family challenges.
Joanne Hichens and I are thrilled to announce that the anthology we co-edited — HAIR: Weaving & Unpicking Stories of Identity — is going to be launched at the Open Book Festival this year!
HAIR: Weaving & Unpicking Stories of Identity is a collection of short stories inspired by hair. Like skin, hair is a body feature with a complex and controversial history, and is constantly under scrutiny in the media, specifically with regard to identity. HAIR: Weaving and Unpicking Stories of Identity features short stories by contemporary established and emerging South African writers of diverse backgrounds writing about hair and its intimate, personal as well as socio-political meaning. The book includes illustrative photographs by local visual artists. We hope that the stories will entertain, delight and challenge the reader.
“Dreadlocks, perms, afros, wigs and braids; hair is an extension of our ever-changing selves. In this startling new collection of masterful African stories juxtaposed with vivid modern photography, we see hair woven firmly into lives like generational pain in families. Or watch it blossoming into grand filaments of pride and reservoirs of power. Ranging from the fantastical to the mundane, the surly and mysterious to the jovial and witty, reading the stories in Hair will make yours stand on end.”
– Efemia Chela
Stories by Diane Awerbuck, Tumelo Buthelezi, Craig Higginson, Mishka Hoosen, Bobby Jordan, Shubnum Khan, Fred Khumalo, Bongani Kona, Alex Latimer, Kholofelo Maenetsha, Songeziwe Mahlangu, Mapule Mohulatsi, Palesa Morudu, Tiffany Kagure Mugo, Sally-Ann Murray, Sue Nyathi, Alex Smith, Melissa A. Volker, Lester Walbrugh, Mary Watson, Michael Yee
The title is appropriately deceptive. The reader goes into the stories expecting, and hoping, to engage with the politics and the business of hair. And the anthology brings all that successfully to the fore, but offers much more. Although the common narrative is about the politics of hair, what you will mostly find in these pages are stories about life and/or death, with hair in all its physical manifestations as a recurring motif.
– Palesa Morudu
Photographs by Kirsten Arendse, Saaleha Idrees Bamjee, Nina Bekink, Noncedo Charmaine, Keran Elah, Retha Ferguson, Sue Greeff, Liesl Jobson, Simangele Kalisa, Andy Mkosi, Manyatsa Monyamane, Nick Mulgrew, Aniek Nieuwenhuis, Chris Snelling, Karina M. Szczurek, Lebogang Tlhako, Karina Turok, Michael Tymbios, Jasmin Valcarcel, Megan Voysey
“Enthralling. Excellent idea given rich life by sharp writing and exquisite images.”
– John Maytham
EDITORS: Joanne Hichens and Karina M. Szczurek
FOREWORD: Palesa Morudu
PUBLICATION DATE: September 2019
PUBLISHER: Tattoo Press
Our CapeTalk interview with Refilwe Moloto: HAIR
“Every nation needs its awkward truth-tellers”, Sindiwe Magona quotes Ben Okri in the foreword to Incredible Journey: Stories that Move You, the latest in the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards anthologies, edited by a champion of the South African short story and founder of the project, Joanne Hichens. Magona makes two succinct points about the collection: it shows “the country’s rich diversity that, perhaps, is found only here and nowhere else”, and, it allows the reader “to better understand intimate secrets, dreams, yearnings, fears and the wounding that walks our streets, all too often looking as normal as you please.”
Produced in conjunction with the National Arts Festival, the anthology includes twenty stories, the longlisted and winning entries of the Short.Sharp.Stories Awards, and is the third of its kind, after Bloody Satisfied and Adults Only. Hichens understands “that there are many stories to tell, from entirely different perspectives, sensibilities and cultures; we are hardly a one-dimensional society, nor would we want to be” and aims to be “inclusive and representational”. The project succeeds on all these fronts. The book includes diverse voices and many striking stories – it will offer something for most people, whatever your reading preferences might be.
The winning story, “Train 124” by Andrew Salomon, features an uncanny first-person narrator on his way to a doctor’s appointment. His reading and interpretation of the world around him are scary, to say the least. During the train ride, Salomon manages to create a sense of tension and claustrophobia despite the fact that his character is on the move. Original, crisp writing completes the winning package.
Two short stories from the collection were shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize: Bongani Kona’s superb “At Your Requiem”, and Lidudumalingani’s Short.Sharp.Stories Awards runner-up, “Memories We Lost”, which eventually won the Caine Prize. These two young voices hold so much promise that one can only watch and wonder as their talents unfold.
The other runner-up in the collection is the remarkable “The Infant Odysseus” in which Bridget Pitt tells the story of a woman who spots a baby crawling in a busy street of Johannesburg and decides to abandon her husband in their car to rescue the child. The encounter triggers a chain of emotions which lead her to make life-changing decisions.
Authors interpreted the theme of the competition in myriad ways. The most obvious take, a physical journey from point A to B, has been emphasised only in a few of the stories. The others concentrate on an internal transitioning from one state of being to another. Some combine both to great effect. The subtitle of the anthology says it all: “stories that move you.” The most incredible journeys happen inside:
“I’m sitting by the jacaranda tree where the story of your life ends. I can’t rewind time and bring you back. What happened between us – between you, Aunt Julia and me – at the house on St. Patrick’s Road, burned through our lives like mountain fire in a high wind. There’s nothing left. Everything is ravaged.” (Bongani Kona, “At Your Requiem”)
In Sean Mayne’s “The Pyramid of Light”, two conscripts get more than they ever bargained for when hitchhiking home on a pass. Homophobia and a search for personal purpose are the subject of Tebello Mzamo’s poignant “My Room”. Máire Fisher exposes tense family dynamics in “Space”, in which a small boy dreams of the stars as he clandestinely watches the night sky through his father’s telescope.
It is fascinating to see how different genres feed into the mix of the anthology. Dan Maré in “Watermeid” or Chantelle Gray van Heerden in “Voodoo Karma” do not shy away from fable and magic realist elements in their stories. In “The Island”, Megan Ross reimagines an initiation ritual for young women along the lines of the kind which Xhosa boys undergo to become men. Merle Grace examines a myth surrounding people with albinism in “Disappeared”. And Stephen Symons writes about a Cape Town of the not too distant future in his speculative story “Red Dust”.
A personal favourite in the collection is Tiffany Kagure Mugo’s “Return Unknown”. It centres on a heavy trunk the narrator’s grandmother brings with her into the house when her family decides it is time for her to move in with them in her old age. The story ends with the warmth of the trunk to the narrator’s touch, and one’s heart.
Publisher’s choice went to Bobby Jordan’s “Shortcut” which recounts a man’s tumultuous trip on the Bedford Road between Johannesburg and Grahamstown late at night. The story has a magnificent ending, and since it is the last one in the anthology, it leaves the reader deeply satisfied.
Despite my irredeemable addiction to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, I do not often turn to thrillers or crime fiction for entertainment. But Night School, the next Reacher adventure, is coming out only in September, and since the nights are getting longer, it is nice to have a few good stand-ins in the meantime. Locally, I really enjoyed the recently published Sweet Paradise by Joanne Hichens: tight plotting, great writing, a scary villainess, and a heroine with balls. It surprised me, and that is a quality I truly appreciate in genre fiction.
I remember picking up Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing and realising how it would end just after a hundred pages. For the rest of the book, I had hoped the author would astonish me, but he didn’t. That kind of disappointment is not easily forgiven. But Scandinavian crime and thriller authors have been making huge waves on the international literary scene in the last decade or so. I devoured Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and like millions of readers around the world could not get enough of its intriguing main characters, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.
It seems that there is a new kid on the Scandinavian crime block, Samuel Bjørk (pen name of the Norwegian writer and musician Frode Sander Øien). His I’m Travelling Alone is making international headlines, reaching the prestigious German magazine Der Spiegel’s number one bestselling spot and selling TV series rights to ITV. It comes with a quote on the cover, warning his compatriot Jo Nesbø to “watch out”. Being unfamiliar with Nesbø’s work, I cannot compare, but judged solely on its own terms, I’m Travelling Alone is a spine-chilling, page-turning novel.
In 2006, a baby disappears from the maternity unit of Ringerike Hospital in Hønefoss in the south of Norway. Half a dozen years later, a six-year-old girl is found dead hanging from a tree. Dressed like a doll with an airline tag which reads “I’m travelling alone” around her neck, the girl is soon believed to be the first victim of a serial killer about to strike again. A race against time begins. Holger Munch is put in charge of finding and bringing the killer to justice. Despite, or precisely because of, being the typical middle-aged, overweight, chain-smoking, sadly divorced, veteran police investigator, Holger is instantly endearing. As is his partner, the deeply disturbed but fascinating, thirty-something Mia Krüger.
In the beginning of the book, Mia is living in complete solitude on an island, drugged and drunk, mourning her beloved sister and awaiting her own death. It takes some persuading from Holger to sway her to postpone her suicide in order to help him solve the case. They both have a troubled past to atone for, and have no clue how it is about to surface to haunt them.
The next girl is found murdered and two more go missing. But then the ruthless killer changes his (or her? the police are uncertain) MO and contacts a journalist writing for a daily, placing him and his editorial team in front of an impossible choice: Who dies next? And when Mia and Holger discover that the next intended victim is someone they both know and care about, the urgency to track down the perpetrator intensifies unbearably. The hunt leads them to a mysterious sect and an old-age home where Holger’s mother lives. What at first seems a dead end reveals itself as a deadly possibility. And the murderer is always a step ahead.
The two investigators, the police squad, and family and friends around them are all well-drawn characters one takes immediate interest in and liking to. They propel the story forward. Additionally, to a certain extent, I’m Travelling Alone felt like armchair travel. I have a very soft spot for Norway, having travelled the country, loved its landscape, read some of its brilliant classics, and made a few Norwegian friends for life. I actually visited some of the places mentioned in the novel, have experienced the weather and tasted the food. Reading all the everyday details of the characters’ lives has brought back many great memories. I couldn’t resist and had some herring again while reading.
I was spellbound almost to the end. However, the last twenty pages let me down. To be honest, I am not sure that I understood how all the puzzle pieces of the story fit together or whether the author managed to tie up all the loose ends, yet it somehow did not matter. I found the ride as far as the last four or five chapters exhilarating and the strangely abrupt ending did not spoil the fun. I sincerely hope that Mia and Holger will return and I look forward to the next Samuel Bjørk crime novel with great anticipation.
Review first published in the Cape Times, 4 March 2016.
I’m Travelling Alone
by Samuel Bjørk
If you think that bringing up three kids and paying the bills on your own is tough, you are right. Running a short story competition? Hard work. Writing a book? Yep, also uphill battle. Getting it published? Nearly impossible. Starting your own publishing company? F-u-c-k-i-n-g crazy. Surviving widowhood? Not sure how one does it, not there yet.
Well, in the past two years, Joanne Hichens has been doing it all. And tonight, she launched her novel Sweet Paradise which is the publishing flagship of her newborn venture, Tattoo Press. Fittingly for the occasion, The Empire Café in Muizenberg was jam-packed with friends and excited readers. The book is dedicated to Joanne’s late husband, Robert, who died unexpectedly in January last year. Joanne stood brave and beautiful in front of the crowd, her three amazing children running the show. She spoke about how Robert encouraged her to write, believed in her as a novelist, how after his death everything became a struggle and all she wanted to do was watch other people’s miseries on TV while hugging a wine bottle. I can relate. There is a very good reason why I don’t keep whiskey in the house or why I know when NCIS’s latest episode is airing. I know what inner strength is required to get up from bed every morning and why sometimes one fails.
At the heart of a celebration like tonight’s there is a loneliness that is so dreadfully painful that one has to be a superhero to keep on standing. And I know this because yesterday I held a copy of Vlam in die sneeu for the first time in my hands and I failed.
He arrived, as always, unexpected. Without a clue how badly he was needed.
Nobody calls him Jack. Not even his mother. But that is who he is to me.
I reached out to Killing Floor at a time in my life when everything had become difficult, including breathing. And to stay alive, I need breathing as much as I need reading. It is a matter of survival, of being who I am. In the early stages of widowhood, I had to learn everything anew. How to breathe, to sleep, to eat. To smile. I picked up books in the hope of reclaiming a little bit of myself, a sense of stability, some solace, and an escape from my unbearable new reality, but every page was a struggle. Books which would have taken me two or three days to read, lasted for long agonising weeks. I was desperate. Until I picked up Jack Reacher on a roadside, typically hitchhiking out of town.
Lee Child’s hero is 21st-century’s Mr Darcy. “All men want to be like him and all women want to fuck him,” as Reacher was introduced to another fan who related the comment to me.
But why? Ungainly tall, mostly scruffy, socially awkward, a man of few words, he is not exactly the most attractive individual out there. But his allure is undisputed. Millions of fans around the world breathlessly awaiting the publication of the next instalment in the series every September can attest to the fact.
Jack Reacher grew up as a military brat, a third-culture kid, at home everywhere and nowhere. I relate to that. We have a coffee habit and a thing for numbers in common. When we know what we want, we go for it. We don’t do regrets.
Jack went to West Point, served thirteen years in the military police and retired in the rank of Major. Since then, he roams the American landscape (with only occasional detours abroad), a folded toothbrush in his pocket and some cash in the bank, taking on odd jobs when necessary, stepping in whenever injustice crosses his path. He has a heart of gold and an admirable integrity. He never walks away from a situation before both are satisfied.
Killing Floor (1997), the first in the now 20-titles strong series, is breathtakingly good. I was hooked after only a few pages. The exhilaration of devouring a book again at breakneck speed came with such a relief that I immediately bought the next one, and the next, and the next (once I even ventured out into a freezing and rainy Sunday night at quarter to nine and sped like a maniac through town to Exclusive Books before they closed because I’d just finished a Reacher novel and couldn’t bear to face a night without the following in my hands). By about the third or fourth, I was telling all my friends and all strangers willing to listen about my fascination (obsession or addiction might better describe it), and my gratitude (infinite). With the Reacher books, my hunger for all kinds of reading returned to me. Back in full force, it is the only thing from my past which has pulled through the greatest loss of my life unscathed.
With the exception of the latest, Make Me (which I simply could not resist), and Worth Dying For (which I turned to when I couldn’t find a copy of 61 Hours in time), I am reading the series in the sequence of publication. I intend to trace all the Jack Reacher short stories next. And then, the long wait until next September will set in. But like Jack, I am extremely patient.
It has been interesting to see how the series and the protagonist develop, responding to technological innovations (cell phones, ATMs, WWW) as well as changing socio-political realities (for example, Gone Tomorrow’s astute post-9/11 commentary), or ageing, human vulnerabilities. As the series progresses, chapters become shorter, cliff-hangers more irresistible. The writing is great. Just great. Child switches between first- and third-person, exploiting the diverse advantages both offer (although I do prefer the former). The dialogue is crisp and intelligent. The sense of humour deliciously dry. I enjoy the feminist touches: women are treated as equals in all respects. Jack has no ‘type’: the women he falls for come from different backgrounds, and are all strong, independent characters. Descriptive passages (landscape, weather, architecture, and especially the fight choreography) are intricately balanced between fast pace, slow motion, and, at times, pure poetry.
“It was raining and grey on the western peaks, and in the east the sun was slanting down through the edge of the clouds and gleaming off the tiny threads of snow in the high gullies.”
Child can capture the essence of a character in a few phrases.
“She looked like a solid, capable woman. She was about sixty years old, maybe more, white, blunt and square, with blond hair fading slowly to yellow and grey. Plenty of old German genes in there, or Scandinavian.” (Worth Dying For)
Consider a few of the opening lines:
“I was arrested in Eno’s diner.” (Killing Floor)
“The cop climbed out of his car exactly four minutes before he got shot.” (Persuader)
“They found out about him in July and stayed angry all through August.” (Without Fail)
“Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy.” (Make Me)
I can no longer count how many people I got into Jack. Only one person was disappointed with my recommendation. All others are as addicted as I am. It has been delightful to discover which of my friends had been fans for much longer than I. I keep getting messages of thanks. We all share stories of how Jack features in our lives. To me, he has become a trusted, reliable friend. I turn to him for adventure and smart entertainment – always a bloody-good read!
Tense, entertaining, intriguing and never predictable, the Jack Reachers thrillers belong to the best of their kind.
And! The sex is good.
In July last year, I listed here my best reads of the first half of 2014 and gave one of the titles away to a randomly chosen person who commented on the post. The lucky winner was Solomon Meyer and I sincerely hope he has enjoyed his copy of The Maze Runner.
I would like to do the same for the second half of 2014 which turned out to be an even greater reading success than the first. Old friends & new discoveries made the list. I decided, however, to concentrate on fiction & non-fiction only. In no particular order:
I love historical fiction and it hardly ever comes better than Claire Robertson’s The Spiral House (Umuzi, 2013). I heard Robertson speak at the FLF last year and was immediately intrigued. During the festival, the novel was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and won subsequently to my, and many other readers’, delight. Written in a mesmerising prose which takes you into the heart of local history, the novel is a rare gem which should not be missed. Apart from anything else it is such a beautifully produced book. Well done, Umuzi!
Another historical title, Katherine Stansfield’s The Visitor (Parthian, 2014), will feature on all my favourites lists for a long time to come. I had the pleasure of reviewing it for the Cape Times. A gift from Robert, a dear friend with whom I studied and practised fencing at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, this beautiful debut novel came to me when it was most needed. Set in a fictional fishing village in Cornwall towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, it tells the story of three friends and their community. The sea is their constant companion and witness to the love, loss and longing unfolding at its shore. Last year, I wrote an essay about the sea and its influence on my own life as a woman and a writer. The Visitor has triggered many memories and helped me focus on the task at hand. Stansfield is also a remarkable poet. Her debut collection Playing House is a delight.
I love engaging with the internet even though I am deeply aware of its pitfalls. I still remember AltaVista, the first chat rooms, or waiting for a page to open for twenty minutes (if you were lucky!) while doing my homework on the side. I have been fascinated by the medium for nearly as long as it exists on a global scale. The People’s Platform – Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor (Fourth Estate, 2014) is one of those must reads if you want to consciously participate in the digital age and not be simply reduced to a consumer, abused by power and greed. Culture is one of our most precious resources and treasures. To allow it to waste away in this precarious environment is criminal.
Another must for the internet age: Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex and Other Legal Advice for the Age of Social Media (Penguin, 2014) by Emma Sadleir and Tamsyn de Beer looks at the legal implications of our interaction with social media. The authors spell out the dos and don’ts of the diverse platforms: Twitter, Facebook, etc. The book is informative and strangely enough very funny despite telling some very grim internet stories of people losing their reputations, jobs, friends and serious money over online blunders. Also essential reading for anyone wanting to marry Kate Winslet.
Anybody who reads me will know how much I admire Lyndall Gordon‘s work. Her latest, Divided Lives (Virago, 2014), raises my admiration to another level. Just looking at the shelf where I keep all her wise, powerful biographies and memoirs reassures me. She has brought so much sustenance and joy into my life as a reader, writer and woman that I am certain I would be a very different, and much poorer, Karina today without having encountered her books. May there be many more to come.
A rather racy read, and not all the stories in this anthology were my cup of tea, but there were some which I found very exciting, on the literary not literal level, of course ;) Showcasing some of the talent we have here in South Africa, these erotic short stories cater for nearly all tastes. Funny, thrilling, and exquisite at times, it is a rewarding read (see my review: Adults Only – Stories of Love, Lust, Sex and Sensuality edited by Joanne Hichens, Mercury, 2014).
A Man of Good Hope (Jonathan Ball, 2014) is Jonny Steinberg at his best. I have a friend who says that when she grows up she wants to be Jonny Steinberg, and I can’t blame her. In his latest, Steinberg tells the story of a man on the most remarkable journey which takes him from Mogadishu via South Africa to even more distant shores. Asad Abdullahi goes through hell and back and on his trip teaches us what it means to hope and dream when it seems that all is in vein. I listened to and interviewed Steinberg during the Open Book Festival last year. For my reflections on the festival see “The Image of a Pie”.
Another of my favourite authors, Michiel Heyns, launched A Sportful Malice at the FLF last year and the novel featured in my July giveaway, but later in the year I turned to his previous title, Invisible Furies (Jonathan Ball, 2012) and enjoyed it just as much, not only because it is set in my beloved Paris. After a long absence, Christopher travels to Paris where he encounters a world of beauty and intrigue. He is there to help Eric, the son of a friend, come to his senses and return to South Africa. But Eric has some surprises in store for him. Nothing is what it seems in the City of Love.
The Snowden Files – The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man by Luke Harding (Guardian Books/Faber and Faber, 2014) is another eye-opener when it comes to the workings of the internet and governments all over the world. Harding reveals the background to the Snowden story and all its scary implications. A tense read of history unfolding in front of our eyes. I hope there will be a follow-up book and some kind of decent resolution to this saga on all fronts.
A discovery from last year’s Open Book Festival, Jaco van Schalkwyk’s The Alibi Club (Umuzi, 2014) is one of the most refreshing South African fiction debuts of the last few years. Set in New York in the decade around 9/11, it tells the story of a South African working at a club and interacting with its regulars in the heart of Brooklyn. Tight, impact prose, distinct characters, well-paced storytelling – the stuff of a great promise. I am very curious what Van Schalkwyk will do next.
Not only a delightful book, but a reminder of what good booksellers are for: Travels with Epicurus – Meditations from a Greek Island on the Pleasures of Old Age (Oneworld, 2013) by Daniel Klein was recommended to me by Johan Hugo from the Protea Bookshop in Rondebosch. Johan and I have been talking books for years now, so he knows what André or I might enjoy. With this enlightening read he was spot on for both of us. We literally devoured the little book. It is one of those that makes you feel good about the world and your place in it. And it was only written because of Klein’s initial fear of acquiring dentures… Inspiration is a curious thing indeed.
This is also a book Johan introduced me to, knowing that I would be interested in another Polish-speaking author writing in English: Anna’s family emigrates in the 1980s before the changeover in Poland and settles in New York. Missing her roots and extended family, every summer Anna returns to Poland on her own and spends the holidays in her old neighbourhood where she befriends Justyna and Kamila. Together, they survive the ups and downs of puberty: jealousies, hang-ups about their developing bodies, the turbulences of first loves, budding sexualities and substance abuse. Some things go horribly wrong and one day Anna refuses to come back for another visit. Years later, another tragedy brings the three friends together again. Poland is undergoing its own transition while the young women face the new reality and try to pick up the pieces of their broken dreams. The Lullaby of Polish Girls (Quercus, 2013) by Dagmara Dominczyk is a fast-paced story of growing up in a migratory world.
I have a friend whom I see roughly once a year for coffee or lunch. Every our encounter inspires me and gives me food for thought for the next year. The last time we spoke, Penelope Lively came up and he recommended that I read Moon Tiger (André Deutsch, 1987). I have read some of Lively’s other novels and there was even a time when I contemplated writing a thesis on her work, but it was not meant to be. Moon Tiger, however, made me want to go back to her writing again. It is an intense, beautiful study of the nature of history with a grand love story at its centre.
Another local novel that made a huge impact on me this year: Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System (Umuzi, 2014). I was asked to review it for LitNet and decided to do some catch-up Coovadia reading in the process, which proved most entertaining. But this latest is, for me, Coovadia’s best up to date. We speak about ‘post-apartheid’ fiction all the time, but I sometimes wonder how many novels deserve the title in the sense that they have been truly written from that perspective. Tales of the Metric System is definitely one of them.
An absolute highlight of last year’s and this year’s reading is the discovery of the Welsh author, Cynan Jones. I subscribe to the New Welsh Review. I was reading an old issue of the magazine which included a review of Jones’s rewriting of a Welsh myth, Bird, Blood, Snow (Seren, 2012) and I was intrigued. I googled, as one does, and found that he’d written a novel with a central Polish character, Everything I Found on the Beach (Parthian, 2011). A Welsh author writing a Polish character was too much to resist, so I ordered the novel and Jones’s latest, The Dig (Granta, 2014). Last night, I started The Long Dry (Parthian, 2007) and am enthralled by it like by the other two titles. In the meantime, I have discovered that Jones has also published two other novels which might be tricky to get since they seem to be out of print, but I am patient and persistent, and eventually, I intend to write a longer piece about his work. Literary discoveries get seldom better than this. I am a fan for life.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (Picador, 2014) was sent to me for reviewing. Also a writer to watch out for. The novel is speculative fiction at its finest and belongs with the Atwoods & Le Guins of the literary world. It is a genre which has always appealed to me and I hope to write in it myself one day. Station Eleven tells the story of a handful of survivors of a lethal flu which wipes out most of the human race. Disturbing and touching at the same time, it contemplates the big questions in life while telling a gripping story.
Richard Zimler has been a friend since we first corresponded about The Children’s Hours: Stories of Childhood. His work is an inspiration. I have been a fan for years. His latest novel, The Night Watchman (Corsair, 2014), is set in Portugal, but it tells a very familiar story of abuse, power, corruption and the sense of hopelessness we all face in this world when confronted with any of these evils. Zimler never goes for easy answers. His stories are nuanced, beautifully written (he is a master of dialogue) and always full of life’s wisdoms. It is an honour to know and to read him.
Two local friends, Alex Smith and her partner, Andrew Salomon, have published novels last year with Umuzi (again, gorgeous covers): Devilskein and Dearlove, Tokoloshe Song. Both are fantasy novels, very different though, but equally entertaining. Most days I am not a fantasy fan, but when it is done well, like these two heart-warming and enchanting books, even a non-believer’s heart melts. I loved the characters, their unusual universes filled with magic and wonder, and their stories which kept me spell-bound. I might convert after all!
And speaking of the devil, Andrew Brown’s Devil’s Harvest (Zebra Press, 2014) is not an easy read. Heart-wrenching and honest, it tells the story of a British botanist and a Sudanese woman who is a survivor of a genocide. The story of their journey through South Sudan is one of those that had to be written and has to be read. Brown did an excellent job at making sure that it is not forgotten. This was my first of his novels, and certainly not the last. Something to look forward to in 2015!
An accidental encounter on twitter, of all places, revealed that I share a publisher with Réney Warrington. October (Protea Book House, 2013) is a subtle love story of how two damaged women struggle through emotional numbness to find a way back to life. The photographer Jo is shell-shocked by the divorce of her parents and her sister’s homophobia. When she meets the famous pop singer Leigh who has to overcome a serious illness and a troubled past, Jo does not expect to ever heal again. Despite serious doubts, they decide to give their relationship at least a fleeting chance…
Warrington is also a photographer and October includes a few startling images that poignantly illustrate the narrative.
Another twitter encounter resulted in my reading this meticulously crafted novel about a day in the life of a grieving woman. Having lived through the worst imaginable ordeal for a parent, Ella now has to take care of her husband who is suffering from severe depression. As each heart-breaking day dawns, she leaves massages in the sand for the sea to wash away. It is in the water that she also confronts her deepest hopes and worst fears. Poetic, full of insights, and simply beautiful, Tiah Beautement’s This Day (Modjaji Books, 2014) is an remarkable achievement.
Please let me know:
1) which books have made such an impact on you in the second half of 2014 that you wanted to share them with others?
2) which of the titles I’ve mentioned above you would be interested in reading yourself?
From your comments, I’ll draw one name at the beginning of February 2015 and send you the book you have chosen from the list of my favourite titles.
(Just to clarify, it seems this wasn’t clear: The winner will get a brand-new copy of the book they chose from my list.)