Monday, December 30, 2013

My best, almost-best and worst of 2013

Favourite books of 2013

All the feels, all the TEABS, all the books I enjoyed reading most this year

Stone against the mirror by Hugh Lewis

I have been telling everyone I know to go read this book. This is a rich and unsentimental account of a group of youngish white kids, trying to do what they could to put a dent in the Apartheid regime. It does not pretend that their contribution, though well meaning and not without success, was particularly significant in the greater scheme of things. Nor does it overblow their place in history or have any delusions about what they achieved. Instead, Lewis takes an earnest and honest look at his actions and those of his friends’. He tells the story of the personal and political betrayal by his closest friend, a man he considered practically a brother. As he charts the events that led to an 8 year imprisonment all those years ago, he is in the present time travelling to London to meet his old friend after not speaking for some 40 year. This is some deep shit. But it’s wonderful. Go read this book.


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Vortex by Julie Cross
Becoming Chloe by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Way Back Home by Niq Mhlongo
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Sharp Edges by SA Partridge
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Merit awards for 2013

I liked these books very, very much but they weren’t quite my favorites...

The Mall by SL Grey

I did not really expect to be scarred by this. I have not been frightened by a book since Goosebumps in the second grade. But. The Mall is scary in ways that you do not imagine it will scare you. It is a thinking man’s horror because so much of what is scary about it is only frightening when you really, really think it through. It’s clever and wicked and mischievous but it’s pretty difficult to talk about it in any detail without giving away too much. I’d hate to spoil the fun so I’ll say this: if you’re into a book with a bite, push on through a very slow start and prepare to see your local mall (and actually the whole way we live these days) in a whole new, much creepier light.

South Africa’s Suspended Revolution by Adam Habib

South Africa’s Suspended Revolution is an unaffected but serious work that examines the challenges of our times while charting a way forward. Habib explores a range of topics including institutional design and human agency, affirmative action and conservative macroeconomic policies and the balance of power between corporates and unions. The result is a book that goes to the core of our social context, not shying away from controversial ideas, but instead dealing with them evenly and accessibly. In the midst of strike season, Habib’s fresh perspective on the crisis of service delivery and widespread deficiencies in political accountability are particularly timely. As an introduction to contemporary South Africa, South Africa’s Suspended Revolution is a compelling snapshot of our complex socio-political and economic landscape.


Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill
The Imposter by Damon Galgut
Go Tell the Sun by Wame Molefhe
Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

It’s not you, it’s me

Try though I did, there were also some books this year that just didn’t quite hit the spot. There’s always some debate about whether reviewers should write negative reviews. I’m of the opinion that reviews should be fair, balanced but honest. If it was bad, I have to say so. What I do not have to do it tear apart a book or it’s author. So, in the spirit of transparency, sorry books: it’s not you, it’s me.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick
Passion for Freedom by Mamphela Ramphele
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Less than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Sweethearts by Sara Zarr
Pretty Bad Things by CJ Skuse
The Smell of Apples by Mark Behr
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Selected YA reviews for 2013

I’ve been pretty lax about blogging over the last few months. In part, because I left my day job at Puku and started a new career. In part, because I have spent a lot more time reviewing books and writing stories than I did even when I was at Puku. In any case, that has not meant that I haven’t been reading. So now, as I recover from the Christmas turkey, let’s talk about some of what I read this year:

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

In a word, it was... Thoughtful

Started this book with high expectations and found that for the first half of the book, I was thoroughly enthralled and could really relate to Hannah’s situation. I think the misogyny and objectification I put up with at 13, at 19, at 21 is very much of the flavor that she’s dealing with. But as the reasons started to get a little darker, I also started to feel some skepticism creeping in. Would these reasons really be enough to kill yourself? Some of these things didn’t even happen to you, Hannah. They happened to other people and, yes, they affected you deeply, but it seems a little self-obsessed to turn someone else’s pain inwards when you don’t even know the person or particularly care about them. We’d all be offing ourselves after the evening news if we did that, wouldn’t we? I appreciated the story, I really liked the main character and it is totally worth reading but the format of Hannah says something on the tapes, Clay responds to what Hannah just said got old and I am still not entirely sure why Hannah killed herself.

The Girl in the Wall by Daphne Benedis-Grab

In a word, it was... Action-packed

When I first read this book, I quickly dismissed it as fun but insubstantial. It’s only now, months later that I realize how much of the story stayed with me and seems to have resonated on some level. It’s a tale of two girls, stuck in a house where the shit has seriously hit the fan. Peeps be dying, peeps be lying and bitches be taking none of that. So yeah, girls rule in this one. There’s intrigue, mystery (though, to be fair, it wasn’t that hard to work out if you really thought about it) and even a little romance. It’s a great weekend/beach read, I really enjoyed it and think it’s an awesome substitute for the Friday night action movie you can’t bring yourself to turn on.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E Smith

In a word, it was... Lite

I’m not gonna be a hater about this book. I enjoyed it, not immensely but certainly enough to keep reading. It was sweet, very cute but a little heavy on the insta-love. If you’re into a good romcom of The Holiday/Love Actually variety, this will do it for you. Bonus: dark, mysterious, broody guy with posh British accent swoon

Antigoddess by Kendare Blake

In a word, it was... Curious

I was looking forward to this one for some time. I mean, add Greek mythology to high school drama and I’m there like the Harry Potter book 8, you know. It was quite slow to start but once it got going, it did take me on a ride and I did find myself rooting for the semi-good gods to beat out the no-good gods in a fight for their immortal lives. That being said, it didn’t blow me away and I probably won’t be reading any more books in this series, Perhaps it was because I had just finished reading the Anna Dressed in Blood books (which I really loved) and the mannerisms and voices of all the characters I’d grown to love in Anna seemed to just be cut and pasted into Antigoddess. This may be ungenerous but honestly, while the plots could not be more different, Blake could have used an editor’s wise hand to remove the tones and echoes of the Anna books in Antigoddess. Still would recommend it if you’re into mythology and YA though.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Forgive me, Matthew Quick

The book: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick

And it's about?

Today is Leonard Peacock's birthday. It is also the day he hides a gun in his backpack. Because today is the day he will kill his former best friend, and then himself, with his grandfather's P-38 pistol.

But first he must say good-bye to the four people who matter most to him: his Humphrey Bogart-obsessed next-door neighbour, Walt; his classmate Baback, a violin virtuoso; Lauren, the Christian homeschooler he has a crush on; and Herr Silverman, who teaches the high school's class on the Holocaust. Speaking to each in turn, Leonard slowly reveals his secrets as the hours tick by and the moment of truth approaches.

In this riveting book, acclaimed author Matthew Quick unflinchingly examines the impossible choices that must be made—and the light in us all that never goes out.

In a word, it was... Frustrating

I should have known better. I read Silver Linings Playbook and was deeply underwhelmed: so underwhelmed, in fact, that I could not even bring myself to tweet about it, let along blog about it. But I thought, hey, this new one looks good. People seem to like it. Why not?

Here's why not:

The thing I love about great novels, and indeed great novelists, is that they are fearless. They go to dark places and force us to follow into something unknown and sometimes unknowable. And we go. We could go back but onwards we push because the novel challenges us, forces us to think and allows us to feel. At the end, we are not guaranteed a happy ending or even one that makes sense but, end it must. This book has an ending and I guess it was sort of happy and even sort of made sense but I was left with a feeling that nothing really happened. My reward for attempting to wade through the half-hearted darkness was not worth the effort to read the damn book. Because this book does not have the courage to give us anything but dark-lite: it says 'it's bad but don't worry, you don't have to read about it or its implications in any detail at all. It's as bad as I suggest. I think?'. And that was not good enough for me.

I think Matthew Quick has another hit on his hands. And, lucky for him, it already reads just like a Hollywood screenplay. But I didn't want all of the lights. I just wanted something real and something fearless. This wasn't it. So never, ever again. I will not be fooled again, Jodi Picoult-style, Mathew Quick (please don't get me started on My Sister's Keeper, the blurb made it sound like hard-hitting not emotionally-manipulative). No silver linings here.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

My new story is up at FunDza!

I have been deathly quiet on the blog, in part because I've started a new job not in publishing and in part because I was prepping for Frankfurt Book Fair where I spoke about my job at Puku and (what else) children's books.

The other thing I did recently was write a story for FunDza Literary Trust, an organisation that I really admire and love. It was so much fun getting to write for them and it has been amazing to see so many of the FunDza fans get genuinely caught up in the story. I'm saving all those lovely comments for a rainy day...

Anyway, if you want to read my story, you can find it here. It's called 'What the Water Gave Us' - a reference to my story but also to a Florence and the Machine song because why not?

What the Water Gave Us

Author: Bontle Senne
Genre: Human Drama
Publisher: FunDza Literacy Trust

Lindi is a normal teenage girl, except for one thing: she can see ghosts. She’s been secretly hunting down evil spirits and saving people for as long as she can remember. But now someone knows her secret. Lindi has to find out who is threatening to expose her – before it’s too late.

Happy reading kids!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

16 Aug: Twitter debate on African kid lit

I've always been a big fan of the work of Golden Baobab so I'm really please that they have scheduled a Twitter conference of sorts to discuss the issues of African children's literature. Realistically, there's no real other forum to take up the conversation and someone has to ask why a great opportunity like Golden Baobab only received 180 submissions this year. Where are all the writers at? And why didn't they submit they stories?

In the context of my own life, moving out of my career in African children's literature because of a systematic lack of investment and support in the sector, I definitely have a vested interest in this discussion. And I really really wish that just one of the people I see on Twitter asking for books in Zulu or Sesotho or Xhosa for their kids could use this as a platform to explain why they care enough to ask but seemingly don't care enough to buy these books or support the organisations that do. I'm not even being facetious. Seriously. I want to know.

On July 26 2013, there was a press release from Golden Baobab announcing the end of its call for submissions for the 2013 Golden Baobab Prize. Golden Baobab has undoubtedly established itself in the literary sphere as the voice of African children’s literature. As the Executive Director, Deborah Ahenkorah says, “African children deserve to grow up surrounded by stories that reflect their cultures and experiences.” This statement has been the driving force in the Golden Baobab key objective of pushing African stories to the forefront of the literary world.

Considering the number of stories received this year, 180 stories from 13 African countries, is it untoward to ask, “Does Africa not care for the intellectual growth of its future citizens?” A continent with 54 countries and 1 billion people (as at 2009) and only 180 stories from 13 countries! Stories are the repositories of culture. In my opinion, I think we can do better than this. It is true that all the 1 billion people cannot write stories for children and are doing other worthy things but I still think we can expect more.

True, our continent has been beleaguered with circumstances (low literacy rate, coups, etc )hat have stunted our growth and development but how long are we going to pull up this card anytime the issue of not doing enough is raised? The Golden Baobab Prize was established to inspire the creation of enthralling African children’s stories by gifted African writers. Currently In its 5th year, the Prize has received a little over a thousand submitted stories. A little over a thousand stories in 5 years, in the world’s second largest continent with its over 1 billion people scattered all over the world. This is not good enough.

I am not in anyway discounting the invaluable contribution to African Children’s Literature other organizations have made. The Junior African Writers Series (JAWS) by Heinnemann and the Pacesetters books by Macmillan may be mentioned as the stimulant of African writing for children. The bustling publishing industry of South Africa and Nigeria is something to be proud of. However, Africa is more than just these 2 countries ; there is so much we can do.

It is about time we had a serious conversation about the African children’s literature industry and space that Golden Baobab occupies with other well-meaning organizations on our continent. The children’s book publishing in India is estimated to be worth $1.15 billion growing at the rate of 25% per annum.

According to IBIS World’s Market Research on the Children’s Book Publishing Industry over a period of 5 years (2007 to 2012), the industry (in the US) accounted for:

487 businesses
$3 billion in revenue
9, 307 people employed and
An annual growth of 0.7%
These are positive statistics that should set investors on a scrambling spree yet you and I know that is not the case. This is a billion dollar industry waiting to be taken over by writers, illustrators, publishers, marketers and anyone you can think of within this space. South Africa may be considered as the hub of African children’s literature. To paraphrase the title of NoViolet Bulawayo’s famous book, “We need new countries.” We need new countries to be known for African children’s literature so that Africa can have a fair representation in the sphere of children’s literature. We need new names, new authors, new illustrators, new readers.

So why aren’t our African writers writing for children?

Read more about tomorrow's virtual meetup or just follow @GoldenBaobab or tomorrow at 16:00 GMT.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Reviews of Tempest, Vortex and Anna Dress in Blood

Tempest by Juile Cross

Verdict: (I feel like I need to add a new category here) Likeable

The year is 2009. Nineteen-year-old Jackson Meyer is a normal guy… he’s in college, has a girlfriend… and he can travel back through time. But it’s not like the movies – nothing changes in the present after his jumps, there’s no space-time continuum issues or broken flux capacitors – it’s just harmless fun.

That is… until the day strangers burst in on Jackson and his girlfriend, Holly, and during a struggle with Jackson, Holly is fatally shot. In his panic, Jackson jumps back two years to 2007, but this is not like his previous time jumps. Now he’s stuck in 2007 and can’t get back to the future.

So, all in all pretty awks for Jackson, right? He's stuck in 2007 while his gf is dying in 2009 and he can't get back to her. So what's the logical thing do to when you're stuck in 2007 with not a lot to do? Find your future gf and make her fall in love with you all over again, for the first time. It's a solid plan until the Enemies of Time that tried to kill her the first time, in the future, follow Jackson to 2007 to do it all over again. Luckily, Jackson is also spending 2007 learning more about his abilities, his family and the future so he's not going down without a fight.

I enjoyed Tempest. I mean, it wasn't life changing but it was fun and I enjoyed it. The sequel was a lot better and totally made Tempest worth reading. Which brings me to:

Vortex by Julie Cross

Verdict: Incredible

LOVED IT. As this is a sequel, I'll refrain for adding any spoilers not already in the blurb of the book. What you need to know is this: Jackson managed to quit Holly 2007/2009 - it's hard to keep up. Even after getting her away from the Enemies of Time, Holly managed to get herself into even more trouble by basically just being alive. I kind of feel bad for Holly but I feel worse for Jackson because even though he's got this whole time travel thing sort of figured out now and he's in the CIA, the same peeps that tried to kill him and/ Holly last time are back and they are really working at it now.

More time travel, more love-vibes, more CIA conspiracy - what's not to love?

Anna Dressed in Blood by Anna Kendrick

Verdict: Incredible

I meant to read this book ages ago but it kind of kept getting away from me. I'm really glad I did get to it though because it was great. Cas Lowood hunts ghosts and saves people. Like his father before him, he's travelling through North America with a knife and a burning desire for vengeance. He may still be a teenager but Cas has got this ghost hunter thing down - no friends, no distractions and in no time, he'll have killed enough practise ghosts to take on the real prize: the ghost that killed his dad. It's all very Supernatural-esque which, as a HUGE fan of seasons 2-5, I really loved. Cas IS Dean Winchestor. Broody, good-looking, charming and ready to kick some otherworldly ass.

He arrives in Thunder Bay to kill a powerful ghost named Anna who is, as the title suggests, dressed in her own blood. But what he does instead is make friends, get some people killed, solve a mystery and do a little personal growth on the side. It was a good mix of funny, sort-of-scary and sad. Really enjoyed it and looking forward to diving into the sequel soon.

Monday, August 5, 2013

New award for SA writers announced: WGSA Muse Awards!

There's a new writers award for South African writers!

The Writers’ Guild of South Africa (WGSA) honours, celebrates and promotes the creativity, quality and writing excellence of local writers with the introduction and launching of the WGSA Muse Awards.

There are six categories for which entries will be accepted for the 2013 WGSA Muse Awards:
• Feature Film
• TV Drama
• TV Comedy
• Documentary
• Stage Plays, and
• Unproduced Script in any genre.

A panel of independent judges will be looking for excellence in writing style, story, characterisation, dialogue, and impact. Every nominee will receive a personalised Nomination Certificate, and each winner will receive a personalised Winner’s Certificate and a beautiful and specially designed WGSA Muse Trophy.

The WGSA is a registered Non-Profit Organisation (NPO) and a Public Benefit Organisation (PBO) which replaced SASWA, The South African Scriptwriters Association that was formed in 1974. It remains the only association in South Africa with the sole purpose of protecting, developing and empowering performance writers in the local film, television, radio, stage, animation and new media (internet – mobile and digital distribution, and gaming) industries. The WGSA is a key member of SASFED (The South African Screen Federation), and one of the founding members of LAMP (Language and Media Practitioners).

The judging process will take place during November and December 2013, with the nominees announced in January 2014. This will be followed by the award ceremony, which will take place early next year.

Entries open on 1 August 2013. The deadline for entries in the 2013 WGSA Muse Awards is at midnight on the 31st October 2013, and they must be submitted online. The online entry system and competition details can be found on the WGSA Muse Awards website.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Counting my (literary) blessings

I've had a really good year. Yes, it has had its challenges. Working in the education sector was never going to be easy. But it has also been richly rewarding in ways I thought only existed for people who go to India to find themselves. I almost can't believe that in a month from now I'll be starting a whole new adventure, in a completely different sector. Maybe it's the start of this one month's notice that is making me feel the need to take stock...

I got into this introspective mood yesterday when I was talking to Sowetan Education about (among other things) my career and my love for my work. It's sounds weird but I only realised fairly recently how totally nerdy I am. I love books. Not in a superficial, romcom kind of way. It's a weak-at-the-knees, love-of-my-life kind of feeling. I've had it since I was five years old and books have been the only I ever wanted or needed for my sanity. If I could read and write, I was happy. I didn't need other people, I didn't need friends or food or outside. I had books.

I'm meant to be talking at Read Educational Trust's book clubs' forum on Saturday morning. I'm meant to be (again) talking about my career and my love of my work. I'm meant to be talking about 'girl power' and how girls should read. But all I want to talk about are the five books I've read in the last week and a half. That and how I came to need people as much as I need books.

Also: I feel really blessed to have had some awesome people behind me and my work this year. There's no real way to thank them without being chessy because the truth is, they have given me a life of books and that was, honestly, all I ever wanted. I'm going into another long-held dream job now and I'm feeling so so grateful. Not many people get to have all their dreams come true before they're even 25.

Like the saying I've seen on so many Tumblrs goes: you don't find yourself, you make yourself. So today, inspired by Jason from 'The Truth About Forever', I'm making a list of everyone who has helped me make my(professional)self*:

1. Colleen, Ben, Peter and Elinor. No one could ask for better mentors. You're all the but Elinor is honestly one of the kindest, most lovely people I have ever met.
2. Stéphan-Eloïse Gras. She is a kick-ass human being and somehow she conned Institut Francais into buying me a ticket to Brazzaville. Best. Weekend. Ever.
3. Sefi Atta. So much wisdom is such a short space of time.
4. Nangamso Koza, Craig Wattrus, Jayne Southern and Lynn Joffe (!) who have Stéphan-Eloïse levels of faith in me and/ have let me suck them in for hours of debate about the education crisis we're in. So thanks for that.
5. Awesome volunteer super-people who should be paid so much for all they have given to this sector: Dani Favis, Madelein du Toit and Nikki Mcdiarmid. So much love.

I've got to start writing what I've got to say on Saturday. Now that I have procrastinated on the interwebs and felt happy and blessed, and totally forgotten to eat dinner or go to the gym. I've got to start writing but I feel like, if the last year is anything to go by, I'm probably just going to go read instead...

*I have a feeling that friends and family should already know how I feel about them. If they don't, I'm doing so many things wrong with my life.

Friday, July 26, 2013

It sounds bad but it's good! I think? My review of Bodyguard: Hostage

The Book: Bodyguard: Hostage by Chris Bradford

And It's About?


In a dangerous world, everyone needs protection.

No one suspects that a teenager could protect someone – but Connor Reeves is no ordinary 14 year old. He’s a professional bodyguard trained in surveillance, anti-ambush techniques, hostage survival and unarmed combat. When he’s summoned to protect the President’s daughter, his protection skills face the ultimate test.

Alicia doesn’t want to be guarded. She just wants to have fun. With no clue that Connor is her bodyguard, she tries to escape the Secret Service and lead him astray. But unknown to her and Connor, a terrorist sleeper cell has been activated.

Its mission: to take the President’s daughter HOSTAGE.

In a word, it was... Unlikely

I read the blurb. I think: How am I supposed to take that seriously? First, I am meant to believe that a 14 year old is a bodyguard. I have met 14 year olds boys. I ain't trusting my life in their prepubescent hands. Even with mad kickboxing skills and putting aside my scepticism of their upper body strength aside, the full development of the parts of the brain that manages rational and mature behaviour is a real thing. And that shizz is just not working correctly until you are like 20. I should know (see all bad decisions made in high school).

Then, I am meant to believe that the PRESIDENT of the UNITED STATES of AMERICA would be totally cool with letting this kid protect his kid. Can I see Obezzy letting Conor Reeeves protect Sasha and... the other very pretty, probably also smart one? Not really. But it's supposed to make sense in Bodyguard because Conor's dad protected the President once and now Conor will protect the President's daughter Alicia because... that would be things coming full circle, I guess? The Secret service in the book is not amused. The Secret Service in real life would definitely not be down for that. (Case in point: Gaddaffi had a teen bodyguard and look how that ended.)

But the thing that for me was too much were the terrorists. Islamic terrorists would not want to take the President's daughter hostage to secure the release of ALL Islamic 'prisoners of war' or 'enemy combatants' or whatever, nor to force America troops out of all Islamic countries immediately. They would not want this not because it isn't something that they would theoretically like. Sure, it would be nice. But, they are much much more intelligent than that and no fundamentalist group would honestly believe that capturing the President's daughter would cause him to unilaterally end a multibillion dollar campaign against millions of people in dozens of countries working within, in collaboration with or in support of dozens of Islamic and other extremist groups. That would just not happen. If anything, they might want to assassinate members of the First Family to terrorise Americans in the same way as 9/11. Or maybe kidnap members of said family and render them to Islamic countries for a live execution on YouTube. Maybe.

These three ideas (14 year old as bodyguard, POTUS totally ok with this and terrorist dumb enough to think their plan will work) make up the bulk of this novel. If you cannot suspend your disbelief about these and ignore the real misunderstanding of international relations or the global war or terror, then this is not a book for you.

Luckily, I was reviewing the book for a news publication and had to suspend my disbelief. I'm glad I did. Besides it's naivety, it was a actually good book. It is YA fiction and it does not promise to be realistic or truthful and it is unfair and punitive to impose that burden of responsibility on the genre. Bodyguard was fast-paced, fun, well-written, full of action and great for young teens who might be more intrigued by this original idea than they are bothered by its implausibility.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Buddyguards, time travel and Glee!

I went a bit cray at the Exclusive Books sale at Melrose Arch this weekend and bought many books. I also have a book from The Times that I'm meant to be reviewing for work vibes and at this weekend's Skoobs book blogger's event, I picked up an advanced review copy of something that sounds fun. Of this impressive 8 book stack of books I'll be reading in the next two weeks, these sound the most interesting:

Bodyguard: Hostage by Chris Bradford


In a dangerous world, everyone needs protection.

No one suspects that a teenager could protect someone – but Connor Reeves is no ordinary 14 year old. He’s a professional bodyguard trained in surveillance, anti-ambush techniques, hostage survival and unarmed combat. When he’s summoned to protect the President’s daughter, his protection skills face the ultimate test.

Alicia doesn’t want to be guarded. She just wants to have fun. With no clue that Connor is her bodyguard, she tries to escape the Secret Service and lead him astray. But unknown to her and Connor, a terrorist sleeper cell has been activated.

Its mission: to take the President’s daughter HOSTAGE

I'm not going to lie. I'm about half-way through this book and while it is entertaining, it's also kind of ridiculous and totally implausible. I'm surprised that it's doing so well on Goodreads. I mean, it's well-written and it's fun but a 14 year old bodyguard? I would not sign up for that shizz.

Unless of course said teenager could time-travel...

Vortex by Julie Cross

Julie Cross's Vortex is the thrilling second installment of the Tempest series, in which the world hangs in the balance as a lovelorn Jackson must choose who to save

Jackson Meyer has thrown himself into his role as an agent for Tempest, the shadowy division of the CIA that handles all time-travel-related threats. Despite his heartbreak at losing the love of his life, Jackson has proved himself to be an excellent agent. However, after an accidental run in with Holly — the girl he altered history to save — Jackson is once again reminded of what he's lost. And when Eyewall, an opposing division of the CIA, emerges, Jackson and his fellow agents not only find themselves under attack, but Jackson begins to discover that the world around him has changed and someone knows about his erased relationship with Holly, putting both their lives at risk all over again.

I read the first instalment of the series, Tempest, last week ands it was quite good. I mean, it wasn't Divergent but it was good stuff and I was digging the love-vibes between Jackson and Holly. However, the love-vibes can only justify altering the past/future so long before you're just being silly. I'm hoping this sequel is not silly.

Which finally brings me to a book that I wholly expect to be silly. I am a mucho Glee fan and was pleasantly surprised to see Kurt's debut novel on the YA shelf at EB:

Struck By Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal by Chris Colfer

Struck By Lightning: The Carson Phillips Journal follows the story of outcast high school senior Carson Phillips, who blackmails the most popular students in his school into contributing to his literary journal to bolster his college application; his goal in life is to get into Northwestern and eventually become the editor of The New Yorker. At once laugh-out-loud funny, deliciously dark, and remarkably smart, Struck By Lightning unearths the dirt that lies just below the surface of high school. At a time when bullying torments so many young people today, this unique and important novel sheds light with humour and wit on an issue that deeply resonates with countless teens and readers.

I'll also be reading Wool by Hugh Howey, Acid by Emma Pass and Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake. Wish me luck.

Mmatladi le Dingwe and me: a return to the old stories

I interviewed Damaria Senne a while ago for the Puku Presents series and her interview is up today. Damaria is interesting to me because she represents a different kind of children's book writer than those I usually meet. For one, she has self-published her books with no apologies or plans to try get published by a 'real' publisher soon and that's kinda brave and kinda cool. For another, Damaria represents an oft not well-represented demographic of published authors in South Africa: the writers who didn't have books to read. When asked what he favourite children's book was as a child, she says:

I didn’t read children’s books as a child. I didn’t have access to them. But I loved the story of Mmatladi le Dingwe, a story that was included in Primary School learner’s book. Then there was the story of Worsie (in my Afrikaans learner’s book), which my siblings and I found extremely funny. Even today, we still make reference to the character of Worsie when we talk about someone running from problems.

I tried to find the story Mmatladi le Dingwe online to no avail. I'd never heard of it before Damaria's reference to it. I suspect that perhaps were my grandmother still alive, she might have been able to tell it to me. Why does it seem that grandmothers are the only ones who still tell the old stories?

Our oral heritage seems to have all but lost its place in our education system, especially for children below the school-going age. As a child, I had books but all of them were in English. The grown-ups (probably rightly in SA circa 1990) thought it was a better idea for me to build competency in English than to even attempt to acquire stories or concepts in my home language. I was lucky: I took to English quickly, discovered I actually had a talent for the language and read everything I could get my hands on. Most other kids aren't so lucky.

With no access to home language children’s books outside of those ordered by schools and parents who are often not equipped to help with their children’s literacy and learning, we should never have abandoned oral storytelling as a vehicle to impart knowledge and linguistic skills. We should never have pushed the angle that you have to read to your children and that that is the only way to contribute to their improved literacy. What if you can't afford books? What if you can't read? Why can't you tell them the stories of your childhood and your parents' childhood? Loss of this practise (or rather, institutional praise and support of this practise) has disadvantaged many local children in their acquisition of of complex concepts in their home language and fundamentals of their first additional language. True story.

Neither traditional nor self-published non-English, non-Afrikaans books are getting to kids. A writer's home language is X but publishers don't think there's a market for X books and booksellers don't think X books sell so they don't get adequately published or distributed. The writer realises this and does not attempt to write in X because if you can't find a publisher or a bookseller to stock it, there's not much of a point is there? Self-publishing still carries a stigma and, sorry, but Exclusive Books probably isn't going to be putting that kind of book on their shelves anytime soon either. And then people complain that there aren't any books in X available and how will we keep X alive for their children - while simultaneously not buying and promoting the books that do get published by the likes of Jacana Media, online or through NGOs like Biblionef.

This is an oversimplification. There are good reasons for the actions of all the players in this situation to act as they do. And many of these factors limit the number of English and Afrikaans books available to English and Afrikaans kids too. Don't get me wrong, I empathise. I just long for a different way.

I think a return to orality is that different way. I think we need to work out how to mainstream the production and distribution of oral storytelling in our languages. I think we need to figure out how to monetize it - whether through public-private partnerships or development of Freemium platforms, whatever. Because if people can't make a living from it, how can we expect them to give up pension and medical aid for the uncertainty of vaguely doing good things? It's not fair. They should be rewarded for doing work that is worthwhile (and that goes for authors, illustrators and editors too).

It's easy for me to complain from my little corner of the interwebs. Doing something concrete about it is something entirely different. Which means the only thing we really need to do is figure out how.

Read the full interview with Damaria Senne

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield Review

My quick review of Dirty Wars for Sunday Times books. It may or may not be published and it isn't really in the style of this blog but I really enjoyed the book so I'm giving it a little shine here anyway.

Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill

The product of years of research by dozens of individuals, 'Dirty Wars' is a work of investigative journalism with breathtaking scope and depth. The book traces over 15 years of United States foreign policy from the dangerous rise of Cheney-era death squads in Afghanistan after 9/11 to the US-funded Somali warlords that would eventually tear that country apart. Scahill exposes the routine capture, torture and assassination of foreign and US nationals by various groups within the US intelligence apparatus operating with full impunity and money to burn. In 'Dirty Wars', no one with real, suspected or even fabricated links to al Queda is safe. The bleak reality uncovered is that, to the US, the world really is a battlefield.

‘Dirty Wars’ is likely one of the most important reference books on the Global War on Terror written in recent years. It is not an easy or quick read but it is certainly a worthy one.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Events for writers in Durban

I happened across some events for writers in Durban the other day. I think things are so often focussed on Gauteng and the Western Cape that it's hard to find events and support for writers outside Joburg, Pretoria and CT. Luckily, there's organisations like SA Writers' circle. The stated purpose of the South African Writers’ circle is to "encourage and assist all writers, new and experienced, and to promote the art of creative writing in general". That sounds like my kind of party!

And if I lived in Durban, I would be there:"

Join us at our next meeting, Saturday July 20th, and hear from FRED FELTON on the topic BLOGGING & WRITING.

11h00, Westville Library, R15 for non-members, R5 for members. Please bring and share if you are staying for lunch and the workshop thereafter.

The group apparently meets on the third Saturday of each month at Westville Library at 11h00. I'd love some feedback on how their events go.

This other event looks a little too good to be true. Experience in publishing has taught me anyone who markets their event with "Discover how easy it is to publish and market your book on the internet" is overselling in a big way. But I think if participants go in with their eyes wide open, if nothing else it could be a good networking opportunity?

Richard Mulvey and Charlotte Kemp have written and published 30 books between them and they will be sharing their expertise at the 90 minute presentation to celebrate the launch of their new book “The Working Title”

- Learn how to overcome writers block
- Discover how easy it is to publish and market your book on the internet
- Find out how to self publish, get an ISBN number and choose the right printer
- Become an author and be admired as the authority on your subject
- Uncover the secrets of earning a passive income from your writing

Writing, Publishing and Marketing your book is a lot easier than you think and is this presentation Richard and Charlotte will guide you through a set of simple steps that will get you on the bookshelves and influencing other people’s lives.

Date: 18 July
Time: Refreshments, networking and library – 5:30 – 6pm / Meeting 6 – 9pm
Venue: The Hellenic Centre, 5 High Grove, Umgeni Park, Durban
Cost: Free for PSASA members; R200 for non-members

(Tea, coffee, biscuits & snacks included. Cash bar available).

Booking through PSASA Administrator – Simone: / +27 79 680 2573

Again, I'd really like to know how this goes so hit me up with some feedback if you attend.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Open Book, NBW2013 and a Xhosa Kids' Festival

Literary festivals seem to be what's up this September in South Africa but I am full of the sads because I am missing ALL of them. This is because I am taking a day job outside of publishing in September.

First up is Open Book Festival: 7 - 11 September. There's a lot of writers I wouldn't mind kicking it with who are on the programme and even a few YA writers invited. With Andre, Niq, Teju and Kgebetli there it's gonna be a little Saint-Malo/Brazzaville reunion and I wish I could be there for the shenanigans.

The other 2013 authors at Open Book are:
Alex Latimer, Andrew Brown, Andy Mason, Angela Makholwa, Anton Kannemeyer, Arthur Attwell, Clinton Osbourne, Conrad Botes, Damien Brown, David Tyfield, Dawn Garisch, Deon Meyer, Diane Awerbuck, Dianne Hofmeyr, Fiona Snyckers, Frank Westerman, Gail Schimmel, Gillian Slovo, Haidee Kruger, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Ian Rankin, Imraan Coovadia, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Joe Vaz, Kamila Shamsie, Khadija Heeger, Khosi Xaba, Lauren Beukes, Malika Ndlovu, Margie Orford, Marli Roode, Michael Grant, Mukesh Kapila, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Nadia Davids, NoViolet Bulawayo, Patrick deWitt, Polly Dunbar, Pumla Gqola, Rachel Holmes, Reneilwe Malatji, Rico, Sally Partridge, Sarah Lotz, Sindiwe Magona, Songeziwe Mahlangu, Toni Stuart, Will Storr and Zapiro.

Looking forward to seeing the programme, especially the youth programme. There is also a Comics Fest happening at Open Book and who the hells could say no to that shizz?

The other literary shindig in September (which arguably should be a bigger deal) is National Book Week 2013. NBW takes place every first week of September and is run by South African Book Development Council (SABDC) in collaboration with the Department of Arts and Culture. The week is meant to coincides with International Literacy Day on 8 September. I wish that National Book Week would move around the country more to give more people the opportunity to be a part of it. Their book ambassadors include peeps other peeps seem to care about like Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse, Zonke, Aaron Moloisi, Jafta Mamabolo, DJ Sbu, Kabomo and others so maybe NBW/DAC could take them to Durban, Kimberly, Bloemfontein, Mafikeng, Polokwane and other major cities in the coming years? Hell, maybe have events throughout the year to celebrate book readers and book writers? Just thinking out loud here.

And the last and littlest literary event in September is (disclaimer) a project of my current employer, Puku Children's Literature Foundation. Puku, the National Arts Festival and Rhodes University are hosting the first-ever isiXhosa Children’s Story Festival from 6 – 8 Sept in Grahamstown. We didn't call it a book fair or a literary festival because we don't want to scare anyone off with titles that may be perceived as being elitist or might intimidate those who do not think they 'belong' at the literary festival. Instead, we want to bring the Xhosa community, where-ever they may be, together to share their stories in print or otherwise. Keeping local stories alive for this generation and many after that means that we need events like this festival to bring storytelling, song, dance and books together in a joyous celebrate of the language. At least, that's the idea.

I may not actually get to go to any of these but things are happening, more people are reading or at least superficially interested enough in the idea of reading to support festivals that celebrate literature and languages and that's kind of great just by itself.

Find out more about Open Book
Find out more about NBW
Find out more about the Xhosa Festival

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Kgebetli Moele's new book is going to be crazy/beautiful

I find Kgebetli Moele quite an odd bird. I met him on the train platform at Paris Montparnasse Train Station while we filed up to board the Etonnants Voyageurs train to Saint Malo and for the next few days, was constantly amused by his particular brand of no bullshit-ness. While I think more people would describe me as forthright, Kgebetli is on another level of tell it like it is. Kgebetli is like 'I'm gonna get up in your face about your opinions and then we're gonna drink some more wine and then I'm gonna do a crazy dance and you're gona like it.' He judged me to no end for reading the Great Gatsby between panels, so much was the judgement in his eyes that I had to switch to reading Waiting for Barbarians just to get out of talking about why I thought GG was even worth the time. Turns out though, he was totally right in his analysis of the story and his view that I would be better served reading JMC. So, obvs I'm very excited to hear that he has a new book on the way and I totally encourage everyone to go out an buy it for what I have no doubt will be a unique and challenging read.

Here's the deal:

Mokgethi is not your average teenage girl. Mokgethi dreams of going to Oxford to study Actuarial Science. But her grandmother and aunt have other ideas, and with no one to fight her corner, except for her younger brother Khutso, Mokgethi is forced to realise that her dreams may well turn out to be just that. Dreams.

Kgebetli Moele returns with perhaps his most controversial novel to date – a novel written from the perspective of a seventeen year old girl. Untitled explores the challenges that face young women trying to escape the poverty into which they have been born – Mokgethi’s life is all about overcoming poor education, escaping sexual predators (young and old) and dealing with the lack of positive role models in her township.
In this explosive novel, Moele deals head-on with sexual abuse, rape and poverty in a way that very few South African authors can.

That sounds crazy/beautiful, no? Go order it.

In Cape Town? I hear he's going to be at Open Book.

Cover Reveal: Sharp Edges!

I'm excited about the new novel from SA Partridge - out in a month or so. It sounds like some dark and twisty kind of fun and goodness knows that's the best kind. And this morning she shared the cover:

It is a little every popular, vaguely supernatural, usually international, YA cover ever though, isn't it? I mean, no offense, but I kind of get excited when I see books that don't feature a) headless girl, b) floating girl (in or out of water), c) girl in fluttering, twee dress (usually headless) or d) all of the above. The Sharp Edges cover is obvs a d) so - that happened - but it also kind of fills me with the sads because I know the book has a wide-range of characters, some of which are not as blonde and skinny as this particular headless, floating girl, and it would have been nice to see some of that diversity reflected on the cover of such a well-respected author. It's probably not the sort of thing marketing and/ sales teams are all that interested in but just once, I'd like to see a kick-ass YA novel with a girl on the cover who looks like me and does not live in war-torn village.

Despite my sads, still keen to read the book. I read a bit of it the other day via Short Story Day Africa and it was amazeballs.

Get a sneak peak of the actual story on SSDA's page.

UPDATE: Sally tells me that the cover is actually reflective of that happens in the book. This encourages me greatly and makes me think I need to read this book and then revisit my thoughts on the cover. Also, I love it when authors interact with their fans on social media!

Sally also blogged about the frustrations peeps have with so many YA covers here.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Small stories, big writers: Best of Short Story Day Africa 2013 Interviews

I got tagged to take part in the awesome Short Story Day Africa 2013 Interviews series (yay) but I kind of felt like I'm not really the target market what with my not being a published author and all (boo). But the two-man team at SSDA (Rachel and Tiah) is doing great work with virtually no resources besides their passion, experience and network of Southern Africa writers and I've really been enjoying other people's interviews, posted on their individual blogs. So, here are my favorite answers:

Lauri Kubuitsile

What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?
I’m fine. I haven’t been fine since 16 January 1964.

If someone reviews you badly, do you write them into your next book/story and kill them?
No, but that’s an idea. It’s been noted.

Rachel Zadok

If you could be any author other than yourself, who would you be?
Neil Gaiman. He’s like the rock star of writers.

Moira Richards

Have you ever killed off a character and regretted it?
No, but they sometimes crash a car into a tree to illustrate the depreciation of fixed assets.

Ernest Hemingway said: write drunk, edit sober. For or against?
Oy, so many more fun things to do when drunk…

Louis Greenberg

What’s the most frustrating thing about being a writer in Africa?
What’s *wonderful* about being a writer in Africa is that you can submit directly to publishers and most of them act in warm good faith and genuinely like their writers. There are various supportive communities and very little back-biting from other writers. The frustration is that writers who restrict themselves to Africa can only ever be hobbyists.

If you could go back in time and erase one thing you had written from your writing history, what would it be and why?
Only embarrassing love poems and letters from long ago. Related note to self: burn journals.

Judy Croome

Do you actually enjoy writing, or do you write because you like the finished product?

There are moments I adore writing; there is a sense of connecting to a world greater than this reality and it fills me with wonder. Unfortunately, those moments are rarer than hen's teeth and mostly I hate writing. I write anyway, in constant search of That One Fleeting Moment. I invariably hate my finished product, because it's always less than the ideal I had in my head.
Siphiwo Mahala

What’s the most blatant lie you’ve ever told?

Lies fill my fiction. I can’t think of any better one than others.

And my best:

Joanne Macgregor

Who would play you in the film of your life?
Ryan Gosling. I know, I know, he’s younger than me. Also, there’s that thing of him being male. But the boy can act!

Ryan Gosling? Really? Really? The LOLs. Google "Short Story Day Africa 2013 Interview" to see more.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Joanne Macgregor is super funny...

...She really is though. Before the Team Trinity YA panel debate a few weeks ago, I'd met her at a SCWIBI Gauteng event and she seemed nice enough. But at that Skoobs YA panel, I feel like Joanne really showed her true colours. I actually LOLed. So of course I asked her to do a Puku interview. I posted it this morning and I think it's full of more chuckles.

I have to admit that I haven't read any of her books (my bad) but this is only because they seem to be more on the side of Y than A. Nothing wrong with that, in fact I think we need more local books for the 9 - 12 set, it's just not my drink of choice. What I would love though is for her to take on something that reflects her unique and intelligent humour: regardless of whether that takes on the form of something for adults or another contemporary novel for teens.

The last bit of the interview was my favourite so consider it a spolier alert and head to Puku to read the rest:

What are you working on next?

I’m currently revising a YA romance which is a modern-day retelling of my favourite fairy-tale, and I’m 22 000 words into a new manuscript – a YA dystopian novel. It’s a real challenge because I have to imagine how the world and its people will be different after a cataclysm. If you know my writing, it’s a fair guess that amazing young women will still find time for hot young men while saving humanity!

As one does! What was your favourite book as a child/teen?

When I was young, we didn’t have nearly the range of awesome books that are available now, so I cut my reading teeth on Enid Blyton, like almost everyone else. Although I was already an adult when I read them, my all-time favourite books for children and young adults were the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling. I initially resisted reading them because of all the hype (I’m stubborn that way), but when I did, I fell in love and became something of a Harry Potter expert. As a writer, I admire the craft, the characterisation and especially the ingenious, intricate plotting over the seven-book story. No fair that I didn’t get an invitation to Hogwarts!

Read the rest

Monday, June 17, 2013

Can Themba Memorial Lecture, anyone?

I first read The Suit in high school. I think it was one of the first works in English by an African writer I had ever read. Before that, our English set works were almost exclusively British - with The Wave as the only exception in Grade 9. I didn't recognise any distinct African-ness in or about the story. I didn't appreciate the significance of Themba nor of DRUM nor did it dawn on me what it meant to have a short story by a black man being taught in a former Model C school, not even ten years after democracy. I just liked the story. It surprised me. I think if I read it tomorrow for the first time, it still would.

All this made me very excited to receive an email invite to the Can Themba Memorial Lecture. I was not aware that such a thing existed but it's pretty awesome that at least one of the writers of the great DRUM generation has not been totally forgotten - yet. Also nice that the organisers of this event have managed to pull out a big gun like Nadine 'I've got a Nobel prize bitch' Gordimer. If you're in Pretoria Friday night, pop in.

Join us as we pay tribute to one of DRUM’s legends, Can Themba, and celebrate the 50th anniversary of his short story The Suit, published by Nat Nakasa’s literary journal The Classic.

Date: 21 June 2013

Place: State Theatre Pretoria

Time: 19:00

Guest speakers: Author Nadine Gordimer, respected journalist and former Press Ombudsman, Joe Thloloe and academic Mbulelo Mzamane

Read more about this event

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Prizes, poetry and Paperight: this week in African publishing news

So this week in African publishing news: There's a new prize for new writers. Unfortunately, it's only for published authors and only for authors published by traditional publishing houses but it is a start and a start in the right direction, me thinks:

The Etisalat Prize for Literature is the first ever pan-African prize celebrating first time writers of published fiction books. The Prize aims to serve as a platform for the discovery of new creative talent out of the continent and invariably promote the burgeoning publishing industry in Africa.

By recognizing and celebrating writers and other members of the literary community across Africa, Etisalat plans to bring some much needed awareness and acclaim to the art of Fiction writing while also applauding and rewarding the efforts of those who have ventured into this genre in recent times.

also, AERODROME is launching soon. It's a new South African site that describes itself as celebrating words and people: "the people who write them, the people who edit them, the people who read them". I'm not entirely sure how it plans to differentiate itself from say BooksLIVE (besides with poetry and also by not being a corporate juggernaut) or Litnet (besides from being in English) but I'm intrigued. I'm even more intrigued about how it plans to make money. Last I checked, the margins in local literature are crazy tiny for publishers and booksellers. I have no idea what they are like for... book lovers? book-loving promotors? book-loving and people-loving book promotors? Like I said, no idea. Point is: they are now accepting submissions for poetry which whether it can pay the rent or not is pretty cool for those who still believe in poetry and hope it can find a place in mainstream publishing/book-selling once more.

Poetry Submission Guidelines

Poems can be submitted to poetry[at] as an attachment, either a Word document (.doc or .docx) or in PDF format. Poems should be single spaced and not longer than 30 lines. Please include your name alongside the title of each poem; if you are submitting several poems, please send them in a single document.

We will only accept poems that have not been previously published (with the exception of having been published on your personal website or blog). You will retain the copyright to your work, but by submitting to AERODROME you give us permission to publish your poetry online, in print and elsewhere.

And in more new writing/new opporunities news, The Paperight Young Writers’ Anthology has just come out!

Listen up – South Africa's youth are speaking! The Paperight Young Writers’ Anthology uncovers the next generation of South African writers and artists, compiling work of the highest quality from high school students from every corner of the country. This is what it means to be young, talented and South African in 2013. This is our next generation of artists and writers – in English, Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Afrikaans. Featuring a foreword by Niq Mhlongo.

Go buy this book. If you do and maybe some other people also get a few, more competitions/anthologies like this might be launched in semi-marginalised languages like Zulu and Xhosa and actually marginalised languages like Sotho. We need more opportunities like this: We need to find more representative voices and spaces for them to work and learn in literature. Especially when black authors still comprise only 209 of the 2274 royalties earning trade authors in South Africa. Ain't nobody got time for that.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Interview with SA Partridge over at Puku

There's an immense and untapped resource in local writers, illustrators and storytellers and that Puku should be doing all we can to promote their work and raise their profile. That you can't really get anyone to pay attention to you or your work without a publicist is kind of a shame. I think it probably gets even worse when you are self-published or otherwise with a very small publishing house.

Nonetheless, Puku will now run an interview with a writer, illustrator or storyteller every Monday starting today with SA Partridge. I've already received so many of them so I'm doing a little happy dance. Now to get the next phase of the project up and running so that we can do even more for this generous bunch.

Sally's new book coming out in Aug sounds kind of amazeballs:

Sharp Edges is my fourth book for teenagers. It's about six friends that attend a music festival in the Cedarberg, but only five come back. It's a story about friendship, and being young and in love. It's also about death, and how quickly things can go wrong. It also has a little bit of a murder mystery element to it.

I guess you could say the story was born when I went to a music festival and saw just how fearless young people are, and how hard they can party without any thought for the consequences. It's a great moment in time that I was really interested in capturing, but just like any of my stories, a little bit of darkness managed to creep in.

Read the complete interview

Monday, June 3, 2013

Incredible, Forgettable, Preventable: the YA Edition

Lately, I've had plenty of time for reading and things have definitely taken a YA slant. So: Another round of mini book reviews!

Being by Kevin Brooks

Verdict: Forgettable

Robert thinks he's just another teenage boy growing up in Essex, England, but a routine medical procedure gone horribly wrong throws all his ideas about who (or, more aptly, what) he is out the window. Cut open on a hospital operating table, the doctors and the men with guns who soon join them, look into Robert and can't figure out what they are seeing. Obvs, this freak Robert out and he goes on the run - as one does.

Cars are stolen, people are killed, Robert is hunted down by a powerful agency/secret society and this enemy could be anywhere. In between the fake IDs and kidnapping, Robert finds time to explore and nurture a first love with a pretty, kick-ass young lady - as one does.

Besides an anti-climatic ending, there wasn't actually anything wrong with Being. I was entertained, I enjoyed the rambling musings on what makes a person a person and what a 'being' might actually be and I'm a huge fan of Kevin Brooks because, well, Black Rabbit Summer. However, I was taken on a wild adventure where I ended up in much the same place where I started and for that, I'm afraid I'd forgotten Being as soon as I finished the last page.

Becoming Chloe by Katherine Ryan Hyde

Verdict: Incredible

Meet Jordy. He’s on his own in New York City. Nobody to depend on; nobody depending on him. And it’s been working fine.

Until this girl comes along. She’s 18 and blond and pretty: her world should be perfect. But she’s seen things no one should ever see in their whole life–the kind of things that break a person. She doesn’t seem broken, though. She seems... innocent. Like she doesn’t know a whole lot. Only sometimes she does.

The one thing she knows for sure is that the world is an ugly place. Now her life may depend on Jordy proving her wrong. So they hit the road to discover the truth–and there’s no going back from what they find out.
This deeply felt, redemptive novel reveals both the dark corners and hidden joys of life’s journey – and the remarkable resilience of the human soul.

This was such a lovely, hopeful book. It starts off ridiculously heavy and you just want to hug every one of the characters and take them home because they are too young to have such über-sucky lives. But the thing is they may be young but they are hella resilient. Wrong-side-of-tracks Jordy finds purpose and direction in taking care of mysterious-but-definitely-bad-past Chloe. Together, each of them finally has someone to protect and look out for them. They encounter with a wide array of weird and oft not-so wonderful people including shop owners abusing their power, drug dealers trying to get lucky, doctors who heal not hurt, jerks who text and drive, old men and good dogs.

It's a feel-good kind of book. Not in a pathetic, placating way. It tackles tough issues unflinchingly, it does not spare the rod. But - when Jordy is trying to show Chloe that this world isn't always the ugly place she knows and that life and places and people can be beautiful too, you want to see it too and, by the end, you kind of do.

Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr

Verdict: Incredible

Your dad finding you in the backseat of your older brother's best friend's car sans clothes is at best awks and at worst, well, end of life as you knew it. For Deanna Lambert it's definitely the latter. Sleeping with one 17 year old boy when she was 13 and didn't know anything about anything has given her a lasting reputation as the school slut and her father can still only barely look at her three years later. One mistake from her past defines her present and fuels her dreams to escape to somewhere where that night in the back of Tommy's car never happened.

The best kind of YA books are those that remind me of being a teenager but add some texture of my memories or some richness to my understanding of my 25 year old self. Story of a Girl is that kind of book. It has all the cringeworthiness, the high school politics, the family warfare, the angst, regret and twisty teenage logic you could ever want from contemporary teen fiction. It's also thoughtful, subtle and complex. Bonus points: there is no time for Twilight-style insta-love or HG-esque love triangles in the story. Yes, Deanna has a love interest. Yes, he has a girlfriend. But it's even more messy, and uncomfortable than it sounds and not for the reasons one might expect.

I loved the idea that one youthful indiscretion could echo into the future so loudly. People seem to have this idea that the things that happen when you are young can always be overcome, that they don't need to define you, that making mistakes is what you are meant to do in your teens and, don't worry, all will be forgiven. But it's not really, isn't it? And I loved that this book took on those ideas and let them play out for a young woman who was 16 going on 35 which was pretty much what I was like at her age - minus the car/slut situation.

This could easily have become a bitch and moan session. Deanna's angst could have been overblown for effect: I felt that this was one of the problems with another Zarr novel, Sweethearts, to be fair. Deanna could have ended up with some predictable choice between two good-looking but very different boys, her heart not knowing who to choose until just the right moment, the drama in the car forgotten because YA love fixes everything. Sara Zarr didn't let any of that happen. I was truly grateful and this book went straight into my top 10 YA list.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Chimamanda Adichie wants to teach you to write!

Farafina Trust will be holding a creative writing workshop in Lagos, organized by award winning writer and creative director of Farafina Trust, Chimamanda Adichie, from August 6 to August 16 2013. The workshop is sponsored by Nigerian Breweries Plc.

The Caine Prize winning Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, and others will co-teach the workshop alongside Adichie. The workshop will take the form of a class. Participants will be assigned a wide range of reading exercises, as well as daily writing exercises.

The aim of the workshop is to improve the craft of writers and to encourage published and unpublished writers by bringing different perspective to the art of storytelling. Participation is limited only to those who apply and are accepted.

All material must be pasted or written in the body of the e-mail. Please Do NOT include any attachments in your e-mail. Applications with attachments will be automatically disqualified.

Deadline for submission is JUNE 12, 2013. Only those accepted to the workshop will be notified by JULY 22, 2013.

Accommodation in Lagos will be provided for all accepted applicants who are able to attend for the ten-day duration of the workshop.

A literary evening of readings, open to the public, will be held at the end of the workshop on August 16, 2013.

To apply, send an e-mail to
Your e-mail subject should read ‘Workshop Application’

The body of the e-mail should contain the following:
1. Your Name
2. Your Address
3. A few sentences about yourself
4. A writing sample of between 200 and 800 words.

The sample must be either fiction or non-fiction

Source: Farafina Books

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Etonnants Voyageurs Saint-Malo in pictures

Etonnants Voyageurs is really a fantastic literary festival. Earlier this year I spoke at the Brazzaville event (which was amazing) and last week I got to go to the Saint-Malo, France edition. Saint-Malo was totally French and totally European in every way that Brazza was so refreshingly African. After the 3 hour plus train ride from Paris, all the invitees of the programme were piled into buses and taken into the Old City. It's a beautiful historic part of the town, all cobbled streets and seagulls. At the opening ceremony (an event which I guess was supposed to be lunch), we were served champagne and oysters. Champagne is always a winner for me, especially after I visited the region in March and learned much more about the process of actually making the bubbly. However, oysters are not my idea of lunch. I'm much more of a generous buffet with delish veggies and yummy desserts kind of girl. I'm just not fancy enough to enjoy caviar, oysters, mussels, single-malt whiskey - can I maybe just have a Woolies couscous salad? Despite my despair over the champagne plus oysters lunch option, I've got to say it really set the tone for the rest of the festival. It really was a celebration of the finest in culture and literature, being by the seaside and above all being French - and I loved it.

There were some great panels. The focus on Africa - Nigeria and SA in particular - was well-promoted and well-supported. Events that would usually only attract 12-20 people in Joburg, for example, were packed with 200-250 people. Some events didn't just fill the place - people were standing in doorways, sitting on the floor, in corner next to the bathroom, and pressed against the back walls of hotel boardrooms, auditoriums and cafes just to catch a glimpse of the authors speaking. It made me feel very proud to be in publishing because there are clearly so many people who are not in publishing who care about literature, literacy and innovation and that's encouraging.

Of course, there were the usual literary politics. Besides the organisation-level stuff, personally, I felt very much the outcast in the SA delegation. There aren't any photos of me in their "official" Team SA pics, for example. But some of the cool(er) South African writers and the Nigerians and the translators really took me under their wings. They made me feel part of their uncool gang of cool kids. As one of the Nigerian authors pointed out: "All writers are nerds anyway. We all feel like outcasts."

Welcome to Saint-Malo!

Nigerian writer and all-round awesome person, Sefi Atta, and I

Palais du Grand Large, Saint-Malo, where many of the SA/Nigerian events happened

Writers Niq Mhlongo, Richard Poplak, Kevin Bloom, Sefi Atta and others on the longest walk to dinner ever

Writer-superstar Damon Galgut who graciously signed a tapas menu for me

Lovely Saint-Malo on a stormy, miserable day

Writer Teju Cole and his amazeballs wife on the train ride back to Paris. What happened on that train car, stays on that train car...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The tech side of African kids books

I don't blog much about my actual day job(s) because my employers don't endorse or approve (read: know about) my personal blog but rebuilding the website was a genuinely an awesome experience and one that was only made possible thanks to the amazing team at ThoughtWorks SA. I often say this but ThoughtWorks is a very different kind of IT company. I've worked in IT before. The IT industry I thought I knew was not as responsive to the client's needs, as interested in exploring new and creative ideas and technologies and definitely not keen to take on a CSI project that doesn't fit neatly into the tick-box exercise of corporate NGO funding.

ThoughtWorks wanted to be a part of getting African kids African books using technology (as opposed to wanting to build a cool/useful website). There's definitely still more work to be done on the site to take it to the lofty heights that I imagine but I really think ThoughtWorks is going to be part of that story too. They're not just our donor or service provider. At this point, they feel like our partner.

Anyway, Craig from ThoughtWorks recently blogged about the Puku project and some of the more techy aspects of it. This is some of what he shared:

Towards the end of last year ThoughtWorks South Africa began on some exciting work for the Puku project. Puku is an Organisation devoted to bringing native language books to children in Southern Africa. I had the privilege of working on the project from when it was first thought of until completion. Who am I? I’m Craig Wattrus a ThoughtWorker here in the South Africa office.

For the South African office of ThoughtWorks this project represented a number of firsts; our first foray into working for not for profit organisations, our first fully pro-bono project and our first project using .Net and C#.

We started with envisioning and then held an inception together with Bontle the CEO of Puku and a motley bunch of ThoughtWorkers. The amazing thing for me was during some of the work-shopping sessions when the whole team started getting their hands dirty and became really passionate about the cause; providing a way for Southern African's to find literature for their children. Everyone in the room was genuinely excited to be working together on the project.

Read all about it!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Incredible, Forgettable, Preventable: Fitzgerald vs Coetzee

The only two grown-up books I've managed to make it through of late have been 'classics'. Both are considered seminal works but given a choice between Gatsby and Coetzee, I hate to say it but I have to go with JM 'We Australians' Coetzee.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Verdict: Forgettable

Confession: I only read the book because I wanted to see how the movie compared. I otherwise had no intention of reading it. Turns out, I wouldn't have missed much.

This novel is meant to be about the opulence and hedonism of New York's Jazz Age - a time when booze, women and money were every ambitious man's favourite vices and a self-made man could really attain that American Dream. Jay Gatsby is one such self-made man - he is actually more self-invented than made - and his mansion on West Egg becomes the epicentre of cool for a certain set of rich, famous and fabulous people. The only cool kid he really wants to impress though is the selfish and childish Daisy, his one-time love now married to the also selfish and childish Tom. Where Daisy might be forgiven for her flaws because her silly heart sort of seems in the right place (or at least where she has been raised to think is the right place), Tom is a dick with basically no redeeming qualities. One can't even understand why Jay has invested so much of his life chasing after Daisy given that a) she really doesn't have very much going for her besides a pretty face and b) she married someone else.

It's about greed, obsession and a Shakespearean-worthy valting ambition. The story is told by Jay's only real friend and neighbour Nick Carraway, about the only character in this book who I gave a damn about. And that was only because he seemed as perplexed and disconnected from the Tom/Daisy/Jay/Wilsons love-hexagon as I felt. Gatsby is delusional, Daisy is a coward and the parties don't even sound that fun.

Go home Fitzgerald, you're drunk.

Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee

Verdict: Incredible

I'm not the biggest JMC fan. Yes, I loved Disgrace, but virtually everything else I've read from him since has been very average. However, I also recognise that he probably did much of his best work before I was born so I sought out this 1980 classic thinking it would be a good way to see if my literary relationship with JMC is going anywhere. Spolier alert: it isn't.

I certainly did not enjoy reading Waiting for the Barbarians. This allegory tells the story of the unnamed Magistrate of a frontier town. The Empire has sent a brutal interrogation/torture expert to the colonial town and with the arrival of this cruel Colonel Joll, all the joy in the Magistrate's quiet, pleasant life expires. The indigenous people of the land (the barbarians) are sporadically captured, tortured and humiliated by the colonel and his men. Once the colonel leaves to report back to the Empire, the Magistrate begins a complicated and a-little-bit-creepy relationship with a barbarian girl who was left disfigured and blind by the colonel's interrogations. It is this relationship, and all the inconvenient questioning that the Magistrate starts doing about the Empire, about humanity, about human decency, that lead him into the very prison cell he has helped the Empire throw so many barbarians into. And when the torture, his humiliation and pain is over, the soldiers of the Empire retreat back to some imaginary capital fearing an invasion by the natives and the Magistrate is unceremoniously reinstated to his former position of power. The remaining townspeople are left waiting for the barbarians to invade, to kill them or simply to appear at all. And the waiting has no end.

JMC borrowed the title from the poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" by Constantine P. Cavafy. The last few lines of that poem totally encapsulate the unsettling feeling that crept out of the last pages of the book, when the Empire and its citizens have prepared themselves for an attack that has not come and probably will not come and the winter is coming:

"Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
And some of our men who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution."

And those people - my people, really - were a kind of solution in South Africa. For the new ruling elite, we probably still are.

There's no sentimentality or glossing over of what JMC is saying about colonialism, humanity, racism, the Apartheid government or any imperialist government at all, in this simple but striking novella. It's very hard to imagine that any of that rage and indignation could have been quelled, even with 33 years to manage it. I appreciated the stark and brutal honesty but, like I said, I certainly did not enjoy reading it. It's too brutal and too honest, I suppose, and that's why it haunted me for days after I read it. I admit that it's a fearless and thrilling work but it is also dark and twisty. I don't mind a book that makes me think but this was unpleasant and difficult to get through. Perhaps I understand the pre-Youth, pre-Slow Man, pre-Disgrace JMC better now but the writer I saw a glimpse of here frightened me. It was an incredible book but - never again.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Review of the Explosive 'Way Back Home'

After spending the weekend with Niq in not-so-sunny Saint Malo, I feel particularly compelled to complete this review so here goes...

The Book: Way Back Home by Niq 'I never take off my hat' Mholongo

And it's About?

Kimathi Tito has it all. As a child of the revolution, born in exile in Tanzania, he has steadily accumulated wealth and influence since arriving in South Africa in 1991. But even though everything appears just peachy from outside the walls of his mansion in Bassonia, things are far from perfect for Comrade Kimathi. After a messy divorce, accelerated by his gambling habit and infidelities, he is in danger of losing everything. And now, to top it all, he’s seeing ghosts. Sometimes what happens in exile doesn’t stay in exile.

In a Word, it was... Explosive

Kimathi's is a character totally familiar to me. He reminds me of virtually every black man of a certain age and disposition who has benefitted handily from whatever he did or did not do as an exile, a comrade, a foot solider for the Movement. And even though so much of Kimathi's story takes place in Apartheid and in exile, it's not an Apartheid novel. Instead, it's sharply present, very contemporary and not at all hung-up on the hang-ups it explores.

I loved the vivid descriptions of Rosebank. This suburb of Johannesburg, one of its most prestigious hotels and the prostitutes that frequent its main road are principal characters in this mzanzi drama. I loved the way Niq handled the shameless, disgusting greed of those tenderpreneurs we read too much about in the daily papers. I loved that he did so without judgement and almost from the point of view of these men themselves.

Anyone who has heard the stories of witchcraft and 'calling down lightning' in Limpopo or juju in the back streets of Lagos will appreciate the unusual and totally relevant role that superstition, witchcraft and the supernatural play in this novel. It's not outlandish or unbelievable. To the contrary, it's based very much in the way that ordinary Africans live: wary that there are things beyond the natural world to fear and prepare for. It's creepy but very subtlely so and for anyone curious about what happens in the sangoma's hut, it certainly doesn't stay in the sangoma's hut in Way Back Home.

Here's the thing: there are some great South African novels out there. Modern classics told that go on to be taught in packed English literature lecture halls and win all the big prizes. And then there are novels like this: books you want to call your best friend about, books you find yourself thinking about weeks afterwards when the latest scandal of a corrupt government official breaks. These books haunt you because they are as much a reminder of your life as they are a window into someone else's. There is definitely literary value to Way Back Home and I certainly hope that some postgrad lit major takes it up for a more academic analysis than this one. But. But - this was a great novel. This book kept me guessing, left me a little chilled and made me feel so excited to read whatever Niq writes next. Highly recommended.