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.