Friday, 11 April 2014

Book Review: Karen Jennings 'Finding Soutbek'

I first heard about Karen Jennings Finding Soutbek October 2012 at the African Book Festival. At the event, a representative from the publishers, Holland Park Press, read an excerpt, in which Soutbek's 'troubles, hardships and corruption, but also its kindness, strong community and friendships' was introduced. While I didn't buy the book then, as they say good things come to those who wait - and I finally got a chance, courtesy of a review copy from Holland Park Press to read it. 

In the acknowledgements, Karen Jennings writes:

'At all times I have been careful to remember that though this is a work of fiction, it is a tale nonetheless, which represents a sore reality, and I have tried my utmost to relate it in a sympathetic and sensitive manner'.

After reading the book I struggled to find words to describe how I felt about it. I've only recently been able to figure out. This was a really depressing read. Even the cover signifies the bleakness you are about to enter as you get introduced to the imaginary  town of Soutbek and its people. 

Set in South Africa, Soutbek is a small fishing town on the western coast, which has been devastated by a huge fire. The upper town, which is inhabited by the towns poorest residents, is the area that has been affected. Having lost their homes and much of their livelihood they are left to survive off of the charity of the richest people in Soutbek who live in the lower town. Yet, after the fire came floods and now the town has been cut off making things even more difficult for the upper town people who have been sleeping in damp, unhygiening conditions and the lower town people who complain about the state of the town now that the upper town is destroyed.

Soutbek's first ever coloured Mayor - Pieter Fortuin, who worked to get himself out of poverty, is doing his best to get things back on track but also bring in much needed investment to Soutbek. The Mayor and a professor Dr. Pearson have written a book together - The History of Soutbek drawn from the diaries of Pieter van Meerman, a vryburgher (freeman) and seventeenth-century Dutch explorer. This book is what the Mayor is counting on to drive tourism and bring investments into their small fishing town, which will also help him rebuild the upper towns lost homes. There is, however, something else lurking behind the Mayor’s act of kindness. The History of Soutbek, in turn, is the other story that run's parallel to the fire stricken modern-day Soutbek. Set in the 17th century, this part of the novel reads like it's fallen straight out of a history book. We follow the adventures of Pieter, a group of Dutch explorers and some locals they meet on the way, eventually marry and establish what is today Soutbek. Towards the end of the book the modern and historical accounts merge with consequences for the modern-day inhabitants of Soutbek. 

The Mayor’s story and the historical accounts, are not the only tales in Finding Soutbek. There is his wife, Anna, who he isolates from the rest of the inhabitants of Soutbek in her own private beach. They also have a son, David, who is in boarding school.  She is bored, lonely and miserable until the mayor takes in Sara, a homeless girl (not from Soutbek). With time Sara and Anna develop a bond with Sara also teaching Anna how to read as they delve into the History of Soutbek. There is also the Mayor's nephew, Willem, who lives in the lower part of the town.

I’ll say it again. This book was depressing and I had visions of a grey and bleak town with grim inhabitants, a stressed Mayor and a lonely housewife. But I guess it was showing the harsh reality of the lives of people living in this fictional town. Calling it grey and depressing should not be taken to mean this is a terrible book. Far from that, it is well-written, the blending of the historical narrtives with contemporary Soutbek was done brilliantly and Karen Jennings definitely captured the morsoness of the town, the sadness of Anna and the stress of being a Mayor in what seemed like an ill-forsaken town.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Africa39 - Who is Writing About it and What are they Saying?

On April 8th 2014 at the London Book Fair, Africa39 (a Hay Festival and Rainbow Book Club Project) unveiled its list of 39 of the best African south of the Sahara writers under the age of 40. A list of all the writers can be found here

The anthology, which will be published by Bloomsbury, edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, with a preface by Wole Soyinka will be launched at a festival in UNESCO's World Book Capital, Port Harcourt, Nigeria in October 2014. Exciting!!! 

Since Tuesday a number of articles have been written on Africa39 and I think it's great the coverage it has been getting. Here I've compiled a list of some of the articles on it, which I will update as it goes on. 

1. Top African Writers Under 40 Announced by James Murua gives a list of all 39 writers.

2. Mohlele, Mzobe and Watson Join Adichie, Megestu, Selasi on the 'Most Promising' African39 List via BooksLive 

3. Making Lists: Africa39 by Kate Haines on list culture and the writers who made the list. The article asks interesting questions on why 40% of the writers are from Nigeria and Kenya, embraces the inclusion of writers from Cape Verde, Equatorial Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, but notes that there are only two Lusophone writers and no Francophone writers on the list.

4. Africa39: how we chose the writers for Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014 by Margaret Busby describes how the three judges (Elechi Amadi, Margaret Busby and Tess Onwueme) selected 39 African writers to represent the continent. 

5. Africa39 and Caine Prize Authors by Lizzy Attree looks at the 16 authors involved with the Caine Prize (either taking part in a workshop, being shortlisted or winning) on the list. 

Must Own, Must Read: Nnedi Okorafor

I first heard about Nnedi Okorafor through a friend who saw her novel Zahrah the Windseeker and thought of me - it was YA, fantasy and the main character not only had my name, but it was spelt the exact same way as mine. Obviously I had to read it! Unfortunately I didn't get to read it until I was in Lagos and from the first page I was in love. All I kept on thinking as I read it was where were you when I was younger. 

Sadly, I haven't been able to read Nnedi Okorafor's other novels, which is why they are in my Must Own, Must Read list. I thoroughly enjoy her Wahala Zone Blog and her website, The Wahala Zone, is so cool. I honestly go to both sites to learn more about her. There's about eight novels (she writes for children, young adults and adults - so it's like everyone is pretty much covered :) - with two more on the way this year (Lagoon and Akata Witch 2). This is not even mentioning numerous short stories - which can be found here. She's also won tons of awards. And did I mention she's a professor. Amazing!!!! Enough gushing on my end. Here's a look at her novels that I must own and read. 

Shadow Speaker (2007)

When 15-year-old Ejii witnesses her father's beheading, her world shatters. She embarks on a mystical journey to track down his assassin. But she soon discovers that her journey has greater purpose. Spontaneous forests, polygamy, strange insects, Nigerian 419 scammers, really fast cars, a different kind of Sahara Desert, male beauty contests, the apocalypse, life, death, sword fights, fat chiefs, assassins - The Shadow Speaker is a wild story of mind-blowing technology and tantalising magic, set in an alternate version of the country of Niger.

Who Fears Death?  (2010)

In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape , wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the colour of sand and indistinctively knows that her daughter is differnt. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means 'Who Fears Death'? in an ancient African tongue. Reared under the tutelage of a mystery and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny - to end the genocide of her people. The journey will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture - and eventually death itself. 

Akata Witch  2011 (What Sunny Saw in The Flames - Nigerian Edition)

Twelve-year old Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born American. Hear features are African, but she's albino. She's a terrific athlete, but can't go out into the sun to play soccer. There seems to be no place where she fits. And then she discovers something amazing - she is a 'free agent', with latent magical power. Soon she's part of a quartet of magic students, studying the visible and invisible, learning to change reality. But will it be enough to help them when they are asked to catch a career criminal who knows magic too?

Kabu-Kabu (2013) 

Kabu-Kabu  unregistered illegal igerian taxis-generally get you where you need to go. Nnedi Okorafor's Kabu Kabu, however, takes the reader to exciting, fantastic,
magical, occasionally dangerous, and always imaginative locations you didn't know you needed. This debut short story collection by an award-winning author includes notable previously published material, a new novella co-written with New York Times-bestselling author Alan Dean Foster, six additional original stories, and a brief foreword by Whoopi Goldberg.

Lagoon (2014)

Three strangers, each isolated by his or her own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria's legendary mega-city, they're more alone than they've ever been before.

But when something like a meteorite plunges into the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world... and themselves.

'There was no time to flee. No time to turn. No time to shriek. And there was no pain. It was like being thrown into the stars.'

Who Fear's Death is also set to become a feature film and directed by award-winning Kenyan filmmaker, Wanuri Kahiu - writer and director of the short sci-fil film Pumzi.

Concept Art for Film Adaptation by Yvonne Miunde. Image via Shadow and Act

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Books Feature Writer on Agnes and Lola's 'Playground'

Super excited to announce that over the next coming months I will be a books feature writer for Agnes and Lola on their blog - The Playground

They even ran a feature of me on their website with a mini-interview on the inspiration behind the blog, female vs. male authors and the first book I ever read. Here’s a blurb:

‘My grandma, Agnes, yes that same Agnes :), was an African Children's author, besides her love of fashion, books were her guiding light, it was the one criteria she never skimped on and when guests would visit there was plenty to borrow from her eponymous library. When I stumbled and I call this a very lucky stumble, upon Bookshy: an African book lover I was emailing Zahrah within minutes of reading her blog because it was everything I was looking for in a book blog. She is blessed with wit, a way with words that is so refreshing. Over the coming months we will be featuring her reviews and other suggestions on Agnes and Lola but before we dive right in, meet Zahrah’

Agnes and Lola is an independent online boutique selling items by young designers from across the African diaspora. On their website they explain that it was ‘born from a love of two things; independent fashion and the diverse cultures across the African continent’. As for the name:
‘The name spans three generations; grandmother Agnes and granddaughter Lola, both creative spirits influenced through the travels as documented in their love for literature and fashion’.

It’s a super cool website with some unique one-of pieces and I feel pretty honoured to be able to contribute to their blog. So head over to Agnes and Lola for the feature ‘A Love of Books’ and for my soon-to-be features. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

Book Review: Joanne Macgregor's 'Dark Whispers'

This novel should come with a warning: Not for the fainthearted

I will be honest, I don't tend to read a lot of psychological thrillers. But when Joanne Macgregor contacted me asking if I would review her new novel Dark Whispers and sent this excerpt: 

'She is so still, so relaxed, so ready as she lies on the stainless steel, her breathing slow and steady, her gaze unfocused. There is just time for a small whisper, a soft encouragement of hope, before the darkness slides her entirely into his honing hands. He leans over and breathes into her ear, "I'm going to do something very special for you now. Cut it all away and make it neat. And when you wake up, you're going to be just perfect."'

... I was very intrigued. 

I also was not really sure what to expect and if I would enjoy it. You know what? While it was terrifying, I thoroughly enjoyed it and couldn't put it down. I picked Dark Whispers up on a Saturday morning and before I knew it I was already on page 178. This is because I had to know more - even though the content was really shocking. 

There is no time-wasting in Joanne Macgreor's first adult novel - from the first page we know we are dealing with a crazed gynaecologist, Dr. Trotteur, trying to 'fix' his patients because 'Doctor knows best'. We are then introduced to Megan Wright, a psychologist who has this desire to constantly save others. But it's a new year and she is adamant to stop being so good to other people - pretty hard when her job is to help make her patients better. 

One patient - Alta Cronje has been seeing Megan for about 6 months and there still isn't much improvement. We know she was operated on and it was after the surgery that she had developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Although she has blocked it out, Alta unfortunately is a victim of Dr. Trotteur's urge to fix. During one session, Megan finally learns what  happened to Alta and is determined to find out who else has been hurt by Dr. Trotteur and also try to stop him. Stopping him is not that easy and there's also a price to pay for getting in Trotteur's way.

Joanne Macgregor does not hold back in this novel and do not think you will spared any of the gory details - this doctor sexually mutilates women and ruins not only their bodies, but their minds and their spirits. I wonder if being a Counselling Psychologist, who works primarily with victims of trauma and crime, enabled Joanne Macgregor to be able to delve into the physically traumatic experiences these women face but also the more human experiences after the fact - the impact on the women and their loved ones. 

What makes this novel even more terrifying is the fact that it is a doctor, a trusted doctor. A gynaecologist, who has access to the most intimate parts of women's bodies when they are probably the most vulnerable. Whose patients and their families trust to do the right thing. That a qualified doctor can do such horrible things, get a way with it and continue practicing medicine also adds to the shocking nature of this story. Yet, the scariest thing is that Dark Whispers is inspired by an online news report Joanne Macgregor read in 2010 about the 'Butcher of Bega' - an Australian doctor who abused and sexually mutilated his patients. While Joanne Macgregor was inspired by this event, she writes on The Spark,  that this 'isn't an account of the Australian "butcher"'. As Dark Whispers is set in South Africa, she explains that this story also gives 'glimpses into the shocking scenes in our public hospitals ... and the horrors of my public hospital scene were drawn directly from real experiences by patients at one or other of our state hospitals'.

This is definitely a terrifying novel, made even more so by the real-life events that inspired it. But this is also a novel that pulls you in and is pretty hard to put down once you start reading it - even if along the way you might get a bit squeamish. I know I did. Dark Whispers is currently out in South Africa, but will be available via Amazon in the UK and US July 18th.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Thesis is In!!!!!

Around this time 5 years ago, I made the decision to apply for a PhD in Human Geography (if I am being specific - Gender and Urban Studies). Little did I know what I was getting myself into. My proposal was accepted. Yay!!! I thought - and I began my PhD October 2009. I will be very honest, it has been the toughest 4 and a half years of my life. I have had more downs than ups. I have cried, I have doubted myself, I have cried some more, had my self confidence shattered, cried again, doubted myself some more and throughout the whole period constantly questioned my decision to even embark on this journey. 

Minus the coffee - this is pretty much true.

I wanted to quit so many times - after the end of my first year, at the beginning of my second year, the middle of my second year,  during my fieldwork, when I came back from my fieldwork. Each time I was talked out of it. And then there was working through it all. Advice for anyone embarking on a PhD - fully funded or don't bother. The PhD is already stressful enough as it is without having to apply for part-funding here and there and also working part-time (and in the case of the last 3 months, full-time). Let's just say it hasn't been easy. And I would not have been able to make it through without my family and friends who kept me sane the entire time.

I am happy to say though, that through it all I was able to survive. The best part, I got my thesis in last Monday. How did I feel? Light. I've watched TV - guilt free. Read - guilt free. I even watched a play - guilt free. Hung out with friends - guilt free. Slept in - guiltfree. Watched movies - guiltfree. Even went to the cinema - guiltfree. Enjoyed the rare sunshine - guilt free. 

It's still not over. The thesis is now with the examiners and I still need to have my viva (oral defense), but this last week has been the most relaxed I've felt in years. And I'm really loving it. Also treated myself to a series I've been wanting to read forever - Aya - and also got a review copy of  Boy, Snow, Bird courtesy of Picador.  

Guess the next question is: 

Well, now the thesis is in, I can go back to reading and blogging some more - which is one of the things I was really sad to have to cut back on. More than that I don't know. For now, it just feels really good to have the thesis in.