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Kate Sidley

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Paper Weight: Take salt with this punch line

One of the upsides of growing up is that by the time you reach a certain age – around 35 or 40, for most – you have made your way through a reasonable chunk of life, weeded out some non-starters, made some good choices.

You know that you prefer golden delicious to granny smith. You know that yellow doesn’t suit you and merlot gives you a hangover. You’ve been exposed to a sufficiently large number of friends, lovers, perfumes, Victoria sponge recipes, and such, and identified The One who Works for You. And you’ve found The Hairdresser. This is no small matter.

It is vitally important to have the right hairdresser. More important than having the right hair, even. I’m not Kate Middleton or Anne Hathaway, and no one takes much interest in my hair. Besides, it’s short, and could probably be managed by anyone.

But if you are in need of a cut and colour, you find yourself in the company of your hairdresser for close to two hours, every six to eight weeks, so it is crucial that you find a convivial hairdressing companion.

My Hairdresser-with-a-capital-H is Moggi. Among her many fine traits, she is well read, and eager to talk books as she snips away. One time, I read her bits of Diary of Mrs Stephen Fry and she had to stop cutting every few minutes so we could shriek and slap our thighs before continuing. She also keeps her salon stocked with the very best reading materials in Joburg.

No Hello magazines from the late Jurassic period for us. Indeed, I challenge you to find another hairdresser where you can choose between Uncut, National Geographic Traveler, Vanity Fair and Scientific American. All new copies, not old hand-me-downs with ominous-looking stains and floppy corners.

Personally, I would never touch a book or a magazine in a doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room unless I was wearing full biohazard gear. Can you imagine the germ factory that is the four-year-old décor mag in a doctor’s office?

At Moggi’s there are new and different magazines every visit. Last week I swooned to discover the latest edition of Literary Review.

This is not easy to come by in South Africa and will set you back a good few rands. A subscription for 11 issues is over £100. For that money you don’t even get glossy pictures of Scarlett Johansson.

You do, however, get smart, jargon-free writing about literature. Top writers contribute witty, insightful pieces about a wide array of books. I enjoyed a fascinating piece on a new book, The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer & Preacher of War, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett on the sexually voracious Italian poet.

There was a review of William Dalrymple’s new book on Afghanistan and another on Sorry! The English and their Manners, by Henry Hitchings, who I feel sure was a character from Dickens.

Most entertaining was a review of Assholes: A Theory, by Aaron James. The aforementioned assholes are defined by their entitled ways and their obliviousness to others’ rights and complaints. Assholeness is nothing short of a moral failing, and it’s on the rise. Don’t say you were not warned.

Seriously, Literary Review is so good you may not need to read the actual books at all.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Twain’s advice was rather nice

On the “bizarre family heirlooms” section of our bookshelves (surprisingly large) is an advice book for what might today be known as teenagers, but in 1950 were referred to as young ladies.

It is called The Years of Grace, which is an optimistic take on adolescence, and not at all how I remember the teenage years. But I guess they couldn’t call it Years of Misery, Bad Behaviour and Wildly Inappropriate Clothing.

Anyway, this book is full of helpful advice on important aspects of life, such as deportment, personal hygiene, leisure activities and social skills. It is fairly modern in its views, encouraging girls to travel, to be public-spirited, and to learn to appreciate sport. When watching a game with one’s brother and his friends, “Don’t be content to be the least knowledgeable girl in the party.”

It gives guidance for careers, noting that “Her Majesty’s Civil Service is now freely open to women”, and advising “Don’t simply be a shorthand typist. Be a secretary.” Teaching is recommended only if you have the requisite physical and mental toughness to deal with supervisors, and with parents who don’t see the value of educating girls. “You must be prepared to suffer fools gladly – and the fools will not always be part of your class.” There are instructions on how to avoid halitosis which “together with B.O. is lethal to glamour”. No arguing with that.

Rather more subversive advice comes from Mark Twain in his Advice to Little Girls, which has recently been re-released with new illustrations. It is not an advice book; rather, a tongue-in-cheek short story for adult readers. Each of the helpful pointers starts off as a rather reasonable-sounding piece of advice, but there is an outrageous twist in the tale. Here are a few:

“If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.”

In the event that you have only a rag doll stuffed with sawdust and a playmate has a better toy, “You ought not to attempt a forcible swap with her, unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.”

“Good girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offence. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.”

Twain was fascinated by young girls. After his wife’s death, he was lonely. “I had reached the grandpapa stage of life and what I lacked and what I needed was grandchildren,” he said. At the age of 72, he began collecting surrogate granddaughters between the ages of 10 and 16, “dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears”. He called them his Angel Fish, and nicknamed the group The Aquarium. He even gave them little lapel pins, featuring angel fish. He corresponded with the girls and they, with their parents, sometimes visited him in New York.

We who have had our idealism and innocence destroyed by the likes of Jimmy Savile, Michael Jackson and a host of priests and scoutmasters might find this all a bit suspicious. Despite our cynical modern reservations, it all seems innocent and above board. That was a kinder, gentler era.

I would advise contemporary young women to be cautious of elderly celebrities bearing gifts.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

My Next Big Thing

I received this blog opportunity, the Next Big Thing, from Jo-Anne Richards, whose fifth book, The Imagined Child, was launched recently. Writers and bloggers answer a series of questions about their books and the writing process and, at the end of it, tag other writers who do the same. It’s a sort of treasure hunt around blogs.

I’m tagging a couple more authors for the Next Big Thing. Steven Boykey Sidley is the author of Entanglement and – just launched – Stepping Out. I might also ‘fess up that he is my husband. Which the more perspicacious reader might suspect from the surnames. Hamilton Wende is a journalist, television producer and novelist, and is not related to me at all. His new book, Only The Dead, is a gripping thriller, set in eastern Congo and Uganda, about the hunt for the mysterious General Faustin in order to free his army of child soldiers.

Now, here are my own answers to the Next Big Thing questions.

What is your title of your book?

The Agony Chef: Recipes and Advice for Life’s Pickles and Predicaments

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of the agony aunt and secretly hankered after just such a job. I’m with Gore Vidal: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.” It struck me that an outspoken, slightly deranged agony aunt would make a funny character in a novel. So I started a novel with a character who was an agony aunt who solves vexing modern day problems. It didn’t work, but the character was even more marvelous than anticipated, so I ditched the novel and kept Delilah.

What genre does your book fall under?

Well, that’s a tricky one. I would put it under humour, because it’s funny (really, though I say so myself…), but because there are recipes in it, it is generally found amongst the recipe books.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Nigella Lawson – she is sexy, foodie and fun. Or perhaps Joanna Lumley in a toned-down version of her Ab Fab persona.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

A fictional agony aunt solves vexing modern day problems, with recipes, advice and sardonic humour.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It has been published by Pan Macmillan.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I fiddled around with it for a bit and then showed a few chapters to the publisher. They loved it and gave me a very short deadline, about three months, in which to finish. (I may have given the impression that I was a bit closer to the finish line than I actually was) so I really had to knuckle down. Nothing like a good deadline to galvanize the mind. Actually, I just loved writing the book and once I’d got the format and the voice right it came quite easily.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Can’t really think of anything to compare it too, because it’s a strange cross-genre beast. I’d say it is a mashup between Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed and How to be a Domestic Goddess, by Nigella Lawson, but with a good deal more humour.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’ve always wanted to write a quirky, but also insightful social commentary, with jokes and cake. Who doesn’t?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It has so much helpful advice that you just wouldn’t find elsewhere – What is the etiquette surrounding the newly face-lifted? What do I feed my obese aunt? My son has come out of the closet, what do I make for lunch? Also, I invented a whole new thing – passive aggressive cooking – which is very handy. Also, T S Eliot makes an appearance. Truly, there’s something for everyone.

Loving literature’s prime evil

We love the good guys, but the baddies in literature intrigue us. We probe their motivations, shiver at their evil, spit three times as they pass. Yet there’s something that lures us.

Perhaps we envy their flouting of convention; they don’t have to save the day or make lunch. In real life they are loathsome, but in film they are often attractive, albeit in a damaged way. The best are fiendishly clever.

Buffoons might be the muscle, but true villains are schemers, plotters, out-witters. In literature, the nastiest bad guy is cultured and sophisticated. Yes, he eats people, but Dr Hannibal Lecter appreciates opera.

In fact, the word “Doctor” should raise your suspicions. In the romance genre, he may just be a good-looking neurosurgeon with a secret heartbreak that only a first-year nurse with cleavage can cure.

But think Drs No, Faustus, Lecter, Frankenstein and – one of the most loathsome villains in fact or fiction – Dr Mengele, who, in Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil, created an army of Hitler clones.

Now we are in the terrifying realm of the Mad Scientist – brilliant, complex, hubristic, challenging the natural or social order.

This alchemist’s dastardly business is divining the elixir of immortality or turning base metals into gold, reanimating dinosaurs and human corpses, tampering with nature with dire results.

The only more telling moniker than “Dr” is “Witch”. An experienced reader with a fine intuitive mind might also be tipped off by the presence of animal and supernatural familiars – cats, wolves, ogres, ghouls, bats and such.

The Wicked Witch of the West, from L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, displays a classic villain trait – being mean to animals – when she smacks Dorothy’s dog Toto with her umbrella (gasp!). Sporting only one eye, she exhibits another common baddie feature – physical abnormality.

Scars, missing limbs, enormous height, extremely pale skin and the like are a sure sign that your baby-sitter is a demon in disguise.

In your spare time, it might be fun to rank literature’s most villainous villains. An online trawl reveals Iago is widely reviled as the top bad guy in Shakespeare and, to some minds, the whole of literature. He betrays Othello’s trust and destroys people’s lives just because he’s pissed off. He is envious, jealous, petty, manipulative and racist. In old terminology, evil. Today, perhaps, a psychopath.

Richard III, a former Shakespearean chart-topper long reviled as a deformed child-smotherer, is being rehabilitated, thanks to popular interest in his bones, recently discovered under a parking lot, and the likelihood that he was the victim of a Tudor smear campaign.

Little hope of same for Aaron, in Titus Andronicus, who went to the noose with this memorable speech:

“Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did/ Would I perform, if I might have my will;/ If one good deed in all my life I did,/ I do repent it from my very soul.”

That’s one serious badass.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

This Many Words Can Be Enough

A student was instructed to write a story of utmost brevity, involving religion, royalty, sex and mystery.

The inspired creation he came up with was this: “My God,” the queen said. “I am pregnant! I wonder who did it.”

Now that the average attention span … Hang on a sec, let me get my phone … Sorry, what was I just saying? Oh yes … Now that the average attention span has been measured and is, empirically and incontrovertibly, 3.245 seconds, this is precisely the kind of fiction that is in demand.

There has been a surge of enthusiasm for short, short stories (also known as flash fiction, micro fiction, compressed fiction, sudden fiction and “is that it?”). At the low end, the “story” may be as few as six words, but more often they are a couple of hundred words long.

Flash fiction is often linked to a competition, a website or a compendium. Esquire magazine offered the Esquire and Aspen Writers’ Foundation Short Short Fiction Contest. Entrants were given just 79 words to do their thing.

The Guardian asked well-known writers to try their hand at writing a story within Twitter’s 140-character limit. I liked this one from novelist Jenny Colgan: “You were once so beautiful I ignore the ear hair now; the liver spots on shaking hands. Besides, I’ve always closed my eyes when we kiss.”

There have been numerous Twitter-related short story competitions. Colgan’s little story has humour and pathos. In less experienced hands, these very short stories tend to have a pat one-liner feel. Often there’s a dramatic incident – a gunshot, a car crash – to inject power in a limited word count, and not a whole lot else. While they risk being unsatisfying and tricksy, the best are surprising, nimble, concentrated. They are the whittled-down bones of an entire story, with the rest implied, hovering alongside or wandering about, unsaid.

Writing short is hard (although maybe not as hard as 1500 pages of Infinite Jest). An entire narrative – a love affair, a death, a realisation – must live in a handful of sentences. There are seldom more than two characters, and virtually no characterisation. The story is usually centred on a single act. Every word matters. When it takes its place, there’s one fewer left to work with. Every word, even a pronoun, has to do its job, and more, if it’s to earn its keep. Even punctuation is important – a semi-colon can save you an “and” and provide a dramatic pause, a juxtaposition, a momentary irony.

These works are the literary equivalent of a very simple line drawing, in which Picasso makes two squiggles and a dash into a telling portrait, about which you ponder, “How did he do that?”

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, compiled by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a lovely example of the genre at its best. Thousands of stories were submitted and 62 chosen. Artists would illustrate a story that appealed. The resulting collaborations are poignant, poetic and delightful to look at. By way of example: “The doctor’s wife ate two apples a day, just to be safe. But her husband kept coming home.”

Last word to Ernest Hemingway (I’m sure he always had it anyway). He famously – and perhaps apocryphally – challenged writer friends to write a story using only six words. Legend has it that he won the contest with the story: “For sale: baby’s shoes. Never worn.”

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

High Times for Ladies who Launch

I’ll never forget the London launch of Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir. There’s Ian McEwan. Stephen Fry.

Kathy Lette. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. Ruby Wax. And the catering! Gordon’s gin and elderflower cocktails, delicious little meatballs, crab tartlets and butternut squash risotto. Yum. To be clear, I wasn’t actually at Rushdie’s launch. I saw the pics in Tatler.

I’ve been to plenty of other book launches, some of which featured meatballs, but none of which featured Stephen Fry. Sadly. A good book launch is a fine thing. For most writers, the launch party represents a high point in their lives and careers. Leading up to this pinnacle there were years, decades even, of writing, thought, disappointment, hope, negotiation, pride, editing .

On the other side of this marvellous, happy interlude (although most new writers don’t know it yet), there’s likely to be disappointment. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Your reviews will never be as many and as glowing as you’d hoped, your sales not quite as marvellous. But in that space in between, for those few happy hours, there is The Book Launch.

The basic formula is this. The author and the publisher gather as many warm bodies as they can muster at the chosen venue, often a book shop. It’s generally a case of the more the merrier here, but overseas the big launches are strictly invitation-only affairs and competition for invitations is fierce. The formalities include an intro from the publisher, an intro from a chosen speaker (get a charming, generous-spirited, famous-ish person if you can), and a speech from the proud author herself, followed by snacks and drinks. When they start packing up the wine, guests know it’s time to go home. Or to a restaurant. Or on a two-day pub crawl.

I’ve had my own book launch, spoken at other people’s and been one of the milling throng celebrating an author’s happy moment, and I can tell you with certainty that you cannot have a successful book launch without a striking frock.

When Pippa Middleton launched her party guide, entitled Celebrate: A Year of British Festivities for Families and Friends she wore no fewer than four different outfits. I am reliably informed by the Daily Mail that they cost, cumulatively, £2959. Which is small potatoes, given that her advance was rumoured to be a whopping £400000. (Let’s just take a moment to consider the fact that if you added up the royalties of all South African authors last year it probably wouldn’t come to £400000. A moment’s empathy for, oh, say, Ivan Vladislavic, who has to struggle on, crafting beautiful sentences and sensitive stories, knowing that this a world in which Pippa got £400000 for Celebrate).

Let us not be bitter. Let us dwell, instead, on memorable book launch moments in South African history. The arrival of the beréted Julius Malema and about 400 other people at Frank Chikane’s Eight Days in September. Nigel McGurk, Mikey Schultz and Faizel “Kappie” Smith arriving at the launch at the Lister Building in downtown Jozi to autograph hot-off-the-press copies of Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble. Rian Malan’s Resident Alien at the Radium Beerhall.

Some authors have virtual launches. The whole thing takes place online. There are videos, author Q&As, prizes and competitions. But no snacks. No wine. No bumping into old friends. The author probably doesn’t even get a new frock.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

It’s all blood and gore, dystopian worlds and kinky sex in fiction these days. Or is it?

IT’S all blood and gore, dystopian worlds and kinky sex in fiction these days. Or is it? No, actually. Just because some of us are dirty-minded crime freaks doesn’t mean everyone else is.

Millions of readers are, in fact, reading books about young Amish ladies in bonnets. Having led a sheltered life here among the mainstream, I had no idea that Amish romance novels were a “thing”. But they are. They’re huge. It’s like a secret wormhole in the publishing universe – having a picture of a pretty girl with a head covering on the book cover increases sales dramatically.

Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning started it all in 1997, selling 125000 in its first year. And where she led, others followed.

If you’re looking for gritty realism and a literary turn of phrase, this genre is probably not for you. These are wholesome, optimistic books. The endings are happy and neat. No one is going to whip out the cocaine. Seldom do the characters stab each other to death. In these books, you will find many appealing things. Simple folk struggling with the temptations of “fancy” music and clothes. Horse-drawn buggy rides. Family dinners attended by obedient children who are not umbilically attached to cellphones. In fact, they don’t have cellphones. Or PlayStations. Or belly rings.

It sounds pleasant, but the South African market hasn’t embraced Amish fiction. It’s simply too foreign. However, Struik Christian Media’s Leani Jansen van Vuuren says Christian fiction is thriving worldwide. Christian-themed fiction is one of the fastest-growing publishing sectors in the US, and top novelists in the genre sell millions of copies.

SCM represents leading international Christian publishers, distributing their books in South Africa. The list includes Christian living, books for spiritual growth, parenting, relationships, motivational books and even biographies, for instance of popular gospel singers, as well as fiction. They also publish local Christian titles and translate international titles into Afrikaans. The CUM chain of shops specialises in such books and has over 40 stores and a website for online shoppers.

“Fiction has always been an escape from real life,” says Jansen van Vuuren. “Christian fiction mostly offers beautiful, emotional stories of people going through something difficult. But in the end you get a strong motivational, inspirational message.” Generally, the books avoid explicit sex and violence, although some are edgier – but even the dark, gory thrillers have a strong Christian message.

The Shack by William P Young is a Christian publishing legend. Young wrote it for his family and printed a few copies at a local store. It tells the story of a man in the depths of grief following the murder of his daughter. He is invited to the shack from which she had been abducted. There he meets God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, represented by a sassy black woman, a Middle Eastern carpenter with a big nose, and a delicate Asian woman, respectively.

When the book was picked up by a mainstream Christian publisher, this unorthodox characterisation of the holy trinity caused some upset among some of Young’s fellow Christians. But while some cried “heresy”, 18 million others bought the book. SCM has sold 32000 copies in South Africa, in Afrikaans and English.

Young’s second book, Cross Roads, has just been published and is likely to find a ready audience. Even without a bonnet.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Book Columnist

Not all prose is deathless

As part of my plan to be a better, neater, more organised person, my bookshelves have come in for some culling.

Unfortunately, no one else in my family gives a fig about being better, neater or more organised. Nor, presumably, do they have a morbid fear of ending up as one of those old ladies who dies because the path to her front door has been blocked by a stack of two decades’ worth of the New York Times, and is only discovered three weeks later, by which time choice bits of her have been eaten by her 15 cats. But I digress.

My point is that no one gives a toss about the teetering piles of books in strange corners of our house, so no one really helps with the clearing.

The total contribution of assistance from my family members came from my son who spotted me stacking 25-year-old National Geographic magazines in a crate and exclaimed: “What are you doing? You can’t get rid of those!”

I pointed out that the only time I’d seen one – I think it was the one on Newfoundland – removed from the shelf in the last six or seven years was when someone used it to usher a bee out of the window.

To which he replied loftily, “It’s about nostalgia,” which is something I understand, so we compromised and he returned a few choice issues to the shelf, where they will still be, no doubt, unopened when I am being eaten by my cat.

So, how to cull one’s book collection?

The kids’ books are easy – a few precious ones are kept for posterity/ sentimentality, the rest given to a local school library. Novels are subject to natural attrition. They are put into broad circulation at the book club, taken on holidays and left there, or passed on to friends.

It’s the non-fiction books that stick around like so many dusty old pedants at the history department cocktail party, muttering into their gins.

You’d think many of them might be useful for reference at some point, but it was very obvious in the book clear-out that nothing ages as fast as the trendy non-fiction book of the year. Chris Anderson’s Free was all the rage some years back.

I reviewed it at the time, and would often hold forth at dinner parties about its central tenets – for instance, that in the digital era, many services, products, information and such, will be free. It seemed so interesting, then. And so obvious now.

Malcolm Gladwell books age faster than child starlets, and it’s just as hard to remember what was so charmingly fresh and precocious about them a couple of years ago. If someone these days starts in on the 10000 hours rule, claiming that the key to success in any field is practising a specific task for a total of around 10000 hours (which, let’s face it, is simultaneously startlingly self-evident and also total nonsense), I want to lob a copy of Outliers at their head. Instead, I toss it into the “to go” box and move on to the next shelf.

The only thing that stands the test of time less well than the hot non-fiction best-seller of the year, is a biography of Kgalema Motlanthe. Just a few short months ago it was the inside story of the man who would be king. Post-Mangaung it’s the story of, you know, that guy who was President for a bit? Yes, him.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Scribes put their hand to nookie

Food was hailed as the new sex a few years back. Well, now sex is the new food. In fact, the two have a lot in common, being widespread, commonplace, frequently unremarkable, occasionally earth-shattering, necessary for our survival and everyone’s an expert.

Here in the genteel world of the South African literati, you can’t throw a pair of handcuffs without hitting someone hunched guiltily over a typewriter, trying to think up a believable and steamy sexual scenario. Coffee shops are full of would-be erotic writers muttering over their Macbook Airs: “No, but if his left hand is on her nipple, and we’ve already said he’s reached for a riding crop, then how could he stimulate the.?”

It’s more difficult than it seems, erotica. Just because you’ve had a bit of nookie in your time doesn’t mean you can fill 300 pages with hot prose.

Some of our favourite local writers have been quick to try their hand at erotica and catch the wave that was set in motion with Fifty Shades. Respected crime writer Jassy Mackenzie was first off the block. Her book Folly is already on the Kalahari bestseller list and eliciting gasps (and occasional moans) from delighted readers. Emma, her 40-year-old heroine, finds herself in deep financial trouble. To make ends meet she does what any regular person would do – opens a domination dungeon in an outbuilding in her garden. Wealthy men are soon lining up for her attentions, and among them there’s this rather nice chap .

There’s romance, humour and sex a-plenty. Having done her time talking on a phone sex line 20 years ago, Mackenzie says she had plenty of stories and that the writing of Folly was “an absolute jol”.

Still with sexy scribes, everyone is talking about the big international deals secured by South African writers Sarah Lotz, Helen Moffett and Lifestyle columnist Paige Nick. These three well-known writers, under the pseudonym Helena S Paige, are collaborating on A Girl Walks into a Bar. With just a proposal and a brief synopsis to show for themselves, these authors prompted an international bidding war. Within two months of mooting the idea, they had signed with a top agent who had sold the UK and US rights, as well as translation rights in 10 countries.

It’s a genius idea. Nick explains that the reader is in full control of her erotic choices: “At certain junctions in the story, you can make a choice. Do you stay in the bar or leave? Do you leave with the hot barman or the rich businessman? Do you change your mind and head back to the bar? Depending on what you choose, you turn to a certain page to see how your adventure continues.”

She promises that the book – due out in June – is “hugely explicit. Proper sex, but with a light touch.” She admits that writing the sex scenes was tough, and sometimes hilarious. “You want to write good sex, not a bad sex scene. We agonise over it. Is this right? Is this how it would happen? You don’t want the reader to be thinking about the author, she must be absorbed in the scene. The sex scene must be a turn-on, but it also needs to be relevant to the story and capture some emotion.”

Who knows? Maybe subversive suburban sex will turn out to be the great South African literary genre.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist

Do this and I’ll love you forever

Valentine’s Day is coming up. February 14 is a busy day for you, no doubt, what with opening all those cards and gifts, the constant ringing of the door bell with deliveries from admirers, rushing around watering your many bouquets, nibbling on those chocolates, getting tarted up for a hot date at a romantic restaurant.

I empathise, knowing from first-hand experience how demanding Valentine’s Day can be. Nonetheless, I hope you will find a few minutes to support another good cause – it may not be quite as instantly gratifying as sweet-talking someone you fancy, but it does make a small contribution to the good of mankind.

In addition to being the day on which we profess our love, lust or like-you-a-lot-really-a-lot-but-I’m-just-not-sure-you’re-”the-one”, February 14 is International Book Giving Day. It is a day dedicated to getting new, used and borrowed books into the hands of as many children as possible. Read about it at bookgivingday.com.

Reading to or with children is one of life’s greatest joys. Maybe even more delightful than being wooed in a posh restaurant. I can’t say for sure, because it’s been a while. No matter, reading with kids is lovely. As a toddler, my daughter’s greatest passion – OK, obsession – was for The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. We did have other books. Plenty. But she just couldn’t get enough of that caterpillar. I had to read it 37 times a day for four months. She knew the ending – spoiler alert: he turns into a beautiful butterfly – but was prepared to be surprised and wonder-struck again and again.

There he was, eating and eating his way through cakes and plums and such, spinning himself into a cocoon only to emerge – gasp, and clap your chubby hands together! – with a fine set of beautiful, coloured wings. She was delighted every time. And there were hundreds, if not thousands, of opportunities to be delighted, because we read that book a LOT. If I deserted my post, for a bath, say, she would track me down and beat her little fists against the bathroom door and demand, desperately: “Read catapeeeya!”

Not all South African children have someone to read to them, or something to read (or a bathroom door, for that matter, but let’s stick with books, for now). Relatively few homes have books and only 8% of public schools have functioning libraries. It is simply not possible to learn to read fluently without daily exposure. It is not possible to learn without reading and understanding fluently.

Sorry if you thought this column was going in a cheery Valentine’s direction, perhaps with amusing asides about romantic novels and a couple of risqué jokes. It’s not. I’m here to reminisce about the days when my children liked to be read to, and then I’m going to badger you. That’s the plan for this morning.

Now for the badgering. Please celebrate Book Giving Day by giving a book to a child, or donating books to a place where children can read them. Support your local bookstore and buy a couple of children’s books to give away, or clear out your kids’ book shelves and pass them along.

If you are in Cape Town, donate good quality books to The Bookery, 20 Roeland Street, for redistribution to school libraries. Thebookery@equaleducation.org.za.

Donate to an underprivileged school or crèche, or to your local library. Many libraries collect used books to sell to raise money for new stock.

May flowers and chocolates be yours in abundance.

Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist