Category Archives: BOOKS

Between the Lines

Tragedies and Triumphs

Author, Sheila Kohler

By: Yohana de la Torre, Chief Editor

In her signature spare and incisive prose, Kohler recounts the lives she and her sister led.

Critically acclaimed, award-winning writer Sheila Kohler’s life has snuck its way into much of her elegant, psychologically nuanced fiction, from her seemingly idyllic upbringing among South Africa’s upper crust, to her personal experiences with the complicated coexistence of love and violence.  Now, with Once We Were Sisters, a stunning memoir and her first work of nonfiction, Kohler wields her signature style to lay bare her life, her family’s shocking past, and the very real tragedies and triumphs that have made their way into her stories and novels.

When Kohler was thirty-seven, she received the heart-stopping news that her beloved sister Maxine, only two years older, was killed when her husband drove them off a deserted road in Johannesburg.  Stunned by the news, Kohler immediately flew back to the country where she was born, determined to find answers and forced to reckon with her brother-in-law’s history of violence and the lingering effects of Sheila and Maxine’s unusual childhood— one marked by death and the misguided love of their mother.  

As she struggles to acknowledge that she will never solve the mystery surrounding her sister’s death, Kohler grapples with memories of her family and wonders what she could have done to save Maxine, ultimately finding atonement in the writing career that frees her. 

In her signature spare and incisive prose, Kohler recounts the lives she and her sister led.  Flashing back to their storybook childhood in apartheid-era South Africa at the family estate, Crossways, Kohler tells of the death of her father when she and Maxine were girls, which led to the family abandoning their house and the girls being raised by their mother, at turns distant and suffocating.  We follow them to the cloistered Anglican boarding school where they first learn of separation, and later to Rome and Paris, where they plan grand lives for themselves— lives that are interrupted when both marry young and discover they have made poor choices.  Honest and heartrending, Once We Were Sisters is an achingly accurate portrait of the bond of sisterhood, which changes but never breaks, even after death.

GCT caught up with Kohler about her moving memoir and this is what she had to say:

YD: For many years, you’ve drawn on your life and your family’s history while writing novels and stories— what made you decide to explore these stories in a memoir now? 

SK: “I suppose there were several reasons.  First of all, my nephew and nieces are now all adults, indeed, many have their own children at this point.  I felt they were old and mature enough to read what I had to say if they wanted to without too much pain.  My brother-in-law is dead.  In some basic way, I felt that I owed my sister an account of the truth as I saw it, and I can only hope it might be helpful to others, too, who might have lived something similar.  It seems to me that only the truth of the heart in whatever form it is written can really reach others who might have made the same journey.” 

YD: Reflecting on the ways you’ve rewritten Maxine’s story in your fiction, you write, “so many versions of the truth are possible, which enable me to tell the same story in so many different ways.” Do you feel that you’ve reached a sort of final truth by writing her story as nonfiction?

SK: “No. There is no final truth to any story.”  

YD: Men—your father, Michael, Carl, and John—and their actions unsurprisingly have huge, rippling effects on your life, but they seem barely present in the book.  It’s as if they affect events from offstage. Is this intentional?

SK: “You are a very perceptive reader.  I think you are right, and I don’t think this was intentional or a writer’s strategy but simply a reflection of the reality of my life.  I have been surrounded by women: my mother and my aunts and my sister, and then my own girls who were and remain so important in my life.  Men, particularly men in suits, which John never wore, remain in a way strangers, exotic beings despite my dearest husband who is very much part of my present life.”  

YD: As your work makes very clear, the question of what you could have done to prevent Maxine’s death has haunted you for decades.  Have you come to any resolution about what you would do differently if you could do it all over again?

SK: “In my mind, of course, I would stay by her side, never leave her, hire a bodyguard, an army to protect her.  I would get a gun!  I think, though, that the situation remains a very difficult one in reality and I am not sure we can ever protect another from him or herself.” 

YD: Did your family know that you were writing this book? If so, what have family members’ reactions been?

SK: “My nephew and nieces wrote and gave me information, things I did not know about their father’s life and work.  I think they wanted to contribute in some way and perhaps protect their father’s image.  My grandson found the galleys in my room and read the book one night.  I asked him if he was shocked, and he maintained it would take much more to shock him!”  

YD: What do you hope readers will most respond to in Once We Were Sisters?

SK: “I hope readers will respond to the bond between the sisters, to the love that exists not just between sisters but between friends, mothers and daughters, women and men.  I can only hope that my words might take my readers away from their own sorrows, or at least distract and even amuse for a while, that they might get caught up in the story and that they might, at the same time, find themselves in my pages and realize how similar we all are in a way, all part of the same family.” 

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The Joys of friendship

Author, Alex George

By: Yohana de la Torre, Chief Editor

The Kites takes readers to 1970s coastal Maine and a crucial turning point in the lives of two boys on the cusp of adulthood.

Compelling and heartbreaking, with echoes of novels by Wally Lamb, John Irving and Stephen King’s Stand by Me, Alex George’s new novel Setting Free The Kites takes readers to 1970s coastal Maine and a crucial turning point in the lives of two boys on the cusp of adulthood.   

Set in Maine in the 1970s, the novel tells the story of two summers that mark the turning point in the lives of two teenagers, Robert Carter and Nathan Tilly.  The boys are temperamentally very different – Robert is cautious and reticent, while Nathan is daring, and an eternal optimist – but their friendship blossoms as they find themselves thrown together by tragedy.  As they each struggle to come to terms with loss, they find comfort in unexpected places, but above all, they discover the quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) joys of friendship.

Desire and dreams, disappointments and possibilities— all play out across the seasons as Robert, Nathan, and their families navigate harsh and sometimes unexpected truths.  With Setting Free The Kites, George delivers both a poignant coming-of-age story and a moving family drama that deftly explores the timeless themes of family, friendship, loss and hope.

YD: Tell us a little about Setting Free The Kites.

AG: “The book is about being too old to believe in ghost stories, but believing in them anyway.  It’s about boys who like punk, and girls who like John Denver.  It’s about falling in love for the first time.  It’s about escaping gravity.  It’s about love, and loss, and – above all – it’s about hope.” 

YD: You are an Englishman— what inspired you to set this coming-of-age novel in a very American time and place?

AG: “Well, I was born in England, but I’ve lived in America (in Columbia, Missouri) for the last thirteen years and I’m now an American citizen.  My earlier books were set in England, but since I’ve been living here I have, perhaps unsurprisingly, switched my focus to the States.  America is so huge, complex, and so fantastically varied, that it’s become a rich source of new material for me.  My last book, A Good American, was about immigration to this country – a process I had recently been through.  Setting Free The Kites is about growing up here – which is something I have not done.  As a result, it’s been a different kind of challenge, but a very rewarding one nonetheless.”

YD: Robert and Nathan become fast friends, but are very different boys. What are they each like? Are they based on anyone from your own childhood?

AG: “Robert, the book’s narrator, is a cautious soul. He is, as we say nowadays, “risk averse” and is always scrupulously considering the consequences of his actions. Nathan, in contrast, is impetuous and bold. As Robert says of him at one point, he “knew no fear, only hope.”

“Robert’s whole life has been spent in the shadow of his older brother, Liam, who suffers from an incurable disease.  As a consequence, Robert has always felt eclipsed by his brother, and ignored by his parents.  Nathan is obsessed with defying gravity.  Like the kites he and Robert fly on a Maine beach, he is desperate to escape his earthbound existence.  It is this dynamic – irrepressible hope versus that more cautious approach to things – that defines the boys’ relationship.”

“As for who the characters might be based on – well, I suppose there’s a lot of Robert in me.  As a child, I was very cautious, and always obeyed the rules. (Maybe that happens a little less these days.)  I didn’t have a friend like Nathan growing up, although I wish I had.  I got the idea for Nathan’s character after watching the documentary Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit, the French acrobat who walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in the early 70s.  I couldn’t get him out of my head, and kept wondering whether or not that kind of arrogant, obsessive behavior would make for an interesting fictional character. That was how Nathan nudged his way into my head.  Of course, as the book was written, my conception changed dramatically.  Nathan’s principal characteristic, I realized as the story developed, was an extraordinary ability to remain optimistic in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  Hope is what Nathan possesses, great big heaving bucketfulls of it. Although too much hope, as he discovers, can be dangerous.” 

YD: The novel is being compared to the work of John Irving, Wally Lamb, Nick Hornby, and others who write with a combination of humor and pathos about everyday life. Who has influenced you as a writer? 

AG: “I read as widely as I can, of course – all writers do.  Reading is like oxygen.  We can’t exist without it.  In a sense, of course, one is influenced by every word one reads.  But I have never sat down at my computer with the thought that I wanted to write like this person or that person; that way lies madness (and probably not a very good book.) 

“Anyone with a story to tell, and who tells it well, is my hero.  Joan Didion wrote, “We tell each other stories in order to live.” There are stories everywhere within this book. There are ghost stories, love stories, war stories. There are local myths, whispered over children’s pillows, and grand, blockbusting novels (of varying literary merit.) The boys find comfort in the magical, transformative powers of these tales.  I hope that the readers of Setting Free The Kites will find a small escape of their own within its pages.” 

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18th Annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival

The festival starts Friday evening, March 17, at the Marina at Edison & Ford with the Evening with the Authors.

More than two dozen nationally acclaimed authors plan to meet their fans and talk about their books at the 18th annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival on Saturday, March 18, at Centennial Park in the Fort Myers River District.

The festival is a free, day-long event filled with sensational author talks, the latest library technology, contests, booksellers, book signings, activities for teens and children, a free book for every child and teen and the Reading Rocks! Teen Battle of the Bands. The Festival draws an average of 18,000 people annually. The Reading Festival is the largest one-day reading festival in Florida and runs from 10 am to 4 pm, rain or shine.

“Authors come from all over the country and many genres are represented,” said Margie Byers, Festival Coordinator. “Most are award winners, a couple are coauthors with Tom Clancy and James Patterson and all are very popular with their readers. It is a pleasure to meet these creative and interesting people who write these amazing novels and keep track of all the details.”

The festival starts Friday evening, March 17, at the Marina at Edison & Ford with the Evening with the Authors. The event provides the opportunity for fans to meet, mingle and dine with authors.  Tickets to the dinner and reception can be purchased at www.readfest.org

A few of the award-winning authors scheduled to attend both events include: Nathan Hill, Shelley Shepard Gray, James Grippando, Gregg Hurwitz, Mark Greaney, Susan Wiggs, Lori Wilde, Sara Shepard, Kami Garcia and S.J. Kincaid, Chris Grabenstein, Salina Yoon and Candace Fleming. 

Author information, dates of partner events, directions to the event and more, is available by calling (239) 479-4636 or visiting www.readfest.org.