Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks-and-StraightsTitle: Crooks & Straights
Series: Special Branch #1
Author:
Masha du Toit
Publisher: 
self-published
Published:
 12 April 2014
Genre:
 YA, fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the author
Rating:
 
8/10

Crooks & Straights is a lovely read. I say that without qualification, but I want to add that it’s particularly impressive because it’s self-published. I’m also really pleased that it’s South African, and it’s set in Walmer Estate and surrounds in Cape Town, close to where I lived and worked until recently.

The neighbourhood has a quirky, old-school feel similar to the real one, but is set in an alternate fantasy world where magical creatures and humans with magical abilities are a well-known fact. Some of them are familiar, such as werewolves and genies, but author Masha du Toit uses a wide variety of her own eccentric creatures indigenous to South Africa, like haarskeerders, snaartjies, vlêrremeisies, roos-dorinkies, streepies … Many of these are as unfamiliar to the characters as they would be to readers because, for centuries, magicals (or ‘crooks’, as opposed to non-magical ‘straights’) have been persecuted. In Du Toit’s world, they parallel other minorities: people of colour, women, LGBTQ groups, etc. Apartheid, therefore, was not only about the oppression of the black majority, but about the suppression of magic. Crooks and straights fought together in the liberation movements, and the historic neighbourhood of District Six was famed for its acceptance of magic in addition to its racial and cultural diversity.

So, when sixteen-year-old Gia moves to Walmer Estate, near to where District Six used to be, she’s struck by the remnants of that vibe: a strong community spirit characterised by diversity and a relaxed approach to magic. Her parents are fashion designers who fit right in with a neighbourhood known for its small businesses and artisans. There are signs of magic at their new house, such as the ward on the front door: a rustic bit of sorcery in plain sight. In her previous neighbourhood, magic was kept to a minimum and obscured the way pipes and electrical cables are hidden behind the walls of modern homes.

Sadly, this reflects a growing attitude towards magic in present-day South Africa: it’s taboo and used only with reluctance. Many people, like Gia’s friend Fatima, are disgusted by it and avoid speaking about it. When Gia’s liberal, socially conscious teacher gives classes on magic and magicals, she discreetly covers the intercom so that she can’t be monitored. There’s a growing sense of dystopia because a political group known as The Purists is gaining influence, especially with the president’s son backing them. The Purists believe that magicals – including human ones – are either dangerous or useful only for hunting other magicals. They have a Red List for those who should be terminated on sight and a White List for those who are tolerated for their skills. The Purists are also proposing a Grey List of individual magicals with their personal details, allowing the government to keep track of them.

The might of the Purists is enforced by Special Branch, a military operation that uses werewolves to sniff out magic, does a lot of classified experimental work, and administers torturous tests for magical ability (those who pass get a Certificate of Purity, which has disturbing social implications). Special Branch uses the rhetoric of freedom and safety, promising to fight the “nightmares” so citizens can sleep easy but what they offer is not peace but security for those deemed eligible.

It’s not a good idea to get messed up with the Purists or Special Branch, but Gia and her family end up wandering dangerously close. Firstly, her parents are hired to design the wedding dress for Kavitha Pillay, fiancée of Luxolo Langa, the leader of the Purists. When Gia accompanies her mother to a meeting to discuss the design, Kavitha warns her that Luxolo is cruel and ruthless. The wedding is set o be a high-profile celebrity event, and if they screw up in any way, he’ll ruin them.

Then Gia unwittingly brings her family under the scrutiny when Special Branch comes to her school for a presentation on magical children, explaining that conditions like autism may be caused by magical abilities. Gia immediately sees an opportunity to help her beloved brother Nico, whose cognitive and social limitations are putting increasing strain on their family and on his ability to live a full life. Unfortuantely she doesn’t have the political savvy to realise that Special Branch are part of a frightening authoritarian power structure, so her good intentions end up endangering that which matters to her most: her family. Which is not to say that Gia’s character has to drag the weight of blame around; in a world with the Purists and Special Branch, things like this are bound to happen, and Gia doesn’t do anything unethical or even stupid. Nevertheless, she takes responsibility for her mistake and determines to fix it.

One thing that might have bothered me about this book is if the author had written Gia as a Chosen One or a special, magical snowflake labouring under the assumption that she’s just an ordinary girl. She is ordinary, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means she’s boring or weak.

On the contrary, Du Toit has made Gia a powerful protagonist without simply making her more empowered than everyone else (Chosen Ones and magical snowflakes can be great, but they can be a symptom of boring, lazy writing too). The story is driven by who Gia is as a person and the decisions she makes with the means at her disposal, and you can see the connections running through the novel like thread. She is, first and foremost, someone who cares about her family. She’s also a talented young woman who’s smart enough to appreciate moral complexity, and open-minded enough to embrace the reality of the world she lives in, rather than simply rejecting the unfamiliar or the unnerving.

Obviously, this makes her an ideal narrator for a fantasy world, but it also makes for a nuanced family dynamic, particularly in the relationship between Gia and her (adoptive) mother Saraswati. They have the kind of tension that naturally arises between a 16-year-old and her parents, exacerbated by Saraswati’s strictness and a mysteriously blank past that Gia is only just beginning to question. But although Gia avoids speaking openly to her mother most of the time, you see the love between them when, for example, Gia lovingly brushes her mother’s long, ink-black hair, or takes Saraswati’s hand as she falls asleep and pictures the bonds that link them and her father and brother. As a family they’re caring, antagonistic, imperfect, contradictory and blessed in a way that feels real and keeps you invested in the story.

There’s also something ineffable about Crooks & Straight that I find appealing compared to most other South African novels I’ve read. Our literary scene is not a happy place where reading is fun and that’s because it doesn’t have enough novels like this. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but if I can resort to a very casual description I’d say it’s chilled. It’s not fraught with anxiety about tackling big issues and great tragedies. It’s not a drama so determined to be true to life that it’s just as dreary. It’s not trying to be so serious that it’s just depressing.

It’s obviously an explicitly political book, as I’ve spent half of this review explaining, but its primarily a book with compelling story, driven by a character you can relate to, set in a fantastic world you want to believe in. After months of struggling to find time to read or not being able to finish books I’d started because I was so tired from working all the time, Crooks & Straights finally gave me what I needed to get lost in a good book. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Thursday: This is She

This-is-She-still

Thursdays are for short films recs, and I loved “This is She”, an inspiring bit of magical realism directed by Tarik Karam, written and produced by Grace Rex. It’s about a woman making a new, slow start in a small, unfurnished apartment after going through some personal difficulties with which she is clearly still struggling. Her issues manifest as a weird, furry lump on the wall. She can’t hide it, because it moves everyday, and she can’t just scrape it off and throw it out because it reappears. It’s a part of the decor, a part of her home, and thus a part of her.

 

The blank space left by the “She” in the title emphasises, I think, the broad appeal that this film is meant to have. It’s easy to connect with if you’ve been through similarly hard times and found your way through them or want to. After my experiences last year and general tendency to be an awkward mess, I certainly found it light and comforting🙂

Wednesday: Finnegan’s Field by Angela Slatter

Wednesdays are short-story days. My recommendation this afternoon is ‘Finnegan’s Field’ by Angela Slatter, a dark fantasy published on Tor.com in January. I love posting about Tor’s stories simply because they each have their own cover art, and I like this quaintly eerie piece:

finnegansfield_storyfull2

The girl in the picture is Madrigal Barker, who somehow reappears, without explanation, three years after she disappeared from her tiny hometown. The town is in Australia but the population is of Irish heritage, and they know that “when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again”. Except Madrigal. Everyone’s happy about it and quietly ignores the fact that she hasn’t changed at all in three years, but Madrigal’s mother, Anne, doesn’t think that the daughter who’s come back is the same one who was lost. And of course she’s dead right.

What follows is partly the horror story you’d expect, but it eschews tired convention by turning into more of an investigation as Anne tries to figure out what exactly it is that’s different about Madrigal and track down the person who took her. Even though she has, in fact, spent the past three years in the other world of fae mythology and there’s nothing Anne can do about that, Maddie only ended up there because a human led her to the doorway in the hill. And Anne is determined to find the culprit.

Besides being a quick, satisfying mystery, I also like Finnegan’s Field because it’s a touching story with relatable characters and some tough, haunting choices. Angela Slatter knows how to pack an emotional punch and I find her horror thoughtful and elegant.

Thursdays … The Pride of Strathmoor

Aaand I’m home alone, late at night, watching horror to find something for today’s short film post. As with yesterday’s short story recommendation, I found what I was looking for in the American gothic genre. The Pride of Strathmoor is creepy as fuck, not so much because of the story, but because of the deeply unsettling animation and the whispered narration. That voice sounds so very … close.

Please note that this short film may cause seizures if you’re sensitive to flashing/flickering content.

Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

Apex-Magazine-80

My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.

Thursdays… Ayamé

Thursdays, I’ve decided are going to be for sharing short film and videos (It was going to be Mondays, then Tuesdays, then Wednesdays, but I procrastinate.) Today it’s Ayamé, a proof of concept for a sci fi film that I hope will get made largely because of the gory organic-industrial suit and the massive sniper rifle you see here. It gives me warm, fuzzy memories of playing Lilith and Maya in Borderlands, where I spent A LOT of time patiently splattering skulls into blood and bone with similarly oversized sniper rifles. I’m just whimsical like that.

Ayame-poster

Irish film-maker Conor Maloney couldn’t afford to make a feature-length film, so he instead he cashed in his life-insurance policy to make this rather slick piece that he hopes will give the project a future.

Visually, I find it thoroughly satisfying, although that dramatic pose gets dragged out for just a tad too long, a bit like The Force Awakens. Narratively, it’s a cool little story seed. A seed for something I’ve seen/read plenty of times before, perhaps, but something I enjoy nevertheless. The John Hurt voiceover feels slightly incongruous, partly because it reminds me of a nature documentary, and partly because I feel that it jars with the closing image of a beautiful assassin with a colossal gun. The idea of life persisting despite all the things that threaten to snuff it out presumably refers to her survival, and the survival of whatever damaged world she comes from, but one look at her and I want her to start killing, asap, preferably in hi-def, thank you.

I’m not sure if there’s been an progress on Ayamé, but if you want to know more, you can watch the making-of video, or check out the Ayamé Facebook page, where there are links to several articles and Conor will presumably post any updates.

Crumbs: post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi

Crumbs-posterCrumbs wandered onto my radar as a post-apocalyptic Ethiopian sci fi movie. It’s actually written and directed by Spaniard Miguel Llansó, but it’s set in Ethiopia (where Llansó lives for half the year and does most of his filming), with an Ethiopian cast, and it’s in Amharic with subtitles. It’s an experimental take on the genre and a completely new film experience for me, so my interest was piqued. Luckily, it was screened in Cape Town at That Film Focus, the film component That Art Fair, which took place in February this year.

 

In a far-flung future, humanity has lost its will to survive. There are no children, which immediately brings to mind the despondent, violent chaos of Children of Men, but the wars that this world has suffered are now over. Society has become the quiet, demented realm of the elderly, with a distorted sense of history and culture. Ethiopia, once densely populated, is depicted with vast, empty landscapes and abandoned settlements. People idolise the toys of a lost world and trade them for cash in a mysterious, cluttered pawn shop, although nothing is nearly as valuable as it used to be. They’re just cycling through old routines, perhaps. Nor is it clear why there are Nazis in masks wandering around. Not that “Nazi” necessarily means anything here; they could just be men in uniform wearing the swastikas they found somewhere. A spaceship hovers inexplicably in the sky and we’re barely told anything about that either.

Crumbs-soldier

The tiny, hunchbacked Candy and his beautiful young lover, Birdy, live in an old bowling alley and watch the ship closely. They’re scavengers who have quietly scraped together an artistic, spiritual life, although the objects of their devotion are unique to this plodding world. Birdy creates art from discarded plastic and scrap metal, and the couple worship at a shrine built around a picture of Michael Jordan and a bottle of Coke. Their most prized possessions include an orange plastic sword (manufactured by “the last pure artist”) and a Michael Jackson record (although no one knows who he is any more).

The couple believe that they are from another world, and when the spaceship above them comes to life, switching on the bowling machinery to eerie effect, Candy leaves on a mission to find a way on board so they can go home. His goal is to find Santa Claus, because Santa can make your wishes come true. He takes the plastic sword for protection and the Michael Jackson record to barter with a witch whose help he needs.

Crumbs-Candy

This sounds comic, but it’s all deadly serious to the characters, and although the movie has some humour, it’s mostly quite earnest, which just makes it even weirder. And Crumbs is really weird. Have you seen the trailer? I suggest you watch it so you have an idea of what to expect, although it’s more intense than the actual movie. Most viewers will be stumped, and many might find it too alien to enjoy.

For me, it’s strange in the kind of way I could (sort of) enjoy without fully understanding, even though I tend to be quite pedantic about these things. The crunch of Birdy’s footsteps over gravel (one of my favourite sounds) provides a gently hypnotic soundtrack as he traverses arid landscapes and abandoned buildings. It reminds me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), although in this case the surreal quality of the film comes from the people rather than the landscape. Candy’s journey is slow, occasionally interrupted by bizarre and sometimes hostile encounters. It works, I think, because its confusing and unnerving qualities are countered by its calm tone and Birdy’s solemn determination. Now that I think about it, some of the movies I dislike for their weirdness were those whose absurdities are amplified by humour or intense energy in the form of action, pacing and/or emotional drama: it’s too jarring, too much to take in when I want room for contemplation.

Crumbs-art-Birdy-shipAlso, having lived in Ethiopia, Crumbs doesn’t feel entirely opaque to me; I see traces of the country’s contemporary urban life in the movie’s loony world. All the toys make sense: Addis Ababa, for some reason, has tons of toyshops. The shopping centre down the road from my house had about five or six, which was a crazy number in relation to the size of the shopping centre and the limited variety of stores.

My guess is that toys and other kids’ paraphernalia are among the easiest things to import, along with clothing and electronics. I say ‘import’, which implies a planned process, but it looks more like Ethiopia is a dumping ground for retail leftovers, made-in-China junk or whatever random merchandise shop owners are able to bring back in their suitcases from trips to more affluent countries. The result is that you’ll find clusters of teeny shops shops selling mostly indistinguishable assortments of mostly crappy stuff.

Of course, this is all western-world merchandise, and I imagine its ubiquity feeds the general anxiety about the effects of that world on tradition. Ethiopia has a robust culture and the majority of its people are deeply religious, but it’s nevertheless a poor country invaded by rich expats, so there’s every reason to worry about its unique and age-old qualities drowning in tat.

In Crumbs this fear has been realised: Abrahamic religion has been replaced with toy worship and western icons. Candy isn’t looking for Jesus but for Santa Claus. At the bowling alley, with its Michael Jordan shrine, Birdy prays to the saints Einstein, Hawking, Bieber and McCartney. The only enterprise we see people engage in involves pawning toys and other bits and bobs that are revered but simultaneously decreasing in value. A voiceover by the pawn-shop owner about the history of each artefact reveals how completely garbled the past has become, while also suggesting that we might be equally deluded about our own contemporary cultural practices.

Insights aside, I didn’t leave feeling like I had a good grasp of the movie, and I’m not sure I’d watch it again, except to share the experience with someone else and discuss it. But it is certainly a movie worth talking about.