The SA Fiction Collection: Shark’s Egg

The first post for my SA Fiction Collection reminds me why I love second-hand bookstores. It was also the first book I bought on my recent visit to South Africa. I spent two days in Joburg staying with Lu from Sugar and Snark, and she took me to Outer Limits, a comic book store in Melville. Among other geekery like games and figurines, Outer Limits has a small selection of new and second-hand genre fiction, and I spotted this slim, obscure title on the shelves:

Sharks Egg

Shark’s Egg, published by Kwela Books in 2000, is the debut novel by Henrietta Rose-Innes. You may have heard of her recent novel Ninevah, or come across one of her short stories, which have appeared in numerous publications. The somewhat sloppy cover of Shark’s Egg doesn’t really appeal to me, so it’s a good thing I was familiar with her name. The cover suggests fantasy, but the blurb implies more realist fiction. I’ll have to see for  myself.

Shark’s Egg by Henrietta Rose-Innes (2000, Kwela Books)

Goodreads Blurb:
A dark coming-of-age story set in Cape Town, Shark’s Egg tells the story of Anna’s schoolgirl friendship with the magnetic, destructive Leah, and their ambiguous adult relationship. Alan, Anna’s first lover, becomes the focus of a moral and sexual struggle between them as adults – played out against the menacing backdrop of the sea.

Links:
Goodreads
Kwela Books
Buy a Copy: Exclusive Books | KalahariGraffiti Boeke (Afrikaans website) | Amazon |

 

About the Author
Henrietta Rose-Innes is a South African writer based in Cape Town. Her novel Nineveh was published by Random House Struik in 2011, following a short-story collection, Homing (2010), and two earlier novels: Shark’s Egg (2000) and The Rock Alphabet (2004).

In 2012, her short story ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition. Nineveh was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the M-Net Literary Award. In 2008, Henrietta won the Caine Prize for African Writing, for which she was shortlisted in 2007. Also in 2007, she was awarded the South African PEN Literary Award. Shark’s Egg was shortlisted for the 2000 M-Net Literary Award.

Her short stories have appeared in various publications, including Granta, AGNI and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. A collection of short pieces, translated into German, was published in September 2008 as Dream Homes.

She is currently Donald Gordon Creative Arts Fellow at the the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA), University of Cape Town.

Website 
Twitter: @HenriettaRI
Goodreads

Up for Review: The White Shadow

Today’s book looks like a bit of a rare (or at least obscure) breed – YA set in Africa. This particular novel is a coming-of-age story set in 1960’s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), although the political themes might make it more of an adult read.

The White Shadow by Andrea Eames (Harvill Secker)

Blurb:

‘Look after your sister, Tinashe.’

Tinashe is a young Shona boy living in a small village in rural Rhodesia. The guerilla war of the late 1960s haunts the bushlands, but it only infrequently affects his quiet life; school, swimming in the river, playing with the other kids on the kopje.

When his younger sister, Hazvinei, is born, Tinashe knows at once that there is something special about her. Their life in the village, once disturbed only by the occasional visits of his successful uncle and city cousin, Abel, now becomes entangled with the dual forces of the Shona spirit world and the political turmoil of the nation.

As Tinashe, Hazvinei and Abel grow older, their destinies entangle in ways they never expected. Tinashe is prepared to follow his sister anywhere – but how far can he go to keep her safe when the forces threatening her are so much darker and more sinister than he suspected?

Andrea Eames weaves together folklore and suspense in this compelling tale of a boy struggling to do the right thing in an unpredictable world.

 

The White Shadow was published on 2 February 2012 by Harvill Secker, an imprint of Vintage Books. I received a review copy from Tammy February at Women24.

Links:
Read an excerpt
Add it on Goodreads
The White Shadow 
at Vintage Books
The White Shadow at Random House Struik (South African distributor)
Buy a copy at The Book Depository

Andrea Eames:
Website
Twitter
Goodreads profile

Review of Advent by James Treadwell

Title: Advent
Series: The Advent trilogy
Author: James Treadwell
Published: First published 02 February 2012; this edition published 03 July 2012
Publisher: Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Genre: YA, fantasy, mythology
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

In Advent, two tales of magic intertwine and converge.

In 1537, Johan Faust, the most powerful magician of his age, seeks immortality. Humanity has scorned magic in favour of science and religion, and Faust believes that, to save the world from this error, he cannot die. He leaves behind a mysterious woman he once loved, a woman who gave him a ring that contains all the magic in the world.

In the present day, 15-year-old Gavin Stokes takes a train from London to stay with his aunt in the countryside. He was suspended from school after telling his guidance counsellor what his parents are sick of hearing – that he sees things no one else does, like the ghostly woman he calls Miss Grey, who has been appearing to him throughout his life. Gavin used to find Miss Grey’s presence comforting, but his mother and domineering father insist that such things are impossible, implying that he’s either stupid, lying or insane. Unable to reconcile his own reality with the one the world forces upon him, Gavin is lonely and deeply unhappy.

His aunt Gwen has always been more understanding, but when Gavin arrives at her cottage on the ancient Pendurra estate, he cannot find her, or any evidence of where she may have gone. While trying to track her down, he finds that Pendurra is a mysterious place both liberating and terrifying. Gavin meets other people who have experienced magic, making it seem as if he has been simply been living in the wrong place, with the wrong people. But Pendurra is also a place where magic is leaking back into the world after being trapped for centuries, and something cruel and dangerous is coming with it.

The marketing copy for Advent promises a “spellbinding return to old-fashioned storytelling”, and for once the blurb writers are not exaggerating. Or at least not very much. Advent is rich with old, wild magic that infuses a classic coming-of-age story entwined with mythology. The writing is wonderful and the settings include an English forest in winter and an ancient mansion that looks like it hasn’t aged in centuries. The characters are mysterious and varied, and many seem to carry the depth and weight of personal histories that would make good stories on their own. Reading it is a bit like wandering through a vault full of treasure chests and only being able to open a few, and Advent reminded me a lot of some of the YA novels I loved as a kid.

As a hurt, withdrawn teenager, Gavin is what first drew me into the story. I identified with his loneliness and insecurity, and sympathised with the way his reality is considered unacceptable by everyone in his life:

His dreams were a whirl of turbid darkness lit by fire, full of prophetic voices clamouring in alien speech. He was fourteen and miserable. The expensive school did its work and he at least knew that Miss Grey should not exist, that she was impossible, that the fact that he kept on seeing her was like an error in a calculation, a tear in the canvas of a painting, a misprint. He understood that if he tried to explain his life to anyone, the only thing they’d be able to think was that there was something seriously wrong with him. But because it had always been there, it was impossible for him to imagine how it was wrong.

Because of the way people treat him, Gavin has “spent most of the last four years desperately wanting to be left alone”. At one point in the novel, he tries to make polite conversation but fails because “he had no practice at it. He’d spent the past couple of years learning to stop conversations, not start them”.

His parents tend to treat him with disappointment, annoyance or anger. “My mum and dad don’t like me much. Especially Dad” Gavin says. His father is a mean, hateful man. He’s not physically abusive, but he’s an asshole. His parents clearly have a troubled marriage, but this is no longer something Gavin worries about: “Once he’d realised they didn’t want to know about his unhappiness, he’d stopped caring much about theirs.”

For the first half of the novel I kept wanting to give Gavin a hug. It’s comforting to find that things are better for him at Pendurra, especially when he meets Marina, the owner’s 13-year-old daughter. Marina is weirdly innocent and naive. She’s not stupid or completely uneducated, but she seems to know almost nothing about the world outside Pendurra. She often says such odd things that Gavin stops to check if she’s being sarcastic, although I doubt that Marina even knows what sarcasm is. She’s never learned how to be mean, and she’s always straightforward and honest. She has never heard swearwords, and asks Gavin for a definition every time he uses one.

Marina’s innocence makes her the perfect companion for Gavin. She doesn’t treat him with the “contempt, or anxiety, or bewilderment” he’s learned to expect from people. If he tells her something that seems strange or impossible, she is curious even when skeptical, and in fact has her own experiences with magic. Gavin has become so used to guarding his words for fear of being “dismissed, or ignored, or even laughed at” that he’s “lost the power to say what he meant”. But with Marina, he can just be honest; a unique experience for him.

Gavin sometimes finds Marina’s naiveté frustrating, but mostly their budding friendship offers him some solace – he finally knows that he’s not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with him. And Pendurra itself is a life-changing place. The massive house is one of those incredible fictional spaces that you long to visit. It’s centuries old and has never been modernised – there is no electricity and no modern plumbing. It’s structure is all in plain, impressive sight – “great slabs of swelling wood”, “bare patches of grey stone”, “curves of iron”. Nothing is smooth and anonymous; everything is rough and unique. Every door is made of heavy, knotted wood, with every nail visible and slightly different from all the others. It is stunningly, unbelievably old “with that sense of foreignness, forgottenness, that he’d caught as a smell the moment he’d stepped inside; old like the sounds of a dead language”. Gavin emphasises that this is not like some boring museum though – it’s more like another world entirely.

Despite its age, Pendurra is in excellent condition thanks to the magic leaking into the area. The theory of magic in the novel (or at least Faust’s theory) is that it is “the commerce and the interchange” between mankind and God’s “generative spirit”. This is pantheistic rather than religious. Faust deplores monotheistic religion, which sees creation as fallen and corrupt, and views God as nothing but a talented architect. In his view, God is contained within his creation, rather than existing as a separate entity, and some humans have the power to communicate with and manipulate this spirit, although this always comes at a cost. The novel is entitled ‘Advent’ because Advent is about the second-coming; here (I assume) the return of magic is synonymous with the return of God.

I’m a tad confused about how exactly magic works though, and this was my main problem with the novel. I like the idea that magic is an interaction with God’s spirit, which is basically a life spirit. But then how is it that Faust’s ring contains all the magic in the world? Does this mean God is trapped inside that ring? How is that possible? And how has the world survived with this spirit trapped in one tiny location? Or is it that the world has been dying slowly ever since the ring’s creation, and deteriorated further when Faust trapped the ring in a magically sealed box? It could also be argued that magic is a form of knowledge, but how does that explain the existence of some of the creatures that begin to emerge as the leak gets worse? These concerns aren’t irreconcilable, and I found them tolerable while I was reading, but I would have preferred a more thorough explanation. The novel is set up for a sequel, so hopefully there is more to be discovered.

Another hitch is the change in narrative that happens about halfway through. For the first half, the story is told from two POVs – Gavin’s and Faust’s, with Faust’s story mostly told in reverse. Then we start getting new POVs and a series of flashbacks. After seeing everything from either Gavin or Faust’s perspective, these new narrators made the story feel fragmented and I wondered if there wasn’t a more elegant way to tell it.

It’s also quite slow. At first I liked this – you’re immersed in the rich detail of an unfolding story that’s worth savouring. After a while though, it does get a bit tiring and you might start to wonder when the plot is going to get going. No one knows what happened to Gwen, but there’s no real rush to find out. Gavin does a little investigating that happens mostly by accident. There’s a lot of sorcery in Faust’s narrative, but it’s a long time before you see any in Gavin’s. For me this was just a niggle, but I imagine that YA fans who enjoy the genre for its quick reads will get bored.

In my opinion though, Advent is one of the best kinds of YA. It doesn’t feel dumbed down or glossed over in any way. It also has, as promised, some “spellbinding… old-fashioned storytelling”, including an indescribable sense of escaping into other worlds that it seems I can only find in a few precious YA novels (adults’ novels just don’t achieve quite the same effect). Advent is not without its flaws so I had to give it a rather than an 8, but it’s the kind of book that immerses me in a world I want to disappear into.

But a copy of Advent at The Book Depository

Review of The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Title: The Peculiars
Author: Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Published: 1 May 2012
Publisher: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS Books
Genre: YA, adventure, steampunk, science fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Since she was a child, Lena Mattacascar has been called Peculiar. She has unusually long hands and feet, and each of her fingers has an extra knuckle. “[S]igns of goblinism”, the doctor said, and her grandmother never hesitated to tell her what a no-good goblin criminal her father was (he left home when Lena was five). Lena tries to pass her strange appendages off as “birth defects” but she’s desperate to know the truth about her father and her own genetics.

On her 18th birthday, Lena’s mother gives her two gifts left by her father – a small inheritance, and a letter. Motivated by her father’s words to her, Lena decides to use the money to travel to Scree, the supposed land of the Peculiars. She takes a train to the town of Knob Knoster, on the border of Scree, where she will need to buy supplies and find someone to guide her through the wilderness. One man who could help her is Tobias Beasley, an inventor and historian.

However, Beasley is rumoured to be an eccentric who might be involved in strange dealings with Peculiars. A young but determined federal marshal named Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on him and report anything incriminating. Lena agrees, and gets a job in Beasley’s library, working alongside Jimson Quigley, a young man she met on the train. It’s a pleasant, fulfilling life, but Lena finds some suspicious things in Beasley’s home, leading her to make decisions that put the people she cares about in danger.

The Peculiars is a steampunk-ish coming-of-age novel about how difference breeds prejudice. The people who believe in Peculiars see them as sub-human, morally decrepit freaks. Scree has a dubious reputation as “the place where they send criminals. They say the forests are filled with hideous things”. “No one’s there but misfits, political enemies, and aliens”, Lena is told. It’s no surprise then, that all Peculiars are lumped together with thieves, murderers and anyone considered socially undesirable. The government uses this for political gain. Scree is rich in mineral resources, and by stating that Peculiars are non-human and playing into people’s fears and about them, the government is then able to declare Scree terra nullius – “a ‘land belonging to no one’”. It makes it easy for them to justify their actions there – stealing the land from the indigenous people and exploiting them as slave labour. It’s essentially the story of European colonialism. Scree is a metaphor for Africa or Australia, and the Peculiars represent the indigenous people of those lands.

It’s quite a while before you really see any of this in action though. The majority of the novel is set in Knob Knoster where Lena is trying to prepare for her Scree journey. As a result many reviewers have complained about the slow pace of this book. The blurb gives the impression that this is an action-adventure novel set in Scree, but in fact Lena doesn’t even get there until the last quarter of the novel. You also don’t get to see nearly as many Peculiars as you would expect – their very existence is portrayed as something of a myth for a while, although it’s obvious to the reader that they’re real.

Luckily, this didn’t bother me. I don’t trust blurbs, and in general I’m fine with slow-moving plots. I would have liked the Peculiars to play a larger part, but at least they’re intertwined with the politics and social views of the time. What really, really bothered me though, was Lena. She’s such a weak, thoughtless girl that she essentially spoiled the novel for me.

Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on Mr Beasley for him. In exchange he promises to provide her with a guide to Scree and since he’ll be focusing on Beasley, he’ll take his attention off Lena’s father, Saltre’s other most wanted criminal. Plus, Lena will be helping her country. Lena agrees, although there’s absolutely no good reason for her to do so at this point. She doesn’t need Saltre’s guide if Beasley will help her (which he immediately agrees to do). Saltre didn’t promise to leave her father alone, just that he would ignore him for a bit. It doesn’t even occur to Lena that Saltre could later use her to lead him straight to her father. And since when does Lena care about her country? The government is opposed to Peculiars, and she’s clearly a Peculiar.

It gets worse once she meets Beasley. She’s welcomed into his home, given a tour of his magnificent library, and invited to lunch. Beasley instantly agrees to be her Scree guide, and to help her pay for the expedition he offers her a job in his library and a place to stay in his lovely home. She accepts, and basically begins an ideal life for a young woman in her society. She has a respectable job doing fulfilling work, she has the independence that comes with making your own money, she lives in a beautiful, stately home, all meals are cooked by the housekeeper, and there’s the potential for a bit of romance with her colleague Jimson. On top of that, Beasley has offered to help her achieve her goal of travelling into Scree and finding her father. Beasley has basically given Lena everything she could want at this point. And still the stupid bitch goes running to Saltre with any information she can find to betray Beasley.

Lena actually carries around a notebook and pen just in case she learns something incriminating, and at one point she endures physical pain and great anxiety to go creeping around Beasley’s house in the middle of the night and steal one of his books. Why? Partly because she has a crush on the handsome Saltre, and partly because Lena is easily duped by authority. Saltre is a marshal, and she believes everything he says. The government says Peculiars are bad, therefore they must be bad (even though that implies that Lena is bad too, since she’s obviously Peculiar). If Beasley is breaking the law he must be stopped, even if he is good and the law is designed to exploit people. Lena is such a twit; it takes quite a while for her to think outside the lines.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the reader had more of a chance to empathise with her, if we could see things the way she seems to see them. For example, if it looked like Saltre might actually have feelings for her, or if there was something potentially sinister about Mr Beasley. But no – while she’s blindly making the wrong decisions, it’s crystal clear to the reader what’s really going on. It’s so obvious that Saltre is a villainous government agent manipulating a vulnerable young woman to get what he wants. He’s going to turn on her the moment she ceases to be useful. It’s so obvious that Mr Beasley, on the other hand, is a good, kind man, and Lena is making a colossal mistake by betraying him. I know Lena is naive, but I just couldn’t take her side when people like Jimson and Beasley are so much more likeable.

Jimson is the one who tells Lena that the government is using the Peculiars for political gain. Although he refuses to believe Peculiars exist, you know he’s right about the government. Lena is critical of Jimson for being too rational and scientific, but he usually comes off as a much smarter person in contrast to Lena’s tendency to dismiss evidence in favour of rumour, assumption, and arguments from authority. Jimson and Lena find things that cause them to be suspicious of Beasley, but Jimson takes into account the fact they’ve only ever seen Beasley act with kindness, so he suspends his judgement until they have the whole story and is careful not to do anything rash. Lena on the other hand, runs headlong into doing something rash. This puts everyone in danger, but she has the audacity to criticise Jimson for doing nothing while she took action!

The crap thing is that if it weren’t for Lena being so damn stupid and ungrateful, the story would stand still. It’s her weakness and poor decisions that jumpstart the plot and finally move it out of Knob Knoster and into Scree. It’s a much better book from that point on, but it’s only the last quarter or so. Lena still does some moronic things, but she at least seems to have learned a little from her mistakes and is able to stand up for herself. There’s more danger and adventure in Scree, and of course we learn more about the Peculiars and the government’s operations. Sadly, it’s a case of too little too late. There’s potential for a decent sequel, but The Peculiars is average at best.

Buy a copy of The Peculiars from The Book Depository

Review of Thieves at Heart by Tristan J. Tarwater

Title: Thieves at Heart
Series: The Valley of Ten Crescents #1
Author: Tristan J. Tarwater
Published: 9 March 2011
Publisher: Independent
Genre: YA, fantasy
Source: review copy from author
My Rating: 4/10

Tavera, affectionately known as Tavi, is a young half-elf with a talent for theft. She’s been working for Prisca the Tart but then gets recruited by Derk the Lurk – a career thief and a member of The Cup of Cream, an elite club of thieves. Derk takes Tavi under his wing, caring for her as a father would a daughter and teaching her to steal in the hope that she will one day earn a position in The Cup of Cream as well. In Derk’s company, Tavi grows from a scruffy, cowering little girl into a smart, feisty young woman.

And that’s all there is to it really. The plot meanders from one chapter to the next, with Derk and Tavi moving from one town to another, meeting people, stealing things, and generally just getting on with their largely unremarkable lives. Every time something potentially significant happens, it turns out to be just another average occurrence in the same way that meeting a new friend is notable but doesn’t typically change your life. The only major events are Derk recruiting Tavi, and a cliffhanger in the last chapter that sets the stage for the second book.

Despite the novel being about a talented thief being mentored by a master thief who’s a member of a prestigious club of thieves, there isn’t all that much thievery on the page. Yes, Tavi’s always nicking little things here and there, but when it comes to big heists, we just hear a tiny bit of the planning and then almost nothing about the execution. Derk, the master thief, doesn’t even show off his skills for us. All the interesting bits are left out.

I’m also not sure why the author chose to make Tavi a half-elf, or even create a fantasy world at all. Besides having one pointy ear (the other was cut) and being called a “Forester” every now and then, Tavi’s heritage has little effect on her life. Only two other elves are encountered in the novel, and they have very minor roles. Although the world as a whole is well sketched, it doesn’t differ much from the real one except for a few details. The dominant religion involves the worship of a night/moon goddess and people commonly swear by either her tits or her hems (“By Her tits” or “Oh tits” or “those hem-chewers”). Yeah… Time is measured in phases rather than weeks or months. Fortune-tellers are the real deal, but that’s as close to magic as the novel comes. I don’t even know why the series is called the Valley of Ten Crescents – my guess is that’s the name of this area of Tarwater’s fantasy world, but the phrase isn’t mentioned once. Overall, the novel seems to be fantasy just for the sake of being fantasy.

The book is really only about Tavi – sort of like a prolonged exercise in character building. And Tavi at least is a well-crafted character. With no real plot to occupy the reader’s attention, we get a close-look at who she is. At first she’s very shy, having being cowed into submission by abuse. Derk gives her confidence in her abilities and allows her to be herself, so that she soon emerges as a sharp, feisty girl with a good sense of humour – a sort of likeable street urchin. We see Tavi grow older, although the novel is never clear about exactly how old she is or how much time has passed. At one point Tavi says that she’s “prolly 13” and later it’s suddenly mentioned that she’s been with Derk for seven years.

Surprisingly for such a young character, Tavi turns out to be quite promiscuous, much to Derk’s despair. Although she often kisses – and later beds – boys to empty their pockets or get valuable information, it’s clear that she quite enjoys it as well. Admittedly, the merits of a promiscuous YA character are debatable, but I have to say that it’s nice to see a female character who can enjoy her sexuality without the narrative condemning her for it. Another thing I admire is that the author openly speaks about some of the personal issues Tavi has as a girl, like worrying about being flat-chested or getting her period for the first time. On the other hand, Tarwater doesn’t mention the possibility of getting pregnant when Tavi starts sleeping around, which I thought should have been an important consideration.

One last positive thing is that Thieves at Heart is decently written, which is always something I’m apprehensive about when it comes to indie novels. Unfortunately it’s also filled with careless mistakes and unclear sentences that should have been picked up in the editing process. But even if all the errors had been corrected, this book is still aimless and pretty boring. It’s like an extremely long introduction to a story that doesn’t get told. Presumably, all the good stuff is being reserved for later books in the series, but this one doesn’t give you much reason to keep reading. There’s a cliffhanger at the end, but sadly I imagine most people would get discouraged before they got halfway.

Buy a copy of Thieves at Heart on Amazon