The SA Fiction Collection: Coconut

Coconut by Kopano MatlwaPublished in 2007, Coconut was the debut novel UCT med student Kopano Matlwa. It won the European Union Literary Award, which is presented by Jacana Media and the European Union.

The concept of a ‘coconut’ – a derogatory term for a person of colour who is seen as acting like a white person – is obviously something that will resonate with many South Africans, as we deal with all the joys and frustrations of living in a richly multicultural country with a deeply troubled racial history. It’s a horrible term that implies that everyone should stick to their racial stereotypes and that certain tastes, pastimes, etc. are somehow reserved for white people. However, I realise how easily such a concept can arise in a post-colonial context, and that it’s not always about people being narrow-minded about identity. The word ‘coconut’ also refers to the very serious problem of internalised racism and I can understand why people would rail against the perceived (or actual) snobbery of a ‘coconut’. A book entitled Coconut by an author my age naturally caught my attention.

I was working at Exclusive Books when Coconut came out, and luckily there was a launch at my branch so I was able to get my copy signed by the author.

Coconut signature

The blurb:

“Would I have turned out to be nothing if Mama had not married Daddy? Would I not be the same Ofilwe I am now if Mama had never made it out of the dreaded location? What if Mama had chosen love, where would I be now? What would I be now? Nothing?”

Coconut is an extraordinary debut novel about growing up black in white suburbs, where the cost of fitting in can be your very identity. It is against this backdrop of potential loss that two extraordinary young women struggle to find themselves.

Rich, pampered Ofilwe and her brother Tshepo are swiftly losing their culture. Ofilwe struggles to fit into a privileged but soulless world that opens its doors to them as quickly as it shuts them. Hers is the story of a generation that is given everything, only to fall apart under the weight of history and expectation.

Hip, sassy Fiks is an ambitious go-getter from the township, desperate to leave her vicious past behind and embrace the glossy sophistication she knows only from magazines. But the golden streets of modern Jozi prove more complicated and unforgiving than even she is prepared for, threatening to destroy her carefully constructed world at every turn.

These unforgettable characters are brought together in a haunting novel that redefines what it means to be young, black and beautiful in the New South Africa.

It’s been ages since I read Coconut so I can’t really offer much of an opinion on it. I remember thinking that it was an interesting representation of a cultural issue, but that it could have been reworked in parts. The European Union Literary award is for first, unpublished works, and manuscripts have to be submitted in publishable form. The winner gets published by Jacana, but I don’t know if it goes through another editing process. One of my problems I had with the book was that it switches between several POVs and it’s not always clear which POV we’re with. It felt like the kind of problem a first-time writer might have – the characters might be distinct to her, but less so for the reader. I really should make the time to read it again though; sometimes I find that I was such an impatient reader in the past!

Links
Jacana Media
Goodreads
Author profile on Goodreads

South African Book Blogs

Hi everyone, this is just a quick post to draw your attention to a new page on my blog – South African Book Blogs (find it on the menu at the top of the page). We’ve got a growing community of book reviewers, and I thought it was time to put together a list of all our blogs, so that readers, authors, and publishers can find us quickly and easily. I asked the bloggers to specify the genres they review, so you know where to go to find the content you’re looking for.

I’m always keen to add new blogs to the list, so if you too are a South African who has a book reviewing blog, or if you regularly review and promote South African fiction and would like to be on this list, please contact violininavoid(at)gmail(dot)com with the following information

  • the name of your blog
  • a link to your blog
  • your tagline, if you have one
  • the genres you most often review
  • (optional) any other important information eg. If you also write movie reviews, if you specialise in indie fiction, etc. Please keep this brief (1-2 lines max).

Any suggestions would also be welcome. I’ve passed this list on to the other bloggers to use on their sites, and if I get any new entries, I’ll update the list and send it out.

Happy reading!

Lauren and Lu review Deadlands by Lily Herne

Title: Deadlands
Author: Lily Herne
Published: March 2011, by Penguin SA 
Genre: Dystopia, Young Adult, Zombies
Source: Purchased copy for review
Plot Summary
It’s been a decade since the zombie apocalypse destroyed Cape Town in the middle of the World Cup. The survivors live in heavily walled enclaves, while outside, in the Deadlands, the zombies still lurch. No one is trying to wipe them out or find a cure, because the zombies are worshipped in a disturbing new religion. Every year a Lottery is held and a few teenagers are chosen as offerings to the mysterious Guardians, cloaked figures who live in the Deadlands and have power over the zombies. Lele de la Fontein is a feisty 17-year old who sees through all this crap. Her grandmother has just died, and she and her brother leave the rural part of the enclaves to live with their father and stepmother in the urban section. Lele hates her stepmother, her new school, the religion, and the increasingly dictatorial politics of her new home. But she gets given an escape route she doesn’t want to take, when she’s chosen for the Lottery and sent out into the Deadlands with the Guardians.
Please note that the following review contains minor spoilers
General Impressions
Lauren: This is one of those books where my rating was a toss-up between things I really loved, and things I absolutely hated. What I loved – the political and religious satire, and the fact that it’s set in Cape Town, where I lived for most of my life. What I hated – the writing, and the fact that the book more or less abandons some of its most interesting content (politics, religion, the mystery surrounding the Guardians) for random action scenes and raiding the mall. Not that I don’t like action and wouldn’t want the chance to raid a mall, but the book could have integrated all these things. For example, the action scenes could have been part of their attempt to find out who the Guardians really are, but the characters practically forget about this until they stumble across part of the truth at the end. So it’s not like the book didn’t interest me; rather it got me really interested in some things, and then wandered off in a different direction, with me going “hey, but what about the…”.
Lu: At first I thought that I might not like this book as zombies sound like a terrifying subject, but the author made it work! With just the right amount of horror, mystery and post-apocalyptic feel, you get drawn straight into the story and you will be delighted by the twists and turns.

You can easily visualize everything in this book and I think that it would make a terrific movie or TV series. I must say I liked all the references to movies, books etc. (the main character even donning a Team Jacob t-shirt at one stage). It made the world seem more real and some of the characters sound like someone you would know.

The ending leaves some unanswered questions and I really hope there won’t be a love-triangle in the future! I think any South African would appreciate its grittiness as well as the South African slang and references. The novel is exciting, fast paced and makes you think about what you would do in a similar situation. The only complaint I have is that I felt like I have heard aspects of the story before.

Lauren: I think the reason it would make a good movie and that it often feels like you’ve heard this before, is that it was written with the movies it references in mind. When reading I thought that it played out like a YA action-adventure-horror movie that happens to be a novel. It was co-written by a teenager though, so that kind of makes sense.

Lu: So it’s true that the novel was written by a mother/daughter combo?

Lauren: Yes – it was written by Sarah Lotz and her daughter Savannah.

Lu: Very Interesting!

Writing
Lauren: In the opening chapter, a strange funeral is being held for Lele’s grandmother and Lele is both very sad and angry about this. The chapter ends with the line “I was trying not to think that somewhere, out in the Deadlands, Gran was getting up” (7). When I read that I was so impressed. I thought wow, that actually feels really creepy, while at the same time it gripped me emotionally because of the funeral that preceded it. I thought I was in for a really awesome read. But after that chapter the writing just disappointed and often irritated me. Practically every chapter ends with some lame, cliched line about what’s going to happen next. For example:
“But, as I was about to find out, that was way easier said than done.” (15)
“I couldn’t have been more wrong.” (28)
“But by then it was too late.” (106)

It reached a point where I just wanted to scream at the book every time a chapter came to an end. The chapters are also all extremely short (often just 2 or 3 pages), so you read one of those lines every few minutes and it was infuriating. I didn’t like the short chapters either; it made the narrative feel very jumpy and disconnected.

Lu: I love short chapters! It makes for easy reading for me. I didn’t have a problem with the writing, but I wondered how some authentic SA words would go down with overseas readers

Lauren: SA slang might be confusing for overseas readers, but some meanings can just be deduced from context. At any rate, Deadlands is not available outside of South Africa (yet). It really should be though (with a glossary and perhaps a few footnotes) – I think this is the kind of novel that would be very popular (zombies are in right now) and I’ve seen quite a few non-SA readers showing interest in it. Plus, Lauren Beukes’s Arthur C. Clarke win no doubt inspired some international interest in SA speculative fiction.

Lu: I do hope it gets released in other countries!

Political and Religious Satire
Lauren: My favourite thing about this book. What I particularly like is its take on religion. The zombies are seen to have ‘cleansed’ Cape Town of violence and corruption. Believers are called Resurrectionists, the zombies are respectfully known as the Reanimated, and the ‘priests’ are the mysterious cloaked Guardians whose faces no one has ever seen. The afterlife is now a certainty – once you die, you’re given to the zombies and you rise from the dead to become one of them.

To me, this reveals the function behind religion – it’s designed to make sense of people’s lives for them, especially when life seems cruel and senseless, thereby giving them comfort. But it’s absurd too. I mean zombies! They’re so gross, with barely a semblance of humanity or intelligence, but that doesn’t stop Cape Town’s survivors from making them part of their belief system and actually worshipping them. No doubt it takes a lot of propaganda and mental acrobatics for everyone to accept that, but then again, religions can make people accept the most bizarre things.

Deadlands also gets really bold with its politics. Today’s ANC government is there in two different forms. On the one hand it’s followed its current path of corruption and transformed into the Embassy – the pro-zombie, authoritarian government of the enclaves, with a firm hand on the necks of its citizens, and institutions like Malema High feeding propaganda to impressionable young minds. I also have to say that I though the idea of an educational institution with the name Malema was hilarious, but disturbingly plausible. Like the ANC, the Embassy is also full of struggle heroes, but this time they’re from the zombie war.

Then there’s the ANZ – the anti-zombians – a rebel faction that’s more like the ANC of the struggle years, although they’re criticised for their violent methods, which sometimes get innocent people killed. The Embassy is of course trying to shut them down, much like the real ANC’s increasing hostility towards dissent and opposition, as they turn away from their own revolutionary ideals towards the racism and small-mindedness that characterised the oppressors they once fought.

Lu: Well you are not going to get any argument about what you just said. I fully agree and I found it so fascinating! Haha I also loved the name “Malema High”, I thought it was brilliant!

What I also found interesting was how most people pretended to believe (probably even more than we know) for fear of rejection and fear of the Guardians. Which totally defies the point of religion. I think most people know there is something going on with Guardians, they are just too scared to rock the boat. And why should they? The ANZ is doing it for them, even if they use questionable means.

I think this shows just how society really functions. Most of us are happy to sit back and let someone else fight our battles for us. Even if we see corruption and blatant wrong-doing, we would rather say nothing for fear of being criticized.

Lauren: On the contrary, I’d say that fear is a big part of religion – fear of punishment, fear of God, but also religion as a way of dealing with fear of the unknown and the fear that comes from your own lack of power. What’s interesting about the Resurrectionists is that they use the source of fear – zombies and infection – as a means of comfort and structure in the face of fear.

I agree with your point about how society functions. And because the societies in the enclaves lack the gross inequalities of South African society today, it’s much easier to bully people into complacency.

Lele
Lauren: I thought Lele was a bit of a brat. It’s great that she’s feisty but she takes too it too far sometimes, to the extent that she’s simply moody and uncooperative, and I disliked her for it.

Lu: I didn’t dislike Lele, but I also didn’t like her. I didn’t like it that she threw her toys each time something didn’t go her way, such as when she walked away from Ash and Saint just because she was moody. She does all of this to her disadvantage and she makes people’s lives difficult.

But she was ‘real’. I hate it when characters are written to be so pure and ‘can do no wrong’. In real life people act childishly in situations (mostly difficult and unpleasant situations) when being a bit considerate would have gone a long way. Which makes me think that the authors wanted Lele to be realistic.

Lauren: I remember the scene with Ash and Saint because it really irritated me too – she’s out in the bloody Deadlands with zombies wandering around but she buggers off on her own just because she doesn’t want to play nice?

But I agree, it is better that she’s more realistic; you can form some kind of connection with a bratty character, even if you don’t like them, but perfect characters can be inaccessible.

The Love-Triangle!
Lu: I don’t like Thabo, but I thought Ash was pretty cool. But please please for the love of pie I don’t want a love triangle in the sequel.

Lauren: I liked them both, but at the end I preferred Ash too. I think it’s largely because Thabo is aligned with the ANZ while Ash is a Mall Rat. The ANZ is a bit shady. The reader’s favour is more likely to lie with the Mall Rats – I mean, they’re basically a group of teen action heroes who live free, raid malls and kill zombies, as opposed to being tied to a hardcore political faction (not exactly romantic) that never actually touches the zombies. Also, Ash has that angsty-mysterious-guy appeal. Initially, Thabo is attractive because of his confidence and rebellious attitude, but he chooses the wrong faction and his character deteriorates, while Ash softens and becomes more empathetic. And of course, Lele is able to spend much more time with Ash, while seeing Thabo can be difficult.

Lu: Agreed, Thabo’s character ends up looking like he’ll do whatever it takes even if it is hurting other people.

Lauren: I thought you’d enjoy a love triangle though…

Lu: I have recently read way to many love triangles. I think for some authors it a cop out because they can’t think of a decent plot.

Pop Culture References
Lu: So you must have been a fan of the “Team Jacob” t-shirt 😛 ? or the Twilight novels being used as weapons?
For some reason it felt like the book was trying to be Ninja Turtle-ish. Or is that just me?

Lauren: Lol, I don’t have much of an answer here. I have no interest in either Jacob or Edward, so the T-shirt was just one reference among many. Ditto the books. I really hate Twilight, but by the time I read this it was out of the limelight and I was tired of talking about it, so the novels being used as weapons wasn’t a big thing for me either.

Ninja Turtles? I didn’t watch much of it when I was a kid (never had M-Net), so I don’t know. However, I can say that at times the book felt like it was trying hard to be like all the action and horror movies it referenced.

Lu: I don’t remember much about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But like the Mall Rats they lived underground and had a master to train them in martial arts and whatnot. But I might just see it like this because Ginger mentioned at points.

Lauren: Oh yeah, that makes sense. I liked all the pop culture references, mostly because I’d seen/read or at least heard of almost all of them. Not sure how good it is for the book in general though; that many references can be alienating if you don’t know what they’re talking about, and some could date very quickly.

Would you read the next book in the series?
Lauren: From some of the tweets I’ve read, Sarah and Savannah are working on book two. And yes, I would read it. The things I liked about the novel make me feel optimistic about the next one, and the things I disliked are not so bad as to dissuade me. Plus, I really do want to know more about those Guardians. I know from reading Exhibit A that Sarah is a great writer. Savannah needs more experience, but that just means she has lots of potential.

Lu: I would definitely read the next book. I can’t wait to see what happens with all of the characters! This is my first time reading a novel by these two authors, but I am excited to read their other works.

Buy Deadlands

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Lauren and Lu’s Reviews

Lu from A Muggle’s Magical Book Blog and I are very different readers. She’s easygoing, I’m demanding. She loves YA and paranormal romance, I don’t. I love sci fi and dark fantasy, she just dabbles. I want good writing and interesting ideas, while Lu is happy with a great story, interesting characters and a few twists. Together we’ll argue our conflicting points of view in joint reviews and you get the benefit of two perspectives instead of just one.

Deadlands by Lily Herne

Title: Deadlands
Author:
Lily Herne
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: March 2011
Source:
Purchased copy for review
My Rating
: 5/10

Buy a copy of Deadlands

It’s been a decade since the zombie apocalypse destroyed Cape Town in the middle of the World Cup. The survivors have established a new but distressingly familiar kind of order in heavily walled enclaves while outside, in the Deadlands, the zombie hordes still lurch. But no one is trying to wipe them out; instead, they’re worshipped.

It’s a brillint, unique twist on the zombie story – zombies are the new religion, revered for ‘cleansing’ Cape Town of its violence and corruption so there could be a better life for all (who survived). Believers are known as Resurrectionists, the zombies are respectfully known as the Reanimated (dissenters just call them Rotters), and the ‘priests’ are the mysterious cloaked Guardians whose faces no one has ever seen. There’s no question now about whether or not there’s an afterlife, because it’s right there in the Deadlands, moaning for your flesh.

Lele (Leletia) de la Fontein sees right through all of this crap. She’s a feisty, rebellious 17-year old, although at times you can be forgiven for calling her a brat. But on the other hand, she’s no doormat and most of the time I admire her spunk. She’s just lost her grandmother, not only to death but to the Guardians, who who take all dead bodies to the Deadlands where the zombies will attack and reanimate them. Now Lele and her brother have to stay with their emotionally distant father and their stepmother, who Lele can’t stand. She also has to go to a new school where, in classic YA tradition, she becomes the free-thinking outcast amidst petty, small-minded popular kids who make fun of her. Like any teenager, Lele thinks that her life couldn’t get any worse, but then she gets selected for the ‘Lottery’ – every year the Guardians choose a few teenagers from the enclaves and take them away, for reasons unknown. And that’s when Lele’s real adventure begins.

Now because Deadlands is the first zombie novel set in Cape Town, my home town, I really wanted to like it. Lily Herne is a psuedonym for SA author Sarah Lotz and her daughter, and as a South African I’m proud to see that SA writers are starting to get published in my favourite genres. At the same time however, my review ethic is to be honest even when I’d rather not be, but more importantly to not be condescending by setting lower standards for certain books as if the authors are mental inferiors who can’t really be compared to their peers. South Africa’s education system is doing that to the country’s youth. I hate it, and I’ve never wanted to do anything similar here. Which in this case means I wanted to like Deadlands, and I think it could have been the novel I was hoping for, but at the end of the day it was disappointing.

There are some really cool things about it nevertheless. Deadlands has an awesome political snarl, particularly in the beginning. Today’s ANC government is there in two different forms. On the one hand it’s followed its current path of corruption and transformed into the embassy – the pro-zombie, authoritarian government of the enclaves, with a firm hand on the necks of its citizens, and institutions like Malema High feeding propaganda to impressionable young minds. Like the ANC it’s also full of struggle heroes, but this time they’re from the zombie war.

Then there’s the ANZ – the anti-zombians – a rebel faction that’s more like the ANC of the struggle years, although they’re criticised for their violent methods which sometimes get innocent people killed. The embassy is of course trying to shut them down, much like the real ANC’s increasing hostility towards dissent and opposition, as they turn away from their own revolutionary ideals towards the racism and small-mindedness that characterised the oppressors they once fought.

Admittedly, I’m not as well versed in politics as I should be, but I can’t deny that it gives sci fi and fantasy the edge that makes for truly fantastic, memorable reads. Unfortunately Deadlands isn’t all that interested in its own political and religious satire. Once Lele gets chosen for the Lottery and leaves the enclave, Deadlands becomes a more conventional action-adventure novel. She meets a group of rebels known as the Mall Rats who turn her into a teen action hero, and the mystery, religious satire and political intrigue gets left behind. The action-adventure bit is the main part of the novel, but for me it was the most boring and it drags on for quite some time.

What I really wanted was to know more about that zombie cult and the Guardians. Who are they? What are they? And what are they up to? These are some of the most interesting and exciting questions in the story, but the answers are predictable, disappointing or just not good enough. It’s not hard to guess why the Guardians are taking teenagers, but you have to wait until the last few pages of the novel for this to be revealed. Having waited so long you expect the secret to be epic; instead my final thoughts for the novel were “that’s it?”. It would have been so much better if Lele had discovered at least part of the truth about the Guardians early on and then gone up against them in the remainder of the story. This could still have allowed for a sequel-ready ending, which is what we get anyway, with a lame line: “this is the end of my story, but somehow I’ve kind of got the feeling that it could actually just be the beginning” (293).

Speaking of lame lines, there are A LOT of them. Almost all of the chapters end with cliched attempts at intrigue:
“But, as I was about to find out, that was way easier said than done.” (15)
“I couldn’t have been more wrong.” (28)
“But by then it was too late.” (106)

To make things worse, there are many, many chapters, most of them bluntly ended with lines like these. Deadlands is only 293 pages long, but it has a whopping 69 chapters. On average they’re just 2 or 3 pages of well-spaced text long. It makes the story feel choppy, and as far as writing goes it seems lazy.

I also feel like the Guardians, the politics and the religion receded from the plot because the author(s) got bored this complex material and wanted to get to the bit about the cute, sexy rebel chick kicking zombie ass, raiding the mall, and trying to decide which of the two hots guys falling for her she can trust. Of course Deadlands is a YA novel so that’s exactly what the target audience wants, but there doesn’t have to be an ‘either or’ toss-up between story and substance. A better novel would have integrated the mystery and social satire with the action and romance.

It would also have sewn up some of the plot holes. Like the mall raids. These are pretty common teenage fantasies – having unlimited access to an empty mall so you can take all the cool stuff you want. For reasons only revealed at the end (very very thin reasons) the Guardians have kept Century City mall up and running, even after destroying all other buildings in the city, and the Mall Rats go there to scavenge for books, toiletries and clothes. There’s a HUGE plot hole here. As far as I could tell, the Guardians don’t restock the shops in the mall (how could they?), but the Mall Rats go there perhaps once a week to fill orders from the enclaves. It’s a big mall, but there’s only so much underwear on the shelf at Woolworths; there’s no way they could still walk in there with a shopping list and get everything on it. I got really, really annoyed when they did a book run at Exclusive Books. I worked at that branch for 3 years and I never, ever saw a copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry or Rustum Kozain’s poetry collection This Carting Life. The Norton is too academic and expensive for a commercial store, and poetry collections are pretty scarce because they don’t sell. Nevertheless, Lele finds both easily, and it’s the first time since she was 7 that she’s even been in a bookshop.

There are other gaps. Unless I missed it, there’s no mention of what happened to the rest of South Africa or the rest of the world. I can only assume that the zombie epidemic was global, given that there is no mention of help from anyone outside of Cape Town. As I said before, it’s not hard to guess what the Guardians do with the teenagers, but apparently no one in the enclaves has tried. I don’t even want to get into the implausibility of the Guardians keeping a mall as large as Canal Walk open, lights, escalators, cameras all running.

But, as I keep having to remind myself, this is YA and many fans of the genre probably won’t mind the glitches, the way the social critiques give way to action, or the short chapters and sloppy writing. I couldn’t shrug off the fact that I do mind these things, but I also have to admit that there were parts of the novel that I admired. So if Lily Herne produces the sequel implied in the closing lines I won’t hesitate to buy a copy, but I hope it’s a better read than this one.