Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
Umuzi
Published:
 July 2014
Genre: 
fantasy, crime, horror
Source: 
Umuzi
Rating:
 
8/10

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.

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Book Lounge Launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Last night was the launch of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes, and I think it’s quite possible that I was there because of this gorgeous cover:

GL Full

I splurged on the first edition because it’s a stunning piece amidst the generic or boring covers that most books get, and because I’ve slowly been building a collection of favourite and beautiful books in hardcover. For me, the cover can be a major selling point, the reason that I’ll spend extra for the best possible edition instead of waiting for it to hit the bargain bins, opting for a cheaper eBook (if there is one) or borrowing it from the library.

Having bought a first edition, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to get it signed, so off I went to the Book Lounge, where some dedicated soul had reproduced the cover on the window:

Gl window display

I wasn’t just there to indulge my book fetish of course; I love hearing authors talk about their work, and Rose-Innes had a great discussion with Hedley Twidle, a lecturer in English Language and Literature at UCT.

GL Launch

You can read Twidle’s review of Green Lion over at Books LIVE. I loved the observation he made at the beginning of the conversation: he referred to Ivan Vladislavić’s quote on the cover, which says that the novel is “as full of life as the Ark”, and noted that the ark is, of course, full of the very last of all types of life.

That grim paradox seems perfect for Green Lion. It’s set in a future where many more wild animals and environments have been lost, and Table Mountain has been fenced off as a kind of ark where surviving species are preserved. Rhodes Memorial has become a research institute where attempts are being made to bring animals back from extinction, like the attempt to bring back the quagga. It’s the home of Sekhmet, the last living black-maned lioness, at least until she mauls someone and escapes. Con, a friend of the man who was mauled, travels up the mountain to track her down.

This was the inciting image, says Rose-Innes – a man travelling up a mountain, finding revelation, and coming back down. What she did then was fill in all the human impulses leading up to that. She described the story as wedge-shaped – it begins with all the chaos of human complexity, then narrows to focus on one moment of disaster and transcendence.

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It’s also a novel about Table Mountain and Cape Town, but she sought to subvert the usual images and approach it from a fresh perspective. The wilderness she depicts is hybrid and corrupt, abutted by human construction. Having destroyed so much, people are now fenced off from nature in an attempt to save it. Rose-Innes describes it as the poignant human impulse to stop death, but emphasises that that cause is fraught with contradiction. We seek to preserve animals not for their own sake but because of the emotional and symbolic meaning they hold for us. Animals are fetishized and idealised, symbolising what is beautiful, meaningful and lost, but these ideas are divorced from the reality of the animals themselves. We need to rethink our ideas of pristine nature, which often exists in isolation from nature. I’m guessing then, that this is how a man gets mauled in the beginning of the novel – because his idea of the lion is a fantasy far-removed from the reality of a dangerous carnivore.

IMG_0061

The term “green lion” comes from a similar sort of mysticism. In alchemy, Rose-Innes explained, green lion (possibly sulphuric acid) is a substance used in the creation of the philosopher’s stone – the ultimate goal of alchemy. The reference to this fruitless quest parallels the implausibility of bringing dead things back to life in the novel.

The novel is a bleak vision of loss, says Rose-Innes, and that makes me a little apprehensive about reading it, because environmental destruction and extinction are issues that I find deeply disturbing. At the same time though, I’m fascinated by the portrayal of our relationship with animals. Our use of animals as tourist attractions has always bothered me. I hate zoos. I’ve never been especially interested in game drives. I love animals, so I’m grateful that these things play a role in conservation, but most people aren’t interested in conservation for its own sake; they just want to protect the animals they like. So it’s always the beautiful or majestic endangered animals that are chosen to represent conservation projects, because no one would care about some dull brown bird or ugly frog, regardless of its role in the ecosystem. And what happens if we lose that emotional connection to animals and environments? There’ll be no respect for life to back it up.

So, death and futile conservation. Not a happy subject, but I’m keen to see how the book tackles it. Perhaps the beauty of the book itself can help me handle whatever lies in its pages.

 

GL Umuzi

Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith

Devilskein and DearloveTitle: Devilskein & Dearlove
Author: Alex Smith
Published: July 2014
Publisher: Umuzi
Source: review copy from publisher
Genre: fantasy, middle-grade
Rating: 8/10

When Erin Dearlove arrived at Van Riebeeck Heights to live with her reluctant Aunt Kate, the neighbours all said she was an obnoxious brat, too thin, spoiled, wild-looking, and with a habit of speaking like she’d swallowed a dictionary. They were pretty spot on. Her face was scrawny, her sandy amber hair unbrushed, she used convoluted vocabulary with spite, and she never smiled, because she had no parents. (7)

Erin’s parents were killed in a horrific home invasion, but she tells people they were eaten by a crocodile, and she “found bits of them on the shaggy white carpet of our designer home” (7). Surly and snooty, she shuns the other children in the apartment block. In an impulsive attempt to spite them, she tries to befriend Mr Devilskein, the demon in apartment 6616.

Devilskein is a Companyman, who locks up the souls people bargained with. In his apartment are six doors, each of which lead to another six doors, each with six more doors…. And Devilskein guards the key to every one. He is supposed to keep the keys mixed up so that no one ever has a hope of reclaiming their soul, but Devilskein is a bit of a romantic, and cannot “resist the poetry of classifying his keys according to the Dewey decimal system” (44).

That said, he’s still a cruel, dangerous creature. When he sees the shining beauty of Erin’s soul and realises that she has a living soulmate too, he decides to steal her heart to replace his own ailing one, thereby giving himself another thousand years of life. He lets her into his fantastical apartment, where she meets the charming talking cricket Zhou (once a fifteen-year-old envoy from the China’s Mongol Empire), reads the lost works of William Shakespeare, swims in an underwater paradise, and tries to restore the dying section of a beautiful Chinese garden. It’s a dark retelling of The Secret Garden by Frances Jodgson Burnett, but set in the present day, on Cape Town’s famous Long Street.

Devilskein & Dearlove is a lovely piece of fiction. It has all the charm and whimsy of my favourite kinds of children’s fiction, but it’s also dark and unafraid of being brutal. It had me hooked from the first page, when we meet the first of the wonderful characters in the story. Erin would be a difficult child to handle in person, but on the page I immediately cared about her. Her arrogance is so clearly a shield for her immense grief that it’s easy to empathise with her no matter how rudely she snaps at others. When the other kids tell her about the mythical Devilskein, it’s her grief that draws her to his fearsome nature: “Whatever he looked like, she doubted anything could out-monster her hidden-away grief… if he really was a proper monster (not just a hideous recluse), perhaps he could swallow her and her stupid sad heart up” (22).

Devilskein is a combination of unnervingly likeable monstrosity. He looks scary – there are tiny words carved into his face, and he’s missing an ear. He lets Erin  in only because he literally wants to steal her heart. He’s a demon with an apartment full of souls, and on top of that he’s hiding a very twisted, dangerous secret. But he also has a big brown poodle named Calvados, he’s good friends with Zhou the cricket, and he loves his vast library of keys like a bibliophile loves signed limited editions. We’re told that “[t]hough thoroughly cruel, he was also thoroughly cultured, and as much as he was lethal, he was equally a romantic” (44).

His unusual relationship with Erin gives her a sense of purpose and enlivens her with fantastical intrigue. She still avoids dealing with her grief, but she starts to come out of her shell of anger and arrogance, and take an interest in things. Her Aunt Kate plays a big role too. Although happily unmarried and child-free, Kate is remarkably patient and caring even when Erin is being difficult. She’s a successful artist, and helps Erin discover an uncanny talent for drawing.

Adding to the feel-good vibes is the immensely likeable Kelwyn, who responds to Erin’s hostility with unflappable friendliness:

The saviour of all manner of damaged frogs, snakes, insects and plants, Kelwyn did not have it in his nature to be petty; he was a generous, warm, good-humoured soul. Nevertheless, he did possess a naughty streak. (15)

Kelwyn teases Erin for being grumpy, but he’s terribly worried about her when she goes to Devilskein’s apartment, given the frightening rumours about him. We’re told early on that Kelwyn is Erin’s soulmate, which I found cheesy, but I couldn’t be too bothered what with Kelwyn being so likeable (he spends a lot of time rescuing dogs and cats around the neighbourhood) and all the quirky fantasy going on.

But it’s not all sunshine and happiness, and I wouldn’t like it if it was. Although Erin starts to recover, she never stops using the absurd story she made up about rich parents and a lavish home. If anything, it seems that, having discovered the wonders in Devilskein’s apartment, she’s letting the fantasy of her past replace the reality. Furthermore, Kelwyn really does have a very good reason to worry about her, not just because of Devilskein, but because Erin starts sneaking into his apartment and finding things that should stay locked away.

I don’t want to reveal more for fear of spoiling the story, but I will say that I love the way Smith handles it. Even as things start going well in Erin’s life, there’s an undercurrent of real danger. It’s not that I want her to suffer, but the threat gives the story intrigue and drive. It also gives weight to Erin’s decisions. She enters the story as a victim, lashing out in response to what has been done to her, but the story that follows happens because of the actions she is able to take. With the help of the people around her, she starts to take charge of her life rather than wallowing in misery. Many of her choices are good, but some of her behaviour is decidedly unhealthy, and she makes some awful mistakes. And one of the things I really love about this book is how seriously it takes Erin’s decisions. What she does has real consequences, whether good, bad or catastrophic. She doesn’t get off easily just because that would be nice and this is a children’s novel.

What also brings this book to life is the way it’s filled with the sounds and activities of Long Street. It’s set almost entirely in the apartment block, and Smith frequently adds in the sounds the characters would be hearing – the traffic outside, the howling South Easter, a baby crying, a boy throwing a ball against the wall. At any moment, the narrative might pause to give us a glimpse of what the non-POV characters are doing – Kate shaving her legs, Kelwyn tending to his plants, a neighbour cooking dinner. Rather than interrupting the tale, I thought these details helped flesh out the world of the novel.

If I have any criticisms of Devilskein & Dearlove, it’s only that the novel introduces a sense of vibrant cultural diversity that it then neglects. We learn that Van Riebeeck Heights is home to a diverse bunch of residents, much like Long Street and Cape Town as a whole. We’re told that Kelwyn’s best friend is a boy named Sipho, who rescues animals with him. But what we end up getting is a novel without any significant PoC characters. With the exception of Zhou the cricket, other cultures appear only through names or symbols (like the aroma of curry), and except for one brief appearance, Sipho is just a voice on a walkie-talkie.

That said, this is still one one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s enchanting, beautifully written and adventurous. I personally love how dark it can get, but also that it balances that out with simple pleasures and heartwarmingly happy moments. Highly recommended.

Dark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Dark_WindowsTitle: Dark Windows
Author: Louis Greenberg
Published: April 2014
Publisher: Umuzi
Source: ARC from the publisher
Genre: literary fiction, speculative fiction
Rating: 7/10

It’s apt that I finished this review on the day of South Africa’s general elections: Dark Windows is based on a fantasy of a political party that makes our country’s dreams come true. In an alternative South Africa, the Gaia Peace party has been in power for the past ten years. Somehow, its combination of New Age beliefs and social welfare policies have ‘cured’ crime. Johannesburg, previously known as one of the world’s most dangerous cities, is now peaceful and safe.

Unfortunately it all seems too good to last. Not everyone buys into Gaia Peace’s happy hippie miracle and Joburg is growing restless with the threat of violence. At the same time, Minister of Wellness Meg Hewitt is quietly setting Project Dark Windows in motion to prepare for some mystical, world-changing event. Something momentous is about to happen, but no one knows what’s coming. Is it aliens? The apocalypse? A new age of enlightenment? Or just social upheaval?

Kenneth Lang has spent 35 years working in government, from the apartheid regime through the ANC years to Gaia Peace. He holds a vaguely titled but senior position and specialises in strange, unofficial operations, so Meg Hewitt instructs him to handle Project Dark Windows. The requirements are simple and specific: Find five rooms, within a target area, that have been left vacant after the death of the occupant. Clean the windows and paint them black. Set up motion and heat detectors, then lock up. Lang has no idea what the point is, but he complies partly because he’s intrigued and partly because his job has taught him to shut up and follow orders.

Lang hires Jay Rowan, who’s been doing weird, sporadic jobs for him since the 90s. Jay is reliable and discreet, but after having his life fall apart over the past year, he also wants to “show he’s good for something, even if it’s obscure and vaguely ridiculous government work”.

The best thing in Jay’s life at the moment is his affair with a married woman named Beth. He takes her to one of the Dark Windows’ sites, where they learn about the supposed suicides of the two girls who lived there. Beth is moved by the girls’ stories and endeavours to learn more. Her investigation leads her to a suspicious student protest group while reminding her of the dark secrets of her past. Political stories intertwine with personal ones, and Joburg moves slowly toward an unknown possibility.

You might think that the idea of a New Age political party called Gaia Peace is as absurd as I did, but I think that’s the point. Many of the characters feel that way too. In fact, none of them – with the possible exception of the President – can really take the New Age stuff seriously, although most play along. No one is sure exactly how a party like Gaia Peace succeeded in a country like South Africa.

The very idea really is ludicrous partly because it’s so kooky (with the herbal tea and healing colours) and partly because the majority of South Africans are just too conservative. For example, the president in Dark Windows is a black lesbian in a interracial marriage. I can’t imagine how that could possibly happen given that our current, democratically elected president is a barely-educated traditionalist who doesn’t seem to know about the women’s and gay rights in our constitution. Despite his blatant corruption, people still support him because he’s ANC, but most would never support a gay woman.

Gaia Peace’s policies also include security reduction – most of the locks, gates and alarm systems that South Africans would consider essential to their safety are now illegal. Again, it seems impossible that our society could give this up, although in this case there are people railing against it:

These protesters were once children who slept safely knowing their daddy owned a gun. They want their talismans back; they need the comforting confinement of battle lines.

How did a bunch of “hippie activists” do it? Lang works in the presidency and he doesn’t even understand it.

What’s stopping people, is what he wants to know. Even if it’s true that all their basic needs are seen to, do people just stop being greedy; do they just stop wanting quick and easy gains? Surely greed – our instinctive urge to stockpile – is far more hardwired into the human psyche than social harmony? Has humanity really evolved so much in the past few years?

It looks like they have, but it’s still hard to believe the evidence. A student protest group called Out of Our Minds suggests that it’s all mind control. The words “miracle” and “hoax” are often used. Some people seem opposed to the party just because they can’t believe what it’s achieved. It’s “hard for disillusioned people to buy new illusions”, as Jay suggests. The novel doesn’t offer a satisfying explanation; what’s more important is the way people feel about it, and what it means in this context.

I think the absurdity of a New Age party revolutionising our political landscape reflects a sad truth about South Africans – we’re so disillusioned that the idea of a truly progressive government that minimises crime, corruption and nepotism, while providing quality education and healthcare for all is just ridiculous. If you believe that one of our political parties will deliver this then you might as well believe in colour therapy and Reiki too.

Then again, perhaps belief is all you need, and this is another important issue that Gaia Peace raises. As I said, no one seems to believe in any of the New Age stuff, but lots of people are happy to play along because it works. “[T]hings sure as shit could be better, but they sure as shit have been worse” is the refrain. It’s also just kind of nice and inoffensive. In one of the earlier scenes, Jay goes for the hot-rock therapy that he receives as part of his probation after getting into a drunk driving accident. He considers the idea that it’s abusive somehow, with the state asserting control over his body, but he’s warm and comfortable so what is there to complain about really?

But there are problems. Gaia Peace isn’t perfect, or can’t be perfect. At least it’s not the dystopian scenario you might expect – Gaia Peace doesn’t have a sinister side that enabled their rise to power. They’re exactly what they say they are. As Greenberg states in a guest post for Lauren Beukes about his inspiration for the book, it’s “not a dystopian novel but rather a vision of utopia rubbing up against reality”. Reality is human nature. Reality is a country with a long history of violence. Reality is the people who can’t forget being victims of violent crime. Jay is one of them. He likes Gaia Peace, but when his wife was sexually assaulted in their home, violent crime had become a kind of political blind spot. Her trauma was “made invisible”. “How do you achieve justice for something that didn’t officially happen?” Jay asks, with no hope of an answer.

Jay’s concerns bring me to another important point about the novel – despite the political framework, it’s very personal. All the major characters are grappling with their own issues. Jay looks to Beth for comfort and escape. When he stands silent in the darkness of the rooms he’s painted, he likens it to Beth and imagines her as a warm, dark space where he can hide from the world. Beth on the other hand enjoys the affair for its sinful passion – a way of escaping her unfulfilling marriage to a boring, strictly Catholic man. She thought adopting his religion would help her find some kind of meaning, but it hasn’t. Now, what she wants is for Jay to “clarify” her. She’s also seeking some kind of atonement for an event in her past, which is primarily why she takes such an interest in the suicides of the teenage girls.

Kenneth Lang is coming to the end of a career that is partly responsible for his failed marriage and his awkward relationship with his teenage daughter, Melanie. When Melanie ends up in hospital after a drug overdose, he finds himself pulled back and forth between work and the hospital, struggling to function effectively in either space. To a lesser extent we also see the struggles of Minister Meg Hewitt, who is also the President’s wife. As much as she loves and supports her wife, she doesn’t want to be the next ruler as the President has requested. She’s kept Project Dark Windows secret from her too. Partly because of this marital strife, Deputy President Kanyane lurks malevolently in the background, ready to assert police and military power should anything happen to the President.

Although their problems are varied, these characters are all looking for purpose and certainty where there isn’t much to be had. They want some kind of belief or understanding to hang on to, but objective truths elude them. Project Dark Windows has the same kind of personal desperation to it. It could be total bullshit, or could be epochal, but who knows what will happen? In the context of the novel, it’s just as important as the truth about the suicides, Beth’s decision to stay with Jay, or Lang’s relationship with his daughter. Greenberg’s guest post has a lovely quote about the way he’s balanced the personal and political:

I treated the politics and the love and the faith and the apocalypse in the novel with equal ambivalence. Despite my best efforts, I find it hard to draw an opinion and stick to it; the more I learn about life the less virtue I find in firm opinions and immutable beliefs.

It’s understandable then that this book never ceases to be uncertain and, at the end, offers as many unanswered questions as it does resolutions. It’s the kind of literary novel that will frustrate some spec fic readers because it’s very slow and contemplative. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I’d finished. I had to think about it for a while and go through my notes before I could even begin writing the review. That’s probably not the kind of experience you’d expect when someone says the word “apocalypse”. In fact we never find out if there will be an apocalypse, so don’t come to the novel looking for action and destruction. Instead, enjoy it for Greenberg’s very beautiful writing, his characters, and his insights into the personal side of SA politics, morality, faith, and human nature.

If you like the cover, check out my cover-reveal interview with designer Joey Hi-Fi.

DARK WINDOWS by LOUIS GREENBERG: Cover reveal and Joey Hi-Fi Interview

I have a particularly good post for you today: South African author Louis Greenberg asked me to do the cover reveal for his upcoming literary thriller Dark Windows, as well as an interview with artist Joey Hi-Fi. I will politely keep all squee-type noises to myself, but seriously, how awesome is this?!

Dark Windows – forthcoming from Umuzi in April 2014 – is Louis’s first solo project since The Beggars’ Signwriters was published in 2006. Since then he’s teamed up with Sarah Lotz to for the horror-writing duo S.L. Grey. Now he’s dabbling in the literary side of speculative fiction, which is my drug of choice. Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:

Dark Windows is set in an alternative-present Johannesburg. A wave of New-Age belief has radically altered the country’s political landscape, but not everyone buys into the miracle. Gaia Peace, the party which swept to power ten years ago on the back of a miracle cure for crime and a revolutionary social welfare programme, is still firmly ensconced, but the cracks are showing.

Jay Rowan does his job and doesn’t ask questions. He’s already in probationary therapy for a drunk driving accident, and he’s not looking for trouble. Now Kenneth Lang, a veteran political aide, has hired Jay to paint in the windows of apparently random vacant rooms.

Lang has survived a long career of political change, and is not about to start questioning orders, even when they are as misguided as senior minister Meg Hewitt’s latest obsession, project Dark Windows. A mystical charlatan has convinced her that she can attract a world-changing supernatural visitation, the Arrival.

Beth Talbot, the married woman Jay is seeing, is compelled by the supposed suicides of two students in a residence building. Her growing interest in the case leads her to a seditious student group and back into the past she’s been trying to avoid.

A unique and genre-defying plot like that is perfectly suited to Joey Hi-Fi’s bizarrely beautiful illustrated covers. Joey’s work became well-known on the sff scene after designing covers for Chuck Wendig’s The Blue Blazes and the Miriam Black series, Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human, and all of Lauren Beukes’s novels (most notably The Shining Girls and Zoo City). But enough phaffing about; here’s the cover you came to see:

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Once again, Joey has created the kind of cover that makes me want the book regardless of what’s inside it. And here’s the man himself, to tell us all about it 🙂

Welcome to Violin in a Void Joey! It’s a great honour to have you. You’re one of the few people who’s had the privilege of reading Dark Windows; the rest of us will have to wait until next year. What did you think of it?

It grips you from the first page. It’s unusual, straddles a few genres and takes you to very, very unexpected places.
It’s an alternate history of South Africa you’ve never read before.
Unlike most cover designers, you’re known for immersing yourself in the novel before creating its ‘face’ – you read the book when possible and collaborate with both the author and the publisher. Can you describe this process for Dark Windows? What was it like working with Louis?

“She was screaming, but the door was locked. When they got inside, there was nobody. Just the window open. The way Trini likes to go. Sonia was on the bed, blood coming out everywhere.”

I loved The Mall, which Louis co-wrote with Sarah Lotz under the guise of S.L. Grey. It still has me looking nervously over my shoulder while shopping at malls! So I was very excited when the cover design brief for Dark Windows landed in my inbox.

That being said, It was fantastic working with Louis. He supplied me with additional info whenever I needed it – and his insights were invaluable during the design process. It’s always a plus when you have access to the author.
 
Although I try to apply the same steps in the design process to each book-cover-design project, every novel is obviously different and publishers and authors work in a variety of ways. Along with the brief, I usually ask for a manuscript and any other additional info (either from the author or publisher).
 
Along with the manuscript, I received a rough cover concept from Louis as well. His rough idea immediately intrigued me – but having not read the novel I wasn’t sure of it’s significance as yet. About 2 or 3 pages into the manuscript I was pretty sure that It was a solid direction for the cover. By the last page of the novel I was convinced of it.
 
The title of the novel is very evocative and conjures up a particular set of images in one’s mind. The plot in part deals with windows that are being painted black by the protagonist in the novel. So I thought that image would be unique and mysterious enough to draw the viewer in.
I also decided that the cover concept would be best communicated by using either a photo or a photorealistic illustration. I’m not a big fan of using stock photography on book covers, so In the end I decided to engage the warp drive on my Wacom pen and go the photorealistic illustration route.
Thus the cover is not one photo at all – but mostly an illustration with a little photography thrown in.
Illustrating the cover gave me more control over what kind of window frame I wanted, how I wanted the paint to look and what the atmosphere of the room should be.
 
Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Using Louis’s initial rough idea as a starting point I worked from there to produce a first draft. To get both Umuzi (the publisher) and Louis on board I initially presented a more pared-down version of the cover. I wanted them to be happy with the direction before taking the illustration and design further.

Once both Louis and the publisher were on board with the direction the cover was headed, we discussed ways to take it further. I’ve always loved working with positive and negative space. So The positive and negative spaces provided by the black paint seemed like the perfect opportunity to add additional detail to the cover. I liked the the idea of the cover having details which wouldn’t be immediately visible – but would be revealed upon closer inspection.
I then asked Louis for a list of elements he thought were key in the novel. Working from this list I picked a few which I thought would work on the cover.
I then weaved those into the illustration of the black paint.
 
Once I’d crafted the cover somewhat I presented the final draft of the cover – which was approved by Umuzi and Louis.
Thus the cover for the mysterious creature that is Dark Windows was born.
 

“the hospital’s obscene smokestack pumping burned waste-flesh into the air between spitting pines and concrete”

The title suggests windows made of tinted glass, but the blurb and your cover describe a window obscured with painted images. One reality blocks out another. What is is being covered up and why? Is this how Jay paints the windows?

As the cover and title suggests, part of the mystery in the novel involves windows which are being painted black by Jay (the protagonist in the novel). 
So the cover is inspired by a scene in the book. The images weaved into the black paint are more representative of events in the novel and are not mean’t to be taken literally. To find out  the significance of the black painted windows and various images you would have to read the book!
The cover could have focused only on the window pane, or the window and the frame, but it takes a step back to include the wall, putting the viewer inside a cold, hard space. Why the interior perspective?
 
The vacant rooms mentioned in the novel have their own dark story to tell. So I wanted to communicate that in a subtle way using lighting and colour.
I felt that just a close crop of a window would lack that uneasy, almost eerie atmosphere that I thought the cover needed.
 
Let’s look at the images on the window; what made you choose these?
All the images are inspired by events or characters from the novel. I wanted to choose a set of images that I thought would represent the world of Dark WindowsAnd since the novel deals with themes that are quite varied in nature, this meant everything from New Age symbols to ritual sacrifice to protesting students to political intrigue … and haunted rooms.
 

“A dreadlocked kid lolls against the jamb, holding a fat joint. The opaque smoke seems to defy the breeze as it wends upward from his hand against his dark T-shirt, but is finally whisked over his shoulder in the current.”

Louis described the novel as a “literary thriller”, and for me the cover evokes both mystery and horror. Many of the images are explicitly threatening (the screaming woman, the heavily armed police) while more innocuous images take on a sinister tone. The man having a hot stone massage looks to me like some kind of cultist or human sacrifice; the smoker with the dreadlocks looks more like a Predator than a human. Was this intentional or is it just my weird interpretation?

That was intentional. Although Dark WIndows is a ‘literary thriller’ it also has mystery and horror elements to it. All the images included on the cover depict scenes or characters from the book in some way. Since the novel has this undercurrent of unease and menace throughout, the images tend to lean towards the darker side. As you read the book the meaning behind each image will become clearer.
This is a relatively sparse piece compared to your other covers, which typically feature a riot of detailed illustrations. Does the tone of Dark Windows require a more subtle approach?
In a way yes. I obviously take my visual cues for the cover from the novel, and I let the novel dictate what the cover should be.
For Dark Windows, I thought the image of a window painted black captured the tone of the book well. I also felt it was an interesting and strong enough image to carry the cover.
 
Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

There’s a lot of texture in the paint of the window and the wall – will the cover have any finishes to match the visual with the physical?

I hope so! *Looks longingly at the publisher*. We have discussed adding a UV spot varnish for just the black paint on the window.
Well I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Thank you so much for your time and insights Joey!
_________________________________________
I also have to thank Louis for inviting me to do his cover reveal; it’s an honour and a pleasure to host it. I really enjoyed doing this interview, not only because I love Joey’s work but because it made me take a close look at every element in the Dark Windows cover.
I hope everyone finds this close-up equally illuminating. Now we just have to wait oh so patiently for Dark Windows to be published so we can discover the true significance of all those images and find out exactly what happened in those vacant rooms. I have already demanded my review copy…

Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

 

The Shining Girls MulhollandTitle: The Shining Girls
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
review copy published by Mulholland Books; originally published by Umuzi
Published:
 15 April 2013 by Umuzi; review edition published 4 June 2013 by Mulholland
Genre: 
fantasy, science fantasy, crime thriller, historical
Source: 
review copy via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Kirby is a bright girl bursting with life, despite her troubled childhood with a single mother whose “default state of being is absent” and the constant upheavals as they move from one home to another.  It Kirby’s sense of promise, the fact that she’s a “shining girl”, that draws Harper Curtis to her. He visits her for the first time when she’s six years old. He gives her a My Little Pony that hasn’t been invented yet. Fifteen years later he returns to kill her in a brutal attack, as he does with all the shining girls.

Harper is a serial killer travelling through time in the city of Chicago, drawn to girls who ‘shine’ with potential and determination. It’s his destiny to snuff their lives out. It’s the House that drives him. He was living in the shanty towns on the outskirts of Depression-era Chicago when fate delivers him a key that unlocks a seemingly abandoned house. Inside is a room full of objects and women’s names written on the wall in Harper’s own handwriting. The names of the shining girls. The objects are what will lead him to them, and Harper knows that he has to find them and kill them.

But he didn’t kill Kirby. Four years after his attack, she starts tracking him down. She joins the Chicago Sun Times as an intern for Dan Velasquez, the reporter who covered her case. He’s writes for the sports desk now, but Kirby will do whatever she can to find the man who nearly killed her, even if she has to waste time compiling baseball scores.

Kirby gets everything she needs, but Harper still presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge. He started killing in 1931, and with the House he can leap across the decades before returning to his own time, untraceable. Any evidence he leaves behind offers only impossible conclusions, allowing him to murder the girls unhindered.

The Shining Girls is the third of Beukes’s novels, and I think it’s now my favourite too, trumping Moxyland. Beukes writes with a very snarky, edgy style that I loved at first but tired of in Zoo City. The Shining Girls feels more mature, more refined, and offers a better story as a result. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that signature style or that Kirby isn’t smart-mouthed and bold enough to stand-up to her counterparts in Beukes’s earlier novels; it’s just toned down in a way that feels more natural and helps the story flow.

Mind you, it takes a fair bit of concentration to keep a firm grasp on the narrative, because the time-travel aspect means there’s a time shift with almost every chapter. The chapters are short too, keeping you on your toes. The key is to take note of the names, dates, and locations that comprise the chapter headings. I tend to ignore most chapter headings as unimportant, but I quickly learned that these are vital. The story is composed of multiple POVs in various times. Harper’s story begins in November 1931 but constantly moves between that time and 1993 as he hunts the shining girls. I think his story is actually relatively linear, but it doesn’t feel that way because what he experiences as linear time involves multiple time shifts, while the House itself is a atemporal space – a place that exists in all times and no time.

Kirby’s story begins in 1974, when Harper first contacts her. We see her as a child and a teenager, but usually as the scarred (literally and figuratively) 25-year old in 1993. The 1993 narrative is also told from Dan Velasquez’s perspective, as he tries to help Kirby out of his growing respect and affection for her. Then there are several minor POVs, including the shining girls and a junkie named Malcolm who tails Harper in the hope of getting some cash for his next hit.

It sounds overwhelming, but it easy to adjust to. The characters are distinctive and memorable, and there was only one chapter where I was confused about the POV. It’s not essential to understand everything in strict chronological order anyway; the most important events will come together smoothly. Beukes also employs an elegant tactic, using the objects in the House as narrative devices that tie the stories together: “Shining stars linked together through time. A constellation of murder”. The House is an atemporal space where the objects are always present, even when Harper takes them out. We see the links when objects in the room turn up in the shining girls’ stories, or when Harper takes an object from one girl and leaves it with another. Besides their practical narrative function, the objects are also just a pleasure to spot, like putting a puzzle together.

How they came together in the House, however, remains a mystery. The novel leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but in a way that intrigues rather than frustrates. There are hints and ideas that seem to lead to understanding but never quite get there, leaving the reader pondering the possibilities. There is no how and why for the House. We don’t know how it enables time travel, how it came into being, or why it is focused on killing the shining girls. It’s not clear what exactly motivates Harper either, even though we spend so much time in his head. He avoids taking responsibility for his acts, blaming his victims for shining:

“It’s not my fault, sweetheart,” he says, “It’s yours. You shouldn’t shine. You shouldn’t make me do this.”

There’s also a sense in which he’s driven to do what he does by the objects, the House itself and the time paradox it’s entwined him in. The objects call to him and shine in ways that show him what to use and when.

He tells himself he is only looking around, but he knows one of his girls is here. He always does. It’s the same tug in his stomach that brought him to the House. That jolt of recognition when he walks into someplace he’s meant to be. He knows it when he sees the tokens that match the ones in the room. It is a game. To find them through different times and places. It’s a destiny he’s writing for them. Inevitably, they’re waiting for him.

The force exerted on him by the House and the object sometimes makes him uncomfortable, hurts him even, suggesting that he’s being coerced. He certainly doesn’t choose any of the victims himself; they’ve already been chosen and he’s just drawn to them. On a personal level though, Harper is a sadistic psychopath. It’s obvious that he wants to kill and takes a perverse pleasure in contacting his victims as children and then murdering them as adults, destroying the potential that makes them shine.

I will definitely be in the minority here, but Harper is my favourite character. Which isn’t to say I like him – he’s utterly despicable and I like all the other characters a lot more, with the possible exception of a hipster who wants to film Kirby having sex with him so that she can “reclaim what happened to [her]”. Harper disgusts me, but I love a good villain. He’s not especially smart, but he has an intuitive understanding of the House and eschews all gasping disbelief that characters typically go through when fantasy invades reality. When he steps into the House he claims his destiny as if slipping into a perfectly tailored suit. The way Harper hunts and kills the shining girls is so sick and brutal that I find him fascinating and repulsive in equal parts.

The shining girls are wonderful characters too, by virtue of the qualities that make them ‘shine’. Their roles are small, but they would be strong enough to drive an entire novel themselves. Each of them shows a rare sense of determination, typically in defiance of the racial and sexual discrimination prevalent in Chicago across the decades. Zora is a young black woman doing hard manual labour in a shipping yard to support her four children after losing her husband to war. Alice is a transsexual; Willie a lesbian. Some of them shine because of the difference they make in society. Margot arranges safe abortions for girls and women who can’t afford them. Jin-Sook is a social worker changing lives in black communities. Others shine because of their talents. Willie is a promising architect who fought her way into the field at a time when women weren’t normally given such jobs. Mysha is a brilliant botanist.

What makes Kirby shine seems to be something a bit different – her ability to defy Harper, and her potential to find him and stop him. She is the very reason there is a story. Surprisingly though her part of the narrative moves quite slowly, focusing on character development, her internship with Dan on the baseball desk, and his growing affection for her. The investigation takes a back seat. It seems a little odd, given Kirby’s fervour, although we later learn that she’s spent most of her free time trawling through old newspapers and police reports looking for clues and patterns. Nevertheless, it’s not until we near the end of the book that Kirby starts to make real progress, much of which is dismissed because it seems impossible. The book is by no means boring, but I think it relies heavily on Harper and the other shining girls to drive the narrative until Kirby’s story is ready to get into gear for the climactic ending.

The advantage is that you’re kept in prolonged suspense wondering how the hell Kirby is going to find Harper, the seemingly unstoppable serial killer. I didn’t particularly like the way this happened – through chance, rather than Kirby’s deductions – but I can’t deny that the ending was pretty tense and exciting anyway.

There is much to appreciate in the interim – Beukes’s awesome writing, the horror that is Harper, the stories of the shining girls, Kirby’s relationship with her mother, Kirby’s relationship with Dan. I also waited very patiently but with growing anticipation for the chapter where Harper tries to kill Kirby. As much as I’d hyped it up by the time I got to it, it still managed to be shockingly brutal and evocative, leaving me stunned with one of the saddest and most painful images in the book.

The Shining Girls collectors edition

Umuzi Collector’s Edition

One final thing I want to mention is how impressive the depiction of Chicago is. Beukes has obviously done extensive research (don’t ignore the acknowledgements; it’s worth seeing how much work went into this). The plot traverses six decades, and in the relatively short space of 298 pages we see several of Chicago’s historical and cultural faces as the city shifts and grows.

I’m glad that I bought the Umuzi signed and numbered collector’s edition hardcover of this. It’s a great story and one of the best South African novels I’ve read. I love its mysterious take on time travel and the way Beukes uses it as a plot device that brings a fresh perspective to both historical and crime fiction. The Shining Girls deserves its status as one of the most talked-about books at the moment, and strongly encourage you to read it and join the conversation.

Review of Stolen Lives by Jassy Mackenzie

Stolen Lives by Jassy MackenzieTitle: Stolen Lives
Series: Jade de Jong #2
Author: 
Jassy Mackenzie
Published:
2010
Publisher:
 
Umuzi
Genre:
crime thriller
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 6/10

I hadn’t planned to review this novel, and had’t heard of it until I stumbled across a second-hand copy during my recent holiday in Cape Town. I’d been taking the opportunity to build my collection of SA genre fiction, so I was quick to grab this crime thriller. Jassy Mackenzie is one of the better-known names in SA fiction and is currently in the spotlight with her latest release, Folly, about a woman who falls on hard times and sets up a domination dungeon in her garden, offering her services as a dominatrix to make some much-needed cash. Stolen Lives, published in 2010, also has a sexual theme, but it tackles sex crime and is (presumably) much darker and more violent. It’s the second in a series featuring PI Jade de Jong. I haven’t read the first book, Random Violence, but I thought this one stood perfectly well on its own.

If you spot it online or in store, I suggest you avoid reading the blurb unless you don’t mind learning about two thirds of the major plot developments. I’ve written a plot summary that’s less exciting, but less revealing. The story opens in the London, where Detective Constable Edmonds, newly promoted to the Human Trafficking Division of Scotland Yard, goes on her first raid at a brothel that’s been using trafficked women. They fail to capture the owner or the mysterious woman who injures two cops and escapes with an accomplice, but they at least manage to rescue the girls, most of whom have been trafficked from South Africa.

In Jo’burg, the very wealthy and impeccably groomed Pamela Jordaan hires Jade de Jong to be her personal bodyguard. Pamela’s husband Terence recently went missing, and because he owns a stripclub – the kind of business that attracts dangerous people – Pamela fears for her own safety. Jade thinks she’ll just be babysitting some paranoid housewife, until she and Pamela are nearly shot in broad daylight, and Pamela’s daughter Tamsin goes missing as well. Further investigation draws Jade into the sordid world of sex work and human trafficking, and instead of simply watching Pamela shop, she finds herself dealing with cases of torture, murder and rape that are all linked to the trafficking case in London.

At least Jade has the help of police Superintendent David Patel, her ex-lover who recently ended their brief relationship on a cold and awkward note after a moral disagreement. David is dedicated and ambitious, but horribly overworked. He still cares about Jade though, so he does his best to help her, especially when her case begins to involve serious criminal activity and intersects with his own investigations. Although neither of them harbour any illusions about the dangers of the situation they’re involved in, they still find themselves unprepared for the extent of the violence and brutality that follows.

Not surprisingly, Stolen Lives offers bleak picture of crime in South Africa, and Jo’burg in particular. I learned quite a bit about the human trafficking in my home country, assuming Mackenzie’s novel is as accurate as it seems. Apparently it’s the third most lucrative crime in the world, after drug trafficking and arms dealing. South Africa is, depressingly, both the source and destination of trafficked women, and the laws related to these crimes are so inadequate that they tend to work against the victims rather helping them. Any such case is a “right bloody pain in the arse” for the cops, and the USA has actually put SA on a watch list for “an inability to exhibit efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking” (36)

I don’t know SA was a human trafficking hub, but the inefficiency of governmental and legal systems wouldn’t be a surprise to any citizen, and the novel makes this an integral part of the plot. Home Affairs is portrayed as an inefficient institution, rotten and reeking with corruption. Officials take a year or more to process passports and ID books, or expect bribes before they will do anything. On the other hand, passports can easily be bought as long as you have the money and the right contacts. One of the villains goes to violent lengths to procure a set of forged passports, and other countries are said to complain about the number of fake passports from South Africa (leading, for example, to South Africans requiring a visa to enter the UK). One character describes the country as “beautiful but lawless”, which is a tad melodramatic, but I understand where that feeling comes from.

Still, Stolen Lives is hardly the bleakest novel I’ve read about SA. It’s subject matter is disturbing, but it’s not written from the perspective of those who suffer the most – the trafficked women or the women who move to Jo’burg from small towns, desperate for jobs promised by the allure of the big city but finding themselves resorting to sex work. We see things either from the POV of law enforcement agents (Jade, David and Edmonds), or the criminals they’re trying to stop. This is still a crime novel intended to entertain, so the victims are seen only through the eyes of cops or criminals, their voices heard in interviews or pleas. Pamela could be considered a victim of sorts, but she is so snotty and spoilt that it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her, especially since her family’s troubles are a consequence of their sordid business dealings.

That said, this isn’t what I’d call an easy read. It may take a more privileged perspective on sex trafficking, but this is not a book for sensitive readers. It includes torture, rape, and a great deal of other violence. Not all of it happens on the page, but a young woman describing how she was kidnapped, locked up and repeatedly raped is horrifying enough.

On a gentler note, are the personal lives of Jade and David. They broke up because of Jade’s attitude to killing – she shot the man who murdered her father, and feels no remorse. In fact, she believes certain people deserve to be killed – a moral issue the novel raises a few times. David, however, disagrees so strongly with this that he left. They still care about each other, but David has another complication – his wife Naisha and young son Kevin. The couple separated after Naisha had an affair, but again, David still loves her and is doing his utmost to maintain a strong relationship with Kevin despite his demanding job. Over in the UK, Edmonds’s story is more focused on the case itself, but we still get an understanding of her as an awkward woman, trying hard to overcome her insecurities in order to do good work. The novel also gives a glimpse into the culture of Jo’burg, which is much more… intense than the laid-back attitude of Capetonians. There was a bit of comic relief in Jade’s description of the way Pamela “screamed Sandton, from her big, gold-framed sunglasses and the silver Patek Philippe watch on her left wrist to the oversized diamond rings that sparkled on her red-manicured fingers”. Sandton is an affluent suburb in Jo’burg, and although I’ve never spent much time there, I know exactly the kind of person Jade is talking about.

There is, you may have noticed, quite a lot going on here. Too much perhaps. There are four main crimes – Terence’s disappearance, Tamsin’s disappearance, the human trafficking in the UK, and a kidnapping that I omitted from my plot summary – as well as several minor ones. As a reader, you can assume from the start that they’re linked, and certain sections show exactly how they’re linked, although they don’t reveal all. Jade and David, however, aren’t able to figure this out until the last quarter of the novel, when it comes as absolutely no surprise to you. By then, you’re just waiting for them to fill in the blanks. There are also many different viewpoints – the narrative switches frequently between the main characters (Jade, David, Edmonds) as well as minor characters whose brief appearances show us parts of the plot that the protagonists aren’t privy to. Towards the end, there are even sections from the villains’ POVs.  And with the multiple viewpoints come multiple story arcs. It’s not hard to keep track of everyone, but it does make the novel feel very untidy, with stories and characters scattered all over the place. Mackenzie brings everything together, of course, but it’s not all that satisfying. Perhaps one of the reasons is that it’s not the kind of crime thriller that engages you in the mystery by giving you the means to figure things out on your own. Either you know more than the protagonists, or you have to wait for someone to you exactly what happened.

It’s still a good read – it has the action, violence and shock value that you expect from a crime thriller – it’s just not as tightly plotted as I would have liked, and there were some details that didn’t make sense or were left dangling. I also thought it very stupid that Jade goes alone to face the villain in the final confrontation, with David not even considering the possibility that this might be extremely fucking dangerous and suggesting she wait for help. Instead, he just gives a lift home so she can get her car and drive off to her possible death.

One other concern I want to mention is the way that non-white characters are usually described according to their race. If, for example, a woman is described only as being tall with brown hair, you can assume she’s white. Because if she’s black, coloured or Indian, that will be part of her description. Mackenzie is hardly the only author to do this and she doesn’t always do it, but it’s so noticeable because this is a crime thriller about detectives, and providing physical descriptions of characters is a standard means of evoking an investigative tone. One character who is frequently described as the “black accomplice” when other, more important descriptions could be easily be used. It wouldn’t be a problem if the white characters were similarly described. It’s also not necessary, and not all authors do it, opting for more subtle means of describing their characters unless the issue of race is pertinent. Is the word “black” meant to evoke a sense of menace in accordance with stereotypes? Or does this trend, here and elsewhere simply acknowledge the way many readers see white as the norm and wouldn’t imagine a character to have a different skin colour unless it was specified? But that’s another debate.

All in all, Stolen Lives is a decent crime thriller, given weight by the very serious issue at its core. Crime has become a major theme in South African fiction, a dire but welcome change from the (post) Apartheid politics that dominated our novels for so long. Stolen Lives highlights a major issue in the SA crime scene and asks difficult questions. Although I had some issues with the book, I liked the moral ambiguities – the way villains can become victims and vice versa, the way characters sometimes do unpleasant or cruel things to achieve more admirable ends. I’d grit my teeth before venturing into another of Mackenzie’s novels, but don’t take that as a reason to shy away from her. Her works are available locally and abroad, so check them out 🙂