Wednesday, September 20, 2017

This blog is inactive and will be removed in December 2017. I decided that trying to maintain a genre specific blog doesn't work for me. I read more widely than African literature. Also, I want to write posts that are not book related. All content has been moved to a new blog Mack's Stacks of Books ... and stuff. The new blog is still under construction but is accessible and combines posts from Mack Captures Crime, Africa Screams, and Mack Pitches Up.

If you followed this blog please consider moving over to Mack's Stacks. There will be new content soon, I promise.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Why You were Taken by JT Lawrence

Night. A disheveled and and apparently deranged woman. A mysterious warning. A key. To what?And we are off on a technological/medical/mystery thriller.

Titles usually don't play a big part when I select a book but Why You Were Taken got my attention. A simple declarative statement. The promise a question will be answered. The "you" makes it personal.

Once inside I was not disappointed. WYWT appealed to me from the start with its combination of mystery, investigation, intriguing technology, strong characters, and thrilling action.

I'd also put it in the realm of near sci-fi. "Near" because the technology isn't all that farfetched: algae powered street lights, biomorphic buildings, locket cameras, superblack clothing, snakewatches -- I don't know what a snakewatch is but I want one. The author doesn't dwell on or over explain the technology, it just is.

The main story opens in 2021 in a not quite dystopian Johannesburg, SA.
It's not quite dystopian but the potential is there: blackouts, undrinkable tap water, an infertility crises, soaring suicide stats, personal autos have all but disappeared. Ok, the last one might not be so bad. If you follow news in South Africa you'll know that two of those events already threaten SA: energy and water are at the crises stage. Combining contemporary and future societal elements does a lot to bind the story together.

Balancing the story's present, are journal entries from a young woman, Anne, in 1987 Johannesburg. She's in the throws of her own crises, unmarried and pregnant. But through her eyes we get snippets of apartheid South Africa, world events, what she's reading, watching, and listening to, how her life plays out. Trust me, this blends into the story and enhances it.

Previously I said I liked the strong characters. In Kirsten Lovell and Seth Denicker, Lawrence has created two of the more interesting characters I've encountered. Kirsten is a photographer, a victim of the infertility crises, and her parents have just been murdered. She is also a synesthete where one type of sensation evokes another. For Kirsten, sounds produce smells, sensations are seen as colors. Backing up Kristen is Keke, a journalist and possibly my favorite character. I'm a sucker for the spirited sidekick. Seth is as creative as Kirsten but in a different way. He is a skilled mathematician and a creative bioengineering designer. We see him working on a new drug, moving molecules around to achieve the desired effect. He's like a graphic artist creating a design but with molecules instead of ink.

Why You Were Taken is a good read. It has the story, setting, and characters to pull you in and the legs to make you keep reading. It also has things that make you go "hmm, I wonder if...". There is at least one more story to be told with these characters and I hope the author will write that story some day. That means you need to buy this book.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

King of Sorrow by James Fouche

I was much taken with James Fouche's first book, Jack Hanger. The protagonist was muscle for a gangster but now a video store clerk afflicted with a particular form of OCD. I liked the way James developed the unusual character and the story. 

James let me read KoS while it was still a manuscript —without the ending let me add —and I loved it. So I was pleased when it came out last year and I could read the edited version and find out how it ends. 

Where Jack Hanger was set in a tightly restricted world, James set his sights higher with KoS which takes place in the world of high finance in South Africa and Nigeria.

The story:

David Harlem is a nice guy and wealthy property developer in Cape Town. He has a golden touch and is very generous with his wealth. Paradoxically, he more he gives away, the richer he gets. He is also still haunted by the horrific deaths of his wife and children some years earlier. David finds his life unsatisfying and is selling his company and starting over. He is the king of his world but also king of sorrow.

Kerin Miller is at the opposite end of the economic scale. She is a single, divorced mother of two living in a cramped apartment with her mother and children. Karin is one paycheck away from destitution and has just been retrenched from her waitress job. She has her sorrows as well with no prospects and no money. Hers was not a conventional sorrow. The author uses Kerin's situation to reference some of the economic issues at play in South Africa. Go to Wikipedia, you'll know when.

Kerin and David meet on a rainy Cape Town street at night and, despite the near disastrous circumstances, begin cautiously circling the possibility of a relationship. Kerin is suspicious and then merely wary.

Behind the scenes there are forces at work that would like nothing more than to kill the sale of David's company. There is an antagonist who becomes increasingly desperate and irrational.

At its foundation, KoS is a white collar crime story set around Cape Town. This is the element that sets everything in motion. But it is more than that because there is the story of the developing relationship between two broken people from very different worlds. It is the relationship between wealthy property developer David Harlem and retrenched waitress Kerin Miller that gives the story its heart.
The second act shifts smoothly into violent action thriller mode. James shows the action from three viewpoints which heightens the tension. 

Also a nice side bit of detective/forensics work takes place with some crime scene investigation that I hadn't run in to before.

Thinking back, KoS incorporates several plot modes: crime (white collar); drama (much of it of the relationship kind); violent action thriller (there will be blood); and a bit of police procedural/forensics.

The pacing of the story is good, not dwelling too much on one thing and it moves to an unrushed and satisfying conclusion. Not to curse the author bit sequel-ites but I wouldn't mind knowing what happens after this story ends.

enjoyed KoS a great deal. The descriptions about property development and how someone could commit fraud is interesting and not at all dry reading. The main characters, David and Kerin are people I care about and the sorrow that characterizes them does not become maudlin.

James also turns a neat phrase. Such as: "The sound of the car door slamming shut, greeting mechanism and shuddering grip, was the identical to the recoil from a silenced rifle." David was a recce in the South African army and the idea that a common event like closing a car door could trigger emotional memories is a nice touch.

King of Sorrow is a good read. I like the way Fouche balances the white collar crime and relationship drama offset with some good violent thriller action. I also liked the contemporary South African atmosphere of KoS which added to my enjoyment of the story. With Jack Hanger and King of Sorrow having different subjects and approaches to story telling, I'm looking forward to what James comes up with next.

James Fouche is a South African crime writer, writing from George, western Cape. You can find him on his Facebook page.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Just Arrived

Marcia at Skoobs, Theatre of Books in Johannesburg, SA became my book mean reader's advisor last year and has helped me broaden my SA reading interests and brought me into the SA reading community. About every three months (the affordable transit time from Joburg) a parcel of books arrives. Today my summer reading was delivered. Good times ahead; I may need to take some annual leave.

I'm Back...For Good...I hope

Wow, it's been over a year since I posted here. What have I been doing, you ask; I've mostly been reading a lot of African writers. Looking at the stacks of books around me, I could post a review a week for a year with what I've read. Why did I stop posting? Let's just leave it that I had a confidence issue.

What prompted me to resume blogging? It had been on my mind for a while but I give Peter Rozovsky at the Detectives Without Borders blog with tipping me. He wrote a recent post on James McClure titled Back to South Africa in James McClure's Shorts. In it he writes about a new collection of James McClure's stories and scripts titled God It Was Fun. It is available in Kindle edition from Amazon.

I love McClure's Kramer and Zondi novels and have been meaning to re-read them. When I discovered that God It Was Fun includes the script for a film adaptation of The Steam Pig, that cinched it. I will read The Steam Pig then the script and compare the two. Yay, a focus that will jumpstart my blog. I'm about 26% into The Steam Pig and I'm enjoying it more the second time. That I'm more familiar with SA literature now probably contributes to that enjoyment.

In addition to McClure's novels I also have a box of articles and book excerpts about McClure that I hope to work into future blog posts. So, with the books (Kindle and print) and my research materials, James McClure is shaping up to be my long term project.

Until next time.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Random Violence by Jassy Mackenzie

I have Jassy's latest Jade de Jong crime thriller, Pale Horses, on order so it is about time I review the first three before it gets here. This review was posted earlier on a different blog. I am reposting it here, with some tweaks, for continuity with the next three reviews.

Random Violence is Jassy Mackenzie's first U.S. publication and the first in the Jade de Jong investigations series.

Private investigator Jade de Jong left South Africa immediately after the funeral of her father, the police commissioner in Johannesburg. Something she did made it expedient to leave for a while. Unfinished business brings her back, ten years later.

When Jade arrives back in Jo'burg from her latest job in the UK, Superintendent David Patel, a friend and secret crush who worked for her father, asks her to assist in the investigation of a woman who was shot and killed outside the gates to her house. Jade isn't a licensed PI at this point so her role is to interview. As Jade begins collecting details about the dead woman, she finds that there are missing pieces and some pieces don't seem to fit. Like all good PIs, Jade is good at finding patterns.   What begins to emerge is that there is a psychopath at work and Jade and the psycho are on a collision course.

Jade de Jong is a welcome addition to the P.I. genre. She's hard-boiled, exercising a moral flexibility when the situation demands it but not so hard-boiled that she is without human feelings. She is definitely from the school of private investigators who believe justice is not always served by the law; sometimes it comes from the barrel of a gun.

Readers who like a strong sense of location in their crime fiction (and I'm one) won't be disappointed with the setting or the way Mackenzie weaves in post-apartheid social and cultural adjustments as well as South Africa's extraordinarily violent crime problem. Random Violence has three story lines: first there is the main investigation into the murder; Jade's need to close a chapter in her life; and third, her relationship with David, is there a future there. This thriller has what I enjoy in a story: good plot; a couple of peripheral story lines that fill out the personal aspects of the character's life; and a strong feeling of location. I binge read my way through Random Violence. This author reinforces my opinion that South Africa produces first-rate crime writers.

I started reading Random Violence just after I finished Antony Altbeker's study of crime in South Africa, A Country at War with Itself: South Africa's Crises of Crime (Discussed in detail by Jameson Maluleke and Nick van der Leek). I was struck by how well Mackenzie captured the problems still facing South Africa sixteen years after the end of apartheid and the start of majority rule. For example, Altbeker discusses how the drive for security by those who can afford it drives wedges between people, between affluent and those living a marginal existence. Jassy makes frequent mention of private armed response companies providing security for walled, fortified, and electrified communities springing up around Johannesburg.

The author herself has first hand knowledge of violence in South Africa having been car-jacked at gun point. Also, when you finish the book, keep in mind that the violent conclusion is based on a true-life event of which Jassy has personal knowledge. The person't escape happened as described in the book.

Adding to the sense of location, the Valjoen brothers, characters in the story, are patterned after Eugene Terreblanche, the leader of the white supremacist leader of the AWB (Afrikaner Resistence Movement) who was murdered in 2010 touching off a serious political crises. The Valjoen brothers fom one of the subplots of the story and link Jade's past with the course her life has taken.

Random Violence is an excellent crime/PI/thriller that gives an outsider a look into a different culture.

Next up, Stolen Lives, book two in the Jade de Jong series.

Death of a Saint by Lilly Herne

Death of a Saint is the second book in the series and picks up where Deadlands ended. I wrote about Deadlands here.

The Mall Rats (Ash, Saint, Lele, and Ginger) are in trouble— their cover is blown and the revelation about what the Guardians do with young 'winners' of the lottery that was supposed to bring down the establishment is co-opted by the Resurrectionists. A trip back into the enclave almost ends in disaster with only unexpected assistance allowing them to escape back to the Deadlands.

Ash proposes that they leave the Cape Town area and look for other free survivors. Lele, ever the loose cannon is opposed and counters with impractical and foolish plans that would probably get them killed in short order. She reluctantly agrees to go along. The means to leave comes from another unlikely source and soon they are on motorcycles on the N2 heading toward Durban— a Zombie road trip! Ginger the genial giant exclaims.

I think that any post-apocalyptic event story requires a journey at some point. Stephen King's The Stand and Cormac McCarthy's The Road come to mind immediately. As road trips go, this is a good one, well suited to the intended audience (young adult), the characters themselves, and the arc the story is taking.

They do encounter pockets of humanity unaffected by the Resurrectionists and the Guardians and I am happy to say that we don't have the mask-wearing, bare chests criss-crossed with leather straps and medieval weapons descent into barbarity from Mad Max 2. We do get interesting adaptations that range from the almost normal, to the strange, the weird, the really weird, and the nasty. I give the authors full marks for imaginative, but not unlikely, scenarios displaying human response to an inconceivable event.

Everything is not harmonious with the Mall Rats. A group of strong-willed people travelling together is an inherently stressful environment and the conflicts add more dimension to the characters. We get jealousy, betrayal, a secret revealed, female-male relationship tensions, sympathy, and kindness. I was also amused to learn that the Mall Rats really are not that familiar with African wildlife.

The post-apocalyptic road trip often sees new companions join the group and that is deftly handled here. Ginger, the least complicated of the Mall Rats, gets them to accept a most unusual new member, one that brings a little lightness to the story. Other newcomers help drive the story forward.

The book ends with a staggering cliff-hanger that brings into question everything you think you learned in Deadlands and Death of a Saint. The Army of the Left is the next book and as soon as it is available I'm ordering it.

Obviously the Deadlands series can be enjoyed by grey-haired old-timers since I'm hooked but the main audience is young adult. There is no direct comparison to be made with The Hunger Games but I'll pull out the librarian reader advisory tactic and say "If you liked Hunger Games, you'll probably enjoy these books." Young people, post-apocalyptic world, fighting for survival. I think non-South African readers will enjoy a different environment; I was inspired to do some Googling myself as I read.

I have an extra copy of the first book, Deadlands, and plan to give it away as soon as I figure out a good way to handle it.
Lily Herne is the pseudonym of Sarah and Savannah Lotz, mother and daughter.