Friday, December 23, 2011

Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History by Trevor R. Getz and LIz Clarke

Abina Mansah is a young West African woman living in the British Gold Coast Colony (now Ghana) in 1876. After escaping to the town of Cape Coast, she accuses Quamina Eddoo of purchasing and holding her as a slave. Britain outlawed slavery in the Empire in 1833 and an act of enslavement is in contravention of the "Gold Coast Slave-dealing Abolition Ordinance, 1874" so judicial assessor William Melton feels it his duty to take the case to trial. Abina is in no danger of being returned to slavery but pursues the case because she wants to be heard.

The collaborator's took the transcript of that trial and created a compelling graphic history of Abina's story. Supplementing the trial transcript, Getz (the author) constructed a plausible background for Abina as well as the events that gave her freedom and demand for justice. Clarke (the illustrator) brought the story to life with her well researched and striking illustrations. Look at the cover (right), Abina standing defiant with the "important men" (Melton, Eddoo, defense attorney, advisors called by Melton) with their backs to her. Strong stuff.

The book could have stood with just the graphic history and the actual transcript but it goes much farther and in a direction that will have me returning to it later. Following the transcript Getz points out that he and Clarke have created an historicization or historical narrative placed in the context of the time and place in which it is set. There are questions that need to be asked and he sums up the challenge he and Clarke faced:
Like many others who interpret the past, we have strived to create a representation that is reasonable accurate, authentic to the experiences and perspectives of the individuals represented, and useful to our audience. How did we turn the short primary source into a longer interpretation that tried to meet these criteria? How can we know whether our account of the events surrounding Abina Mansah's day in court is a reasonably accurate and useful interpretation? How can you, the reader, trust the work we have produced? (italics are mine)
 Part III establishes the historical context by describing the area with its peoples, languages, social structures, the effects of European involvement, and importantly, the British approach to its civilizing mission, ie what did Britain see as its responsibility to the inhabitants.

Part IV, Reading Guide is fascinating and is the part I will be rereading several times. Here Getz shows us how a historian works. In the Reading Guide are the
issues of philosophy, ethics, and methods that we faced in turning a document from 1876 into a graphic history in 2011. In the following pages, we grapple with three questions: whose story is this? Is it a true story? Is it an authentic story?
Getz goes into the pitfalls or writing history, the inevitable biases that color the narrative, the problems interpreting past events through modern sensibilities that might ascribe motivations differing from those who lived the events. He gives us a good summary of the philosophy behind the approaches that historians have to consider when writing history.

Part IV has made me think about current events in the U.S., the current political turmoil and the seemingly insurmountable philosophical divide on the intention of the constitution and the responsibilities of government. What will future historians do with the vast amount of print, digital, and media material that survives? I look at this section for insights how historians look at us and write our history.

Abina and the Important Men is a very adaptable book in that it is suitable for a variety of audiences. Obviously it appeals to me and I appreciate the intellectual challenge of understanding how history is recorded. I wouldn't hesitate to give it to a young person interested in history. The graphic history is good hook. It could also be used in high school and college courses. Part V gives suggestions how Abina could be used in the classroom.

The books includes maps that are a great help in visualizing the setting of the story.

I highly recommend Abina and the Important Men. It has an interesting story to tell and is intellectually stimulating. I wish I had a niece or nephew old enough to appreciate it.

Trevor R. Getz is Professor of History at San Francisco State University.
Liz Clarke is a professional artist and graphic designer in Cape Town, South Africa.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse

Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse is available as an eBook. Here is a list of the places you can buy it. Besides great stories, another reason the buy this book is that a portion of the proceeds goes to the Author C. Clarke Award.

I bought Pandemonium because it has stories by two of my "must read" South African authors, Lauren Beukes and S.L. Grey. That's technically three authors since S.L. Grey is actually the writing team of Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg.

The editors did a superb job selecting the eighteen stories for this collection. It has an excellent balance of styles and themes and there isn't a single selection that I didn't enjoy. You'll find a wide range of interpretations of the Apocalypse including: environmental, collapse of social order, quantum mechanics, unknown forces, alien invasion, and, of course, religious themes.

The anthology has a thoughtful organization with a lead story by David Bryher, The Architect of Hell. A light fun read to get us started. The anchor story is Sophia McDougall's "Not the End of the World" which left me both sad and hopeful. The last sentence is the prefect end to the collection.  In between are humor (a demon decides that the apocalypse isn't necessary), serious (a night watchman in an art museum thinks he knows how to keep the forces of chaos appeased, and a mix. One, Sadak In Search of The Waters of Oblivion, left me gutted (but not in a torture porn horror way).

To get yourself in the proper mood, I recommend that you look at the artwork of 19th Century painter, John Martin. Google has a nice gallery of his paintings here.

Since this is a blog that focuses on Africa, I'm going the highlight the four stories by South African authors. Being that these are short stories I'm going to be stingy with details but trust me, they are all excellent.

OMG GTFO by S.L. Grey
Sarah and Louis examine the important question "What role will social media play in the Apocalypse?" You'll get a taste of their sharp social commentary. The perverse twist at the end is why I love these guys.

Their first novel is The Mall and if you like intelligent horror you need to read it. Here is where you can buy it. Sarah is from Cape Town and Louis works out of Johannesberg.

Chislehurst Messiah by Lauren Beukes
Golddigger/slimy bastard Simon Thomas watches the disintegration of society through Youtube videos and develops an inflated view of his role in the new world order. The story could be subtitled "The Chavs Shall Inherit the Earth." Don't know what a chav is? Wikipedia can help. Also look at the Vickie Pollard episodes in BBC's Little Britain.

Lauren's book Zoo City recently won the 2011Author C. Clarke award. It is a terrific blending of the hardboiled detective and the phantasmagorical. She is based in Cape Town.

The Immaculate Particle by Charlie Human
In Charlie's Cape Town, something called the Dissolve has isolated the city and is cutting chunks out of it. A man is desperate to find his daughter even if it means striking at the heart of cult religion that arose from the Dissolve. This story is rich in detail and promise and could be expanded into a novel. Hint, hint.

Charlie is a writer from Cape Town. The first story of his I read was "Dance Dance Revolution" on the World SF Blog. It is an unusual take on special forces operations.

Postapocalypse by Sam Wilson
Sam's contribution falls into the "Yikes! how do we know what is real?" category. It takes a quantum mechanics look at how perception and thought might change reality. Scary stuff.

Sam is in the Cape Town area. The bio says that he "...once ran a web-based service where he would scream people's messages off the top of Table Mountain."


Monday, November 14, 2011

Crime Fiction and the 'Metaphysics of Disorder' by Jonathan Amid

A review and analysis of Counting the Coffins by Diale Tlholwe and The Lazarus Effect by H.J. Glakai. If you have an eReader that can handle Adobe DRM protected books then Counting the Coffins and The Lazarus Effect are available and affordable from kalahari.net where I purchased them.

Jonathan Amid review is in this post on The Stellenbosch Literary Project web site. As you might imagine from the title, Amid's review is academic in its approach, complete with Works Cited at the end. Since I wander around academic circles myself, I found Amid's analysis quite interesting. I've read Tlholwe's first book, Ancient Rites, and Glakai's The Lazarus Effect, and have Counting the Coffins queued up on my ereader. Amid has given me much to think about and I'll probably re-read these books with his review in mind.

An unexpected consequence came out of my reading this review. Amid includes Sifiso Mzobe among a list of "English authors." Since Mzobe is a Black South African author this confused me and I asked about it in a comment. This is an excellent example how a simple word can have a vastly different connotation based on the culture of the readers. One person responded
In my personal experience as an Afrikaans South African who grew up being educated in the English language, I’ve found that English-speaking South Africans, or South Africans of English descent, tend to correct one when one calls them “English”, since they are actually “English-speaking South Africans”. 
So, when a South African talks of “English” writing, they are very often referring to writing by an author who writes in English, even if English is not their first language, and even though they are not natives or descendants of the country known as England.
 Amazing, isn't it, how easily misunderstanding can arise.

I did take exception when Amid disparaged the thrillers of Roger Smith and Mike Nicol, two authors I admire. He wrote

Tlhowle's writing is refreshing, unlike the predictably hard-boiled approach in Nicol's Revenge trilogy or the works of roger Smith. Rather than adopt the ultra-violent, no-holds-barred thriller character of these texts, Tlhowle chooses to write a limited yet memorable number of high impact set pieces in which the skill of the writing, instead of violent content grabs the reader.
 My feeling is that the style has to fit the content. Given the aspect of South African culture that these authors focus on, the violent thriller is the necessary framework. Tlhowle writes an entirely different book.

Read the article and my comment and let me know if you agree or disagree. I admin to a bias in this matter and might have had an overly sensitive reaction.

In any case, I commend Jonathan Amid for such a detailed analysis of these books and home his review generates interest. If Counting the Coffins is as good as Ancient Rites I know I will enjoy it and Golakai has give us a great new figure in South African Crime fiction in the female protagonist, Voinjama Johnson.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Experiment with non-Kindle ebook

I've been known to whinge about not being able to get books I want to read because of geographic restrictions.  Elizabeth Fletcher's post at CrimeBeat on H.J. Golakia first Vee Johnson novel, The Lazarus Effect,  caught my attention. I was in pre-whinge mode when I looked at the digital downloads on kalahari.net.

The Lazarus Effect is available as an ePub, yea. Kalahari doesn't care that I live in the US, yea. It isn't compatible with my e-reader of choice, the Kindle, boo. Since I work in IT and thus am curious about technology and being the adventuresome sort and not wanting to be denied, I decided to try the Kalahari reader for Mac and Android. I purchased The Lazarus Effect and installed the readers on my MacBook pro and my Droid2 mobile.

The Experience
The Mac —you get a two page layout which can't be changed. The reader is anchored and can't be moved to a secondary display. You can add a book mark and notes and they are accessed through the table of contents but not on the actual page. This is a little kludgy. Unfortunately you can't highlight text when making a note and it looks like the size of the note is limited but I'm sure of the number of characters allowed. In addition to jumping to a bookmarked page through the table of contents, you can choose a specific page by clicking on the thumbnail that you can pop up at the bottom of the screen. The pages are easy to read though not comfortable if you have your laptop on a stand with keyboard and external monitor attached as I do. If I'm planning to sit down for a long read I will disconnect everything and take the laptop to a comfortable chair which will annoy the cats since the laptop takes up valuable lap space.

The Droid2 —The text is quite readable when I pop the magnification up one level. Obviously each page takes multiple screens. There is a slider bar to move forward and back in the book but it is useful only if you have Tinkerbell sized fingers. Swiping to advance the page doesn't always work the first time though this might be me or the Droid2.  You can get to the table of contents by pressing the info icon but I didn't discover that right away. Bookmarks and notes work the same as on the Mac reader. I actually prefer reading on the mobile phone since I have it with me always. Last night I was waiting for takeout and read a chapter over a beer. Convenient if awkward at times.

Rating: C
The experience of reading a book with these readers is OK but not close to the convenience of a Kindle/iPad/Nook etc. device.

Will I continue to get books from Kalahari this way? Yes. Having decided to specialize in African crime fiction this may be my only way to read some books. In fact, Sifiso Mzobe's novel Young Blood is already queued up on my wish list waiting for me to finish The Lazarus Effect.

I wonder if I can find a relatively inexpensive ebook reader in the US that supports Adobe DRM ePub and Adobe DRM ePub? Maybe something like the gobii reader selling on Kalahari for R899/$114.28.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Short Fiction of Roger Smith

Photo by Dieter Losskarn from the author's web site
You are familiar with Roger from his gritty South African crime novels Mixed Blood, Wake Up Dead, and Dust Devils but you might not realize that he also has a deft hand with the short story. I only know of two but I hope he will occasionally toss one our way between novels.

The first I encountered was Ishmael Toffee which was printed in the December/January issue of The Big Issue. You can read it here on the Crime Beat blog. The story comes in at 2,245 words and Roger makes every one count. Lean, sharp edged prose.

Ishmael Toffee was a killer who got tired of killing:
Killing always came easy to Ishmael Toffee. From when he was old enough to hold a knife he stuck people dead. Killing sent him to prison and kept him there. When you good at killing you don’t get no rest. Then one day he just didn’t want to do it no more.
On parole from Pollsmoor Prison, Ishmael is doing day labor working in the yard of a house in a wealthy suburb of Cape Town. He is drawn into an action that might just show that there is a spark of humanity left in him, a chance of redemption.

I can't say much more about the story but read it and tell me what you think. It stands on its own as a short story but could be the seed of a novel.

A short story by Roger is included in The Crime Factory: The First Shift, a recent collection of stories from the folks who produce the online Crime Factory Magazine. I will take a look at the whole book later but for now I want to highlight Roger's story.

With Half-Jack Roger fills in a bit more about what we know of Disaster Zondi. This is the Disaster from the time of Mixed Blood, the elegant, cultured Disaster far removed from the mud hut in which he was born. Disaster has much to occupy him: his job as a special investigator for the public prosecutor, clothes, music, expensive alcohol, and an apparently inexhaustible supply of blondes "drawn to his blackness." But Disaster has an emptiness inside him, explored in Dust Devils, and early in the morning, in a moment of inattentive musings, he falls victim to two of Jo'burg predators, car jackers. Zondi knows his chances of survival would be slim at best but non-existent when the jackers find out he is a cop. These jackers aren't bright, even by the low standards of this breed of scavenger, but they have the guns and Disaster doesn't have many options to avoid a bullet in the brain.

If you enjoy Roger's novels, you'll feel right at home with this short story. It has the dark, edgy, noir feel of his longer fiction compressed into a tightly written stand-alone.

Here's the first paragraph:
When the gunmen come at Disaster Zondi, he's lost in one of Erik Satie's intricate piano pieces, the faint, musky tang of the blonde whose bed he's just left still rising from his fingers as they play imaginary scales  on the wheel of the idling Beemer.
The Crime Factory started in 2000, closed in 2003, and was resurrected in 2009. It features hardboiled and noir fiction, new and established authors, and non-fiction on the genre. The Crime Factory: The First Shift is available for the Kindle and Nook so there's no reason not to start reading it now.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

African Crime Fiction in the news

Cary Darling, writing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, looks at the changing face of African crime fiction in his article "African crime writers are gaining attention outside the continent."

He starts off
We sure have come a long way since Out of Africa and The Flame Trees of Thika.

In the second decade of the 21st century, some of the most compelling contemporary crime-fiction novels are either set in or coming from Africa. Much as Scandinavia became associated with the genre a few years back -- thanks in large part to Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy -- Africa may become a new capital of literary crime.
Later he points out in reference to Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana books "...this new wave is often far less soft-centered and more hard-boiled, less nice and more noir."

Cary approaches the topic by profiling two authors —South Africa's Roger Smith and Mukoma Wa Ngugi who was born and lives in the US but raised in Kenya. Mukoma Wa Ngugi I wasn't familiar with but after reading about him in Cary's article I have his book Nairobi Heat on pre-order. Taking an African-American detective from an "extremely white town" to Nairobi, Kenya has wonderful possibilities  to explore cultural attitudes, differences.

Roger Smith, as anyone who reads my blog knows, is one of my favorite authors and the one that got my interest in African crime fiction going. Though I've been corresponding with Roger for several years, Cary's interview gave me several new insights. For example, I hadn't known how Roger's books are received in South Africa. Cary also points out how Roger had to turn to electronic publication to make his latest book, Dust Devils, available to US readers, perhaps because publishers are looking for safe and commercial books.

Please read the entire article at African crime writers are gaining attention outside the continent.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

In Memoriam Margaret E. Lundy

My mother, Margaret E. Lundy (née Hudson), 1929–2011, passed away at 0230 on July 30 in a Port Charlotte, FL nursing home of complications from stroke, breast cancer, and the poignantly described condition of failure to thrive.

She grew up in the town of Pulaski, Virginia and never lost the country twang in her speech ih her 85 years of life.

A member of Tom Brokow's The Greatest Generation, she often joked that she didn't know she was poor growing up because no one had any money. During the war she worked for American Viscose Corp., a plant in Front Royal, VA producing rayon.

At war's end she married my father, Mack A. Lundy, Jr., just back from Europe and 10 months as a German prisoner of war after the bomber on which he was radio operator and waist gunner was shot down. She traveled the country making a home for us while my father continued his aviation career as an enlisted man in the Air Force.

In 1952 our family began one of our greatest adventures when my father was accepted for a posting to the Air Attaché in Pretoria, South Africa. He was a member of the crew of the aircraft assigned to the American Embassy. I can look back now at the horror that was apartheid during the time we were there but for a young couple not far removed from southwest Virginia it was a remarkable time. The community was small enough that not much distinction was made between officers, enlisted men, and members of the diplomatic corps. The photograph above was taken in front of our house on Mackie Street as my parents left for some formal event. I think my brother and I are there because it was an opportunity for a family photo.

Returning from South Africa in 1956, my father remained in the Air Force, retiring in 1964. My brother and I went off to college and away from home and 39 years ago Mom and Dad settled in the town of Arcadia, Florida where my father worked for a company that managed orange groves.

They were not content to just live in Arcadia, they made it their home and embraced the community, involving themselves in many community organizations. I frequently hear "Oh, you're Mack's/Margaret's boy, I worked with your father/mother on..." as I go around town settling the estate. It was the longest place they lived in their lives.

As I sit here writing this I can look around my house and see things from our life together: figurines, plates, a five shilling piece from South Africa; a photograph of me in a rugby uniform and another of my brother in a baseball uniform on the cover of a South African magazine; my father's hat that he wore hunting in Rhodesia; baskets from Charleston, SC; an oak hall tree that belonged to my mother's parents; a teapot that was part of an Air Force china set. Just objects but ones that remind me of happy times and the way I want to remember my parents and not the way they were when their lives ran out.

Rest in peace, Margaret and Mack.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Summoner by Layton Green

The author provided me a review copy of The Summoner. It is available as a paperback and e-book from Amazon and as an e-book from Barnes & Noble.

Summary: Dominic Grey's future in diplomatic security is uncertain. He has the career killing compulsion to follow his conscience not to mention a white knight impulse to right wrongs. His "...moral compass guides him far more that partisan dictates."

Now stationed in Harare Zimbabwe (Zim), Dominic gets an assignment that could save him from "protecting spoiled diplomatic kids from mountain gorillas." William Addison, close friend to the ambassador, disappeared from a Yoruba religious ceremony out in the bush. Sensitive diplomatic issues between the US and Zimbabwe mean that Grey can't act alone and he is paired with Nya Mashumba, a beauriful and emotionally distant representative of the Zimbabwe government.

At the ambassador's request, Viktor Radic is brought into the investigation. Radic is a professor of religious phenomology and expert in cults. Apparently Addison isn't the only one to have disappeared recently. Ten others have disappeared under similar circumstances and all within eight months since a babalayo (Juju priest) arrived from Nigeria.

Soon Dominic, Nya, and Viktor are facing off against the owner of a dodgy night club, the Nigerian Cultural Ataché who has an unhealthy interest in Nya, and a mysterious religious leader who's powers seem to defy reason.

Analysis: This is not a supernatural thriller so readers who dislike that genre should not be put off. Viktor Radik sets the approach to the subject when says of his field of expertise:
I observe the practitioner as he's experiencing the alleged phenomena, and analyze the effects. I'm concerned with how the experience impacts the devotee, not the veracity of the event itself.
At the same time, readers of supernatural thrillers will find much to interest them in the details about how a charismatic leader can affect followers perceptions and Radic's discussions on superstition and religion. It isn't difficult to find actual examples of the effects of such phenomena on people. In May, there was a story from Zimbabwe about a man accused of supernatural rape. A search of witchcraft in Zimbabwe also pulls up stories of curses and demonic possession.

I enjoyed The Sumoner and recommend it to readers who enjoy an intelligent thriller. It has the ingredients that make a thriller enjoyable to me: story, characters, action, and location.

The plot, a disappearance under mysterious circumstances, is interesting and moved forward by nicely placed and executed scenes of action and tension building.

The characters have backstories and personalities that engaged me and are plausible within the context of the story. I can believe that they can exist. I wouldn't have minded if Nya hadn't been stunningly beautiful which can be an overworked thriller trope (eg the Bond girls) but it is an important plot element and motivator for some of the action so it isn't a negative here. Viktor Radic reminds me of a 19th Century scholar/adventurer/man of action like Arthur Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger and he is a nice balance with the other characters.

I don't want to give away details of the action scenes but I will say that they were well spaced, not overdone, and contributed to the story by establishing the abilities of the characters and giving them realistic obstacles to overcome. The big finale was a excellent payoff for everything leading up to it.

This is the first story I've read set in Zimbabwe. While the author isn't from Zim, his wife is and he has lived there. He doesn't make overt political statements about the state of the country but still conveys the atmosphere of living there. Green's empathy is for the Zimbabwean people, the government and diplomates in residence...not so much. One of Nya's jobs with the government is to assess areas of Harare eligible for urban cleanup and that a government could do that to its people is sobering.

Geographically, I learned about the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe from 1100 to 1450 AD. The cover of the book is based on an area of the Hill Complex (see links below). According to Wikipedia, the ruins were a source of controversy because it was inconvenient for the government of Rhodesia for native Zimbabweans to have created such a city that might have housed as many as 18,000 people.
Wikipedia article on Great Zimbabwe Ruins
Google search for images of Great Zimbabwe Hill Complex

The next Dominic Grey novel may not be set in Africa but I am curious where the author takes the theme. Prior to reading The Summoner I didn't realize that I was interested in phenomenology and I'm looking forward to the next book.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dust Devils by Roger Smith

Dust Devils in Kindle format from Amazon
Dust Devils in Nook format from Barnes and Noble
YouTube video trailer for Dust Devils

UPDATE: Africa Book Club has an excellent interview with Roger.

Robert Dell, an unemployed, left leaning, South African journalist, has been framed for a horrendous crime he did not commit. He finds an unlikely rescuer in his estranged father, Bobby Goodbread, an American newly released from prison. Bobby couldn't be more different from his son. He was a CIA agent who found he had a lot in common with South Africa's approach to combating insurgency and served his time for crimes committed as a leader of a government death squad. Goodbread still has his sources and he and Dell strike out across the veldt on a mission of revenge, heading to a dusty, impoverished town near Durban where Inja Mazibuko, killer, warlord, and cause of Dell's problems, rules. Disaster Zondi, last seen in Mixed Blood is on his way as well. Disaster is looking for the story behind a mysterious fax of a wedding announcement of a very young girl and Inja.

Roger's earlier books, Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead, are set in Cape Town and focus on Cape Flats, gangs, drugs, and prison culture. With Dust Devils, he moves the action to the KwaZulu-Natal province. Besides the location change, this book marks a change in direction for Roger as a writer. He has broadened his scope to issues affecting all of South Africa. I think you see his feelings coming through, his anger, fear, and frustration at the path his country is on after the promise of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu: government challenges to a free press; a disastrous AIDS policy that promoted garlic and showers instead of retro-virals; the superstition that sex with virgins will cure AIDS; widespread corruption at all levels including a police commissioner sentenced to 15 years in prison; a crime rate that makes South Africa one of the most violent countries in the world; and the same people who suffered under apartheid, still suffering.

Readers of Roger's previous books need not fear that he is moving away from the visual style, action, and skillful use of graphic violence that we appreciated in Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead. By the end of the second chapter I'd already had one "My God!" moment. And Roger's description of the town of Bhambatha's Rock had me choking and itching in equal measure. That Bhambatha's Rock is based on real locations makes it sobering reading. In Inja Mazibuko, Roger has created his "best" bad guy. Where Piper from Wake Up Dead is flat out scary, Mazibuko is pure evil. His crimes are all the worse because his political allegiance reflects what is wrong in South Africa today. Opposing Inja is Disaster Zondi, another reflection of the problems facing the country. Mixed Blood shows us a cool and dapper Zondi, supremely competent and confident. Here, Zondi is disillusioned and dispirited by the corruption he experiences, corruption embodied in Mazibuko and Mazibuko's political boss.

There is always something in Roger's books that sends me off on a research quest. This time it is the CIA involvement in the war South Africa waged in Angola and the possibility that the CIA was involved in the arrest of Nelson Mandela. This has never been proven and Mandela himself said that his capture was due to carelessness but there appears to be anecdotal evidence of CIA involvement. Do a Google search on

Mandela CIA arrest

Fascinating reading.

This is Roger's best work and I admire his decision to broaden his vision while preserving the aspects that built his readership. It promises many more interesting reads.

Note on the location relevant to the story:
KwaZulu means "Place of the Zulu".
The Afrikaner Voortrekkers defeated the Zulus at The Battle of Blood River in 1838 and established the Republic of Natal.
The Battle of Rorke's Drift and Battle of Isandlwana between British forces and the Zulu occurred in this area.
In 2009, KwaZulu-Natal had the highest rate of HIV infection in South Africa's provinces.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fifties Photos: Die Brandwag & My Brother

UPDATED

While I'm trying to force myself to write about books I've read (an embarrassingly large number), here's something to look at. This is my brother Tim, age 6, on the cover of Die Brandwag for 6 January 1956. Die Brandwag means The Sentinal. The caption can be translated as "I am ready for you". (source comment by Markia) "Google translates "Yankees, ek is reg vir julle!" as "Yankees, I am right for you!". I have a feeling that reg must have a colloquial meaning other than right since it isn't the word we would use in that context in English. "Yankees, I am your equal!" perhaps?

I believe my father took the photograph but I don't have the rest of the magazine to verify that. The photograph was taken by Louis Nel to illustrate the article written by Robert van Wyk. (source Dept. of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation)

Why is my brother in a baseball uniform on the cover of an Afrikaans magazine? According to Josh Chetwynd's A History of South African Baseball, an American baseball team toured South Africa for three and a half months beginning in 1955. I believe my father knew a journalist and this photograph was taken for an article about an upcoming game between American and South African teams.

The Dept. of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation can provide a copy of the article and I'll order a copy as soon as I can figure out how to pay them for the service.

I haven't been able to find out if Die Brandwag (1937–1965) has been archived or digitized so if anyone knows where I can get a copy of the article or can verify the photo credit, leave a comment or email me.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Currently Reading: Dust Devils by Roger Smith

UPDATE: I added the cover for the German edition of Dust Devils. The German title, Staubige Hölle, translates to Dusty Hell, which is pretty descriptive of the book. I like the simplicity of the AK47 on the German cover but the UK version tries to convey something about the location and characters. I can't say I prefer one over the other.

I am currently reading an ARC version of Roger's third book, Dust Devils. No details until closer to publication, sorry. But, from someone who read Mixed Blood and Wake Up Dead twice, I call this is Roger's best work. Readers of his previous books will find Roger's distinct combination of lean, sharp, and hard-edged prose, fast pacing, action, and violence but he has also moved his writing in a new direction, placed it in a different context.

Dust Devils will have a major spring release in Germany (May) where Roger has been well received. Serpent's Tail will publish it in the U.K. in September. Roger assures me that Dust Devils will be available to readers in the U.S. More details to follow.

Dust Devils is available for pre-order from amazon.co.ukamazon.de, and bookdepository.com.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith


Picador, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-312-68048-0. 290 pages.




Why am I leading off with photographs of a knife? It is the Okapi 907E and it has a part in the story. It's the weapon preferred by one of the characters. The author told me that "the Okapi of choice is the 907 E. It has put many brown men into bodybags. Quite a pretty knife, too." The Okapi has a distinctive shape and knowing what it looks and feels like adds a feeling of immediacy to reading the story. That's my hand and my knife. There is a link to a website selling Okapis below.

Wake Up Dead has been recognized worldwide and I've included some of the acknowledgments at the end. There is a lot of link love there and you might find something new so check it out.

First sentence: The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.

The Story: Roxy is an American ex-model married to a gunrunner and broker for mercenaries. The book opens with a business dinner where Joe and the elegantly dressed cannibal (he might only have eaten one heart for the cameras) are finalizing a deal.

Unknown to Joe and Roxy, when they leave the restaurant they are followed by two low-level thugs from Cape Flats— Disco De Lilly and Godwynn MacIntosh. Joe and Roxy are hijacked at the gate to their house, Joe is wounded, and the gangsters leave in Joe's Benz. Roxy makes a decision that leaves her husband dead and her a not-so-grieving widow.

The point of view shifts to Billy Afrika, an ex-cop just back from Iraq where he worked for a contractor providing security services for the U.S. Billy's employment had been brokered by Joe Palmer and Billy would like to know why he hasn't been paid. Arriving back in Cape Town, Billy returns to the Flats to get a weapon. Billy came from the Flats and hasn't been forgotten—"Billy Fucken Afrika" is the typical reaction. He runs into a detective with the unfortunate name of Ernie Maggott who knew Billy when he was a detective. Maggott doesn't remember Billy fondly. He wants out of the Flats and is looking for the big case to get him promoted.

Meanwhile, hijacker Disco De Lilly is consumed with the fear that a psychopath named Piper might get out of prison. Piper is still in Pollsmoor but that doesn't lessen Disco's anxiety. Disco was Piper's prison "wife" and the crude tattoos Piper carved into his body reflect Piper's obsession with him. Billy and Piper also have a history.

The hijacking, Roxy's actions, the obsession of an imprisoned psychopath, an ambitious cop,and the return of Billy Afrika start a chain of events that will leave a bloody trail through the Cape Flats and culminate on a Cape Town beach.

Review: Wake Up Dead is a crime thriller and there are elements I want to be present if the story is to appeal. I need a good story. If I don't care what happens next I'm not likely to continue reading. With a thriller I expect a faster pace and more intense action. I also look for a strong sense of place, sharp writing, and well developed characters. If I feel that the story and actions of the characters are plausible, all the better. Wake Up Dead nails everything I want in a good read.

Thrillers can be long on action and short on developing the world in which it is set but Wake Up Dead is grounded in basic human weaknesses like greed, lust, ambition, and revenge.

The lead up to the scenes of action and violence is very well done. Sometimes you know something is about to happen, other times it's "huh, I wasn't expecting that." Roger's thrillers are very violent but I've never thought that the violence was gratuitous. Brutally honest, yes. He writes about a segment of society where sudden and senseless violence is the norm and he has met the people capable of those acts.

A strong sense of place is something I enjoy in a story. After reading Wake Up Dead, I looked at images of Pollsmoor Prison and former gang members, scenes of Cape Flats. I felt I already knew those places and people from the vivid descriptions in the book. You will find links below that will show you how closely fiction can mirror life.

Wake Up Dead is written from multiple points of view. These points of view gradually build up a composite image of the people and events and their relationships. In some cases you can see that event A will probably lead to  consequence B but other times I found myself sitting there thinking about what I just read.

Roger's style of writing will appeal to fans of the hardboiled style. Crisp, punchy, and frequently laced with dark humor.

Try to get this image out of your mind:
The whore had yellow braids, the dark roots cross-hatching her skull like sutures on a cadaver.
The cannibal is described as having an elegant French accent leading to this scene
Then Joe gave her the look, invisible to anyone else, and she knew that the men needed a few minutes to talk business. Weapons or mercenaries. Or both.
Roxy stood. "Let's go to the bathroom."
"I don't need," the whore said, clearly new to this part of the game.
The cannibal elbowed her beneath her plastic tits. "Go and piss." Coming from his mouth it sounded almost like a benediction: Go in peace.
In Mixed Blood and now Wake Up Dead I've admired the way Roger builds his characters. He does evil really well though he says the characters write themselves. Piper, for example, is about as scary and real a character a as I have encountered in fiction. Billy you want to root for but he isn't an agent for good. Disco you feel sorry for, his life on a course for destruction, but you wouldn't want to be his buddy. Roxy is a basically good person who does bad things but isn't someone you can consider sympathetic. There aren't many innocents here. You know who the characters are and where they came from.

Wake Up Dead is a well done and exciting crime thriller that I recommend highly.  If you haven't read Roger's first book, Mixed Blood, pick up a copy at the same time. It also is set in Cape flats, has everything I like in a thriller (see above), and a wonderfully nasty detective named Gatsby.


Links to give you insights into the story, the setting, and the characters.

Roger's Website.

Video trailer for Wake Up Dead.

The Okapi pictured above came from World Knives where you can buy one for yourself. You can also use it to slice fruit and carve decorative items.

Slide show of Cape Flats and Cape Town on Roger's web site.

Slide show of prison body art with voices of former prisoners.

Photographs of South African prisons by Micheal Subotzky.

Recognitions:

Aside from being published in the U.S. and Germany, it is also out in the UK and Commonwealth via Serpent’s Tail, and will be published in France, Italy and Japan.


Roger interviewed by Dave Zeltserman.


The German translation (Blutiges Erwachen) was a bestseller and voted one of the Top 10 crime novels of 2010 by the influential Krimiwelt in Germany. (19 of the top fiction reviewers from Germany, Switzerland and Austria chose 10 crime novels out of the 800+ published in German each year. Roger was in the company of Pete Dexter, James Ellroy, Richard Price and Don Winslow.)


Wake Up Dead was the Philadelphia Inquirer Best Book of 2010.


It made the Top Ten lists of author Dave Zelsterman, Crimefactory editor/reviewer & noir man-about-town Keith Rawson, Drowning Machine reviewer Naoimi Johnson, UK review site CrimeSquad, and blogger Garrett Kenyon on Literary Kicks.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Mall by S.L. Grey

This review is based on an ARC. The Mall is available now in the U.K. in the Kindle edition at Amazon UK. It will be available in print in June 2011.

Time: The Present
Place: Highgate Mall, Johannesburg, South Africa...or is it?

First sentence: My first instinct is to grab his hand, snap back his index finger, and floor the fucker.

Maggots. Raw Sewage. Pursuit by an unseen horror. A place familiar yet horribly, surreally different. S.L. Grey's horror novel is brilliant, combining a blend of horror forms with intelligent social satire embodied in that ubiquitous symbol of rampant consumerism, the mall.

The Mall can be read as a straight-up horror novel but it also has complexities and nuances. I don't want to deny the reader the same pleasure of discovery I gained from my first reading so I'm going to be cautious revealing details.

Rhoda, the speaker in the first sentence, is a hostile, violent, coke-head alienated from society. She takes a young boy she is babysitting as a favor for her cousin to the mall while she buys drugs. When the boy disappears, she strong-arms Dan, a sullen, passive, disaffected clerk in the mall bookstore who was the last person to see the kid running through the service corridors. Dan takes Rhoda to where he saw the boy. Two left turns and Dan realizes this isn't the familiar place he goes to sneak a smoke. And then he and Rhoda start receiving weird, taunting text messages on their mobiles. And then they realize that something is tracking in them.

This launches Rhoda and Dan on the first stage of their descent into horror. This will be familiar, and appreciated, by fans of the horror genre— the chase through subterranean passageways. This could be common horror fare —can our plucky protagonists escape the slobbering unknown pursuer— but Grey adds touches and twists makes The Mall  a fresh entry in this trope. I also give Grey full marks for mastering fecal and malodorous imagery and creative use of profanity.

When Dan and Rhoda emerge into The Mall, they think they are safe but begin to realize that the horror hasn't ended, just taken a new form. This isn't their mall at all.  It is a skewed, distorted, alternate version of a mall, one where consumerism is reduced to its basic functions.  This is the heart of the book and has two terrific aspects that pulled me into the story.

First, The Mall it is as excellent piece of world-building as I have encountered in my reading life-time. I measure its success by the way my mind raced as I read, trying to figure out the rules, to apply bits of detail that would tell me how this world operates, where it comes from, and does anything that happened to Dan and Rhoda on the first stage of their descent, relate here. I found it stimulating and compelling reading.  Grey leaves enough hints—a word here and off-hand reference there—to let us know that there is much more to The Mall than we've see so far.

Second, is the satire that Grey uses to flay mall culture. I love good satire and here the author gives the reader an incisive Swiftian view of the social structure of the mall inhabitants and of the services and goods provided. I can't give away too much but let's say that the shops are not what we are used to. Would you go to a restaurant named McColons with the slogan "Clog your intestines with crap so that you don't get hungry"? My new game is to look for analogues of The Mall in my local malls.

The final form that horror takes in The Mall is outside the genre but horror nonetheless. The horror of trying to adjust. How do you fit yourself back into a world that is almost as alien to you as the one you just left? Grey captures the emotional turmoil within Dan and Rhoda as they adjust to the "real world" and brings out their strengths and weaknesses. They aren' the same people they were. It provides a study in character that sets us up for the sequel.

The Mall ss an enjoyable and well crafted horror story that challenges you to think critically without bludgeoning you with a message. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fifties Photos: Pretoria, Part One

When my father passed away, I took the family photographs and 8mm movies home and pulled them out when my interest in African crime fiction took off. Most of the images are not labeled — which requires some guesswork on my part — and many are degraded, but I hope you find this look at the fifties interesting.


We lived in Pretoria from 1952 to 1956 when my father was in the U.S. Air Force and a crewman on the C-47 (Dakota) operated by the Air Attache attached to the American Embassy.


Pretoria is in northern part of the country in the  Gauteng Provence which was formed out of the pre-1994 Transsvaal Provence. It was founded in 1855 by Marthinus Pretorius who named it after his father Andries Pretorius, a famous leader of the Voortrekkers' Great Trek (1835 - 1845).

Pretoria celebrated its centennial while we were there. Here are two of the commemorative postal issues. Paul Kruger in on the left stamp and Marthinus Pretorius on the right on both envelopes.


...............
Trek wagon brooch belonging to my mother
The Great Trek was a series of mass migrations inland by Dutch speaking colonists in their trek wagons who sought to escape the British rule of the Cape Colony.

And this brings us to the images in this first Fifties Photos post, the Voortrekker Monument. This massive granite monument sits on Monument Hill overlooking Pretoria. It was constructed between 1937 and 1949 and is now surrounded by a nature preserve.

The monument seen from the far side of the amphitheatre. Taken by Mack Lundy Jr.


This is from Google maps and, I believe, roughly the same location as the above photo. The amphitheatre is on the other side of the bushes. My father must have moved away from the road to get his shot.

Here is a link to the Google Map street view.

The slide is badly deteriorated but it does show a closer view of the hill top as it looked then. Also taken by my father.







A black and white photograph of the monument at night.  Taken by my father.











Monument entrance
The front entrance to the Monument. In the foreground is a wrought iron fence with an assegai (spear) theme.

Taken by my Aunt Sara, August 1954.









Piet Retief
At each corner of the monument is a statue of the leaders of the Great Trek: Piet Retief, Andries Pretorius, Hendrik Potgieter, and an "unknown" representing all the leaders of the Trek. Note the wagons on the wall in front of the statue. There are 64 of them representing the wagons that formed the laager at The Battle of Blood River when the Boers under Andries Pretorius defeated the Zulus led by Dingane.

Taken by my Aunt Sara, August 1954.



Rock garden below monument
This is a better view of the relief representations of the trek wagons looking up from the garden.

Taken by my Aunt Sara, August 1954


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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Tooth and Nailed, Sarah Lotz

Tooth and Nailed is Sarah's second legal drama featuring Cape Town lawyer George Allen. The first is Exhibit A. Both are available in Kindle editions on Amazon.

At play are three very different cases. They can be categorized as: serious; very serious, personally devastating; and seemingly routine. The details of the three cases make for a nice mix and varied tempo. I enjoyed watching George react to widely differing situations. There are twists, developments, and revelations that keep the stories moving along smartly not to mention "I didn't see that coming" moments.

For readers not familiar with the South African legal system, George is an attorney. He meets with clients and handles their legal needs like contracts, divorces, etc. If the case goes to court, the attorney briefs an advocate who is an expert in arguing cases in front of a judge. George works with the short, rotund, gluttonous, annoying, snarky Scottish advocate Patrick McLennan, known as the Poison Dwarf by those who have come up against him in court.

The serious case is that of poet Professor Benjamin Nyathi, a friend of Valerie Malan (AKA The Witch), an attorney and George's former professional and personal partner. Val wants George to help the professor  who is being blackmailed over the death of a female student in his apartment in the nineties. If he doesn't admit murdering the young woman, a copy of a book, self-published decades earlier and all copies thought destroyed, will be made public. Nyathi denies involvement in the death but knows that his reputation will be destroyed if the the contents are revealed. The matter is too sensitive for the police but at the same time he professor won't reveal the subject of the book to George and Patrick and even imposes limitations on how they can communicate with him. George and Patrick are forced into the role of detectives, trying to find out what the professor isn't telling them, who has a motive, and establishing links. When George and Patrick finally unravel the professor's secret, it is unexpected and a little in the consequences Nyathi's earlier actions have on others.  How this ends may not be the law but it is justice.

Shortly after meeting with Nyathi, Georges brother, Greg a bush guide in Botswana, shows up in Cape Town, blood staining his shirt and launching the major story within the novel. Greg is leading a family on an authentic bush experience when the young son is attacked and blinded by a night-time hyena attack. A lawsuit by the overbearing father is inevitable. Greg is no help in understanding the situation since he is in shock and so wracked with guilt that he wants to be punished. Unfortunately for George, there are devastating consequences for him as well.







* Notes on the photos at the end

The location moves to Botswana when George and Patrick go with Greg to the scene of the attack to try to make sense of what happened. They hope that Greg will be more forthcoming on his own turf.  Sarah handles the transition from urban Cape Town to Botswanan veldt smoothly and with humour. Patrick's approach to camping seems to be based on old safari movies.

That this section is one of my favorites in the book is evident from the animal photos I decided to include. It resonates strongly in me. There is a tautly written event, based on something the author experienced, that made me anxious. Sarah uses the contrast between the type of expedition that Greg leads and commercialized "let's not let nature too close" tours to show her feelings about the African bush, the effects people are having on the animals, and the poseurs who are cheapening the experience. It is also a very effective setup to the denouement in the courtroom.

The third case floats in and out. It is the divorce of a same-sex marriage between a wealthy American and a Capetonian man. George's firm is representing the American and it looks like a simple enough "arrange a settlement and minimize the damage" affair. George gives the case to Shane who works on interest. Shane is everything George is not: handsome, well dressed, organized, and physically fit -- he leads a dawn boot camp fitness program and fights fires.  Periodically George tries to find out how negotiations are proceeding although Shane is treating it with an annoyingly offhand attitude. The divorce case was a revelation to me because I didn't realize that South Africa had same-sex marriage. Wikipedia tells me that the Civil Union Bill was enacted in 2006. With my own country in turmoil over the issue, it was startling to find that a country that was severely conservative not that long ago has been able to resolve an emotionally charged issue. I haven't researched homosexuality in South  Africa but I wonder if apartheid has sensitised courts and the legislature to inequalities based on characteristics of a segment of the population. With same-sex marriage accepted, it is a horrifying to read reports of "corrective rape" perpetrated to "cure" lesbians and make them heterosexual.

While all of this is happening, George is trying to jump start his personal life which has stalled since his relationship with Valerie ended. This provides some of the ligher moments as well as the cliff hanger ending of the novel.

The story is narrated by George in first person present tense. This style of writing is sometimes criticised because it limits the reader to the viewpoint of a single character but personally I like it. Watching events unfold through a single set of eyes makes me feel more of a participant in the story. The present tense give an immediacy to the action. I don't always need or desire an omniscient narrator to tell me what is happening and why.

Sarah's characters are nicely developed and she is able to introduce some exaggerated characteristics without slipping into caricature. I'm thinking specifically of Patrick McLennan here. He could easily have become an object of ridicule but there is no doubt of his abilities and professionalism. He provides a lot of the humour in the book but what I came away with is that Patrick uses his appearance, stature, and personal habits to disarm people to his advantage and have a little fun. The sparring between The Poison Dwarf and The Witch is great fun. Patrick also provides the opportunity to slip in a reference to one of my favorite scenes in a Monty Python movie. No, I won't tell you what it is. I give Sarah extra points for inserting it.

Interesting thing about the characters. I was well into the story before I realized that I didn't know the race of many of them. I've been reading books set in apartheid South Africa and race is a constant issue and not a question so this brought me up short. Actually I tripped over my preconceptions of how race would be treated. Characters I pictured as white are black.  Remember what I wrote earlier about why I like first person narratives? If we are seeing events and people through George's eyes, what does this tell us about George and the reader? This was an unexpected but appreciated challenge to me as a reader. Well done Sarah.

I wouldn't characterize Tooth and Nailed as a humourous but it made me smile, if not laugh ... often. Sarah has a wicked sense of humour and a keene knack for dialog. She describes an outfit Patrick is wearing as "...a shade of green I haven't seen since ABBA was topping the charts." George notes in another scene that "Patrick and I stand out like Eugène Terre'Blanche at an ANC Youth League rally." An American equivalent of the latter might be along the lines of "...stand out like the Klan at an NAACP convention."

Tooth and Nailed is a thoroughly satisfying read. Besides the fun of reading a well plotted novel with interesting characters, parts of the novel hit at an emotional level that I continue to think about long after I finished. I look forward to reading more by this author.




I sent Sarah a holiday greeting and mentioned that I was working on this review, in Florida, sitting in my favorite bar. Here's proof.

*Notes on the animal photos
The b&w photographs of the hyenas and the colour  image of the lions were taken by my father, Mack Lundy, Jr., in Kruger National Park. I know the colour photo of the hyena was taken in 1954 by my Aunt Sara so I'm going to say they all date from then though we did visit the park in 1952 as well.

Here is the original from which I derived my "artsy" rendering at the top of the post.