Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Ward by SL Grey

It is both the beauty and curse of the horror genre that it can take so many forms. Shirley Jackson's The Lottery is horror and taught (in my day) in high school English classes. It also might be my first twist ending. Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is the ghost story kind of horror. Literary horror, but horror nonetheless. It also gave us the "creepy kid"* theme which has become a horror trope. At the other end of the horror spectrum is a book I recently reviewed, Roger Smith's (writing as Max Wilde) Vile Blood, an exploration of evil and heavy on gore.

I'm going to use the terms upside and downside in this review. Upside is our world. Downside is the shadow world.

The Ward follows the authors' first book, The Mall (review here). The Ward is set in a poor public hospital in Johannesburg and not long after the events of The Mall. There are several small crossovers between the two books and I recommend  reading The Mall first. It takes place in that ubiquitous temple of communal worship dedicated to all things commercial, the urban mall. What they do with it is both humorous and horrifying.

The story is told from alternating first person, male and a female viewpoints. Josh Farrell is a pretentious, self-absorbed fashion photographer. Lisa Cassavetes suffers from a severe case of body dysmorphic disorder.

Josh returns to consciousness after two days, blind, in New Hope hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa. He learns that he collapsed at work with a severe case of measles. Almost a greater shock than his medical condition is where he is. His medical aid should have him in a first rate hospital, not No Hope as it is popularly called. Lisa is on the same ward. Unable to get any more plastic surgery in Durban, Lisa has conned her way into New Hope in her search for physical perfection. Both are in New Hope for reasons out of their control and when they find themselves in the downside Wards, the horror begins.

The first third takes place in New Hope/No Hope hospital and it paints a grim picture of public healthcare. Lack of cleanliness, bad attitudes, and scarcity of health-care staff have figured into reports on the state of public hospitals in South Africa this year. It is no wonder that the authors have Josh horrified to learn that he is in a public hospital instead of  the private facilities his medical aide should be paying for. The downside wards demonstrate a different view of health care. Let's just say that it's commodity based.

With The Mall and now The Ward, S.L. Grey (Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg) are exploring a form of horror somewhere between Jackson/James and Smith mentioned above. Because I'm a librarian and think in categories, I decided the books dealt with horror of the variety perversion of the familiar or the perversion of safe places.

I asked the authors how they see their books. Sarah said she would "nick China Miéville's term 'weird fiction'** as a category for the Downside books, as I'm not sure they fit fit under the 'horror' umbrella completely or what the term really means any more." 'Weird fiction' is a good description for their books. Wikipedia has an article on it, naturally. If you do a search on china mieville weird fiction I think you'll agree with Sarah.

Louis confirmed that I was on the right track:
We did deliberately set out to take everyday (and often boring, mundane) reality like shopping malls and add a frightening twist to it...If something looks just about real, but there's just something off about it, we both think that's more frightening than something completely fantastic....We wanted to put real, everyday people in weird situations and really try to ge our reders to imagine how they'd react if that implausible stuff were really happening to them.
 The Mall and The Ward are set in places that represent pleasure, comfort, and safety, and use those locations also to examine political and social issues while at the same time giving the reader a cracking good read and scare. The Mall It takes place in that ubiquitous temple of communal worship dedicated to all things commercial, the urban mall. What they do with it is both humorous and horrifying.  The Ward focuses on health care, with disparity in care as a subtext and does it in a darker and, I think, more cynical way. Louis said that they "deliberately set out to satirise certain injustices that are ripe for satirising in society. They seemed a good background for our novels, but it's the characters and situations that are in the foreground. The books are primarily for fun.""

The Ward advances our knowledge of the downside world and we see more of the Administration, those who run downside. I think the authors had a bit of fun creating a new bizarro-world bureaucracy. We also learn that downside interacts with the upside more than we expected from events in The Mall.

The Ward and The Mall are a fun, intelligent, read with a good blend of character, setting, humour, satire, and social commentary. They have a flavour of South Africa which adds a little spice for non-South Africans and probably gives the South African readers an "oh yea, I've been there" feeling. I love the "secret world" trope and the Downside series is one of the best. The third volume is in the works and I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing what aspect of Downside will be explored next.

As of this review you will have to purchase a copy of The Ward from Amazon UK. If you live in the UK you can get it also through Book Depository which will not ship it to the US at this time.

*I borrowed this from shmoop.com. They have a nice 4 paragraph "in a nutshell" essay on The Turn of the Screw.

**Wikipedia article on weird fiction.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Jack Hanger by James Fouché

Jack Hanger tells the story of six days in the life of Dave Matters set against the backdrop of the 2010 World Cup Soccer tournament in South Africa.

Dave is ex-muscle for a gangster, an ex-con, and former undercover operative for the police, all by the age of 27. During a high speed chase through Cape Town's busiest streets after a drug dealer who might lead him the elusive drug lord known as Joe Taxi, Dave crashes and suffers a serious head injury. He was never "right" after the accident and is now content to clerk in a video rental store.

When his little brother Joshua gets in over his head with the mob and murdered, Dave is compelled to take them down. It isn't just revenge, Dave says but "It's about dirt that needs to surface." His police detective friend Marsh won't sanction him going undercover again but is resigned that Dave won't let it drop and hopes that he doesn't do anything too stupid and will call him if he does.

Jack Hanger is a basic "one man seeking revenge against a criminal organization" story that we've read before but don't think that puts it into the tired cliche school of crime fiction. It is a solid story, compact, with a short time frame that pushes the story along, and a main character different from any I've encountered before. The Cape Town setting adds an interesting atmosphere to the action.

The main strength of the story, for me, is the character of Dave Matters. He has a form of obsessive compulsive disorder that compels him to keep both hands busy, often on different tasks, and his mind thinking of two or three things at the same time. The accident also left him not always able to link emotions, actions, thoughts, and senses. "He can't connect all the dots properly, so...he just doesn't connect them at all." He can be a teddy bear or a wrecking machine without comprehending what he is feeling or why. Fouché integrates Dave's neurological condition into the action and it adds layers of complexity to an otherwise straight forward story of a man seeking his brother's killers. He is a man who wants to find meaning in life but finds life confusing. I found Dave someone I'd like to know, likable and scary at the same time and this makes the relationship between Dave and the police detective Marsh more believable. If I can believe in Dave then so can Marsh.

This is the author's first book. He does have some odd word choices and phrasing that initially made me pause but I found a rhythm to the flow of words and decided that I was experiencing the world as Dave might.

Fouché is currently working on a white collar crime story.

Jack Hanger is available in paperback from Amazon

A Jack Hanger is also known as a butcher bird and is noted for hanging its food on barbed wire or  twigs and thorns.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Vile Blood by Max Wilde (aka Roger Smith)

Horror, red in tooth and claw. If this is how you like it then Vile Blood is the book for you.

Roger Smith's books all have a tinge of horror. Gatsby (Mixed Blood), Piper (Wake Up Dead), Inja (Dust Devils), Vernon Saul (Capture), all broken away from humanity, bringing fear and pain to anyone unfortunate to cross them. You look into their eyes and see a soulless void.

With Vile Blood, Roger moves into a different form of horror. Here "tooth and claw" is not a metaphor but actual limb rending, disemboweling horror. The easy way out with this sort of horror is to shock the reader as often as possible with gratuitous, grotesque violence. But Roger applies the same careful character building and plot development that you find in his South African crime thrillers.

Vile Blood takes place in an unspecified part of the American Southwest, a departure from the South African settings of Roger's previous books. This isn't the wide-open spaces, buffalo roaming, picture postcard west. It is poisoned earth, dead or dying towns, corruption. And a good man trying to stand against evil finding his principles tested.

Four soldiers of a drug lord are killed in savage, bloody, and gruesome ways, like a wild beast tore them apart. For Chief Deputy Sheriff Gene Martindale, the crime scene brings back memories he hoped would stay hidden. Has the beast that lies within his adopted sister Skye awakened? Gene protected his sister all those years ago but now Dellbert Drum, corrupt sheriff from the neighboring county, remembering what happened to Gene and Skye back then, pockets evidence at the crime scene. He sees a way to make Gene an accessory in his drug distribution network.

At the same time the beast is awakening in Skye, so does Junior Cotton from his coma in a mental hospital. Junior is pure, spawn of Satan evil, and has a primal, psychic connection to Gene and Skye that makes it inevitable that their lives will intersect.

Rounding out the cast of principle characters is the Reverend Jimmy Tincup, depraved, debased, and degenerate, running a meth lab in an abandoned motel with his whores. Tincup supplies the product for Drum's drug enterprise.

The horror elements are well done and well placed, contributing to the story without becoming repetitive. Roger also answers a question I hadn't considered before: what happens the morning after the beast feeds. Though this is is the first in a series, the reader isn't left hanging. We get enough satisfying details on Skye's background to get our interest but the complete picture will be developed in the sequels.

As with Smith's other books, he gives the reader a good foundation with the story but he also populates the story with memorable characters: the stolid Gene Martindale who you can see meeting the bad guy at noon on a dusty street in the old west; the virginal Skye Martindale trying to come to terms with what is happening to her; the outwardly genial, inwardly putrid Dellbert Drum; the evil psychopath Junior Cotton whose early life is as much horror as the scene that opens the book; and the Rev. Tincup as venal and unredeemable a character as has ever populated a story.

Roger has a background in film and one of his strengths is to give the reader graphic detail with which to build a mental image of the people, setting and action. For me, the stand-out is the Rev. Tincup and his decaying motel fiefdom. Fascinating and at the same time repellent, like an accident you can't look away from.

There will be sequels to Vile Blood and this is not the case where I am curious what happens next, I NEED to know what happens next to these people.

Vile Blood is available from Amazon for the Kindle.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

My James McClure Project

I was going through an exercise using web search tools and different search terms to see how deep I could go with a topic. Google Scholar has links to "Cited by" and "Related articles" which can help you do some deep drilling. My library also has a discovery tool called Summon which indexes many of the databases to which we subscribe as well as the library catalog. And, of course, there is the Google search.

Being that I am a fan of South African crime fiction I used James McClure and his Kramer and Zondi novels as my topic. I found more than I expected, everything from blog posts, scholarly articles, chapters in books, to brief mentions in various works and web sites. My bibliography is up to 25 items now and will grow.

Richard Peck's 1977 book, A Morbid Fascination: White Prose and Politics in Apartheid South Africa, was a significant find and gave me the idea of collecting everything I could about James McClure and turning it into a research project, sort of an everything you wanted to know about McClure and his detective stories. Our Interlibrary Loan Department is aces at getting me books and articles.

This is going to be a long term project, one I can dip into when the spirit moves me. I expect I will need to reread the seven Kramer and Zondi novels several times not to mention the need for background information on apartheid and South African politics.

I intend to post bits of my research as I go along and hope that knowledgeable readers will stumble upon this blog and correct me where I go astray and perhaps steer me toward more material.

And I hoping this will inspire me to make a dent in the backlog of reviews I want to write.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Capture by Roger Smith

6 people. On the high of the economic scale is Nick Exley, his wife Caroline, and four year old daughter Sunny. At the other end is Dawn Cupido and her mixed-race daughter Brittany. Connecting the two families is Vernon Saul, a former Cape Town police detective now working for Sniper Security after two bullets left him with a crippled leg.

Exley, an American, has developed an affordable motion capture system which he is marketing in South Africa. Caroline finds his use of the system to capture his daughter in life-like animation on each of her birthdays creepy. But Caroline has a severe psychological disorder that emerged after the birth of Sunny that has left her increasingly hostile toward Nick and indifferent to her daughter.

Dawn is an ex-hooker and former tik (meth) addict. Brittany is the product of a drug addled moment of unprotected sex with a white john. For his own reasons, Vernon got her out of the life, her daughter back from social services, and a job as a stripper at Lips, a raunchy bar on Voortrekker Street. The other performers see Dawn as uppity since she won't smoke tik and won't turn tricks with the customers. She doesn't want to lose her daughter — her only reason for living — to the system again.

Vernon decides that it would be interesting to bring these families together just for the pleasure of manipulating people in terrible situations. How Vernon pulls this off can't be described without major plot spoilers so you'll just have to read the book. I can say three things: if you've read Roger's other books, you know you can expect bad things to happen to good people; Roger is a master at depicting evil; and little Brittany is very perceptive when she refers to Vernon and Uncle Vermin.

Capture is different from Roger's other works. He has always achieved a good balance between character and action but Capture is more character driven and more of a psychological thriller than an action crime story.

  • Dawn is the strongest female character Roger has written. Beaten but not broken, she is fiercely protective of Brittany and determined to keep her away from Cape Flats and the horrific abuse she suffered as a child. She is with Billy Afrika (Wake Up Dead) and Ishmael Toffee as my Roger Smith favorite characters.
  • Vernon is himself a product of Cape Flats and the victim of a childhood that can only be described as tortured. He is a different sort of villain for Roger. Knowing what happened to happened to him as a child, can the reader find any sympathy for a stone-cold killer and psychopathic manipulator. The reader is constantly wondering what is Vernon up to, why is he doing this. You never get entirely inside his head but watching his actions unfold has disturbing a fascination.
  • Caroline is a danger to herself and family and suffering from a postpartum psychosis that has her hating her family and seeking relief with an out of character lover.
  • Nick is the closest to normal of the adults in the story. A bewildered geek who gets caught up in a madman's manipulations and pushed beyond anything he thought he was capable of.

Capture is the least violent of Roger's novel but it is the most raw in language and explicit sex. I should warn sensitive readers that there are scenes that made me, a hardened reader of crime fiction, want to scrub myself with hot water and lye soap. At the same time, Roger doesn't write extreme scenes without reason and here the sex and language are essential to the characters. Anything less would be to sanitize the story.

Alert readers will notice that the company Vernon works for, Sniper Security, has figured into other stories, such as Mixed Blood. Also, Doc from Wake Up Dead, makes an appearance. Doc is one of my favorite minor characters, a "small, flabby man in his sixties, with a bald head and skin the color of piss." He is a disgusting excuse for a human being who "earns his living dealing in guns, sewing up gangbangers, and chopping body parts supplied to him by cops from the police morgue, selling  the bits off to the darkies for witchcraft." He lives on the edge of the dump featured in Ishmael Toffee.

Capture strips its characters to the bone in a raw, emotional, intimate psychological thriller. It is one of my top books of 2012 and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Nobody Dies by Zirk van den Berg

Published by Say Books in 2011.
Available from Say Books and Amazon Kindle Store.
If you purchase from Say Books you get both the epub and Kindle formats. Also, the author and publisher get a bit more if you purchase from Say Books.

Daniel Enslin is a man adrift.
He had never planned to live like this, with the promise of half understood fictions slowly being throttled in the tightening grip of everyday responsibility. Although his ambitions had always been too vague to act upon, they were strong enough to imbue himself with a sense of failure. His personal life had little more allure than a game of solitaire played with an incomplete deck of cards.
With a failed marriage and a nothing job, the only thing that makes him feel the least bit alive is his relationship with Cape Town gangster Frank Redelinghuys. Frank publicly plays himself as a self-styled entrepreneur, maybe a little shady, but who is a drug dealing, murdering gangster. Daniel feels excitement, "in touch with a world beyond the ordinary" when he hangs around and does little odd jobs for Frank. This changes when Daniel sees Frank commit a brutal murder. Frank doesn't know for sure what Daniel might have seen but when the death is reported in the paper the next day, both Daniel and Frank begin to worry for their own safety.

Scared that Frank might be looking at him as a liability, Daniel contacts detective Mike Acker who Frank had mentioned as hating his guts. Mike is also someone with an acute sense of failure. He has failed to nail Frank on other occasions. Pushing fifty and sidelined into a cul-de-sac job, Frank is desperate for a breakthrough case that will put his career back on track and Daniel might be the one to get him that break. Daniel reminds Mike of himself when he was younger, "a misfit trying to make good in some modest way" and Daniel starts to see Mike as his only friend.

Mike soon realizes that protecting Daniel is going to need a more permanent solution and he turns to Erica van der Linde . Erica handles witness protection and is an expert at making people disappear. Erica is everything Mike isn't, younger, successful, likely to be promoted, and "everybody's darling." She is also the daughter of a legendary Pretoria cop. Erica comes with her own demons, with amends she is trying to make. Her father was taken from her violently while on the job when she was young and impressionable. His philosophy that "once a man puts himself on the wrong side of the law, he loses the right to the law's protection" has a strong influence on how Erica approaches witness relocation.

Four characters, four goals— stay alive, dispense justice, find success, eliminate a threat.

When I read Nobody Dies, I thought of it as straight forward crime fiction. You have a Cape Town gangster, deaths, corruption, betrayal, police procedurals. Now I'm seeing Nobody Dies as a story about identity— three people trying to define themselves, trying to find their place, trying to give meaning to their lives—with the crime fiction elements as a vehicle. van den Berg achieves an intimacy with his treatment of Daniel, Mike, and Erica that invests the reader in their story.

Within this dangerous predicament, Daniel is able to take command of his life and deal with the situation on his terms. Erica, Mike, and Frank have their paths defined by Daniel giving him an influence you wouldn't expect from the man you see at the beginning.

I enjoy Zirk's style of writing very much and would characterize it as edging into literary fiction. The characters are reflective but not in a way that slows down the narrative. While there are good action sequences in Nobody Dies, it is more character than action driven. As I finish this review more than a year after I read the book, feelings of sadness and affirmation still surface as I recall the characters and the road they travel within the story.

Zirk, if you read this, I don't want to condemn you to prequels and sequels but there are some good stories in these characters. Nudge, nudge.

Zirk is from South Africa but has immigrated to New Zealand with his family.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

South African Township Barbershops & Salons by Simon Weller

Available from Amazon in a hardcover edition.

This is an odd book for me to write about considering the theme of this blog but I can connect it with a bit of a stretch. As a reader of South African crime fiction I am used to seeing the shebeens mentioned as gathering places in townships though, mainly, for the low-life gangster elements. With this book I learned that the barbershops and beauty salons are better representations of a township's community hub.

I have a nostalgic feeling for small town barbershops. I think of scenes from Norman Rockwell and Floyd's Barbershop in the Andy Griffith Show. Weller's book made me wonder what it would be like to have this sort of gathering place when the sense of a neighborhood has all but disappeared.

Weller got the idea for the book while visiting a township in 2009. He noticed that barbershops and beauty solons were thriving and became intrigued with names like Try Again Hair Shop and Let's Fix It Barbershop and the vivid hand-painted artwork used to identify these shops.

The author shows the "sharp and snappy vernacular designs" used to advertise the barbershops and beauty salons in Johanesburg, rural townships, Durban, and Cape Town but it isn't entirely a photo essay. He includes interviews with proprietors, customers, and artists. He shows these informal barbershops as community hubs in the townships.

Since many of these shops are truly informal and not licensed, the ingenuity of the proprietors to meet the challenges of the locations is remarkable. You find them in old shipping containers where  electricity might come from car batteries and the water is in buckets from neighborhood taps.

Weller needed local guides to approach these shops. A white man wanting to photograph your business  is not something that would immediately yield acceptance and trust in the townships. When they saw that Weller might be odd but not a threat the shop owners, artists, and patrons were mostly open to him taking photographs and talking with him.

In the rural township of Dzanani in the Northern Limpopo, Weller decided to have his hair cut in King Tiger's Hair Clinique. Since KingTiger had never cut a white man's hair it was subject to much amusement for the other customers. He described the result as a cross between a U.S. Marine and a character from Bevis & Butthead.

The photographs in South African Township Barbershops & Solons are a pleasure to view and I frequently find myself looking at the cover with its functional if chaotic dangling wires and leafing through it again and again. The interviews give the photographs the humanity, the purpose or role behind the settings.

This is the kind of book that is a pleasure to own. In addition to the content, it is well bound in hardcover with an excellent layout and beautiful photographs. I keep it out rahter than shelve it.

If I was to write a crime novel where the detective or police officer ventured into a township I would definitely have my character visit these shops to find out what was happening in the community.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in graphic arts, photography, advertising, and, most important, life in South Africa.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ishmael Toffee by Roger Smith

Available from Amazon in a Kindle edition.

Fans of Roger Smith's crime thrillers will find the start of this novella (based on an earlier short story) a little different. Ishmael Toffee has all of the characteristics of Roger's horrifying villains: Cape Flats, heavily tattooed gang assassin with countless kills from his Okapi knife, just out of Pollsmore Prison. What makes it different is that Roger gives Ishmael humanity, even a soul, beneath the prison ink that covers host of his body.

One day out in the prison yard, Ishmael decides he doesn't want to kill any more and walks away from a hit. This makes him a marked man and the warden pulls him out of general population and turns him to gardening where Ishmael finds peace with his hands covered in the dirt instead of blood.

He is deemed rehabilitated (Ishmael isn't sure what that means), released, and given employment as a gardener for a wealthy white man, John Goddard, in the Cape Town suburb of Constantia. Goddard is a widower, living with his six year old daughter Cindy and colored housekeeper Florence April. This perfect looking household has a black secret, Goddard is abusing little Cindy.

Cindy sees something to trust in this scrawny little man covered in pictures and finds a way to tell him that her daddy hurts her. All of Ishmael'survival instincts tell him that this isn't an affair for a brown man  in a white man's world but he can't help but try to help this little girl who is willing to put her fate into his hands.

This is where the short story ended and Roger continues the novella with Ishmael's attempt to get the girl to safety. With Tin Town (Cape Flats) lusting for the huge reward the father has offered, Ishmael's efforts to conceal a little blonde white girl in one of the most dangerous places on earth becomes desperate.

If asked to recommend a work by Roger Smith that would give a reader a feel for his style of writing, I'd suggest starting with Ishmael Toffee. In this compact story you get the range of his dark view of contemporary South Africa. Roger's novels are known for their brutal violence but it is social commentary that underpins his work. He wrote in an email: "And the same people who suffered under apartheid -- the people who live in the urban ghettoes and the rural slums -- are still suffering now (as victims of violent crime, poverty, HIV/Aids and TB)." In Ishmael Toffee you experience the heat, the smells, the struggle to live in Cape Flats and the lives of the people who probe the dumps looking for something that will keep them going for another day. He contrasts this with the wealthy suburb of Constantia, not far from Polsmoor Prison where Ishmael spent much of his life, where Ishmael's arrival is treated with suspicion even by the colored maid working in Goodard's walled estate. Both the maid, Florence April, and Ishmael, grew up under apartheid and neither are comfortable negotiating their way in this new world. This and their fear of authority affects their decisions. The reader might wonder why they take the actions they do but how they react is a result of what happened to them in the past and it makes them real people and not cardboard cutouts.

Roger is a meticulous researcher and you will find this youtube interview of Ice, the man who inspired Ishmael Toffee interesting. Personal note: the knife you see in the first few seconds is an Okapi 907e. I have one though I've only used it to slice cheese...so far.

Falling, a short story, is included with this novella. It is a nice, raw, piece of noirish writing with doomed characters. Ford was a highly respected cameraman until drugs reduced him to filming porn. The opening begins with scenes that will probably kill any interest you might have in viewing porn, if you had any interest that is. Ford is trying to make a comeback but finds himself linked to prostitute/porn actress/meth addict Trinity. Can they pull themselves out of this marginal existence and make something better of themselves? If you've read any Jim Thompson you'll know the answer to this question. As a bonus, a character from Ishmael Toffee figures into the story.