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.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Interlude 1—The Schoolboy

While I'm drafting my next book review, Lily Herne's Death of a Saint, here's a different scream out of Africa—two of my grade reports from Waterkloof House School in Pretoria. As you can see, I didn't set the academic world ablaze. I blame not being able to make change in British currency. This was before the Rand. Notice there is no grade for Afrikaans. I regret that they decided that an American didn't need to learn the language.

I was also rubbish at sports but I think I looked pretty good in my rugby uniform. Scroll down for photos.

On my way to swimming?

First Day of School

Monday, April 15, 2013

Folly by Jassie Mackenzie

Emma Caine might as well change her address to Rock Bottom because that is where she's pitched up. No job—her employer went insolvent. No university degree—no one is hiring without an education. No money—her husband, Mark, is in an expensive care facility with irreversible brain damage. No support—financial or emotional from well-off in-laws and brother. About to lose her house, horses, and cats, Emma falls back on the skills learned as a phone sex operator. In her 20s, she learned that she had a knack for servicing men who "wanted to be dominated, punished, controlled" and became a specialist in telephone domination. But that isn't going to be enough to save Emma and she moves to the next level reinventing herself as Mistress Caine. There are enough items in her tack room to get her started as a dominatrix and she quickly sets up her dungeon in The Folly, a small cottage on her property in Johannesburg, South Africa. Emma soon has a growing client list but finds her resolve to maintain a professional distance from her subjects shaken when Simon Nell arrives for his session and it isn't the whip that is generating heat in the dungeon.

Folly is as far from my usual blog content as you can get so why did I order a copy from South Africa and why am I featuring it here. Jassy was one of the first South African crime writers I read and I'm familiar with her writing style and character development. I've been a fan from the first Jade de Jong book. There was no question that I would have to read Folly when I learned she was moving into alternative romance. I wasn't worried that I would be presented with little more than a series of loosely connected bad sex scenes.

So, what's the opinion of someone (60+ male) who doesn't read much romance fiction, much less romance with a  BDSM theme? Very Good.

Let's get one thing out of the way first. Do we call this "mommy porn", a term that appears to have originated with EL James' Fifty Shades of Grey? Jassy is OK with the term but she emphasises that the romance has to trump the erotic. In an ABC News feature, Angie Rowntree says about her web site's erotic videos " What our audience wants is to see a passionate love scene that is filled with chemistry and sensuality..." Folly works like that so I'm adding "mommy porn" to the labels for this post.

I like character driven stories and Jassy has a well rounded, well developed set of characters in Folly. Emma comes across as a real person with real needs and real conflicts. She's not a cardboard frustrated housewife or naive young person under the sway of an older pervy guy. When we first meet her, she has been beaten down by circumstances but not defeated. We get a hint early on (chapter 2) that there is going to more to Emma than is immediately obvious. An amusing daydream involving her officious lawyer lets us know that, given the opportunity, this isn't a woman you want to mess with. In a short 255 pages, Jassy does an excellent job taking Emma from a nearly broken woman to a woman in command.

Likewise with Simon Nel, the client who wants to become more than the receiving end of a riding crop for Emma. The spark between him and Emma provides both the tension and the hot sex. The relationship between Emma and Simon becomes more balanced as the story progresses which is an odd thing to say when we are talking about a dominatrix and someone who submits to one. He's a nice guy, one who complements rather than contrasts the main character. The motivations and tensions of Emma and Simon struck me as realistic with no suspension of belief required.

What about the punters who engage Emma's services and the services she provides them? Not being into BDSM myself, I don't have anything to go by but I'd say that Jassy provides a nice mix of types. Authors often get asked where they get their ideas and in this case Jassy and Emma have one thing in common, both worked phone sex lines specialising in domination. While Jassy didn't take it to the next level as Emma did, she is going to have insights into the type of man who needs a dominatrix and the sorts of domination they require.  This gives Folly a tone of authenticity that keeps you in the story and makes the dialog and action between Emma and her clients more enjoyable and interesting. "It isn't all "kiss my whip you impudent worm": there is humour. The scene with Emma and her first client had me laughing out loud which is awkward when your spouse asks you what is so funny. "Well, there is this guy and he's being whipped with a riding crop by a woman wearing riding boots and a black bustiere and ..."

The sex, it must be addressed, this is mommy porn after all.  The word "sodden" is often used and I'll leave it to your imagination how Emma and Simon get to that state. Because we are talking about erotica, there has to be a "mind-blowing" quality to the sex as pent up passions are explosively released. The tension of the story arises because Emma is fighting her urge to be with Simon while telling herself that she needs to maintain a professional distance. There is a progression in the sex scenes, the anticipation builds with the tension, as Emma deals with her inner conflicts.

I am enjoyed my first foray into alternative romance fiction. Folly has good characters in a good story without any "oh come on, no one would..." moments. If you like this romance sub-genre or want to read something in it that is actually well written or you're just curious what this kind of story is like, I recommend it highly.

On a personal note, I am claiming the first North American sighting of Folly as well as the first North American review.  Jassy's other books are available in the US and I hope Umuzi (an imprint of Random House Struik) decides to make Folly available as well.

Jassy Mackenzie is an author, horse person, and editor living in Kyalami, South African, a suburb of Johannesburg with her partner, horses, and cats. She is the author of the Jade de Jong crime thriller series (Random Violence, Stolen Lives, Worst Case/The Fallen, Pale Horses) and the stand-alone Cain and Able themed, My Brother's Keeper. She first dipped into the BDSM genre with the short story Tough Love which you can read here. I can personally recommend all of her books and short stories. Here is Jassy's website.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Nigerians in Space by Deji Olukotun

Amazon Kindle ed.
Nigerians in Space is Olukotun's first novel and I hope he has another in the works because this one grabbed my interest from start to finish. The title sounds as if it might be science fiction but it is a crime thriller—with maybe a touch of mysticism—set primarily in Cape Town, South Africa. The story moves between 1993/94 and the present.

In 1993, a glib Nigerian government official named Bello makes an offer to Nigerian scientists working around the world. Come back to Nigeria, invest your knowledge in the country of your birth, and together we will make Nigeria the center of technology on the African continent. We will plant the Nigerian flag on the moon. He calls this plan the Brain Gain. He seems to have the money and resources and all he asks is for each scientist to steal a piece of their research to prove their commitment to the project.

But is Bello for real? Can he deliver? Or is this the ultimate Nigerian scam? Lunar geologist Wale Olufunmi, studying rocks from the moon, in Huston, Texas is pulled into Bello's scheme. More than anything, he wants to go into space. He steals a sample from the first moon landing and flees with his wife and son to Washington, DC. But Bello isn't there to meet them, Wale can't go with the contingency play, so he has to improvise. He takes his family to Sweden where he knows there is another scientist who has been recruited. Everything goes wrong for Wale and he stands to lose his dream, his family, even his life.

In addition to Wale's story, we have two other plot-lines. In the present, there is Thursday Malaysius, a man gifted in cultivating abalones (or perlemoen or perlies), a protected species in South Africa. Thursday lets a boyhood friend lead him astray and soon he finds himself an abalone poacher. Melissa is a young woman and a victim of Bello's plan. She finds herself abandoned and stranded in France. Her unusual skin condition propels her toward a direct confrontation with Wale and Bello. She is also the source of what I think of as the mystical elements of the story.

These three plot-lines— scientist on the run/hiding; abalone poacher; young woman—run parallel with the action shifting between the three as the story advances. The author brings the stories together near the end with the mystical (but non-supernatural) power or pull of the moon and moonlight. Ethereal might be a better word than mystical but both occurred to me as I read.

The author blends fact, fiction, and a few liberties with history into an intriguing and many faceted story. He provides a wealth of cultural detail that gives the story roots and shows that it couldn't be plunked down in any location.

The Brain Gain story line is interesting and compelling. The Nigerian Diaspora is  real. At the time the novel begins (1993), Nigeria was about to transition to a democracy after a free and fair election. Bello would have been riding on a wave of optimism that he could pull off his Brain Gain plan. But later in 1993, the election was nullified and the military junta took over. Good-by dreams.

Wales is Nigerian from the Yoruba ethnic group and the story is sprinkled with Yoruba and other ethnic proverbs. Even more fascinating is how the author works in the Yoruba mythos surrounding twins. Nigeria has the highest incidence of non-identical twins in Africa (45 per 1000). Twins are considered to share a soul and if one twin dies, a small statue is carved to represent the deceased one. The statue is called an ibeji. In the story, Ibeji takes on a sinister aspect.

The author wrote Nigerians in Space while living in South Africa and much of the story is set in Cape Town and the Western Cape town of Hermanus. With Thursday Malayius the story takes on a hardboiled/noir tone when Thursday, a generally decent fellow, finds himself a key player in the illicit perlemoen (abalone) trade with Chinese mobsters making him an offer he can't refuse. This might not seem to fit into the overall story arc but it all comes together, honest.

Readers who enjoy a good sense of place will appreciate the way the author presents the Observatory (Obs) suburb, bordering the actual Royal Observatory which plays a important role in the story. Obs is close to the University of Cape Town and consequently has a large student population. It is also a place used for short term accommodations by foreign workers.

The main plotline(the Nigerians) is unusual and generated curiosity in me. Enough to send me to find out more. The cultural aspects of Nigeria and South Africa both rounds out and pulls the story together.

I was given an e-book version for review but purchased my own copy before I finished. I liked it that much.

Nigerians in Space
Deji Olukotun
Ricochet Books, 21 Feb. 2013
Kindle edition

 Nigerians in Space is available in Kindle edition