The Books 2014 Forgot

It is my constant lament that great books go unread while trite, unimaginative and poorly-written pablum rockets to the top of the charts. It is even worse when those bestsellers are scientifically illiterate and lack any basis in reality or common sense (see The Real Meal Revolution) or lacking any foundation in fact or originality (anything by Malcolm Gladwell) or just the same old crime thrillers by the same old names, with the same grizzled detectives solving superficially interesting crimes (like half of the NYT bestseller list).

Some of the books I’ve mentioned below did well overseas but not in South Africa, and that kills me because some of these are local and deserve better. And in my constant, never-ending and admittedly ill-fated mission to promote excellent (and sometimes slightly inaccessible) books, I would like to promote some books that everyone should read or buy as gifts for people like me who are difficult to please. Where possible, I have added links and reviews.

Onwards!

71QTSFmYk6L._SL1500_The Three by Sarah Lotz

Read my full review

Elevator pitch: Four planes drop out of the sky at the exact same moment. Three children survive. The world freaked out in 2014 when MH370 went down – imagine 4 planes, at once, across the world. A tightly-written, utterly compelling thriller of the highest order anointed by the High Writer of Horror Stephen King.

Sold at a massive auction off a manuscript fragment, this locally-authored book did spectacularly overseas, but I was saddened by poor local support.

10352275_637546756336934_2894595274120220687_nBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes 

Read my review here

Elevator pitch: Detroit, rotting corpse of America’s dreams, is being stalked by an imaginative and terrifying serial killer. This is not your bookclub’s crime thriller: it is a superb mix of every genre, with literally dozens of ideas bursting off every page.

Also locally authored, with excellent international support but not enough local readership. Can we all get over our cultural cringe, please? Also anointed by the Dark Lord Stephen King.

books24f-2-webThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

My review here

Elevator pitch: A young girl is married off to a rich merchant in Amsterdam. The marriage is strained from the beginning, and he attempts to appease her with a cabinet containing a miniature version of their household. But when the cupboard’s contents start to predict household events, all that is hidden is forcibly revealed.

I loved this for its immense historical detail, crisply and deeply detailed characters and lyrical prose, as well as its gorgeous setting.

Awards: Waterstones Book of the Year 2014

9781594633171_custom-72d13cb6685ce632b975840ffc997395a0f5e4e7-s6-c30In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

Review by the Washington Post
Review by The Guardian

Elevator pitch: It is 1996, and strangers gravitate to Auschwitz, sleeping in the guard’s quarters, meditating in the snow and listening to apologies from clergy and congregation. They attempt to make sense of the madness, but can anybody? A lyrical take on survivor’s guilt, religious guilt and Holocaust voyeurism.

It is a shortish little book, but it is weighty and challenges the  facile idea of closure and healing around such a cataclysmically monstrous event.

DW_full coverDark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Review by the Mail and Guardian

Elevator pitch: What if Joburg suddenly knew peace and harmony? When a New Age government takes control, a wave of calm sweeps through the country. But the Transformation is not complete, and requires the blacking out of windows in rooms where violent acts have taken place. Why?

A quick-thinking, provocative piece on Joburg, the legitimacy of hippie thinking and the causes and costs of violence. The ending alone is worth the read.

Gordon Torr -  Kill Yourself & Count to 10 HRKill Yourself and Count to 10 by Gordon Torr

My Sunday Times review here

Elevator pitch: What happened to all the soldiers who didn’t suit the Calvinist apartheid government? They were sent to Greefswald, a camp for the broken toys of the sociopathic Dr Levine. A rage-inducing, haunting look at a hidden and shameful chapter in South African history.

This is a tremendously difficult read at times due to the weight of its history and suffering, but it should really be taught in schools.

the-collected-works-of-a-j-fikryThe Collected Works of AJ Fikry

My review here

Elevator pitch: This is a bookseller’s book, a tribute to the life and times of a little bookstore and its owner, and the girl he finds abandoned in it. It is a wonderful, quirky read and a love song to literature.

I especially loved the reading list suggestions by Mr AJ Fikry himself, broad and fascinating and uploading.

Review of The Dying of the Light by Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant is not a series for the weak-hearted. It is a dark, hilarious and 1600_1200_skul2addictive thrill of a series, and unlike most fantasy novels, none of the female characters ever have to take their clothes off just to be noticed. (Seriously, Fantasy, as a genre you need to stop it with the pointlessly naked ladies.)

In fact, it is a dual protagonist series, starring the eponymous wisecracking skeleton wrought from black magic and iron will, and a young girl named Valkyrie Cain who grows increasingly and impressively powerful. She owns her power and her gifts, never apologising for being strong and resourceful, and is given full reign throughout nine books to explore herself not only as a sorcerer, but as a woman shouldered with saving the world. Throughout the series, we see many clever, capable and funny women, some of immense power and strength. Some are good, and some are very, very bad, and it makes for a great change to see women on both sides of the moral fence rather than standing off to the side cheering on the manly men with the swords.

Basically, if the Harry Potter series was better written and Hermione was the lead, rather than second-fiddle to a deeply annoying and undeserving lead character, it might almost be as good as Skulduggery Pleasant. Might. Could have used more fine tailoring as well.

In the newest and final book The Dying of the Light, the big, bad villain the series has been building up to over a couple thousand pages is on the rampage, having stolen Valkyrie’s body and using it to plan the destruction of the world, as well as whichever planets are nearby. We see the extent of truly unfettered power (the scenes in which Darquesse explores her newfound power of rearranging things at the subatomic level are gratifyingly horrifying) and the novel constantly twists and turns to the point I honestly expected one of those “EVERYBODY DIES” endings. So many characters make it back in time for the last novel – Scapegrace the Zombie King, Doctor Nye, Tanith Low, The Dead Men, the Remnants and China Sorrows – that this feels like a good send-off for the series. I have loved it since I accidentally came across the first one two years ago and read the first four in one delirious weekend. I adore Skulduggery for his wit and his compassion and his refusal to let his past ruin him forever. I will miss Valkyrie and China and Scapegrace, but it is grand to see a series come to a graceful and timely close, rather than dragging on like static at the end of a forgotten vinyl.

I can’t say much more about The Dying of the Light without spoiling it, but overall, this book was worth the year-long wait. It is packed with action, just the right amount of pathos without being sentimental, and within the greater battle between good and evil, it takes time to ask smaller, quieter questions. It is far more than a young adult fantasy series (ugh I hate that term) – it is a detective novel, it is a thriller, and a horror. Skulduggery Pleasant is a weighty and refreshing contribution to a genre that is in desperate need of fresh air and great one-liners.

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Review of Kill Yourself & Count to 10 by Gordon Torr

Reproduced in full with kind permission from the Sunday Times.

For an entire generation of South Africans, the Border War and the workings of the SANDF remain mostly a mystery. It was not, and I believe still not, taught in schools. For the 80s kids and born-frees, there’s an entire history barely documented and shrouded in obfuscation, shame and silence. It is not something that one can bring up freely, because there are still men haunted and ruined by what happened during their conscription.

Kill Yourself & Count to 10 loGordon Torr -  Kill Yourself & Count to 10 HRoks at a chapter in South African history that has been shoved so far out of the textbooks that it might as well be another country’s problem. When I heard of the book, my interest was piqued by the mention of the repulsive Levin, also known as Doctor Shock, a man infamous in my Rhodes days for his torture of gay conscripts during the Apartheid era. While charged by the TRC, he still remains mostly out of reach for his crimes here in South Africa.

Greefswald was a camp out in the Northern province where anyone considered unfit for the Nationalist army’s Calvinist-scripted needs was sent for rehabilitation. While much of it has been scraped from the records, Torr has done his research and crafted a narrative both riveting and genuinely horrifying. He also draws from his own experience of the camp, as discussed in this interview with The South African newspaper. The humiliation, degradation and physical privations of the conscripts makes for sickening reading. The frothing-mouth madness of the apartheid regime is fully on display, a madness that enabled a rogue psychiatrist to build a camp for his favourite broken toys.

And the writing! It is filled with shaking rage, with long, wonderfully complex sentences that just build and build and explode, splattering the page with disgust and sorrow, speaking for those who no longer can’t, or won’t, or don’t know how. It is writing put to its very best use – it is writing meant to stir and outrage. A particular favourite:

“It strikes you for the first time that all these boys have got Christian names, that at one time or another they would probably have been loved by their mothers and fathers, that their mothers and fathers would have had high hopes for them, and that you’re not the only one whose talent and potential will be fucked out of you before these Greefswald days are over.”

At several points, this was a difficult and depressing read, a corridor straight into the hearts and minds of young conscripts who had done nothing wrong, genuinely nothing wrong, and who were sent away and tortured for the entertainment and twisted research of one particularly deranged individual.

Kill Yourself and Count to 10 is essential reading for South Africans. It is especially important for those, who like me, had this entire history excised from their textbooks. It shouldn’t be the kind of thing that is a surprise to anyone.

 

This fine book is available at all good bookstores. 

Review of The Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

I generally have a soft spot for issues-driven teen fiction. I think it is an increasingly important genre as teens are increasingly Wintergirlsoverwhelmed by issues that weren’t even thought of ten years ago. Not just in pervasive cyberbullying, but in the very permanent nature of our mistakes now. Even though Google has been ordered to help people be forgotten, there is a very real possibility that a stupid night out can now follow a person around for a long, long time. And while there are benefits to social media, it admittedly comes with its own set of problems that we’re struggling to solve.

But I digress (mildly). A long-standing and increasingly desperate problem is that of anorexia. Yes, I know, maybe it’s pretty stupid that teen girls starve themselves to death, but Jesus Christ, we have toddlers going on diets. Body politics are becoming increasingly invasive and more powerful. Instagram and Pinterest, those rising superpowers, are the unofficial domain of only beautiful people and beautiful things. Pinterest is trying to shut down pro-ana and pro-mia boards, (Tumblr has made great progress in that regard) but I doubt they have the capacity to manage it. 

And these boards and terrible online spaces appear in Wintergirls. This is the story of Lia, a girl who loses her best friend Cassie, and who feels that her dead friend is compelling her to get thinner. Lia thinks she’s getting stronger, that being 95 pounds (43kgs) will make her perfect and beautiful. But the reader can only watch her slowly dying and laying her family to waste. And it seems so real, to get so obsessed with losing weight. It is a shadow in the back of many women’s minds, something I can certainly relate to. Not the cutting, or the puking, but the admiration is very hard to give up. As someone who has recently lost a noticeable amount of weight (through dieting and running, of course), it is very easy to feed on and puff up from the praise of those who notice. It becomes difficult not to seek that praise more often through faster and more destructive methods of weight-loss.

Anderson knows this, and uses it in her writing. Lia is not that far removed from many of us – strained parental relations, trouble at school, low self-esteem. She finds that being thin makes her popular, that dieting will give her control over her rudderless life. Worse, she can find reinforcement at the click of a button, from the pleas and praise of other starving girls who have lost control over everything, even when it seems their lives are getting better as their jeans get looser.

This is the kind of book that so needs to be in school libraries, that must be visible to girls as young as ten, eight or seven. That maybe one of them with a problem might read it, and realise that maybe she’s heading down the same terrible path as Cassie. It is an update of The Best Little Girl in the World. This is not a heavy-handed lecture, but a story that might switch on the light for someone, somewhere. For that reason alone (but amongst others), this is a particularly important book.

Wintergirls is now available in paperback from all good bookstores.

 

Review of Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Never mind the beer ad guy – Lauren Beukes may be the most interesting author alive right now.

Broken Monsters follows in the tradition of Moxyland, Zoo City and The Shining Girls in using cities as characters, backdrops and plot points. In Broken Monsters, Detroit is both ruined and beautiful, the corpse of a model to which artists and hipsters flock as others tut over her corpse and say its just such a shame, and for the grace of god etc. In this Detroit, bait of urban explorers and home of tough cops, a murderer is stitching corpses and art together, a man tormented and the bearer of something beyond his power to control. But this is no Red Dragon – this is something more sinister and beautiful than that.

UK jacket for Broken Monsters

UK jacket for Broken Monsters

Detective Versado, her daughter Layla, Jonno Haim, Clayton Broom and TK make up the constellation of characters that are all interlinked to the Detroit Monster. This story is further complicated by what it means to be living in this naked age of social media, of constantly shifting identities and the repercussions the online world has on day to day life. As we see the CSI Effect damaging the American justice system, the novel explores how the rapid nature of the internet might get in the way of careful, thoughtful justice. The references to websites that millennials live on are rapid-fire and likely to be missed by many readers, but that is of no harm: it is Beukes showing her love of the internet, an exploration of our love-hate relationship with the world’s repository of cat pictures and memes. I was filled with the fuzzies at seeing a mention of Nyancat, possibly the most joyous meme (other than Pope Happycat, maybe) to come out of the noughtteens. (Shut up, that’s a real word, I’m using it now.)

Beukes’ research is remarkable, and the ability to incorporate her bottomless research without bogging the plot down is a rare skill – it informs rather than lectures, and she fleshes out Detroit as she has Chicago, Johannesburg and Cape Town before. Her characters are each exquisitely well-formed, especially Layla and her mother Gabriella Versado. Detective Versado takes no prisoners and no shit, and unlike many other female detectives in crime novels, never needs to be saved from her womanly self. She swears, she drinks whiskey, she tries to give a dead child his dignity while raising a daughter post divorce with no time to do it in. While another character calls her broken, I don’t think people who are genuinely broken are so capable, strong and empathetic, and maybe the definition of broken depends on who’s using it.

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US Jacket for Broken Monsters

As always, Beukes covers a myriad of topics in each work; in Broken Monsters she covers bullying, the rapid dissemination of videos that ruin lives, urban exploration, grief, loss, divorce, police procedure, sex, the vastness of the internet’s invasive reach, hipsters, the art scene, homelessness, revenge, the proliferation of cyber-paedophilia, alcoholism, Detroit as the corpse of America’s hopes, clickbaiting, pottery, fucking Buzzfeed and Upworthy, and Santeria. While the novel does teeter near the line of claustrophobia with so many ideas battling for even a scrap of the spotlight, it contains and expresses its ideas in small details, settings and turns of phrase. Also: hooray for thorough editing. Not a single spelling or grammar mistake in the entire work, which is indeed a rare joy these days. One day when I am big, I hope to put my work before Helen Moffett, Beukes’ editor.

I hesitate to use the word paranormal because that word has been completely ruined by ridiculous ghost-hunting shows and drippy teen novels, but this story does push at the boundaries of what’s real, what lies on the other side of the dimensional fabric and what gives the monsters power. It manages to infuse the story with a sense of genuine horror without getting Lovecraftian (Lovecraft was a racist asshole, which is worth knowing)  and instead doing something more avant-garde with horror. (The birds! The glass! The flowers! The tattoos!) There is also a gorgeous reference to Our Patron Saint of the Internet Neil Gaiman‘s stupendous American Gods, another delicious treat for pretentious people like me who like to catch references like other people catch pokemon.

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The best jacket: the SA jacket by Joey Hi-Fi

Beukes is a novelist of unflinchingly keen eye and ambitious ideas, her body of work constantly building on some themes while incorporating others. Her love of the cityscape is palpable in her work, and her social commentary biting. Brett Easton Ellis should take notes. If she is capable of writing novels of this kind of depth once a year, I feel that we are in for a treat as readers.

 

Broken Monsters will be available in South Africa from July from Random House Struik

Watch the terrifying and eerily perfect trailer below:

What I Read When I Read About Running

At some point in 2012, I started running, after my last run had been in, oh, primary school sometime. I had been strong-armed into joining cross-country for reasons still mostly unclear to me, considering how very, very slow and uninterested I was. In any case, I found myself running with my fellow karate-ka on a Sunday morning in September. It was 7kms long, it was hot and there were hills, and the next week I went and bought myself some running shoes.

Let’s fast-forward to today: I have done two half-marathons, five 10km races and many, many Zoo Trots. I hope to do Comrades next year, and at least finish it. This sounds like a humblebrag, but you have to remember that I didn’t do any voluntary sport until I went to university. I hated it that much, especially the teamwork (running and karate are blissfully free of that tedious nonsense). I didn’t want to represent anyone except myself – I was a public speaker, not a public sweater. It was only when I began doing martial arts seriously at university that I began to regret my attitude towards sports. And it is through karate and the benefits of a great dojo that I came to the land of running.

So, things and people do change, and now I find myself devouring everything there is to be read and known about running. South Africa is a country with a massive running culture, host of the world’s biggest and most famous mass-participation ultramarathon, and possibly the world’s most beautiful race in the Two Oceans marathon. There are so many clubs, all delighted to meet and help beginners. This is a great country to run in, to see and explore. I have run through Soweto and Sandton, the jacaranda-lined streets of Pretoria. I have seen my city at night, at sunbreak and sundown, I have known it in its secret hours and I have seen it at its liveliest. The health benefits are important but secondary to the experience: to feel the exhilaration of a race completed, of a body hard at work, the combined energy of thousands of runners chasing their goals. Until you have watched the sun rise from the top of a gruelling hill or run at the feet of skyscrapers in the heat of a Joburg summer’s night, then running probably seems like a crazy thing that crazy people do.

But it isn’t. I hope that if you have not experienced its joy, I hope you do soon. I hope you run a trail with birds chittering their support. I hope you know the kindness of a city’s people when they come to the edge of the track to cheer you on. I hope that you will discover that you are capable of more than you ever thought you were. That if someone like me, an uncoordinated, self-doubting, bandy-legged, badly-built Greek girl can go from nothing to half-marathon in 8 months, then you can too. You should.

And I really hope you do.

Born to RunThe Cool ImpossibleRunning with the Kenyans

Running is FlyingUnbrokenEat and Run

What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningRunning On EmptyMile Markers

To Be a Runner50 Secrets I Learned Running 50 Marathons in 50 DaysWhy We Run: A Natural History

Review of “The Collected Works of AJ Fikry” by @GabrielleZevin

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Like,” he repeats the word with distaste. “How about I tell you what I don’t like? I do not like postmodernism, post-apocalyptic settings, post-mortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be – basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful – nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mashups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and – I imagine this goes without saying – vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry, or translations. I would prefer not to stock series, but the demands of my pocketbook require me to. For your part, you needn’t tell me about the “next big series” until it is ensconced on the New York Times Bestseller list. Above all, Ms. Loman, I find slim literary memoirs about little old men whose little old wives have died from cancer to be absolutely intolerable. No matter how well written the sales rep claims they are. No matter how many copies you promise I’ll sell on Mother’s Day.”

It is rare that a book can so perfectly, completely and utterly capture the heart of a hardened bookseller. We are so often disappointed – books won in expensive auctions that are just flat soda, stories of the author being picked up from the slush pile and given that special chance. So many promises and so many galley proofs fall to the wayside. Goddammit, everything is the next Harry Potter, or Time Traveller’s Wife, or Book Thief.

But like this book promises, we endure the disappointments for the chance that something will be exhilarating.

This is truly the book I wish I had written. This is the book that encompasses the love and joy that books truly bring. That books are how we know and love others, how we stave loneliness and cure our pains. That books make us better people, and are the bridges between the islands we risk becoming.

The Collected Works of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is the story of a little bookstore, on a little island, and its owner. AJ’s wife has died, he is a deteriorating mess, and it seems that his store won’t survive the winter. On the night his extremely rare copy of Poe’s poetry is stolen, a toddler is left in his store. AJ, freshly widowed and increasingly poor, is smitten by Maya and takes her in.

The book follows AJ, Maya and later Amy, and it is the story of books, of love, of children and bad marriages and great friends. It is stories and weird cocktails and publishers, and it moves with a swiftness that brings this book to an immensely successful closure.

This is a bookseller’s book. This is for every bookstore owner and manager who has ever sat through a subscription meeting and had to take the awful drek we need to sell so that we can afford to keep literary fiction. It is for every bookseller who ever had to endure that awful insult ‘I could get it cheaper on Amazon’. It is for every bookstore that has had to close its doors, it is for every librarian with a stack of unloved books. It is a book that sings to our literary hearts, and it is one of the most precious books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, and I will likely reread it a thousand of times.

Please, please read this when it arrives in South Africa this May. I can promise you that it will become precious to you, that Ameila, Maya, AJ and Lambaise will become great friends to you, and you will be richer for it.

Review of Sarah Lotz’s “The Three” (SPOILERS!)

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The author, Sarah Lotz

Another South African author has landed a much-coveted six-figure publishing deal, and rightly so. Landed by Oliver Munson of Blake FriedmannThe Three continues in the most excellent speculative fiction vein that South African authors are so interestingly dominating. Consider Apocalypse Now Now, The Shining Girls, Space Race and For The Mercy of Water: it is a trend worth keeping an eye on.

So, to whit: The Three is the story of four airplanes crashing at the same time, with three survivors (or maybe four). Understandably, this throws the world into a panic, exacerbated by conspiracy, fear-mongering and Rapture-obsessed Christians. The book is styled as a collection of stories collected by a journalist called Elspeth Martin, who collates the stories of the Three (the three children who survive), the apocalypse groupies, the guardians of the Three and eyewitness accounts of the crashes. As time passes, the effects of the crashes begin to spiral completely out of control, changing the world as we understand it.

Now to the technical stuff: Sarah Lotz has an incredible gift for voices. She moves smoothly and seamlessly from voice to voice: from South African paramedic to Baptist housewife to Japanese chatroom personas – she shows a stunning flexibility of voice and research. Books often don’t reach for my eyeballs and keep them stuck to the pages, but this one absolutely did, from opening page to haunting final chapter. This is speculative fiction at its sublime best: what if a single event with no clear cause or purpose really could change the world?

[Spoilers now, you have been warned!]

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This book has a terrible menace underneath it all, a dark implication for human nature. It wasn’t the idea of the planes just dropping out of the sky, or the terrible way the victims died, immolated and separated. This may just be for me personally, but its the awful way the Christians in the book leverage this horrific event for their own purposes that gives this book such scope. These terrible, hateful people celebrate the deaths, celebrate the signs of the end times and use it to get into power. It happens in the background of the book, and ostensibly it isn’t the major plot point. But for me, as someone who keeps a chary eye on the right-wing elements of religion, this was one of the scariest implications of the book: that some people might use a horrific disaster to usher in another Bush, or even worse: a president that institutes theological law. Considering the charming statements by American politicians in 2013 alone about ‘legitimate rape‘ and abortion, this isn’t that much of a stretch. America becomes a hardcore religious state, and Rationalists are tortured and exiled. That is the kind of dystopian fiction most people are too scared to write about for fear attracting flack for it. I applaud Lotz for this unflinching thought experiment. Maybe its just me, but it is such a feat of narrative that Lotz placed this world-altering plot point in the background, giving it heft without dominating the story.

And here ends the spoilers.

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It is very much more than this one point, though. It skims off a number of places, ideas and issues: the suicide forests of Aokigahara in Japan (possible trigger warning), the self-isolation of young adults and teens online, cults, crime and corruption in Cape Town, journalism, grief, psychosis (‘Hello, Uncle Paul’) and mega-churches. This is a book that covers so much ground so swiftly and so excellently that it feels to be just the right length. I do wish the ending had been a little less obscure, but there’s apparently a sequel on the way, which I’m excited for.

It is unfair to call this book commercial, but it is commercial in that it is very accessible and easy to read, though it offers delicious food for thought for the reader who seeks more. I do so love unreliable narrators. This is a bold, brave act of storytelling and absolutely deserves your attention.

The Three will be available in South Africa this May. 

Review of the Book Thief Movie

TheBookThiefThis is a children’s novel that talks about skies the colour of Jews. It deals with the horrors of war and the attendant waste of life, and how the human spirit endures through art and kindness. While not whoring out gore (I’m looking at you, Tarantino), it remains a stark, sad book much in the style of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. It is a book in which Death tries to convince himself that humans are not entirely evil, not entirely worthless.

Why, then, did we get a movie that not only sanitises the Holocaust, but completely fails to elicit any authentic feeling, despite being taken from such superb source material?

The movie adaptation of The Book Thief is not outright awful. It passes the time, true, and as far as production values go, it is a gorgeous movie to look at. Geoffrey Rush is, as always, wonderful, especially as Hans, the affable father. Emily Watson is superb as the rumbling, thunderous Mamma Rosa. But the narrative voice (and the novel’s focaliser) of Death might have been better delivered by Winnie the Pooh. The voice lacked the ancient gravity such a role requires, and the narrative was disjointed and absent when it was most needed. Why not have Alan Rickman voice Death? It was a superb narrative structure for the book, but it worked only because of the snippets in the book. The movie could have done without it.

Never mind the uneven accents, the failure to draw the various threads together, or even the drippy sentimentalism when the book spares none – this movie was so safe. None of the performances were challenging (the great love between Rudy and Liesel never made it off the pages), the Nazis were mildly annoyed landlords and everything is wrapped up in a few fuzzy montages at the end. I haven’t seen such lazy filmmaking since Vanilla Ice’s first music video. How can a movie about Nazis, war, and the most horrific suffering be so very neat and tidy?

This is blatant Oscar bait without being Oscar-worthy. It takes superb source material, one of the most important books written for children in the last ten years, and turns it into a white bread cucumber sandwich with the crusts cut off. It is technicolor sentimentalism of the worst order, and has no place imitating a book of far superior depth and ambition.

In the age of superb book to movie adaptations (Catching Fire, The Shawshank Redemption, The Wolf of Wall Street, Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (not the American version) Harry Potter – The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows etc), I refuse to believe that an adaptation has to be inferior. My favourite book of all time was adapted into my favourite movie of all time (which is Fight Club, as everyone knows) – the right director and the right scriptwriter can do wonders with books. To turn in such underachieving, dull work is an affront not only to the lovers of the book, but to moviegoers in general.

PS: There’s a terrible placement for Apple in the movie. It made me throw up in my mouth, a little.

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Review of The Girl With All The Gifts by MJ Carey

To be released June 15th, 2014

the-girl-with-all-the-gifts-by-mj-carey-191x300SPOILERS AHEAD!

I have a theory for the endless proliferation of zombie novels, which have been around in various forms since the early 1800s. They usually show science gone wrong, a handsome, rugged male protagonist saving the day and everyone else is boring and undead. The origin of the zombie virus is nearly always caused by scientists overstepping their boundaries, because science is evil and we’re living in a despairingly anti-intellectual society that gives anti-vaccination crazy people a place to peddle their bullshit. The zombie story ultimately panders to the hideously solipsistic belief that we alone are special and everyone else deserves to die and be shotgun fodder. After all, zombies are the last acceptable humans to murder without any guilt or overtones of racism and ‘my country it is of thee’ jingoism. It is for this reason that I generally avoid zombie novels, though sometimes I am pleasantly surprised.

As such, I was tricked into The Girl With All The Gifts, which is revealed to be a story about zombies relatively early on. Except the zombies are called hungries, and this time the origin of the plague is caused by a natural mutation of a particularly ugly fungus. This fungus gets into the brain and causes zombies, and wipes out most of the planet. Now, this is a much more interesting premise than usual, and is delivered with a lot of proper scientific talk and less ‘stuff happens, yo’. Most zombie stories are based around “zombies are here because science”, which is a terrible and boring explanation.

Anyway, to the plot. Melanie is one of many little children who are kept in wheelchairs, strapped down and wheeled to class to learn things. They are fed grubs and washed in chemicals. The opening of the novel is done in Melanie’s voice. The novel flits from voice to voice but remains in the third person. The author is definitely capable of rendering several different writing styles. So the barracks is overrun by junkers (that usual old chestnut about what happens when people survive and basically turn into extras from Deliverance) and five people escape from the base: a teacher, a scientist, a grunt, an army general and Melanie, a kid with an eidetic memory who isn’t sure who she is. They must traverse zombie-ruined England to get to the last known bit of civilisation left. Goal in place, they set off.

As far as actual writing goes, the book is occasionally ponderous and spends too much time telling us every minute detail in each character’s head. While I would normally applaud such in-depth storytelling, it was not done with enough skill to maintain pacing and interest. There are some well-scripted action scenes and there are moments of decent, palpable horror. It is a book with an interesting premise and approach to zombies, shifting the focus away from bad science to the cost of survival. Most of the characters are forgettable though, and even Melanie fails to captivate the reader throughout. I would have liked to see this approach in the hands of a more polished author. As is typical of debut authors, the prose lacks polish and edge, and is occasionally too dedicated to setting up backgrounds for ultimately boring characters than fleshing out the overarching philosophy and implications.

It’ll appeal to most zombie fans, but as far as a ‘mind-bending thriller’ goes (so sayeth the blurb), it didn’t really bake my cake. It passes the time and asks some interesting questions about the cost of a scientific cure and the failure of humankind; it could have been a much more powerful novel with some judicious editing.