Review of Folly by Jassy MacKenzie

Folly will doubtlessly be sold on the sex angle alone: in the glut of post-Shades erotica, it is a shining example of female empowerment in a river of boring, submissive relationships. While there’s nothing new in erotica writing (the Fifty Shades trilogy is as unimaginative as it is derivative) it is something of a joy to see a book being set in South Africa with a female lead and with a dominatrix at its centre. But it also is about much more than just sex, you see.

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Emma Caine’s life is hardly glamorous. She’s on the wrong side of forty, ten kilos too heavy with a physically disabled husband, mounting debt and a half-finished home. With the bank knocking on her door, she decides to use the experiences of her youth to open a sex dungeon and hopefully generate some income. Through it she meets the handsome Simon Nel, and as the blurb goes, is drawn into a twisted and potential doomed relationship. I didn’t think it was a particularly twisted relationship: there’s no abuse and while there are some untruths involved, it was more complicated than anything else. But hey, blurbs have to sell books after all.

Emma herself is the closest thing to an everywoman than I’ve read in a good while. She’s a woman in an abysmal situation and instead of crying and waiting for help, she bravely steps out of her comfort zone and finds a way to get back on her feet. She is a kind, funny and resourceful woman, and it makes a great change from the usual protagonists in erotica. She meets a variety of fantastic Joburg people, and it brought me such joy to see a book being set in Joburg instead of Cape Town. (No, really, I’d wager that most local books are set in Cape Town.) MacKenzie especially captures the tedious horror of the Sandton set, with their giant cars, privately-schooled children and whining about how ‘the girl’ dares to ask for more money. Yes, it is a book about sex, but it also very much about people, about South Africa, and relationships.

So, onto the juicy sex bits, then. There isn’t really anything that should shock anyone over the age of twenty with an open mind and an internet connection, but that isn’t to say that it isn’t well done. I’ll reiterate how vital it is that books explore alternative sexual identities with intelligence and understanding. Emma herself learns to see that submissive men aren’t weak and pitiful, and hopefully the reader will come to understand that a BDSM lifestyle is not the domain of sick, broken people. It is simply a form of sexual expression, and not a way for certain young businessmen to deal with their awful pasts.

I do wish the book had taken more time to explore Simon Nel, who is drawn in very broad strokes. Emma is obviously drawn in a great of detail, but Simon seems to be just too perfect. I would have liked the book to be longer – more detail about the BDSM lifestyle, more time spent with the lovely Thandeka and maybe a few more stories of Mistress Caine’s slaves. But in terms of a love story with some hot, decently written sex scenes, it definitely meets that particular market.  And there’s nothing wrong with that: just by dint of having a strong female protagonist it already stands out in its genre.

Folly is an easy, charming and interesting read, and while it could have used more depth it still breaches new territory (at least in the local market). It has moments of sadness, of hilariously awkward situations and it resonates well, because even if the reader hasn’t been in Emma’s situation exactly, we’ve all been there in some way.

Tony Blair, A Journey and the Armchair Activists

Despite the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a handguide to how abusive relationships start, and that Game of Thrones is an airbrushed Medieval Europe where feminism and civil rights are things that happen to other books, I would never call for these books to be banned or burnt. You’d think this would be evident, but it really, really isn’t.

Part of my job is monitoring social media, and on the basis that Tony Blair is speaking at the Discovery Leadership Summit, an impassioned bandwagon-hopper has told us that we have blood on our hands for selling his books, for he is a war criminal. We should do a Tutu and remove ourselves from the equation. Here ends the rant. (Except it was much longer than this, and I don’t think anyone needs that in their lives right now. EDIT: It’s now a loooong Facebook thread all by itself. A guy screaming into the void all alone.)

Now, I agree that Blair is – to use a Valley Girl phrase – a complete tool. He agreed to follow America into a rather stupid and pointless war (although what war isn’t?) and while thousands of Iraqis have died, no one has really taken responsibility. I agree that is entirely unacceptable and there should be some kind of consequence.

But taking his books off the shelf really isn’t the answer.

The guy who wrote in to complain obviously doesn’t know much about publishing or moneymaking, or even common sense, it would seem. Let’s start with the first problem: if we ban one book, and are seen taking a stance on one political view, we will be swamped with demands to ban other books that upset people. We might be told to toss out Dawkins, or anything about the Pope, or a book about Julius Malema or Steve Hofmeyr. The minute we concede any ground in this matter, my time on social media will become exponentially painful as I field complaints about how we stock atheist books, or religious texts or some treatise written by a crazy person that people still study in philosophy.

Secondly, it is not the place of a book store to be the moral guardian of the nation. We have enough self-righteous Brittas around for that. Any place that makes money cannot be expected to toss valuable income down the drain to take a stance that is as transient as it is unnecessary. This is the second half of a very long recession. Bookstores have been particularly hard hit. I’ve written about this before, so I’ll skim off that to say that no sane bookstore is going to listen to three customers complain and toss income potential down the drain. Life must go on, and we do not need to close more stores or retrench more staff. Besides, in three weeks this will have been a non-event and no one will remember that we took a couple hundred books off the shelf (if that many). In any case, if we ban it, Amazon will still sell it. This is a company that sold dolphin meat in its Japanese store; I doubt Blair will bother them much.

Thirdly: Blair is not making as much money off these books as people might think. Once his advance is paid, the publisher (Cornerstone) has to fight to get that money back through sales. The sales aren’t setting the world on fire, which is a pity, since the proceeds are going to the Royal British Legion. I feel sorry for the publishing house, who were probably hoping to make big cash off this so that they could take a risk on a worthy debut author. Remember, publishing houses take a huge risk on any book, and the more money they have to take those risks, the better. Besides, if no one wanted to publish Blair, he could have done it himself. The age of gatekeepers is over.

Fourth: let him embarrass himself in the written word. There’s really not much harm in watching him desperately try to exonerate himself and no one buying it. And nothing destroys a writer’s ego like seeing their book piled high in the back of the warehouse, returned by stores who had customers too smart or uninterested to buy it. The kind of book that gets donated to charities or gets pulped.

Let the bookstore speak, and let the customers make their own decisions. It is not the place of the angry armchair activists to dictate to the buying habits of others, or the selling policies of stores. At the end of the day, banning books is archaic and never seems to work anyway. Remember when Monty Python was banned? And Catcher in the Rye?

It is a lot more gratifying to watch Blair be hoisted by his own petard than to lose out on some much-needed sales.

Review of Zone One by Colson Whitehead

This title was billed to me as the thinking person’s zombie novel, released in time for Halloween to match the zeitgeist. Now I usually don’t pick up zombie novels and I’m less than thrilled by zombie games (though Left for Dead is a superb game) but I think that billing Zone One as a zombie novel is a bit of misdirection. I know that literary works generally don’t enjoy the sales of genre novels, so from a marketing point of view I can see why its being lumped with said undead novels.

But the zombies play a background part, and I would argue that New York is a bigger character than most in the novel. In brief, we follow Mark Spitz, a member of a sweeper team whose job it is to kill off the remainder of skels (zombies) and stragglers (zombies who just repeat the same action over and over until they get shot) that the marines left behind after the initial wipeout. Amongst their sweeps through battered, post-apocalyptic New York, they struggle with PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome) and what it means to rebuild their lives amongst a hopelessly destroyed world trying to reassert itself with mantras and desperate hope. This is where it starts to get deliciously literary and less cheap paperback thrills. New York looms always in the landscape, and the novel is an exploration of our lives as we know it, including the subways and human relations and how people might react when most of the world turns into monsters.

This is not like most novels, with a clear path of action and a conclusive happy ending. This is a languid stroll through psyche and city, lifting the rocks where fears and dreams live and how people ultimately strive for some kind of hope. The camps where triplets are born and crops are being raised are the best, grandest hopes that the survivors have. It is a sharp-eyed view of America in the style of Chuck Paulahnuik but less visercal, perhaps. Whitehead is definitely a literary voice with huge accessibility. The descriptions of life before Last Night (when the world turned) make for superb social commentary without it being obvious. The survivor’s mind is explored in depth, encouraging the reader to ask what they would do when in a house surrounded by hundreds of zombies shuffling around it for days and days.

Overall, Zone One is that kind of novel that feels like a hot bath in winter. Wonderful to immerse in, and with no other reason than because its a fine way to pass the time. There’s no heart-pounding action or sweeping romance (or any of those tired adjectival phrases that so litter book blurbs) but nonetheless it was a rewarding and thought-provoking read.

Read more about Colson Whitehead and this novel here at The Atlantic