Archive for South Africa

Prelude: Chelsea Cain Interview, crime’s sickest author?

Posted in book, crime fiction, interview, serial killers, thriller, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 6, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Put your ear to the ground and listen to what people are saying about New York Times bestselling author Chelsea Cain, it’ll invariably go like this, “Oh my God, she’s the one who wrote that torture scene.”

That torture scene.

HarrogateIt’s a refrain I heard time and again as I made my way up to the Old Peculiar Crime Writer’s Festival held in Harrogate last July, barely a month after I returned to the United Kingdom from the International Cape Town Bookfair in South Africa. By the time we were seated for dinner in the Jupiter Room of the luxurious Rudding Park Hotel, by invitation of the publishers we share, I was craning my neck to see her at the other end of the table. It’s bullshit, I know, but the first thought that went through my head was, what kind of woman writes “that torture scene?” And what the hell does anyone write in this day of torture porn, which makes such a strong impression?Rudding Park

In other words, how sick and twisted must a person be?

If I expected the female version of Marilyn Manson, I was sorely disappointed. Chelsea Cain – tall, blonde hair, flashing eyes, not an ounce of goth make-up on her porcelain face – had her end of the dinner table in bloody stitches, entertaining them as easily as she offended their sensibilities. She tells a story aloud exactly the way she might write it in a book: macabre punch lines that give Bill Hicks a run for his money, swearing when swearing is fucking necessary, and all of it backed up with the vivaciousness of a movie star. And when they say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, they obviously never met Chelsea Cain. Never before was a person’s character so well complimented by a glass of burgundy. Chelsea Cain 2

Ok. So I exaggerate. Hyperbole is how I earn my money.

Me being me, and about ten of us piled into the back of a black cab much much later all of us filled to the gills with red wine, I pop the one question that’s been bugging me all along. And the moment I say it, I realise how god-awful juvenile it sounds.

I say, “So what’s so gory about your books?”

The car goes quiet. No one says a word. They probably don’t know what to say, because it probably sounds like a challenge, one crime writer to another, like it’s a damn duel over the grotesque or something. Then Chelsea picks it all up in that strong Portland accent of hers. “Oh come on, Richard! Are you fucking serious? Get outta here.”

I never was a man for social propriety and timing, which probably comes from all the years spent playing Dungeons & Dragons in my youth. The conversation veers a sharp left as our polite British chaperones scramble to find something else to talk about. There’s a collective sigh of relief when we play along: no blood on the cab seats tonight.

Yet, I felt dissatisfied. I hadn’t got my answer and now, on top of that, people had misunderstood my intentions. So me being me again, I couldn’t let the issue lie. For almost a year I pondered over it, during which time I picked up a copy of Heartsick and Sweetheart. I thought it best that the next time I pop the question, I best be informed.

And, by God, what a torture scene.

If you haven’t already, read my review of Sweetheart.

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Review: A Deadly Trade, Michael Stanley

Posted in African fiction, book, crime fiction, international crime fiction, mystery, police procedural, review, South Africa, South African writers, thriller, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Michael StanleyA week ago I reviewed A Carrion Death, written by Michael Stanley (the pen name of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip). Not only was it a strong first attempt at a crime novel set in an exotic setting, it was also a sheer act of determination and personal marketing that eventually saw the book break through to the LA Times bestseller.

A Deadly TradeWith A Deadly Trade, they are back and with a vengeance, too. This second book is tighter, leaner and more focused than the first. Michael Stanley is well on his way to establishing himself on the international crime thriller scene.

A man is walking back to his tent one night, at a remote resort deep in the heart o the Okovango Delta, when he’s brutally killed and mutilated. When dawn comes a second body is discovered and a third man is missing. The Botswana police have to fly into the remote area, and our hero Detective Superintendent Kubu Bengu and his new sidekick, Detective Tatwa Mooka, quickly establish that the two murdered individuals, and the prime suspect who was unsuspectingly taken to the airport that same morning, have links to the political turmoil in Zimbabwe and a drug smuggling ring in South Africa.

What is not immediately established is that all the guests at Jackalberry Camp on the night of the murders are very much involved, in one way or another. Though this hints at an Agathie Christie style investigation, there’s plenty of action in store.

Kubu Bengu is his usual likeable self, drinking a steelworks whenever the moment arises, or daintily dipping a Marie biscuit into his tea. And I’m glad to see that Ian McGregor has shed the staccato Scottish accent from the first novel, which was jarring to read. Two new characters stand out as fine examples of well-developed characterisation: Goodluck Tinubu, the well-loved teacher with a dark past, and Moremi Suthani, the eccentric chef with a Kwe bird on his shoulder. Dupie, the camp manager and a former Sealous Scout from Zimbabwe’s civil war past, also rings with authenticity.

The second novel is an improvement on the first, but some of my concerns from the first novel have remained. Our police officers seem extraordinarily happy to discuss the finest particulars of a murder case with just about anyone willing to listen, which doesn’t jive with police procedure. Some chapters grind the story to a virtual halt because Kubu and his friends painstakingly recap events for us. I have to compare this with Peter James’s excellent Looking Good Dead, which I’ve just finished. Looking Good Dead Detective Roy Grace also frequently recaps, but this is either mentioned as a one liner, especially if he’s filling in others; or, if it’s for the reader’s benefit, sums the entire investigation up in no more than three lines. A bundle of pages is never a good idea. I’ve stepped on that mine myself, plenty of times. There are unnecessary tracks of exposition in two of my novels, Bloody Harvests and Salamander Cotton , of which readers have been far too forgiving.

I particularly enjoyed Kubu’s discovery of Goodluck Tinubu’s history, but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, there is true tragedy in his demise as a fallen hero, and Tinubu’s death seems a fitting waste of a human life – perhaps the perfect metaphor for the chaos in his home country, Zimbabwe.

Check out what others thought of A Deadly Trade at Goodreads .

Best music to read by: Miriam Makeba

Review: What Kind of Child, Ken Barris

Posted in African fiction, book, Cain Prize, review, South Africa, South African writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , on May 5, 2009 by richardkunzmann

what-kind-of-child Ken Barris is a South African author to watch. His catalogue of literary awards attests to this: the M-Net Book Prize, the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the Sydney Clouts Award, the Vita Award, a short-listing for the Caine Prize for Writing in Africa. But listing his achievements to drum up support for What Kind of Child is entirely unnecessary. From the outset of Barris’s fourth book, one is drawn in by the plain language, the effortless vivid descriptions. The novel breaks away from stereotypical conventions that permeate much of our literature today. Yes, this novel does touch on race, crime and class, like most South African stories, but its evocation of an unattractive society consumed by alienation extends well beyond the benchmark.

The narrative loosely follows three main protagonists: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a dying tattoo artist who believes he was once a Spanish Conquistador; Luke Turner, a self-loathing libertine with an unusual appetite for women, cooking and death; and Malibongwe Joyini, a joyless child doomed to a hopeless life as a street urchin. Through their eyes we experience an unembellished Cape Town, fraught with perpetual exhaust fumes, forgotten historical sites, and drifters. Barris’s characters come into contact with each other without ever making contact; the protagonists’ relations are rendered meaningless by their inability to fully express themselves and their histories.
The novel evokes questions about the futility of living, its essential mundanity: life and death are unremarkable in the city. Even miraculous occurrences like the appearance of pterosaurs over Table Mountain are dulled by the all-pervasive anomie.

The tale is disquieting as it is bleak, more so because there seems to be nothing of value in the future for our protagonists. It seems that the author is asking this question about South African society, even its literature: are we so shackled by our personal and social history that the future is utterly stifled? The title of the novel embodies this question in the form of a question of its own: What Kind of Child… Its implied ellipsis allows the author to explore the nature of a familiar theme, namely Destiny.

One might ask why buy a book that paints such a dismal picture of Cape Town and its inhabitants, that seemingly conveys nothing but despair. The subject matter may be dark and gloomy, but the beauty of the author’s language provides a perfect counterbalance. Barris’s writing is economic and precise; it allows the reader to read both what is stated and not stated, which creates an incredibly rich narrative. His descriptions, from tastes and smells in the kitchen, to the rasping caresses of lovers, and the minutiae of people’s faces and bodies, are remarkably sensuous – a trait which is not often evident in male writers. His words make the reader’s journey through this disquieting underworld an enjoyable experience.

ken-barris Ken Barris’s writing turns the lives of unremarkable people into a remarkable book; it moulds the ordinary into something extraordinary, and impresses upon the audience a range of emotions that linger long after the last line has been read.

Review: The Bang-Bang Club and Ryan Phillipe’s toughest challenge

Posted in book, Greg Marinovich, Joao Silva, Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, review with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Ryan PhillipeSo Ryan Phillipe’s taken on the daunting task of playing photojournalist Greg Marinovich. I’m not sure if the cherub-faced man-boy is up to this gut-wrenching story, but let’s see where it goes. Here’s a review of one of my favourite autobiographies.

bang-bang-club2Relentless, honest, personal, and grating: just like the Bang-Bang Club shot its photos of a bleeding South Africa. We’ve all seen their images at one point or another in the years leading up to, and after, the first free elections. These are the unrestrained words of the few good men who took it upon themselves to visually document the dying days of apartheid. We run with them as they sprint through the war zone townships that burnt even as the police and army were supposedly trying to bring the situation under contro. We see through their how the South African army invaded Lesotho to bring “stability to the country when it’s elections turned violent. But most of all, we hear through Marinovich and Silva’s writing about their hellish inner worlds, the frayed emotions and broken relationships, which eventually led to hefty drug abuse and suicides that tore up the ranks of such good friends, such a rare band of brothers.

Ken OosterbroekMarinovich and Silva’s documentation of the fame which the Bang-Bang club achieved, as well as the deaths of their close friends and colleagues Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, and Gary Barnard, reads like a Faustian contract. They tell their own raw and deeply moving stories about the time when bullets flew, people butchered each other in Thokoza, Soweto, Kathlehong, Boipatong and Bophuthatswana, often with laughter on their faces. But the most memorable aspect of this story is the sharp edge of ethical dilemmas which these photographers were constantly balanced on: how far do you go to get the shot. Can you set your humanity aside in a camera-click instant so that the real story can be told to the world?

Ken Oosterbroek's most famous photoMarinovich and Silva make no attempt to analyse the complex political situation of the time. To try this would have been folly. Blunt and to the point, they tell it like they experienced it.

Read the book to the music of:
Shawn Philips
Midnight Oil

Check out Ryan Phillipe appearing as Greg Marinovich in the new Bang Bang Club movie.

Short Stories 1: Is it time to rethink short stories?

Posted in African fiction, Andy Cox, Black Static, Christopher Fowler, crime fiction, international crime fiction, mystery, Peter Tennant, short stories, South Africa, South African writers, Third Alternative, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

5466-bad-company-cover South Africa’s first anthology of short crime fiction was recently released, to much fanfare. Bad Company, edited by Joanne Hichens, features short fiction by Deon Meyer, Michael Stanley, Margie Orford, Andrew Brown, Mike Nichol, me and many more, and has a great introduction by Lee Child. The publishers, Pan Macmillan, should be commended for sticking out their heads to get the project done, because hardly any of the big-name publishers will touch an anthology these days. Why? Because there’s no money it.

They just don’t sell.

The project put me into a reflective mood about short stories in general. When a week after the launch I could still only find one or two reviews in major media, and I had to admit this is stunning coverage for an anthology, that mood became melancholic. Why, I thought, are short stories so shunned by the broader reading market, and hence publishers, who have to chase this bunch to break even?

One can easily comment, as many authors and publishers no doubt do, on how important short stories are to the industry. We can wax on in great self-righteous furore about how this form deserves more recognition, and how good writers first tested their mettle as short story writers before finding financial success. Or we can be even lamer and quote our high school teachers on the merits of the form: short stories are much loved because they are often highly experimental in nature; they depend on thoroughly inventive plots for their success; short stories are scalpels where novels are often crude cane machetes.

Nice, that. But it still don’t mean they sell.

Can we in the industry pull the blindfold from our eyes for a second, tear the short story from its pedestal, and talk honestly about the form? If short stories are boring – and a lot of them are – I’m not going to read them, okay? What do I care for a format where authors do dry-runs for later works of staggering genius? I’d rather buy the book when they’ve got their shit together, if you don’t mind. If an anthology costs me as much as a paperback and I’m likely to only enjoy ten percent of the stories, doesn’t that mean I’ve shafted myself? Plus, a short story hardly ever gives you the sense that you’ve been taken on an otherworldly trip, does it? So why buy them when its escapism I want?

One thing that draws me to short stories is precisely the fact that they’re such a niche product. You have to hunt for the best ones, even harder than you do for a great book, so when I find a great collection it makes me feel truly special. It’s like the editor has blessed me and only me with that bundle of treasures.

I find it sad that most publishers treat short story anthologies as a necessary evil, rather than the luxury good they really are. If I could have my way, I’d give back to short stories what they thoroughly deserve: luxury branding. Limited signed editions. Hardback. Hell, let’s go all the way and say gold embossed leather. Provided the collection is a good one, of course. People that read short stories are die hard fans, and the anthologies that are great become the stuff of legend. So why attempt a cheap mass market approach on a product that’s unattractive to the masses? Doesn’t make much sense to me.

black-staticI’ll take my favourite short story magazine as an example. The Third Alternative or Black Static as it is now called, was started in 1994 by TTA Press, run by the aloof but incredibly astute Andy Cox. Instead of trying to punch out reams of short stories in a hit and run fashion, he set the bar incredibly high and only published short stories that were truly innovative. Wrapping these up in some amazing artwork printed on high quality glossy paper, and adding stellar reviews and commentary by the likes of Peter Tennant, Stephen Folk and more recently Christopher Fowler, the magazine quickly defined itself as a luxury item that’s worth owning. At a time when even the low-cost fanzines on the internet appear and disappear faster than mushrooms in a desert, this magazine has gone from strength to strength. Quality content + Quality marketing = Die hard fans.

Like everything else.

Starting with this blog, I’ll be making the case for short stories, first talking about my favourite authors, then the editors and imprints that have brought them to light, followed by what is hopefully a good suggestion for putting together better anthologies that will sell has hot limited editions.

Review: The World Unseen, Shamim Sarif

Posted in Betty Trask Award, book, Pendleton May First Novel Award, review, South Africa, UK writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

shamim-sarif A Vision of Indian Life and Taboo in South Africa

This is a finely woven tale with a magical sense of place, atmosphere and character, set in 1950s South Africa during the time of apartheid’s most stringent race laws. Arriving in South Africa from India, shy Miriam and her unapproachable husband seek a better life in Delhof for their children. They set up a general store in a remote area, and soon Miriam is wrapped up in a mundane existence without a smile, without much pleasure and love, except for that of her children.

Meanwhile, fiercely independent Amina is determined to break with tradition and not marry for the sake of her family’s name. She runs her own businesses with a gentle and wise Coloured man, Jacob, and often clashes with the local police. When Miriam and Amina’s paths cross in the gossip-ridden and scandal prone Indian community of Pretoria, events are set in motion that will put Miriam on a path of personal awakening that leads to an eventual confrontation with her dogmatic husband.

Shamim Sarif, born in the UK, and of South African decent, won the Betty Trask Award and Pendleton May First Novel Award with this glowing debut. Although the book begins slowly, Sarif has proven herself adept at patiently layering a complex narrative with vivid characters and subtle plot twists. She has a rare gift of bringing alive sensuous undertones and the intricacies of body language in her narration. I was a bit puzzled by her Afrikaans characters’ strange use of Ja all the time, but let’s not fuss about peculiarities. Definitely a book I would recommend and an author who has convinced me to pick up an even better second book, Despite the Falling Snow .

Review: Disgrace, J.M. Coetzee

Posted in book, Booker Prize, crime fiction, James Lee Burke, Joseph Wambaugh, review, Salman Rushdie, South Africa, South African writers with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

disgraceEvery now and again you come across a book that sets mood and tone perfectly, and you kinda have to wonder how much better crime novels would be if they all achieved this. James Lee Burke gets it consistently right, as does Joseph Wambaugh. But a prime example is J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace.

David Lurie is a self-obsessed and selfish lecturer in Cape Town who has an impulsive affair with one of his students, which ends on a bitter note of public reprobation. Rather than admit his guilt, the proud and stubborn man resigns and heads for the country to visit his daughter. There he soon finds himself mingling with people that teach him vastly different ways of how to live a life, for better or worse, and he soon discovers that the South Africa that was once his, by token of his race, is changing into something threatening and unknowable.

This book won Coetzee the Booker Prize in 1999, and it is easy to see why. The narrative’s style is jarring and in places distinctly unpleasant – magnificently reflecting the nature of the book itself. Issues of power, whether related to race or gender, are explored to their horrifying extremes and we watch David Lurie’s character broken down and transformed by each major event. Characterisation and narrative are seamlessly entwined, although Lucy’s behaviour – essential to the story’s message – sometimes strains believability.

This is not an easy read and the novel will leave you feeling disturbed for days on end. My only complaint is more of a simple gripe: this is literature at its most earnest and therefore not very accessible. Sometimes the reading feels more like an intellectual test than a work of art easily appreciated. Where Salman Rushdie’s writing allows you room to absorb it on many different levels, Disgrace makes you sweat every step of the way.