Posts Tagged ‘Review’

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

This review contains what I hope are only very mild spoilers.

These days, I’m likely to read I Want My Hat Back or the Dr. Seuss obsession du jour thirty times before I crack open a novel for my own pleasure. But this is a new year, and I’ve resolved to change that, even if it means staring at the dim light of my phone until midnight to get my fiction fix.

I’d seen Zoo City mentioned on Twitter a number of times by random people whose opinions I value, and it won a bunch of legit awards (as opposed to “Best Book This Year According to My Aunt Marlene”), so I decided to give it a shot. The quick summary:

Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty online 419 scam habit – and a talent for finding lost things. But when her latest client, a little old lady, turns up dead and the cops confiscate her lastpaycheck, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job: missing persons.

The story takes place in a fictional Johannesburg, South Africa that may be all too similar to the real one: bubbles of wealth and glamour float on a murky pond layered with sex, violence and the harsh realities of poverty. Zinzi and her immediate circle of friends inhabit condemned buildings, scraping a living together by whatever means necessary. As noted, for her this manifests as sending out variations on the Nigerian Prince email we all know and love, and using a loosely-explained psychic power to find lost things for paying customers.

Part of the draw of this story is exploring not only the physical locations, which to me are exotic even as they are echoed in the city where I live, but also learning about the strange animals that hang around the necks of the characters like living albatrosses. A person becomes “animalled” when they commit murder, finding themselves inextricably linked to anything from a sparrow to an anteater–a sloth, in Zinzi’s case. How this affects these people and society at large is woven throughout the tangled narrative, adding an element of tension, especially for folks like me who have trouble confronting animal abuse in any form.

Zinzi is the kind of protagonist who is hard to like in many ways; she’s a con artist, a former drug addict, doing what she must to pay off her drug debts and stay alive. It’s intensely selfish but also practical, reasonable, given her bleak situation. She’s cynical and spunky, but also vulnerable and depressingly realistic. I rooted for her every time she seemed to be taking a step towards a better life, but there was always that sense that no matter what she did, the best she could hope for was to get by rather than get ahead. She could keep from being dragged down by the current, but she’d still be treading water in that murky pond.

If I had a complaint, it would be the pacing. It may be because I was reading it so slowly–a chapter or two a night–but sometimes each chapter felt like a tiny individual snowball being rolled down a hill, with not enough of a connection to the events surrounding them. Some of this was informational, explaining the animals and exploring their mark on the world; some of it was side plots that didn’t feel related to the whole. But in part 2, strangely named because it seemed to begin about 3/4 of the way through, everything slammed together into a giant snowball of fury that proceeded to destroy everything in its path before flying off a cliff and exploding. Yes, this snowball can explode, deal with it. I finished part 2 in one open-mouthed reading session and couldn’t sleep afterwards.

I definitely recommend this book as an alternative to the kind of urban fantasy that has become common these days: the wizard detective, the monster hunter, the vampire lover, and so on. This inhabits a realm that is more real, even as it is perhaps more strange to Western readers. It’s all the buzz words you’d expect: dark, gritty, a kind of neo-noir that fuses Chinatown with District 9 sans aliens. If the best books are meant to make you think, to drag you out of your comfort zone, to feel like someone yanked your soul out through your nose and stomped on it, then this is a very good book indeed.


Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

It has taken me some time to properly digest the strangely textured morsel that is the film Me and You and Everyone We Know. It is difficult to talk about in general terms because it is so layered, with interwoven narratives that are each worthy of attention. So first, I wanted to determine what the ontological center of the movie is, the point around which all other actions rotate, and after much contemplation I have decided that it is the extremely odd love story between the male and female leads. It was probably an obvious choice to anyone but me; I had seen one storyline separately prior to seeing the movie as a whole, so my judgment was tainted. And in a way, the movie is about all kinds of love stories, not just that one. But maybe I am getting ahead of myself.

The main character is an aspiring performance artist, or perhaps an audiovisual artist given that her work is recorded on camera rather than performed live. Her day job is to drive elderly people around, namely an adorable man who wants to visit his ailing girlfriend. Her love interest is a shoe salesman in a nameless department store who has recently separated from his wife and shares custody of his two sons, who themselves have their own narrative arcs. Supporting characters, if they can be called such, include two teenage girls engaging in an increasingly risque flirtation with a much older man (shoe salesman’s coworker and neighbor), the curator of the modern art museum to which the main character submits her work, and a young neighbor and schoolmate who is obsessed with collecting housewares for her hope chest.

As I said, I think at its core the movie is about love. But sometimes it is about sex, and self-discovery, and reaching out to connect with people because to shut oneself off is to lose something essential that makes us human. Sometimes it is about poop, and I suspect there is a metaphor in there somewhere, but I am still working on figuring that one out. Sometimes it is about the conflicting desires of young people to engage in adult sexual behavior, and adults to recapture a lost innocence and sense of wonder in their intimate relationships. In a way, all of these things can be considered different facets of love, and so I’m sticking with that as the central theme.

It is a great movie, but it is a weird one, so I’m not sure who I would recommend it to without some reservations or caveats. I guess if you can manage to find that place in you that remembers what it was like to be a hormonal teenager, and that other place that knows what rejection feels like and wants love and acceptance more than anything, then you will probably find a lot to enjoy in this movie.

In which war gets old

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

I’d heard good things about Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Things that made me want to read it. Now, having read it, I am hard pressed to remember what those good things were and who said them, because I’d like to ask those people some questions.

The ideas are interesting, without a doubt. In the future, humans are at war with just about everyone else in the galaxy and they recruit old people to fight. The book explores the technology involved, in detail that is specific enough to be believable but vague enough to sidestep questions of realism and feasibility. Some worthwhile philosophical questions are asked and answered in a generally satisfactory way.

There are, however, two main problems with this book, and they are pretty significant: the characters and the plot.

We’ll start with the latter, which is possibly the less egregious. To put it briefly, not much happens in this book. Over three hundred pages and perhaps a third of them or less actually move the action forward in some substantive way. And honestly, the action doesn’t seem to go much of anywhere anyway. I could say more, but I don’t want to wander too close to spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that the first third of the book is spent easing the reader into the pool, and the rest feels like treading water with the occasional cannonball.

But sometimes a book can get away with slow or flimsy plot if the characters are sympathetic and engaging. Unfortunately, these aren’t really either, mostly because they have little to no distinct personality to differentiate them. They are all nice, intelligent, well-spoken people who sound alike and are only distinguished by their previous careers. The main character in particular is disappointingly bland and, even worse, has no detectable character flaw. He is awesome and everyone likes him and he does awesome things and boy he sure is great! He never does anything wrong, and when bad things happen they are never his fault and, really, they don’t tend to happen to him anyway so who cares? It’s not like the other characters were distinct enough to worry about, so when any of them die the impact is minimal.

Most of the book felt like the notes for a book, like the author wrote all these fabulous background bits about the universe and technology and so forth and thought it would be a great idea to have various characters relate this information in lengthy, pointless conversations. It was not a great idea. It was quite possibly the opposite of a great idea. Even the action bits weren’t as exciting as one might hope; it felt like more time was spent planning the actions than actually engaging in them, and they tended to go just as planned with one notable and enjoyable exception.

Would I recommend this book? Perhaps to the kind of person who liked to read D&D manuals for fun. Otherwise, the gimmick of having old people fight wars is not sufficient to carry this novel. If I want to read about space marines, I’ll go grab Starship Troopers. If I want morality, I’ll read some Clarke or Asimov or Vonnegut.

When much is taken, something is returned.

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Before I proceed, I must first admit that I am a gibbering fangirl and so my opinions on the topic at hand should probably be taken with at least five grains of salt. Possibly seven. One strives for objectivity in all things, but sometimes objectivity “accidentally” gets locked in the basement for a few hours while subjectivity turns up the television to cover the shouting and banging noises.

I recently finished reading Nation by Terry Pratchett, which is his first non-Discworld book in many years. While it could be called fantasy, it fits more snugly into the alternate history subgenre, but thankfully does not focus on showing off the full extent of what makes its world different from our own. The plot is relatively simple: a young boy who lives on a small island loses his entire village to a tsunami and has to cope with the aftermath. At the same time, a young girl is shipwrecked on the aforementioned island and must adjust to the vast differences between her present situation and her previous sheltered British lifestyle.

The story is set in a late 19th century Pacific Ocean stand-in called the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean, which is populated by numerous tiny islands. The main character, Mau, lives on one of these islands, called the Nation by its inhabitants and those of the surrounding islands. It is considered to be favored by the gods and is generally more prosperous and well-regarded than its neighbors, but ironically it is later revealed to be so small that the British do not even depict it on their naval maps.

This play between Mau’s perception of his home and that of the British girl, Daphne, is one of the many ways in which Pratchett explores the notion of personal and societal subjectivity, even of cultural relativism. This is probably his most philosophical book, but the ideas found within will likely be familiar to those who have read his body of work: the simultaneous absurdity and value of religion, the sanctity of life, the tragedy of death, the tenacity of the human spirit (I use the term “spirit” loosely), and underneath it all, a sense that while living is Serious Business, if one takes it too seriously then one is not really living fully. And if there is nothing else that he seems to advocate, it is the pursuit of a personally fulfilling life.

While I would love to discuss the interplay of science and spirituality in the book, I don’t want to give away too much about central plot elements, so suffice it to say that it is an interesting aspect. Likewise the exploration of gender roles, which can get a bit superficial but is nonetheless enjoyable; at times one remembers that this is supposed to be a book for young adults, and this is one of those times. His tone is alternately light without being flippant, and serious without being grave, showing a kind of fondness for his characters that one might hope for in a benevolent supreme creator.

The main problem with the book is probably that so much time is spent on coping with the aftermath of the tsunami that when other things finally start happening, they feel almost tacked on rather than naturally occurring. It’s difficult to feel the full force of a villain’s evil, for example, when he doesn’t appear until one of the final chapters, and so he is more caricature than character. But given the breadth of what Pratchett accomplishes thematically, perhaps he can be forgiven for a few technical difficulties.

It is easy to recommend this book to fellow Pratchett-prose lovers, and would also be a good introduction to his work for the uninitiated; it certainly lacks the literary baggage that comes with a foray into Discworld. As much as I want to read more about Vimes and the City Watch, the occasional cruise into other waters is a delightful vacation, and a reminder that Pratchett has a lot more to say than any one world can contain.