The Returned by Jason Mott

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“People and events of wonder and magic are the lifeblood of the world.”

Just about 300 pages into this beautifully written but ultimately disappointing novel, a mere 140 pages from the end, I decided to cut my losses (three weeks of reading time) and move on to other things.

I ached to love this book. It’s been sitting on my TBR for years and the premise sounds fantastic: all over the world the dead are returning to the living world, just the same as when they died, but touched by a certain oddness the “true living” can sense a mile away. The story centres on Arcadia, a small town nestled in the American Southern Bible Belt and mainly on an elderly couple, Harold and Lucille whose 8-year-old son, Jacob, returns to their lives 50 years after drowning. There are plenty of other interesting characters included in the plot: a priest longing to make contact with his 15-year-old high school sweetheart, no longer dead; a family who was brutally murdered several years before and whose return causes tension within the community; a still grieving husband whose sorrow turns to dangerous envy when he is unable to find his wife among the Returned. With the town mystified, new laws dictating that the Returned may not leave their homes and subsequent offenders arrested and placed in a prison camp of sorts, I was gearing up for a thrilling experience.

But while the characters grappled with their loved ones coming back from the dead, I grappled with finding meaning in the story. I just couldn’t relate. The plot moves at a painful crawl and at the time of my decision to abandon the book completely, I had spent plenty of pages patiently waiting for something worthwhile to happen. I found myself longing to connect with the people of that small town – both living and Returned – but the characters felt hollow and ultimately I simply didn’t care for them enough to continue. A quick Google search (I had several unanswered questions) told me everything I needed to know about how events finally play out, and I am quite happy that I left off where I did.

Nevertheless, I will be keeping an eye out for Jason Mott in the future. Although this debut did not appeal to me, I found his writing to be striking. His career as a poet certainly shines through in how he turns a phrase.

Not quite recommended, but worth a peek.

I have since discovered a Netflix series by the same name and somewhat similar plot and am now getting ready to plop down on the sofa, overindulge in snacks, and watch the heck out of it. Seems the returned dead is not quite done with me just yet.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

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I’m just meat with faulty programming.

I had so much fun reading this book! It’s an edgy, sexy, horror-laced thriller set in a reimagined Johannesburg and centres on Zinzi, a 419 scammer with a special talent for finding lost things. Oh, and Zinzi also happens to be a Zoo: In this fantastical alternate world, the convicted acquire an animal which attaches itself to them – a shameful reminder of their status as a criminal. And if the idea of lugging about your misdeeds in animal form is not horrifying enough, this branding also comes with the creeping presence of the hellish Undertow (whether psychological or real, whenever this thing showed up, it made my skin crawl). With a Sloth on her back and a penchant for getting herself into the worse kind of trouble, Zinzi is lured into helping a sleazy music producer locate a very special missing thing – a person.

This is only my second Lauren Beukes novel (and I look forward to more). I loved the more recent The Shining Girls with all its gritty gore and its badass female protagonist. Zoo City is one of her older novels, but it’s still a thrilling treat – it also won the Arthur C Clarke back in 2011. The writing is enticing and quickly sucks you into an urban underworld of violence, magic and horror. The city of Johannesburg is brought vividly to life as we follow Zinzi through the filthy slums of Zoo City, home to the animalled underclass and shadowed by the Undertow, right into the foyers of the dazzlingly rich sans scruples. If you live in or frequent Jozi, like I do, you’ll have the most eerily fun experience recognising all the familiar places mentioned throughout the novel – from Rosebank to Hillbrow, and everything in between. And Zinzi, with her smart mouth, dripping attitude, is the perfect tour guide.

There are quite a few subplots in this book, and I’ll admit I lost my way with a few of them. Clues, characters and briefly mentioned events are much more entangled that they first appear. Chapters are dispersed with web-posts, media reports and magazine articles. And while these flesh out the plot and characters, and gives the novel a cool and current vibe, I found myself having to backtrack quite a few times and hunt for references. Nevertheless, the novel is deftly plotted and intricate, and if you can overlook one or two minor plot holes, it’s a very satisfying read. I found it exciting to read something purely fun and completely out of my bookish comfort zone.

Definitely a delicious, criminally good read.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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He’s sorry he ever doubted the House.
She’s the one.
One of the ones.
His shining girls.

Clever and unsettling: In 1930’s Chicago, drifter Harper Curtis stumbles upon a fascinating discovery, a house that allows him to time travel. And the House does not yield its secret without demanding something in return – it requires Harper to hunt down and kill the ‘shining girls’. But when Kirby Mazrachi survives his brutal attack, she turns the hunt on him.

Takes hold of you from the very first page and doesn’t let go until you’re battered, bruised and needing to claw your way back to dull reality. The plot is tight, the writing raw and genuine, the execution sharp as a blade. Most impressive are the characters. The unapologetically evil Harper, to the sharp-tongued Kirby and every minor character in between, are each uniquely voiced and well-written – masterly, considering this novel is only 300 odd pages and several characters are provided only a chapter or less.

This book is addictive and you had better load up on caffeine to counter those 2AM just-one-more-chapter yawns; and it will stay with you, quietly brooding at the back of your mind long after you’ve turned the last page and eagerly recommended it to everyone you know.