Coconut by Kopano Matlwa

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“I do not know how to make it pretty. I do not know how to mask it. It is not a piece of literary genius. It is the story of our lives. It is our story, told in our own words as we feel it every day. It is boring. It is plain. It is overdone and definitely not newsworthy. But it is the story we have to tell.”

So reads the epilogue to this thought-provoking portrait of what it means to be young and black in modern South Africa. But the story that precedes it is not boring or plain in the least. It’s achingly familiar, candid and unforgettable.

The book is divided into two parts, each a snapshot of a Sunday in the lives of two very different young women, Ofilwe and Fikile. Interspersed are memories, instances and conversations that have shaped their view of the world and, more importantly, what they perceive to be their place in it. Matlwa writes frankly an intimately and her characters are vividly brought to life – no easy feat in a book just under 200 pages. I felt for the young Ofilwe – rich, pampered yet desperate to fit in with her white friends and being both included and excluded in the social circle she yearns to belong to. Fikile too, a waitress from the townships who knows hardship and lives a life the complete opposite of Ofilwe’s, wants to escape more than just poverty. Her words “I am not one of you, I want to tell them. Some day you will see me drive past here in a sleek air-conditioned car, and I will roll up my windows if you try to come near me, because I am not one of you. You are poor and black and I am rich and brown” encapsulates both their sentiments. Their crisis of self and views of society are challenged and changed throughout the novel and I think both girls and the reader come away thinking of the world around them a little differently.

This is a novel which describes a loss of culture and identity, the price of longing to be accepted and fit in, and the sting of racism sometimes subtle, often not. But it is also a captivating story of growing up and finding oneself. A grand and important coming-of-age told by an impressive young writer.

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The Three by Sarah Lotz

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“She holds the phone to her mouth and starts speaking.”

If you regularly dredge the depths of the internet searching for just the right sort of uncanny, you’ve probably stumbled upon or heard of Eric Heisserer’s quite genius The Dionaea House; a viral internet-told story that is brilliant not only for its disturbingly realistic seeming tale, but also its epistolary delivery – it is told through emails, blog posts and other correspondence by a set of characters linked in some way or another to the mysterious Dionaea House. Its setup is elaborate and definitely worth checking out. Now, not to digress too wildly from the title I should be reviewing: as soon as I finished the first chapter of South African author Sarah Lotz’s The Three, I knew I would devour the rest of the book and most likely love it – it has the same intricate, layered construct as that viral online story I enjoyed so much. And that same brand of subtle creep.

A fair bit of warning: if you require your book plots to be neatly stitched together with no loose ends, this book will most likely have you tearing your hair out in pure frustration. Though there is a bit of explanation for the story’s events towards the end, it’s still left up to the reader to decide whether what they’ve been told is true. Also, even though it is described as “horror”, I would rather categorise it as a creepy thriller. It delivers its scares in more of a chewing your fingernails to the quick, way, than genuine bolting for the door terror.

Its concept is compelling and imaginative. On what soon becomes known as Black Thursday, four passenger planes crash within hours of each other, on four different continents. There are only four known survivors – on American soil, a little boy named Bobby, in Europe a young girl by the name of Jessica, and in Japan, an American named Pamela May Donald (who dies shortly after the crash) and a Japanese boy, Hiro. The fourth plane plummets to its doom in the township Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, and in the resulting chaos, no one immediately suspects any survivors.  Not only are investigators and the general public flabbergasted by the fact that three children survived the horrific crashes, but when it is revealed that Pamela left a chilling cell phone recording in her final minutes hinting at the Japanese boy as a sinister, supernatural entity, the press and conspiracy theorists have a field day.

What happens after is told in a book-within-a-book style through a compilation of interviews with the children’s (dubbed by the international media as The Three) guardians, friends of the families, those who suspect alien involvement and religious fanatics who believe The Three to be harbingers of the Apocalypse. The characters, even the ones who only make an appearance once, are convincing and excellently written. Their stories are delivered through transcripts of Skype sessions, text messages, voice recordings and emails, and the effect is unnervingly real. You can just sense the paranoia seeping into this cast of characters’ everyday lives, as they’re not only hounded by the press and investigators seeking answers but especially once they begin suspecting that the zealots and theorists might be onto something. And dispersed between hints at the paranormal, lie the much more menacing accounts of those in power seeking to exploit the global fear caused by the crashes. To say any more would be to spoil a fantastically entertaining plot.

While there are not many jump-your-seat terrifying moments in this book, Lotz delivers some eerily ambiguous scenes with the subtlest of hands. If you’re looking for an addictive read, with a perfect blend of thrills and chills, this comes highly recommended.

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.

Memories We Lost by Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

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There was never a forewarning that this thing was coming.

I hate to admit that I’ve never really been a fan of the short story, not even when I began fiddling with the idea of writing my own. I love a daunting to me as much as the next bookworm – sprawling plots and endless character development are two of my favourite things – but, recently, I’ve discovered quite a few wonderful stories that span merely a few pages, but packs all the punch of getting lost in a thicker volume.

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi’s Caine Prize winning Memories We Lost is certainly one. In an African village, a young girl watches her sister suffer from mental illness. This “thing” comes as it pleases, without explanation, affecting not only the person it inhabits but also the people around her. The story is aching and poignant. The young girl yearns for her sister to be just that, to laugh and play, while her mother yearns – desperately, but not cruelly – for her daughter to be subdued. And when traditional medicines and rituals fail to calm her demons, her mother decides to send her away to a remote village to be healed by a sangoma notorious for his severe methods. This prospect is so terrifying to the young girl, that she convinces her sister to leave their village and together they set off on a journey leading nowhere but away from dangerous misunderstanding.

The girls’ story is told in such a tender, but chilling, manner. Most unsettling is the portrayal of the push-and-pull between the girl and her illness, how it’s something almost detached from her, with a will of its own. That heart-wrenching isolation and misconception of what is going on inside her, something completely beyond her control and beyond anyone’s understanding; I felt the helplessness of a community that finds itself stacked against one of its own. This is a story that cuts deep and lingers.

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Take a couple of minutes from your day and lend yourself to Lidudumalingani’s writing, here.

Author photo credit: Twitter

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.