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Tea-drinking introvert found either behind a book or within arm's reach of one. Book reviewer, and book sniffer. You may have seen me on W24, BooksLive, Aerodrome, Bark Magazine, CultNoise Magazine, or Expound Magazine.

22 Oct 2021

Review: The Watchers by A.M. Shine

When Mina volunteered to act as a courier for a quick bit of cash, she had no idea that her life was about to change. It started in the woods. After taking a wrong turn or seven, Mina becomes lost, and arrives at the edge of a forest, when her car suddenly dies, leaving her no choice but to try reach her destination on foot. Yet as Mina proceeds through the woods, she can’t help but shake a feeling that something isn’t right, and as the sun sets, her discomfort increases.

When she’s spooked by a strange inhuman cry, Mina is saved from a chaotic sprint through the woods by the sudden appearance of a light, and a woman beckoning.

This is how she learns about The Watchers. Deep within the forest, is a room, where a mirror and a light are all that stand between a handful of wretched survivors and certain death. Now, Mina must come to terms with her new life: scavenging for food in the day, and sheltering in an abandoned concrete room at night, when The Watchers come out.

But how long can Mina’s new family survive like this, and what happens when they can’t outrun the darkness?

The Watchers is an unexpectedly delightful and mature horror. In a world populated with slasher films and jump scares, horror has transformed from the psychological to the visual, but A.M. Shine is changing that. Shine takes us back to the origins of horror – a slow reveal of something so unexpected, it makes you judge your sanity. This is horror for the intellectual, and it’s brilliant.

Not only does Shine build some pretty impressive tension theme of the terror of the unknown, but the author takes a step into the world of fantasy while doing this, twisting and reinventing myths and legends we’ve forgotten from our childhood. The nostalgia, combined with the creeping thrills throughout this book, guarantee an epic binge-reading session, because you will not want to put this book down.

The Watchers by A.M. Shine is published by Head of Zeus and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers

28 Sept 2021

Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

For Deka’s whole life, she has been raised according to the principles of Oyomo; that a woman’s place is to serve and honour men. Yet on the day of the Ritual of Purity, in which Deka will be cut to demonstrate the purity of her blood, everything changes. Instead of the crimson life force that flows through the veins of the other village girls; Deka’s blood is liquid gold. She is Unpure, and the sentence for this crime is death, because the Unpure are descended from demons.

Only Deka doesn’t die. Again and again, the elders try to end her life, yet her spirit and body remain intact. Just as the elders think they have discovered the way to truly kill her, she is saved by an unexpected source; an emissary of the emperor.

Instead of death, Deka must join an army of girls like her to fight the worst threat that the land has ever faced. And the emperor is willing to sacrifice them all to win.

But when training starts, Deka realises that there’s more to her new position, and the army itself, than she could ever have expected. What she learns shakes the very foundations of her world.

The Gilded Ones satisfies every possible craving a fan of Young Adult could have. Namina Forna has given us a glorious mythology with horrific yet strangely familiar limitations and social ills. We have a love story that is like no other, a generous dose of magic and intrigue, and even a range of action sequences. All of this has been woven together and perceived through a fantastic (literally) lens to make it pure magic. Once you start reading, you cannot stop. The characters are too enticing, the sub plots too arresting, and the writing too convincing and powerful to refuse.

The Gilded Ones will impress more than just YA fans – it will woo lovers of myth and legend, the seekers of fantasy, and those who want a peek of realism through struggle and inequality. It is superb.

The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna is published by Usborne, AND IS AVAILABEL IN South Africa from Penguin Random House South Africa.

10 Sept 2021

Review: Serial Killers of Russia by Wensley Clarkson

Wensley Clarkson has made a career of getting into the minds of the world’s deadliest and darkest murderers. And this time, he’s heading to unchartered territory: Russia. Serial Killers of Russia comprises the true events behind nine of Russia’s deadliest serial killers, and how these murderers evaded capture for so long.

If you though serial killers were purely an American phenomenon, prepare to be proven wrong. Just because we haven’t heard about these homicides before doesn’t mean they never happened – as Clarkson explains, it’s all due to something equally terrifying: Russian politics, and the refusal of the nation to admit to anything that might tarnish its reputation in the West.

It’s immediately apparent from the start of this book that Clarkson is incredibly confident. He claims that his experience with true crime writing and documentaries has given him an unusual and in-depth understanding of what makes a psychopath tick. Yet it pains me to say that the execution falls a little flat.

After several disclaimers of the morbid nature of the crimes, and warning to squeamish readers, this book isn’t as advertised. Perhaps it says something about the macabre nature of human interest and today’s media, but many of the crimes included in the volume are nowhere near as scary as Hollywood’s offerings. Instead, there is a glaring over-reliance on extreme adjectives which constantly forces the reader to remember that this is bad shit. But there are only so many times you can use words like heinous, gruesome or horrific in a sentence before the language loses its appeal and becomes distracting.

And then there are those inconsistencies. Despite promises of insights from killer’s minds, the majority of commentary about the mental state of these murderers comes in the form of unnamed experts, who seem to know a great deal about the inner workings of these homicidal maniacs without revealing how. Furthermore, Clarkson spends a great deal of time lamenting the state of Russian politics, and how this has affected the country’s lackluster policing. Yet his constant reminders that the Russian police force were inept and corrupt, with no interest in solving murders or putting in the work are peppered with notes from detectives, eyewitness testimonies (from sources that also remain nameless) and arrest details that prove the contrary. Altogether, this lends Serial Killers of Russia a degree of implausibility which reads more like fiction than non-fiction.

But it’s not all bad. The details about Russia’s socio-economic past are incredibly intriguing, and do wonders for helping the reader understand the various ways these killers could stalk their prey so successfully, while evading capture for so long.

Serial Killers of Russia by Wensley Clarkson is published by Welbeck, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.

28 Aug 2021

Review: For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing

Teddy Crutcher takes immense pride in his work. He’s a teacher, tasked with shaping the minds of some of the wealthiest kids in the country, at an elite school. Despite not coming from a wealthy background, he’s good at his job. In fact, he’s just been awarded the coveted Teacher of the Year award.

But not everyone thinks he deserves this honour.

There’s Zach, the straight A-student whose grade he just destroyed, and Fallon, a disgruntled former pupil who never misses a chance to send him a scathing email.

Yet when Fallon suddenly becomes his co-worker, everything changes, and not least because she arrives amid a series of unusual deaths at the school.

Now, Teddy must deal not only with a colleague dead set on revenge, but he’s also got to try find a way to help students like Courtney, a top pupil arrested in connection with the deaths.

Teddy knows that Courtney didn’t do it, but who did?

For Your Own Good is another brilliant example of Samantha Downing’s ability to create characters so realistic they could leap off the page. Even if they’re annoying as hell. The desire to like Teddy is continuously tested by his masterful unlikability.

Our protagonist thinks himself the only adult in a world full of children, but his actions and attitude are juvenile to the extreme, and the lows he stoops to would impress limbo dancers the world over. Yet despite his prominence in the story, Teddy remains a mystery – the character with the least developed backstory, and the most reluctant to part with his secrets.

And the frustration that is created by Teddy Crutcher simply existing is exquisite. He challenges the reader with his outlandish beliefs and opinions, while also managing to highlight the many perceived inadequacies of today’s youth. In a nutshell, Teddy Crutcher is a creation of pure genius, and an impressive literary tool.

There’s a downside to having a main character so enveloped in mystique and taboo, and so carefully juxtaposed against the supporting cast. It’s that it becomes difficult to navigate a complicated plot without giving away your hand. Unfortunately, this causes a few awkward plot holes; some clues are thrown in a little too haphazardly, with timing that’s a little too fortuitous. In the world of literary twists, Downing is royalty, but this time around, you can spot a few of those smaller red herrings long before they’re old enough to smell fishy.

For that reason, For Your Own Good cannot be called a perfect novel; but it’s pretty damn close, and absolutely worth reading. Right now.

For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing is published by Michael Joseph, a Penguin Random House company.

26 Aug 2021

Review: Dream Girl by Laura Lippman

Gerry Andersen is supposed to be writing his next best-seller. Instead, he’s finding it increasingly difficult to write. So when he is bed-bound after an accident, it seems the perfect excuse to write, and an equally attractive excuse for not writing.

The truth is, ever since he wrote the critically acclaimed ‘Dream Girl’, he just doesn’t seem to have another great story in him. When he created the character of Aubrey, he created literary perfection, and he’s not sure he can repeat that. To make matters worse, he might be losing his mind. His forced bed rest has put him at the mercy of his assistant, and an oddball night nurse. Yet neither of these women seem to believe him when he complains that someone pretending to be Aubrey has been harassing him. After all, how can someone that never existed torment an aging writer?

As the situation escalates, Gerry can’t help but wonder just what this fake Aubrey wants, and exactly how much she is prepared to do to get it.

Dream Girl is an ingenious novel that sees our protagonist carefully dance between fact and fiction, as his past actions and present predicament collide into a single, messy situation, and someone is going to get hurt. In Gerry’s trip to what he considers the top of the food chain, he’s been blissfully unaware of the damage he’s left in his wake, and now it’s time for him to be reminded, and pay the price.

Laura Lippman has written the aging white male to perfection – while we’re initially shown the world through his eyes, and according to his whims, soon enough, there are inconsistencies in Gerry’s views and opinions that leads to cascades of warning bells, as we finally discover the truth of Gerry’s life and writing. Dream Girl is a perfect and thrilling representation of ‘us vs them’, with a delightful and nuanced discussion of action, reaction, and consequences.

Dream Girl by Laura Lippman is published by Faber & Faber, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.