Book shorts: September 15

2013-09-15 14:00

Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

Umuzi; 304?pages; R171 at

The opening chapters of this semicomic urban fantasy made me think this was what Spud might have been like if the devil had written it.

Baxter Zevcenko is running a schoolyard syndicate in Cape Town that specialises in selling porn featuring monsters, and the kids are lapping it up.

But then his girlfriend Esme gets kidnapped and he’s pretty sure the local serial killer is behind it.

Pretty soon he realises the films he’s been selling have less to do with special effects and guys in scary costumes than, well, actual monsters.

Baxter must team up with alcoholic supernatural bounty hunter Jackie Ronin to save Esme and, of course, the world, with plenty of time given to him doubting his sanity along the way.

And who could blame him?

Human does a few recognisably Neil Gaiman-like things in his tale, blending ancient fantasy with a modern city, and Baxter’s sardonic voice is the highlight throughout.

The book taps into the trove that is African myth, particularly the Khoisan mantis god and the tokoloshe.

I loved the setup and the devil-may-care attitude at the start, but towards the end it becomes a little too frantic for me, and a spiralling, bloody mess.

Human is imaginative and an exciting prospect though. – Charles Cilliers

The Abomination:

The Carnivia Trilogy by Jonathan Holt

Harper; 448?pages; R290 at

Any book that starts with the discovery of a dead woman pulled from the icy waters of Venice dressed in robes worn by priests is bound to go one of two ways: it’s either going to be execrable, like the Da Vinci Code; or it will be a fabulous romp, full of twists and turns, that helps you while away a few pleasant hours.

This is, I’m pleased to report, the latter, mainly because Jonathan Holt wields his pen with more skill than Dan Brown.

There are murders, wild conspiracy theories, a sexy female cop working her first case, and her brilliant, steady boss.

There’s a mysterious website called that’s part-Facebook and part-Roman orgy.

It holds the darkest secrets of the government and the church.

There’s also a hint of the occult and, just for added spice, the US military and even the mafia.

The book rollicks along at a decent pace, the writing is solid and Holt doesn’t take himself too seriously.

All in all, it’s the kind of read that will see you through a long Sunday picnic in the garden or a lazy afternoon in bed – and can then be easily forgotten. – Natasha Joseph

JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke

Allen Lane; 448?pages; R329 at

John Kennedy was groomed to be the leader of the free world from an early age, but the first period of his presidency was not always successful or inspirational.

The Bay of Pigs debacle brought the world to the brink of a war and his arrogance and womanising threatened the institution he swore to uphold.

Yet the American people saw him as some sort of saviour.

His presidency became a Camelot story of a handsome prince and his stunning wife.

This book avoids most of that period and focuses on the days before his assassination.

It imagines what sort of president JFK would have developed into had it not been for that fateful trip to Dallas.

The result is quite fascinating.

It starts with the story of artist Elaine de Kooning and her commission to paint Kennedy’s portrait.

Her near-obsession with getting the essence of JFK mirrors the obsession of the American people with their charismatic, handsome leader.

He should be remembered for his civil rights crusades, which set the stage for Barack Obama’s presidency.

But the place he occupies in history sits somewhere between conspiracy theory and sex object. – Yvonne Grimbeek

I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons

Ecco; 592?pages; R190 at

This is the perfect rock biography: thoroughly researched, very well written and full of interesting anecdotes and insights into a very complex, charming, restless and ultimately selfish character.

There’s enough detail to satisfy the most ardent Cohen fan, though Simmons, who made a name for herself as a serious rock journalist, also sustains an engaging narrative arc for those less familiar with Cohen’s life and work.

But even Simmons, who interviewed hundreds of sources, including Cohen himself, cannot fully explain the demons that haunted him throughout his life.

His musical career started as the mournful bard who wrote Suzanne and So Long Marianne.

Then he inadvertedly wrote a universal anthem, Hallelujah, a song that took almost five years to write with some 80 verses along the way.

And, of course, there were the women, the alcohol and the drugs – all consumed in substantial quantities.

One woman nearly managed to ruin him: his ex-manager Kelley Lynch, who stole his millions.

But in the end, Cohen overcame his depression and come back from the mountain the strong one. – Fred de Vries

Back to Villa Park by Jenny Robson

Tafelberg; 128?pages; R130 at

The 18-year-old Dirkie, tragically orphaned six years earlier, finds himself kicked out of a youth training scheme at Kagiso Holdings.

It’s his own fault, after being caught trying to copy from a girl during a test, but he doesn’t see it that way.

That kicks off a tale told in Jenny Robson’s particularly honest style that acknowledges the spontaneity and lack of hypocrisy of children, which has won her loyal young readers and five Sanlam awards.

Dirkie’s return to Villa Park in Joburg, where he lived until the bloody death of his parents, is symbolic of some of the social change in the country.

He escapes living with his sister, “Fat Sonia”, in Port Alfred, but struggles to settle in Villa Park.

He ends up a beggar and finally finds work as a gardener for the childless black couple now staying in his former home.

They increasingly show kindness to the hapless Dirkie.

All this is complicated by his girlfriend being a bit of an Afrikaner nationalist plotting to blow things up.

Robson overturns stereotypes neatly to tell a coming-of-age story that centres on Dirkie’s realisation that, to be treated fairly, he must first extend that fairness towards others. – Siyabonga Sithole

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