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Book Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

March 15, 2011 1 comment

African woman with sloth on her neck.Summary:
In the near future those who’ve committed a serious wrong for which most would feel guilty are given an animal by the spiritual world.  They are known as Zoos, and the animals attempt to guide them back to the straight and narrow as well as keeping the Undertow at bay.  Separation is painful and almost impossible.  If the animal dies, the Zoo dies.  Zinzi December of Johannesburg is one of these Zoos. Her animal is a sloth, and  her magical power is finding lost things.  Normally she sticks to everyday objects such as keys in the sewer, but when a music producer approaches her via his assistants for help in finding a missing teen Afropop star, she bends the rules.  She just may come to regret that decision.

Review:
Beukes excels at world-building, setting a vivid example of how to use showing not telling to its best, fullest extent.  I was instantly swept into this fantastical version of a nation I’ve never been to, yet somehow was able to quickly decipher which elements were pure fantasy and which based on the realities of modern South Africa.  The reader comes to understand how Zoos first showed up and why they exist without even really realizing she is acquiring this information.

Similarly, the character of Zinzi was a refreshing change from the typical urban fantasy female lead.  While she is clever and fairly fit, she is neither abnormally strong not incapable of making bad decisions.  She is a three-dimensional character with both positive and negative qualities.  She is not simply the put-upon dark heroine.  Her struggles are real and current, not simply in the past.  At first it appears that Beukes is going to fall into the completely redeemed heroine trope, but instead Zinzi still has demons to face.  She must repeatedly fall and get back up, something that rings as far more real than one epic fall followed by heroine perfection.

The one draw-back is that the plot is a bit confusing.  I had to re-read the climax to fully understand exactly what had been revealed as the big secret Zinzi was discovering.  Part of that was due to a couple of elements of the plot that seemed not to mesh well with the rest of it.  Some of the important fantasy parts of the plot should have, perhaps, had a bit more explanation.  There is a lot going on in this novel and sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming for the reader who is new not only to the fantastical elements of the tale, but to the South African cultural elements as well.  Although the plot is ultimately decipherable, it is not immediately easy to follow.

Overall this is a creative, unique piece of urban fantasy that simultaneously presents a truly flawed heroine and takes the genre into a city many modern readers are not familiar with.  I recommend it to fans of urban fantasy as well as fans of African literature.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

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Book Review: Setting Free the Bears By John Irving

coversettingfreethebearsSummary:
John Irving is an American writer best-known for The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany.  Setting Free the Bears is his first novel and is set in Europe as opposed to New England.  Hannes Gaff has failed his exam at university in Vienna.  Distressed he goes to a motorcycle shop where he meets Siegfried Javotnik.  Siggy convinces Gaff to buy a motorcycle together to adventure across Europe.  Their adventure takes a side-turn though when Siggy becomes obsessed with letting loose the zoo animals in Vienna and Gaff becomes obsessed with a girl named Gallen.

Review:
Irving utilizes a storytelling technique I’ve always particularly enjoyed–a character finding a notebook and the character and reader reading that notebook together.  Here Siggy’s voice is bookended by Gaff’s.  I had a difficult time getting into the book and was frustrated with it at the end.  It wasn’t until reflection that I realized I enjoyed Siggy’s story, but not Gaff’s.

Siggy is an excellent character.  Through his notebook we see how his parents’ unconventional meeting and marriage as a result of uncontrollable war circumstances has made him the slightly crazy person he is today.  Personally I think he is just misunderstood, which is why I had issues with Gaff worrying about going crazy like Siggy.  Siggy isn’t crazy; he’s just unconventional.

Gaff, on the other hand, is not a well-rounded character.  He is someone who I don’t understand and couldn’t relate to.  Although his crush on Gallen is the catalyst for a key plot point, I actually felt that he had infinitely more feelings for Siggy.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it did make some plot points feel forced.

Overall, this is a typical 1960s generation book.  Siggy and Gaff feel like the middle lost generation.  Their parents were defined by the war, but they are defined by nothing.  All that matters about their lives is their pre-histories–how their parents met and were impacted by the war.  They are left meandering through history on a motorcycle attempting to figure out exactly how things turned out this way from the few clues the war-time people will let them have.  Those who enjoy this theme of the 1960s will enjoy this book.  Others who enjoy Irving’s writing style would be better off reading The World According to Garp.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Library

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