Book Review: Deadly Harvest

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Deadly Harvest, by Michael Stanley, is a crime thriller set in Botswana, a country that is modernising yet struggling to shake off the superstitions and prejudices of its traditional past. The story takes the reader to the heart of this struggle. Young girls are going missing, vanishing in broad daylight close to their homes. They leave no trace. The concern is that they are being taken for their body parts, believed by many to enhance the strength of potions known as muti which are created by witch doctors. Little can be proved as no bodies have been found.

This is the fourth adventure in the Detective Kubu series, and the first to be released in the UK by Orenda Books. Kubu is joined here by a new recruit, Detective Samantha Khama. Khama is a feisty if somewhat impetuous addition to the force. She is determined to prove her worth and be treated as equal to her male colleagues, many of whom still believe that a woman’s place is in the home.

Against the advice of her superiors, Khama has requested that she be allowed to reopen the cases of the missing girls, closed because no new leads could be found. Kubu meanwhile is sent to interview an upcoming politician, Bill Marumo, who has discovered a severed dogs head left outside his home and claims he is being threatened by his political opponents. Kubu suspects this may be a publicity stunt but the man’s public profile requires that the police be seen to act.

The investigations collide when there is a murder. Soon after another person is reported missing. As Kubu and Khama try to piece together what few clues they have new information comes to light. Their source demands anonymity, to protect his reputation and for fear of a witch doctor’s revenge. Kubu must decide if he is willing to risk his own career and that of a colleague to seek justice.

As with any system of belief, the witch doctors trade on hope and fear. They have their costumes and their rituals to ensure they appear apart from mere men. Their followers are willing to pay a high cost when promised personal gain.

The dramatic denouement demonstrates how difficult it can be to overcome ingrained beliefs. Even the most rational can waver when what is before their eyes is difficult to process and explain.

The writing is a wonderful mix of colourful imagery and brooding undercurrents. Kubu provides humour but also a depth of character with the obvious pleasure he takes in his family, his concerns for his aging parents, his immense love of food, and the intuition he brings to the case. I felt a little discomfort at two white men creating what seemed to be stereotypical, uneducated black africans, but the authors have lived in their setting. I did not question their ability to create females so perhaps am being overly sensitive on this score.

It is always good to explore a new country through fiction and I enjoyed my introduction to Botswana. This is a darkly entertaining and compelling work of crime fiction. A fine addition to the Orenda stable of books.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

Book Review: Only We Know

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Only We Know, by Karen Perry, tells the story of three childhood friends who harbour a dreadful secret. They were complicit in the death of another child, but what exactly happened must on no account be shared. Their parents, now dead, made them promise never to tell anyone for fear of repercussions. The guilt they carry has haunted them for more than thirty years.

The story opens in Kenya, in the summer of 1982. Eight year old Katie has befriended Luke and Nick, the similarly aged sons of her mother’s friend who they have spent the summer with. Before they return home to Ireland a three day safari to the Masai Mara is arranged. On the last day, as the children play by a river close to the families’ campsite, a tragedy unfolds.

The story jumps to 2013. Katie is a journalist and has been asked to write about Luke, now a successful businessman who has recently captured the public’s interest. Katie has seen little of him over the years, a state encouraged by their parents. Whilst at university Katie briefly rekindled her friendship with Nick, but he has now returned to Nairobi where he plays piano in the clubs and bars.

The tale is told from each of the protagonists point of view, moving between 1982 and 2013. On several key points the reader is led to think one thing only to have it revealed as incorrect. This is clever but somewhat confusing at times.

The slow reveal of what happened on that day by the river is well done, with the impact of the parents’ actions shown to be the catalyst for subsequent events. I did question why, as they matured, the childhood trio didn’t challenge the continued need for secrecy, but am aware that family foibles and feelings can be a tricky minefield to navigate.

In both time periods the development of the characters was believable, their flaws recognisable and sympathetically presented. The denouement, however, stretched this and felt somewhat contrived.

It is a slickly written tale with a compelling plot that I read easily in a day. Looking back though I am left feeling somewhat ambivalent. I suspect it is a book that would be enjoyed most by fans of classic whodunnits. Personally, I prefer a little more depth and challenge.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group.

Out of Africa

Browsing through the blogs that I follow this morning I came across the latest instalment in Duncan Swallow’s ‘advice’ series, How not to be killed by a wild buffalo | nobodysreadingme. The memories came flooding back as I remembered the day that I was charged by one of these beasts. Canny readers will have worked out that I survived the experience, but it got me thinking about the various other encounters that I also survived whilst on a memorable trip to Southern Africa in the nineteen eighties.

I had spent the previous summer working on a kibbutz that was located on the Gaza Strip in Israel. Although this was a known trouble spot I was unfazed by the potential threat of bombings or shootings. I had, after all, spent my entire life up to this point living in Belfast during the worst years of The Troubles. The constant army presence was nothing new and I was more intrigued by the fact that young women were required to complete National Service alongside the men. As a feminist this was something that I fully approved of; I wished to be treated as an equal and it just didn’t happen where I came from.

Volunteers on the kibbutz lived in a separate area from the kibbutniks and we partied hard. I learned to drink beer and to smoke cigarettes that summer, habits that I all but gave up as soon as I returned to my homeland but which added to my enjoyment at the time. I encountered my first scorpions and poisonous spiders, and developed an allergic reaction to biting insects which caused liquid blisters the size of saucers to appear on my legs.

The kibbutnik nurses sent me to an off site medical centre for treatment. After a long wait I was seen by a doctor, but I have no idea what he thought because he spoke no English and I had no understanding of any other language. My blisters were opened and my legs bound in gauze. After that the kibbutniks treated me as if I had some sort of plague, which got me out of a lot of the work details I was there to perform.

One of the other volunteers at the kibbutz came from Zimbabwe, but had Irish ancestors and an unfulfilled wish to visit the emerald isle. Being an hospitable Irish person I offered him an open invitation to come stay with me any time he wished. A month or so after I flew home he surprised me somewhat by phoning to say that he was taking me up on my offer.

His timing was perfect. I still lived with my parents at this time, but they had a holiday abroad planned meaning that I had use of my father’s car and did not need to abide by their rules. I borrowed a tent and spent ten days driving around Ireland with this boy, a most scandalous thing to do at the time. We had a fabulous trip and even managed to locate the graves of his long dead relatives. We asked around and found a few people who remembered the family; Ireland proved itself to be the welcoming place it purports to be. My parents were not so impressed when they returned home and discovered what I had been up to in their absence.

Having partaken of my generous hospitality my new found friend reciprocated, telling me that I would be most welcome in Harare any time I chose. I decided this was too good an opportunity to miss, bought a plane ticket, and spent the three week Christmas holiday travelling around Zimbabwe and South Africa with him.

We camped on the borders of Zambia and Mozambique, hitch hiked from city to city, took a lift with a trucker friend into the wilderness; but the most memorable trips were those made to the Zambezi River, and with his family to Victoria Falls. I was seeing wildlife that I knew only from zoos and television documentaries, in their natural habitat.

I wanted to take photographs of everything. When a large spider started bouncing towards me I was delighted. ‘Look! a bouncy spider!’ I cried as I captured the image, whilst those who knew better ran to escape from one of the most poisonous beasts around. Waiting for a lift by the roadside I wandered up to a group of baboons to photograph the cute little babies before my host dragged me away as the enormous, angry looking mother moved in to protect her young; apparently they are killers too. I was not allowed to approach the elephants who came to drink from the motel swimming pool, and was advised against attempting to get close to the hippopotami and crocodiles in the rivers. I did get to hold a baby crocodile at a tourist attraction; it wee’d on me.

I met the buffalo on a trip down the Zambezi River in a small motor boat. The game keeper carefully pointed it out and then became highly agitated when I stood up in order to photograph it better. The beast raised it’s head, then lowered it menacingly, haunches rising, and charged. I was nearly thrown out of the boat, into the crocodile and hippo infested waters, as the gamekeeper enacted a hasty turn and full throttled escape. I was sworn at quite a lot but was more upset that I didn’t manage to capture on my camera that magnificent beast in full charge. At the time I had no concept of the danger to us all.

Needless to say the trip was awesome. I saw a herd of wild zebra running across a plain, flamingos taking flight in formation and slept out in wooded areas surrounded by the sounds of wildlife I could not even name.

Africa was a land of beauty, poverty and huge inequalities. I argued with one of my welcoming and hospitable host families over apartheid and their treatment of the coloured servants who lived in a hut at the end of their garden, required to live away from their families. I slept in a bed that had shotgun damage in the ceiling above and fleas in the sheets. I was fed the most delicious and enormous steak I have ever eaten.

Thirty years later I still remember the sights and sounds of Africa: the colour, the dust, the welcome. It is an awesome place. I am grateful that I was granted enough luck over judgement to survive to tell my tales.