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A Day at the Zoo with Urban SciFi author Lauren Beukes

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“Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my window. My own personal bat signal. Or a reminder that I really need to get curtains.”

2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award* winner Zoo City by South African writer Lauren Beukes is a modern day gritty, urban crime novel layered with the fantastical. If read as an adult, the restless portagonist, Zinzi December, will remind you of your angsty punk days. If read as a teen, the book will put you on course for a life of seeking energetic and imaginative stories.

Set in an alternate Johannesburg of today, Zinzi, a victim of her Former Life, lives inside what is called Zoo City: a rundown, crime-ridden ghetto for those who have become “animalled”—the colloquial term for someone symbiotically harnessed with an animal either through a crime they committed or self-imposed guilt of thinking they have—think Philip Pullman’s daemons but darker.After her brother became a casualty of her past crimes, Zinzi began toting a sloth around with her.

Finding it hard to get work as a social pariah yet strapped with debts owed to shady people, Zinzi participates in internet scams, bilking money from unsuspecting do-gooders. Aside from these illegal acts, she has a legit business cashing in on the supernatural power, the mashavi, that came along with the sloth: finding other people’s lost objects. Usually the work is mundane—a lost key in the sewer system or a family heirloom gone missing. But this last case, a wedding ring down the drain, pulls Zinzi into a twisted, and twisting, search for a missing teen pop sensation.

Songweza Radebe, the fiesty female half of brother-sister chart-topping group iJusi, has gone missing and her infamous media mogul manager, Odi Huron, wants her back, unanimalled, before the official launch of their new album, and before the tabloids catch wind of it. Zinzi is chosen for her ability and discretion but her power only works on lost objects, not missing persons. This time she’s forced to rely on old-fashioned investigative techniques. Posing as a music journalist she hits up Song’s brother, their small circle of friends, and the nightclubs she frequents for leads. As those close to her start to speak, Song’s disappearance starts to seem less like a kidnapping case.

Zinzi speeds around the city probing for answers, asking current and ex-lovers for help, digging herself deeper into debt with unsavory characters, and revealing herself as a streetwise badass as numerous fight and dodge scenes take place. Through unrelenting action, Beukes creates a strong, somewhat-flawed, always-believable heroine.

Beukes, from her days as a journalist, brings with her an incredible talent for natural dialogue and a deft use of regional slang. As a screenwriter, she has a knack for pacing. Zoo City is a fast book, banging along like the club music one hears pulsing in the background, and a reminder, if one is needed, that reading can be a whole lot of fun. Both Zoo City and Beukes are refreshing additions to the world of urban science fiction.

*The Arthur C Clarke Award is the most prestigious award for Science Fiction in Britain, presented annually for the best Science Fiction novel of the year.

Buy Zoo City at Indiebound
Lauren’s page at Angry Robot
Lauren’s website
Read an excerpt


Written by Gabrielle

July 19, 2011 at 5:41 am

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