****Swing Time

Swing Time, children dancing

photo: cavalier 92, creative commons license

By Zadie Smith – Yes, I do read good books that are not crime fiction, and this is one of them! The term “frenemies” could have been coined to describe the long relationship between the book’s unnamed first-person narrator and Tracey, drawn together by being the only mixed-race children in a dance class. They meet, play, pirouette, and study in council housing in North London.Tracey is the talented one, accepted into a selective performing arts program, her future seemingly assured.

“Unnamed, unsure, neither black nor white, the narrator is fittingly indistinct in this brilliant novel about the illusions of identity,” said Annalisa Quinn in an NPR review. The story swings back and forth between present-day events and flashbacks about the girls’ childhood, their growing up, and their sporadic encounters over the years. Later the narrator sees her in minor roles in classic musicals—Guys and Dolls, Show Boat, ironically—before her career fades from view.

The dance theme is present throughout, a universal uniting characters through time and across cultures: “a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.” Late in the book, dance even becomes a weapon.

The narrator, meanwhile, has landed what seems like a plum job: assistant to Australian pop star Aimee. Aimee and her team divide their time between London and New York. Aimee’s peripatetic lifestyle, kids and nannies in tow, means perpetual rootlessness for the narrator, a disconnect not just from her past—her childhood friend, her parents—but also from a future of her own.

Aimee gets the notion to establish a girls’ school in rural West Africa, and some of the novel’s most heartfelt passages involve the narrator’s yearning to connect with the Africans and the disconnect between the rich pop star and her entourage and the people she wants to help. Aimee’s motives are genuinely kindly, but implementing them on the ground is far more complicated than she imagines.

The narrator certainly is a perceptive observer, but will she grab hold of life and learn to dance to her own tune?

****Minute Zero

Africa, Sunset

(photo: Andrew Moore, creative commons license)

By Todd Moss – If you missed Todd Moss’s dramatic 2013 debut with The Golden Hour, catch up with his protagonist Judd Ryker in his second thriller set in an unstable Africa, the recently released Minute Zero for more political chicanery, assassination, theft and corruption at the most brazen level.

Ryker is an academic working in the uneasy surroundings of the U.S. State Department. The careerists don’t trust him, his brief—as head of the department’s new Crisis Reaction Unit—puts him outside the bureaucracy’s normal chain of command, and in many ways he’s in over his head. What landed him there was his theory that in every international crisis there is a short period—the golden hour—in which events can be successfully directed toward a positive conclusion. Once a situation settles, that opportunity is lost.

This novel elaborates that idea, with the proposition that at times of extreme national disruption, there is an even briefer period of breakdown, when outcomes are uncertain and dramatic change is possible. For U.S. diplomats, Ryker counsels, that “zero minute” offers a unique opportunity.

Moss places this thriller in Zimbabwe, under the long-time leadership of fictional President Winston Tinotenda, a man in his 90s (clearly modeled on IRL president Robert Mugabe), aided by his considerably younger national security advisor, General Simba Chimurenga. This pair did not retain power for decades without a hefty dose of corruption, violence, and heavy-handed political tactics. Now the country faces an election pitting Tinotenda against a formidable challenger, a woman lawyer, Gugu Mutonga.

In this situation, U.S. goals are clear and limited, says the State Department’s Africa lead, Bill Rogerson: a safe, peaceful vote and stability into the post-election period, translated as “no bodies in the streets.” Tinotenda’s hold on the office look like a certainty, but Mutonga has strong support among the country’s youth and in its southern region, and Ryker isn’t so sure the president can hold on. Disruption is in the air.

The Secretary of State asks Ryker to fly to Zimbabwe and demonstrate definitively that his crisis reaction analytics can work. But Rogerson considers Ryker a thorn in his side and is anxious to expel him from the body diplomatique. To thwart Ryker’s efforts, Rogerson colludes with the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe—a rather dim political appointee counting the minutes until he can take up a new posting in London. Ryker’s wife Jessica is an agronomist working on African water purification projects. She provides helpful counsel to him as he negotiates these treacherous bureaucratic waters. Only over time does the reader begin to suspect Jessica has her own dangerous agenda.

The political and diplomatic chess game Ryker undertakes to protect American interests and the integrity of the vote is just as cutthroat as an assassination and its outcome can be just as fatal (at least to careers).

Moss is uniquely qualified to write his thrillers, having been the deputy assistant secretary of state covering 16 countries in West Africa. Currently, he’s chief operating officer and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. He’s also the author of four nonfiction books on international economic affairs and has taught at Georgetown University and the London School of Economics. Luckily for his readers, in addition to his solid background and experience, he knows how to tell a compelling story!

****The Laughing Monsters

Freetown, Africa

Freetown (photo: bobthemagicdragon, creative commons license)

By Denis Johnson The Laughing Monsters (2014) is an antic suspense novel that focuses on two friends—one white, one black—whose wild adventure starts in pre-Ebola Freetown, Sierra Leone, and unravels across Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana. Their goal is to make a financial killing doing something—selling government secrets, peddling fake uranium—then retire to a life on the beach.

Roland Nair, the book’s narrator, is a Scandinavian/American/NATO spook and an admitted coward in a land where courage needs to come in more than the liquid form he prefers. His long-time friend, handsome Michael Adriko, a son of Uganda, teeters on the edge of a major breakdown. Adriko’s undeniable courage and latent lethality is a good way to get both men into trouble. And does. But is Nair working with Adriko or against him?

Also along for the ride is Michael’s fifth fiancée, Davidia, daughter of a U.S. military commander running a secret post somewhere in the Congo. Davidia is beautiful—men’s “gazes followed behind her as if she swept them along with her hands,” and both Nair and Adriko want her. She’s patiently trying to make the best of their low-budget accommodations and travel arrangements, but even she reaches her limit and, anyway, her father wants her back.

Johnson, who won the National Book Award for his 2007 novel about Vietnam, Tree of Smoke, effectively evokes the fractured spirit of the place—the do-si-do-ing for advantage of the operatives loosely connected with various spy agencies with whom they negotiate, the tunnel vision of the American military personnel, the sinister and sometimes overtly threatening village residents they encounter when they’re far from transportation and cell phone coverage.

banana leaves

(photo: Sandi Plek, creative commons license)

The author presents his characters with precision and a fine appreciation of absurdity. Here’s how Nair describes one of Michael’s reckless schemes: “As [Michael] expressed these ideas he followed them with his eyes, watching them gallop away to the place where they made sense.”

Johnson is equally good at conveying the sensory-overload of the African environment: not only the mind-baking heat and the mud and the tainted water, but the ramshackle villages and spluttering vehicles, the barmen and the prostitutes. Nair plunges into political incorrectness with an unforgettable description of an African prostitute “wearing a curly blonde wig, like a chocolate-covered Marilyn Monroe.”

I really enjoyed the first 175 pages or so of this 228-page book, though in the final section, the gods of chaos and Really Bad Hangovers hijacked the narrative, and I felt I was losing the thread. On the whole, it is as described by New York Times critic Joy Williams, “cheerfully nihilistic” as it lays bare the “giddy trickle-down of global exploitation and hubris—the farcical exploits of cold dudes in a hard land.”