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Review: The Cull by Tony Park

The Cull (Sonja Kurtz #3)
Tony Park
Pan Macmillan AUS
2017, 411p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

One mission … countless enemies.

Former mercenary Sonja Kurtz is hired by business tycoon Julianne Clyde-Smith to head an elite squad. Their aim: to take down Africa’s top poaching kingpins and stop at nothing to save its endangered wildlife.

But as the body count rises, it becomes harder for Sonja to stay under the radar and she is targeted by an underworld syndicate known as The Scorpions.

When her love interest, safari guide and private investigator Hudson Brand, is employed to look into the death of an alleged poacher at the hands of Sonja’s team, she is forced to ask herself if Julianne’s crusade has gone too far.

From South Africa’s Kruger National Park to the Serengeti of Tanzania, Sonja realises she is fighting a war on numerous fronts, against enemies known and unknown.

So who can Sonja really trust?

This is Tony Park’s 14th novel and the third one I’ve read. Sonja Kurtz has been a featured character in two of Park’s other novels (one of which I’ve read, The Delta and also An Empty Coast). Although I have read the first book she appears in and have a good idea of her background to be honest it’s not entirely necessary to have read the others before this one because this book does a great job explaining Sonja’s story in a clear way but without taking up too much time from this story.

Sonja is back in Africa working to train local women as an Anti-Poaching unit when they are ambushed by a group of poachers who are surprisingly well armed. As a result, Sonja is offered a job by an incredibly wealthy businesswoman named Julianne Clyde-Smith, who wants to take down the poaching kingpins ravaging the African wildlife one at a time. Employed to do “reconnaissance” it isn’t long before Sonja realises that there’s definitely a lot more to this job than meets the eye and that she might be being used. The body count is rising, the trails are getting infinitely more complicated, Sonja might be on opposing sides with her lover Hudson Brand and she’s not entirely sure who it is she should be trusting.

I love books set in Africa – mostly around South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe etc but I think that’s mostly because the majority of fiction set in Africa that I’ve read has taken place around that part of the continent and this one is no exception. Centered around the areas of large animal conservation reserves, Sonja crosses countries in her mission, occasionally having to dodge authorities due to incidents in her mercenary past. I really loathe big game hunting – people posing with guns and carcasses of elephants or giraffes or lions, beautiful creatures that should be left alone. And I have even more disdain for poaching and witch doctor rubbish that puts tens of thousands of dollars black market value on rhino horns and elephant tusks with little regard to the animal’s pain or suffering or the vast numbers in which they have been and are being slaughtered. So to be honest, I’m all for Sonja and her team and their epic array of weapons executing lethal force, but there are some cases where poverty makes poaching schemes seem easy money to locals. Julianne’s idea is to go after those at the top, dismantling entire operations from the head down. Tony Park lives part of the year in Africa and seems well versed in the various laws and intricacies of operations that might span different countries. There can be different rules for engagement when protecting property and presumably the wildlife within it – in some cases Sonja has to wait until she’s fired upon by poachers and then can she defend herself. She also has to deal with corruption in law enforcement positions, rangers and police paid off to turn a blind eye. A little bit of looking around led me to this article on the dangerous reality of being an anti-poaching ranger.

I really love Sonja as a character – she’s incredibly kick ass with all of these amazing skills and there’s pretty much nothing in terms of combat that she cannot do. But at the same time she’s also a bit awkward with people and leads a rather solitary life. She’s kind of in a relationship with Hudson Brand but she also doesn’t really quite trust him yet and can’t talk to him about what they’re doing or to clarify either of their feelings. She’s the sort of person who will walk away without asking a question, rather than put herself out there for a moment and present herself as vulnerable to another person. There’s a few misunderstandings that create some friction for Sonja and Hudson. I haven’t read the book where they met but after this I definitely plan to go back and add it to my TBR pile because I find them really interesting together. Hudson is a former CIA agent so he has mad skills of his own and now he works as a safari guide and sometime private investigator. I don’t know if there are plans to include them in future books but I’m sure there’s still plenty of ways in which they could reappear.

I found this to be a really engrossing read from the first page – I loved the setting and felt like I was learning more about the poaching situation and the lengths that are needed in order to try and present a defense to it. There were some really good secondary characters (especially Tema, she was fantastic. Park certainly writes very strong, independent female characters) and the story had a few twists and turns, some of which I guessed and some that were a surprise.

8/10

Book #162 of 2017

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The Delta – Tony Park

Sonja Kurtz is a mercenary. Born in what was then known as South-West Africa and forced to flee to neighbouring Botswana during a war, Sonja eventually left Africa for England, joining her mother who had also left Africa to return to the country of her birth. Sonja joined the British Army and served as a soldier and after that became employed by a private company who provide ‘solutions’ to difficult situations.

After a failed assassination attempt on the President of Zimbabwe in which she is double crossed, Sonja is stranded in Africa with all sorts of dangerous people after her. She heads for the only place she feels she might be safe – her childhood home in the heart of Botswana. She’s looking forward to catching up with Sterling Smith, now running the same safari camp her father did many years ago. He’s the man she left behind 20 years ago when she wanted to see the world and do something with herself. Tired of always running, she thinks that settling down in Botswana with Sterling and leaving the mercenary life behind is ideal.

When she arrives, she learns that in Namibia the Government is damming the Okavango and using a hydro-electric scheme to provide the nation with electricity and clean drinking water. This will mean disaster for those downstream of the Okavango in ‘the Delta’ – both the wildlife that rely on it and the country of Botswana, situated where the water empties into a swamp. The damming further upstream will reduce the flow to a trickle, affecting countless numbers of wildlife, already struggling through a drought, and many people in Botswana. At Sterling’s lodge there is currently a consortium of interested parties looking for a way to stop the hydro-electric scheme taking place. Most peaceful avenues have been exhausted and so one of the members, who owns hunting lodges, have called in Martin Steele, the owner of Corporate Solutions….and Sonja’s boss.

Then there’s Sam Chapman, known as ‘Coyote Sam’, a wildlife documentary presenter who is staying at Sterling’s lodge just prior to filming a wildlife documentary in Botswana. When something happens to his production crew and he is unable to contact them, he is stranded in the desert, until Sonja Kurtz comes along. From there, Coyote Sam is also drawn into the plans that Martin Steele has to stop the dam – and Martin needs Sonja to pull them off.

Sonja loves Africa. It’s her home and she grew up here. Now she wants to leave this life behind and settle down, but Martin has always known how to manipulate her so that he gets what he wants. Sonja knows that the money she’ll get from taking part in this plan will set her up for life and she will be able to walk away. But as the event draws closer she begins to realise that she doesn’t know who she can trust – and this might be her last job for Corporate Solutions for other reasons. Someone wants her dead.

After reading Tony Parks most recent novel, African Dawn just a couple weeks ago, I wanted to check out more. I also needed a few more books set in Africa for my Global Reading challenge so I requested a couple in from my local library. The Delta arrived first and I read it in just under two days.

The opening is awesome – we’re introduced to Sonja, who is staked out along a lonely road waiting for the President of Zimbabwe’s road convoy so that she can assassinate him. It all goes haywire and she is stranded alone and hunted in the desert with only a couple of weapons and her wits to get her to a place of safety. She heads to her childhood home in Botswana, searching out safety and her former sweetheart but she finds quite a few nasty surprises along the way.

In another plot, ‘Coyote Sam’ is sort of a Bear Grylls type. He makes his living being dropped into remote locations with a tent and a few supplies and then has to survive until the production crew arrive to get him. Usually there are a few ‘surprises’ along the way for him, such as the time he was given a box of matches with all the heads cut off. When he cannot reach his production crew after spending a couple of nights in the desert, he begins to get worried. This is the worst surprise of all.

These two tie together when Sonja rescues Sam and brings him with her to the safari camp and they find Martin Steele there co-ordinating an attack on the dam. As the film crew are going to film it for their documentary, he sends Sonja along to gather information to further aid them. Despite the fact that the dam is well patrolled and protected after a previous failed attack, Martin has a very viable plan that Sonja knows she can pull off.

Although a fiction novel, The Delta is loosely based (very loosely) in reality. There has been a plan presented by the Namibians to dam the Okavango in the Caprivian region, but this has not proceeded due to environmental concerns about the wildlife and plantlife that would be destroyed in the Delta in Botswana, not to mention how it would affect the Botswana population once the water flow was severely restricted, or even began to dry up. The Delta is the source of a lot of Botswana’s tourism, with safari and hunting lodges operating within it. Angola, Namibia and Botswana, the three countries through which the river flows, are all signatorees to an agreement on how best to share the resources

As well as providing information on the river, the wildlife that it provides for and the people, The Delta also provides a little knowledge about the country now known as Namibia and the politics of southern Africa. It’s by no means a huge part of the story, it’s more to support the plots and there’s just enough information so that you feel informed and know what you’re reading about but not too much that you get bogged down in it, given the myriad of changes in names and governments that a lot of countries in Africa have been through.

The Delta is fast-paced and full of action over the 480-odd pages with never a slow point in the plot. Sonja, despite her often-cold personality is still likable because of her struggle to be doing the right thing by someone important to her and her upbringing which has helped shape the person she is, not to mention the tragedies she has encountered in her adult life, mostly through her dangerous work. Her love of Africa and her home was evident throughout the whole book – Africa seems to inspire a deep loyalty and love in people, no matter what part of it they are from.

The Delta was a great read – this is what I expected of African Dawn but it didn’t quite meet my expectations! I really enjoyed this one and I’m looking forward to my next Tony Park book. My only quibble? That it’d cost much more than $2 million dollars for a viable assassination attempt on Robert Mugabe!

8/10

Book #177 of 2011

I’m counting The Delta towards my 2011 Global Reading Challenge! It is set predominantly in Botswana and Namibia.  It’s the 2nd novel I’ve read for the African continent and the 12th novel overall. More than halfway! I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now.

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African Dawn – Tony Park

Set in Zimbabwe, African Dawn revolves around three families: the Bryants, ex-pat Australian Paul and his wife Pip who run a wildlife park employing local black workers, the Quilter-Phippses with their twin sons Braeden, the dashing armed services hero and the quieter Tate, who works for National Parks and the Ngwenya’s, a poor black family supported and befriended by the Bryant’s.

Starting in 1969 and visiting important years for the families before settling in current day, African Dawn details a broken country struggling to find itself in a bloody and political war where nothing is the same for two days in a row. Paul and Pip are conservationists, running small herds on their farm and they are in danger of losing it as the government seeks to confiscate it for the ‘good of the people’. Paul and Pip know the real reason though – rhino horn trafficking has become incredibly lucrative with wealthy Asians paying around $50,000 US dollars per horn, which will then be ground into a powder and used as a remedy for everything from the flu to cancer.

Paul, now in his 90s, wants to fight to keep his land so he hires Braeden Quilter-Phipps as head of security. Former armed forces, Braeden once saved the life of Paul’s granddaughter Natalie when she was kidnapped by rebels at just 11 years of age. Natalie, all grown up now and a photographer/journalist is writing a book about Zimbabwe and her experiences there. Having lived most of her life in Australia after that traumatic event, she has returned to the country of her birth to reacquaint herself with it and to write her story. She finds herself torn between the brash, overconfident and sure of himself Braeden and his twin brother Tate – quieter, anti-social, harbouring a pain and anger that he has carried around for nearly twenty years. Natalie isn’t the first Bryant woman to be torn between two Quilter-Phipps men – her aunt Hope twenty years earlier had made a decision which ultimately led to her brutal death and the deep-seated hatred the twins now have for one another.

A passionate conservationist, Tate has a radical answer when it looks as though the Bryant’s will lose their farm to corrupt government minister Emmerson Ngwenyas, who harbours a resentment for the Bryant’s after an incident that occurred many years ago. He’s been dabbling in some trafficking and sees the Bryant farm as a perfect way to line his pockets even further. As The Quilter-Phipps’ boys and the Bryant family seek to save their rhinos, it will end in a bloody gunfire that will effect every family involved.

I returned this book to my local library before I reviewed it, which in hindsight, was a bit of a mistake! There were quite a few characters and because it was set in Zimbabwe and some of them were coloured and some white, I can’t remember how to spell some of the names! African Dawn is quite a long book – 500 odd pages in large paperback form and to be honest, it dragged a bit. It took me almost 11 days to read it but I have to say, that’s not entirely the book’s fault. A newborn coupled with discovering the TV show The Big Bang Theory took me away from this book a lot. I watched 4 seasons and 3 episodes of TBBT in just 10 days so there wasn’t much time for reading really!

Some mild ***SPOILERS*** follow here.

My biggest problem with this novel was that a lot hinged on two love triangles: the first is barely touched on but involves Hope, the daughter of Paul and Pip, who is dating Tate but sleeps with Braeden. She confesses to Tate, who spurns her so instead of staying to fight for Tate (which appears to be what she wants) she books a flight straight back to Braeden, which is then shot down by rebels who then find the wreckage and murder everyone who survived the crash that didn’t go for help. Twenty or so years later, Natalie, Hope’s niece returns to Zimbabwe to write a book and we appear to go through the same scenario: she is drawn immediately to Tate and they almost sleep together (but he runs away, tormented by memories of Hope) and so she sleeps with Braeden.

Firstly, I find the relationships a bit, well distasteful to be honest. Sleeping with twin brothers? Seriously, that’s not really very nice, is it? Can’t really think of a better way to betray a guy than to sleep with his sexier, more confident, womanising twin brother (as Braeden is painted). And then Hope is baffled by Tate’s running off and Braeden is furious that Tate didn’t forgive her and blames Tate for causing her death. Oh I don’t know Braeden, maybe you had a hand in it too for not keeping  your hands off someone you knew was your brother’s girlfriend! And Hope well she didn’t waste much time trying to run back to Braeden either. Somehow I find Tate the least to blame in this scenario. And then we go through nearly the exact same thing with Natalie!

I could almost understand if I found Braeden at all an enjoyable and likable character. But he’s mostly a douche – I don’t go in for that overconfident, very sure of himself and his abilities, arrogant kind of jerk. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to understand both Hope and Natalie’s attraction to him. If I am, then that’s an epic fail, because in a novel that included murderers, rhino horn traffickers, Robert Mugabe etc, he was my least favourite characters.

Basically, I wish this novel were more about the plight of the rhinos. It starts off wonderfully, with a much-younger Paul Bryant herding rhinos away from a lake that’s being dammed including a young rhino who makes reappearances throughout the book, and there are sections later on with Tate tagging rhinos and recording their information and the end of the book, which is about saving the rhino population on Paul and Pip’s farm is awesome. But the rest of the book is bogged down in family drama and relationships and I expected more about the rhinos. I expected most of the book to revolve around them and their plight but for me, it didn’t.

However what did work for me was the portrayal of the turmoil that is the country of Zimbabwe. The book spanned a lot of years during which the country underwent a lot of changes and I really got a feel for that. Tony Park is an Australian who also spends a lot of time in southern Africa and this shows. He knows the places he is writing about and his knowledge, which is political, environmental and cultural is crystal clear. I learned while looking up his previous works that one of his novels, African Sky, is the story of Paul and Pip Bryant’s meeting and I’d very much like to read that. I think that with Braeden Quilter-Phipps removed, I would really enjoy his novels, all of which are set in Africa. I think that Tony Park can tell a story and paint a picture of Africa that is very vivid for someone that has never been and is never likely to. It was just a particular aspect of the plot in this instance, that didn’t work for me.

I’m going to request a couple more from my library and see how I go with them.

6/10

Book #168 of 2011

I’m counting this book as one of my reads for my 2011 Global Reading Challenge. African Dawn is set in Zimbabwe, Africa and is the first book I’ve read from that continent and the 10th book overall!)

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