Saturday, January 16, 2021

Farewell, to my editor and teacher, Storm Constantine

I cannot even begin to explain how wrenching it is to have to turn over these thoughts. The unreality of the news that I received late on Friday the 15th of January absolutely gutted me. And yes, there were ugly tears. I'm still tearing up right writing this. My editor and literary guiding light Storm Constantine passed away on January 14, at the age of 64 after a long illness.

The first time I encountered her books was among the shelves of the Hout Bay Library. I desperately wanted to read her books, but as fast as they were replaced, they went missing – 'lost', like many special books have a habit of doing. I was cursed to never find book 1 of the Wraeththu mythos in any Cape Town library during all my younger years, hence the fact that I only read my first Wraeththu story when I was in my late-20s and ebooks were finally available. Then I gobbled them down, but I've still left the last few as treats ... because .... I hate running out of a particular author's books. I guess that's it, then. 

My first book of hers I read in my mid-teens, and it was Burying the Shadow. I've since picked up a copy of it that's been lurking on my shelves, and it's time for a reread in Storm's honour. Calenture was another that I absolutely adored. And I still mean to finish her Grigori trilogy. I loved her Magravandias trilogy, which I successfully managed to collect a full (if mismatched set of) over the years. My Wraeththu mythos books are all horribly mismatched as well, and there are many gaps.

Her writing is rich, focused more on the building of a lush, tactile environment, of place, of the senses – one of her more recent novels, The Moonshawl, is a prime example of it. Of beauty and magic. And mystery. So much mystery. She doesn't give all the answers. Characters are left to have realisations about Self. In many cases it's not so much about an A to Z hero's quest where everything is tied up neatly, but rather how the hero them-self has experienced a personal alchemy in the process attaining whatever end it is they seek. Her tales are the sort you return to years later, only to discover that your understanding of the writing has shifted, transformed. 

What I love about her the most is that she did not pander to literary trends, but wrote what she loved, and found her own way to bring out her words and take care of her backlist – hence Immanion Press.

Storm also wrote me my first-ever not-quite-rejection letter, way back in 2008. At the time her fiction list had been full, but she invited me to resubmit later that year if I'd still not found a home for the book, as she'd enjoyed the sample. You can imagine how amazing it was for me to even have her respond.

Sadly, Khepera Rising was picked up by a small press in the US not long after, but that is another story for another time that sent me off on a journey where I learnt many things about myself as an author and editor in the publishing industry. I do think Storm would've done good with that book, however. And maybe in another universe, she did. When the rights eventually reverted to me, I took a leaf out of Storm's book and self-published it rather than waste time with other publishers again.

Somewhere along the line I made friends with authors who had been published in some of Storm's Wraeththu mythos anthologies. Storm had gone and done what few other authors do – open up their world and actively involve themselves in curating fan-written fiction that aligns itself with existing canon. I thought, what the hell, got the submissions guidelines from my friend, and went ahead and emailed Storm. She was absolutely delighted to have me on board, and I've lost track of how many of my Wraeththu mythos stories have appeared in her anthologies. I know that there are two in the one that we were working on when she passed away. It will be a fitting tribute, I believe, if we can see it through to publication. 

As editor, Storm had this amazing ability of winkling out the better parts of my writing and helping me prune away the bits that weren't relevant, though granted I have to say she's like me, an 'enabler' rather than a 'cutter' of words, because invariably the stories only ever grew longer! And that's also all right. We're not telling stories that have to conform to industry conventions. 

I even took the long shot of asking her to blurb one of my novels, which she did: 'Nerine Dorman's bright clear prose is at the forefront of modern fantasy'. What's not to love about that? Thank you, Storm! 

Most of all, I must honour Storm for the work that she did with me on my 'heart' novel The Company of Birds. A lot of my own shadows went into that book. I was dealing with the death of my father, as well as deep-rooted scars of betrayal from an event in my past that I still needed to excise. The writing in itself was a magical act of personal alchemy. To me it's a very important book, and writing it changed me for the better. As if a great shadow was lifted from me. I know this novel is special. I know it is something. But it went onto the agent mill and I subbed it to a few publishers that had open calls, and all I received was a deafening silence. 

In an email to Storm (June 2016) I mentioned the book to her. Said how much of a 'heart' book it was and that it had just been rejected by another publisher. But I thought the book might suit Immanion quite well, and would she like to take a look at it? 

Two days later she mailed me to say that she was already a third of the way through and the book was what she was looking for. I did cartwheels! Of course she said that she thought the book could be worked on (well, of course! – I was totally hoping for and expecting that) and would I be all right with making changes. 

It took us about four long years from that first email, but The Company of Birds eventually did come out, and I have Storm to thank for making me dig deeper and deeper with each draft. My first editor letter was seven pages long! (Though she made me feel better by admitting one of her own editor letters from a publisher in the past had gone up to thirteen pages.) But I digested her advice and pondered, and then went at it. She even made me put in a scene that I'd purposefully had happen off stage as it was a bit too Games of Thronesish for my taste. But now that I look at it, I can see why it is so important to put it in. Throughout the process, Storm was unfailingly patient with me, insightful and an absolute guiding light. Over the years that we have worked together, she has been one of the greatest influences on my writing and my attitude towards this business of storytelling.

I am devastated to lose her. I still had a Wraeththu mythos novel I promised her, and I'm not quite sure now if this story will ever see the light of day. I had hoped to one day visit her when I eventually found my way to the UK. Where we could compare notes about our Egyptian figurine collections and our cats.

And now this – this unbearable sadness.

Thank you, Storm, for your words, your guidance and the way you helped me bring beauty and magic into my writing. I will forever honour you for your kindness to newer authors like me and your passion for story craft. To think that I went from the lonely teenager finding solace in your stories to the writer who got to eventually learn at your feet is a fairytale in and of itself. Travel well, lady. You are star stuff.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Field Guide to Insects of South Africa by Mike Picker, Charles Griffiths and Alan Weaving

If I'd had the Field Guide to Insects of South Africa by Mike Picker, Charles Griffiths and Alan Weaving when I was younger, this may have set me off down yet another rabbit hole in terms of amateur nature conservation. And despite the bewildering array of bugs, beetles, mantids and more that stalk between these pages, Insects is nonetheless presented in such a way that it is a handy guide to quickly identifying most of the creepy-crawlies you may encounter both at home and on your travels. Which is incredibly useful to someone like me who knows next to nothing about them.

For quick reference, simple line drawings on the inside front- and back-covers help you decide whether you're looking at a mayfly or a cricket, after which you can page to the relevant section where clear photos and descriptions, along with range maps help narrow things down further. An introduction gives the basics for those who are new to delving deeper into the subject, not only brushing on the importance of insects and their defining characteristics, but looking at their life history and distribution patterns. A nice touch is also a glance at observing and collecting insects, including methods for capture, but also tips for preserving and presenting them and even photographing them. So this is very much the sort of book I'd gift to budding entomologists.

Due to the vastness of the subject matter, it's simply impossible to for the authors to go into exhaustive detail about every single species out there while still having a book that can be packed in for a trip, but they do touch many species and mention, when applicable, that there are other, similar types creeping about if they don't have their own, discrete entry. This book is absolute gold, and has a permanent spot in my collection. If you love nature or gardening, Field Guide to Insects of South Africa is a must.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Embers of War (Embers of War #1) by Gareth L Powell

It's been a while since I've encountered space opera that has been so effortless to slide into, and Embers of War by Gareth L Powell has all the hallmarks of my favourite stories. Honestly, Powell had me at the 'sentient space ships' part.

Central to the plot is the sentient ship Trouble Dog, who is employed by the search and rescue organisation The House of Reclamation. She and her dysfunctional crew, who are still smarting from the war in which they all served, are sent on a rescue mission when a liner is shot down on a planet-sized alien artefact. Yet what starts out as a seemingly simple rescue mission turns into a fight for survival that sees Trouble Dog hopelessly outgunned and in dire circumstances. Not only that, but they need to discover who is willing to kill to protect a greater mystery.

Powell's tale-weaving is eminently more-ish, and while his world building doesn't make my head implode with strangeness, his writing is absolutely what I needed to read at the time – an adventure, personality clashes among characters, and some wonderful, clever little twists at times when I feared the worst. I'm totally on board for book 2, which is already burning a hole in my Kindle app.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

AfroSFv3 edited by Ivor W Hartmann

The AfroSFv3 anthology of short speculative fiction by a stellar array of African authors edited by the deft hand of Ivor W Hartmann has been burning a hole in my iPad awhile now, but I am pleased that I set aside the time to work through them. Many of the names are not new to me, and especially where stories have interlinked with previous works by the author, it's given me a deeper glimpse into their setting. As always with any anthology of short fiction, there will be some tales that work for me and some that don't. This is no reflection on the author but rather the reader, so bear that in mind. As always, I will recommend African speculative fiction for those who wish to step away from the usual West-centric fare out there. 

Njuzu by TL Huchu takes a recognisably African culture off-planet, to a time where humanity has colonised hostile environments, and where customs have evolved. Yet what is universal is a mother's grief for her missing child, no matter how alien the landscape. Evocatively written, this story explores the subtle emotions and the bonds between people within a community, while at the same time dipping into how a mother comes to terms with her loss.

I'm no stranger to Cristy Zinn's writing, having edited her fiction on numerous occasions. The Girl Who Stared at Mars remains with the theme of bereavement, but blends it also with memory and the letting go of one's past. The African Space Agency is sending people to Mars, but this comes with a heavy psychological burden that the narrator explores – isolation being one of them. Zinn's writing is full of emotion, and is carefully nuanced, and asks some hard questions.

The EMO Hunter by Mandisi Nkomo explores a setting where religious zealotry is the order of the day. But what happens when a husband and wife are drawn down vastly different paths. People lie, and the outcome of Joshua and Miku's actions will be catastrophic – especially as Joshua spirals further into madness. Nkomo paints a disquieting world that drew me in.

Biram Mboob's The Luminal Frontier kicks off with a bang, as we join a crew smuggling contraband. Only if they jettison their cargo, they may be guilty of a greater crime. Yet the story takes us into a world where people live a virtual life as lively and 'real' as the one in meat space. The tension ramps up, and somehow the two realities blend. Mboob's ramping of tension is breathtaking.

The Far Side by Gabriella Muwanga is a story that had me on the edge of my seat as well. Mason needs to bring his daughter to the Lunar colony, but her physical defects disqualify her. He cannot leave her behind, and will go to extremes to bring her with him – leaving her behind on Earth will certainly mean her death. Of course, things don't quite go as planned...

Wole Talabi certainly knows how to start a story with a bang, when his opening line reads: In space, no one can hear your ship explode. Which kinda makes you want to see what happens next. In Drift-Flux he drags readers along on a nail-biting caper to unravel not only a mystery but embark on a race against time. As always, Talabi hits just the right notes.

Journal of a DNA Pirate by Stephen Embleton takes us into the fevered ramblings of a madman with an agenda to unleash a deadly virus. Which is perhaps a story that isn't exactly comforting in present times.

The Interplanetary Water Company by Masimba Musodza is a bit too heavy on the exposition side for my tastes, which saw me skim-reading more than getting into the story, which was about a research team with an agenda sent to planet their people all but destroyed.

Dilman Dila's delightful Safari Nyota: A Prologue, recasts the Trolley Problem, but in deep space and with AI having to make difficult decisions. Some surprising twists and turns here, but I won't spoil.

Parental Control by Mazi Nwonwu is another gem in this anthology, asking questions about family, virtual reality and patchwork family relationships. To an extent, it is a coming-of-age tale, but also dips into the concept of synthetic life.

Inhabitable by Andrew Dakalira is an alien contact story that sees humans at a disadvantage dealing with a more superior race. They have been given an ultimatum to pass on information bout advanced weapons which will irrevocably shape the outcome of a war. 

I've read another of Mame Bougouma Diene's stories that drop us into the world where ChinaCorp has caused irreparable damage to earth. Ogotemmeli's Song takes this conflict to earlier times where we see how the ominous red matter devastates life by Jupiter. Yet we do get a glimpse into a greater mystery too. At times I felt the abundance of names and characters was a bit overwhelming – that this story could have been expanded into novel-length, but it was overall an innovative telling that left me scratchy behind the eyes.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Dreamlander by KM Weiland

I admit to having a fondness for portal fantasies, and Dreamlander by KM Weiland offers plenty to scratch that itch with a side order of a strong 'Chosen One' theme. Chris Redston's world is turned upside down when he discovers that the dreams he's been having of a raven-haired woman angrily cussing him out are real. In fact, he's rather alarmed when he realises that in this alternate reality he's what's known as a 'Gifted' – an individual fated to be a game-changer who can travel between the two worlds. But exactly how he goes about bringing about earth-shattering change is quite another.

Weiland creates a detailed, compelling tale filled with magic juxtaposed with our more mundane reality. Chris finds himself flung into the midst of a war – a situation he is most assuredly not suited to – and has to engage in some creative problem solving in order to win the day. 

While some of the mechanics of Chris being able to travel between worlds every time he falls asleep felt a bit contrived for me, I nonetheless enjoyed the flow of the story and the world building. And I'm a sucker for fantasy novels that are not stuck in the default Medieval or Renaissance settings that are the stock of the genre.

Though in places I felt the writing went a smidge too fast, and could have used a bit more digging to engage with characters' motivations, this was overall a pleasing read that kept the pages turning. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Egyptian Mythology by Simon Lopez, narrated by Neil Hamilton

I've been going through a massive Egyptology kick of late, so was quite happy to give Simon Lopez's Egyptian Mythology a whirl thanks to my Audible subscription. Let me add that it takes a fair amount to wow me when it comes to content about ancient Egypt. I'm an old hand at most of the basics, and could probably run rings around first-year university students in terms of what I've retained over the years. So most of the ground Lopez covers in Egyptian Mythology isn't new to me at all, but it served as a useful refresher.

We dip into the various creation myths but also get a good cross section of the stock of tales about the gods and also stories that were popular within ancient Egyptian culture. Not only does Lopez have an accessible, friendly style to his writing, but narrator Neil Hamilton has a lovely voice too, and listening to him was no hardship at all. 

Though I am difficult to please, I was still pleasantly surprised to hear a few stories that I hadn't before, and even Lopez's retelling of ones that I was familiar with – such as the ages-old rivalry between Set and Horus – was done in such a way that greater nuance was added.

If you're new to the ancient Egyptian cosmology, and wish for an introduction to the myths and story-telling culture, then I recommend Egyptian Mythology. I see there are print versions available too, and if I do spot a copy out in the wilds, I'll certainly add it to my growing collection.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Stuarts' Field Guide to the Tracks & Signs of Southern, Central & East African Wildlife

First things first, Stuarts' Field Guide to the Tracks & Signs of Southern, Central & East African Wildlife by Chris and Mathilde Stuart is an enormous book despite the disarming 'field guide' size. Also, if you're an amateur game ranger like me, this book is no doubt going to find its way into your luggage the next time you go on a trip to the country. 

While the topic the Stuarts cover in this tome is extremely broad, they do an excellent job of going over the various signs you might encounter if you're out in the veld. Initially when I'd picked up this book I thought that it would just cover tracks, but I was oh so wrong. I forgot at the time all about the fact that one often will encounter not just tracks but also ... yes...  poop. And nests, shelters, the remains of prey and other signs of feeding. Or the fact that an elephant or buck might rub against a tree regularly to scratch an itch, or hell, if you're an elephant, just uproot the whole darned tree. 

(So now I know that it's porcupines that have been galumphing around on my favourite walk. I saw their poop.)

What I like about this book as well is that it's not just a laundry list of spoor and signs, but rather that it is structured to help you narrow down your options. Is the spoor showing paws or hooves? Are the hooves cloven or non-cloven? You get the idea. Of course it also helps if you have a general knowledge of what sorts of animals are already present in your environment – so I do think this book will be valuable for those who already possess more than just a passing interest in and knowledge of wildlife. 

Due to size constraints and the sheer abundance of data that's gone into this book, don't expect detailed information about the critters – that you'll have to look for in other sources. Tracks & Signs focuses primarily on exactly what it says it does, in as much detail as space allows.