Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher, narrated by Carrie Fisher and Billie Lourd

I've had this one marked on my wishlist for quite some time, so dropped my Audible credit on The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher, which is narrated by her, as well as her daughter, Billie Lourd. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I'll admit to a long-standing admiration for Fisher, for her role of Princess Leia, but I've known precious little else about her other than maintaining an appreciation her outspokenness in the media. What I got with this was a short dip into the behind-the-scenes activities for the first Star Wars film way back in the day, as well as a warts-and-all glimpse into Fisher's personal life.

I met a young woman, adorably insecure, navigating an industry known for eating people alive. Her involvement with Harrison Ford at the tender age of 19 was, let's be honest, questionable, and yet I don't gain the impression that Fisher feels ill-disposed to him or even that she was taken advantage of. She discusses the affair quite frankly and with great empathy for her younger self.

Fisher reveals herself as an astute somewhat introspective observer of people, and boy she can write. I will admit that it's difficult for me to give a free pass to people who indulge with other people's spouses, but as Fisher states, the event happened so many years ago, she has no qualms now about discussing the distant past. And indeed she does so, in a way that doesn't at any time make you feel as if the tale is sordid.

Stars are revealed as being merely people, whose paths run parallel for a while before they shoot off in different directions. As a time capsule, The Princess Diarist is a somewhat sweetly wistful memoir that encapsulates a period in a young woman's life where she is establishing her identity. I think we can safely say that we've all had that one intense love affair in our younger years that did not last but made a lasting impression. Carrie Fisher was and in many ways still is, a delight, and our princess is sorely missed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (read by Andy Serkis)

I think by now it's pretty pointless to give a blow-by-blow account of JRR Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings (LotR) considering that it has become so firmly entrenched in popular culture. But I do feel I need to share a few of my thoughts and feelings about the Andy Serkis reading of all three books, which total approximately whopping 65 hours of listening pleasure combined.

I've been threatening for years to revisit the trilogy. I first read it around the tender age of 12, one heady summer holiday that had my mom complaining I spent too much time indoors when other kids my age were working on future basal cell carcinoma on Cape Town's beaches. I knew from the moment that I first read these books (I own the hardcover centenary edition, now sadly sans dust cover, with Alan Lee's illustrations) that I wanted to be an author who wrote about elves and dragons, and created worlds I could get lost in. The Peter Jackson films remain among my firm favourites.

So, yeah, LotR inhabits a very special place in my heart. It was my gateway to becoming a SFF author, and it's one of the few epics that has left me in tears at the end. Every time those elves go West. Sam's almost anticlimactic "Well, I'm back" at the end always slays me – that we can embark on these earth-shattering adventures and still return to merely being ourselves. We are forever changed on the inside, even if we present a face to our friends and family that appears the same as always. I can peel back so many layers.

The problem with LotR, is I simply don't have the time to sit down and read the entire thing, but I do have time when I'm doing mindless menial things like washing dishes and driving, to listen to audiobooks. Audible has been a lifesaver, and The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, as narrated by Andy Serkis, are absolute gems.

It's one thing to read Tolkien, and have an appreciation for his exquisite style, but it's quite another to hear a gifted actor such as Serkis breathe life into the story so that it feels as if my earballs are giving me a full-cast production. Of course, as always, Gollum steals the show. 

I feel as if I've reconnected with the work in a different way through having listened to this rendition of one of the greatest works of fantasy literature in my personal library, and if you find the idea of sitting down with a dead-tree version daunting, you can't go wrong with these three chaps. Granted, it took me about three months to work through all of them consecutively, but they served to remind me why I keep returning to Tolkien's writing. His wordplay remains exceptional, and very few authors come close to how he describes the beauty of nature. (I realise I'm one of those individuals who won't tire of endless descriptions of bloody trees, okay?)

Friday, November 10, 2023

God of Broken Things (Age of Tyranny #2) by Cameron Johnston

I am so late to the party on this one it's not even funny. This book has been sitting on my TBR pile for YEARS. God of Broken Things is the sequel to Cameron Johnston's Traitor God, in which we encounter the Tyrant magus Edrin Walker, who although much maligned by his fellow magic wielders, at the end of the day is the only one who possesses the power and the fortitude to scrape their collective posteriors out of the flaming frying pan. The reason why everyone hates a Tyrant is because their magical powers allow them to get inside others' heads, and no one is a fan of mind control, especially when the person with that power isn't a particularly nice individual. Which Edrin isn't. He's entirely self-serving and often snarky, with no regard whatsoever for social hierarchy, and this is magic combination that's never going to win him friends.

But for all his irreverence, he's not a bad sort, and all told is quite fun to hang around precisely because he doesn't give a toss about the things that matter in high society. His understated, often darkly absurd observations of the goings on around him are what made me keep on reading – if Edrin took himself too seriously, these novels wouldn't be half as entertaining. 

In God of Broken Things, we see our hero mucking about in the aftermath of the Big Bad that pretty much wrecked the city of Setharis in book one. Except he and the rest of the Arcanum (the mages who rule the city) face an even bigger bad that makes Edrin and his powers look like a minnow. And he's packed off back to the region where he grew up – to face not only the Even Bigger Bad, but also the things in his past he's been doing his darndest to avoid dealing with. I'm not going to spoil, but all I'll say is he has a really creepy gran. Oh, and did I mention that there was something that was even worse than the Even Bigger Bad? 

Of course he doesn't have to go it all alone – he has a few of his fellow magi from the Arcanum, including my favourite, Eva – a knight who in many ways is the perfect opposite of Edrin – and the interaction between the two is rather special. 

Now, Cameron doesn't do anything by half-measures. This is the second of his novels that I've read, and if epic, world-destroying cataclysms*, with a side order of demons, ravening hordes, and inter-dimensional beings blows your hair back, then you'll be in the right hands. The Age of Tyranny duology packs a whopper of a punch, with piles of action, cinematic battles, a rich, varied cast of characters, and some deeply fascinating world building while Cameron's at it. This is a fire cracker in the fine old tradition of GrimDark fantasy and well worth the read if you're looking for a story that will dance with all your favourite tropes but then pull a few sly ones when you're not looking. 

*If the old ultra-violence isn't quite your thing, then maybe skip this round, okay?

Monday, October 30, 2023

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr

Okay, so The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr was a bit of a side quest for me. This is ordinarily not the type of novel that I'd read, but a copy showed up at my local book swap, and I was intrigued because I'd heard so much about The Alienist. And, while this is clearly book two in a series, I didn't feel too out of my depth, and I'm sufficiently intrigued to go pick up book one should I cross paths with it.

Set in New York during the late 1800s, this story is told from the perspective of the delightfully disreputable Stevie Taggart, a chain-smoking kid saved from a life of crime by Dr Laszlo Kreizler, a psychiatrist known for his (at the time) unconventional methods of understanding how people's minds work. Accompanied by friends such as journalist John Schuyler Moore, private investigator Sara Howard, and police detectives Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, and the enigmatic Cyrus Montrose, Kreizler is off on an adventure to find a missing child. But nothing is as simple as that, when they realise their work is far more dangerous and darker than initially expected.

Look, I really don't want to spoil the plot by giving too much away, so I'm going to focus on what I loved – which was the teamwork and the camaraderie between characters. Everyone brings something special to the table, and we have moments of humour interspersed with the serious business of solving a mystery. What becomes immediately apparent is that Carr knows his stuff in terms the setting, and he really makes New York City come alive for me in vivid Technicolor. So I really did feel authentically immersed in the period. (A huge plus point for anyone who wants a bit of a field trip into the past.)

That being said, I did feel that the novel plodded on a bit too long – part mystery, part court-room drama, but even though it felt like a slog at times, I was so invested in the characters, that I was genuinely sad to let them go when I reached the end. Carr's writing style is engaging, and he treats often problematic subject matter with great sensitivity. And yeah, there's some stuff here that shows the not-so-nice side of a big city that I've never seen so frankly examined.

I did feel as if the plot wrapped in a way that I could almost see coming, but it was still fun, and there were elements that were truly tragic. I really do need to go pick up The Alienist now, but if you like me, haven't read it either, although there will be stuff referenced in The Angel of Darkness that you won't have context for, it won't be a dealbreaker for following what's happening in book two.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Sometimes Nature isn't red in tooth and claw

Some of you who follow me on social media will know that I'm the resident bird lady here in my area. And, while I'm not a licensed rehabber, and there are certain species that I will leave to the professionals (seabirds, raptors, for instance), I've had a fair amount of success with ducks, pigeons, doves cuckoo, flycatchers ... and Cape white-eyes.  Some of my cherished memories involve caring for African penguins during the 2000 Treasure oil spill disaster here in the Western Cape. 

Over the years, I've been slowly transforming my garden into a haven for birds, and at any given moment, you can step outside and see everything from red-eyed doves, speckled pigeons, Cape sparrow, Cape white-eye, hadeda, and Cape bulbul, to even the occasional rufous-breasted and black sparrowhawks to African harrier-hawks (which of course visit because of the free lunch of slow, fat pigeons).

On Sunday, I had one of Those Phone Calls from an unknown number. "Hi, I've found some baby birds..." It's the kind of call that makes me despair. Because those words are usually followed by "I've got cats" or "I've got a dog". And for whatever reason the babies cannot be reunited with the parents or returned to the nest.

Also, with it being spring, many baby birds are fledging. Which means they're going to have a day or  three where they're still figuring out how to fly. The parents are in attendance, but the littlies are also very vulnerable to predation. The best thing you can do is keep your cats and dogs indoors, and leave them alone to get on with things. They don't need rescuing. This is how they learn to fly. Leave them the heck alone.

But sometimes, as with the call on Sunday, there was no other recourse than for me to step in. The tree in which the nest had been had been chopped down, and there was nowhere else in the garden for it to be placed. And the babies' eyes were barely open. I took them on, figuring I'd give them a slight chance of survival as opposed to none at all.

Miracle upon miracle, they survived. And thrived. I'm not going to go into all the details of hand rearing tiny birds, except that they require feeding from dawn to dusk, every half hour. And if you don't bring the food, they let you know. In no uncertain terms. This is not something for the squeamish, because it involves decapitating live mealworms and feeding them in bits. And there's poop. Lots of it. On you. All over.

Midweek, I received another call. This time, from people in Newlands who'd brought me the trio of flycatchers back in 2021 that were a successful rehab and release (they are apparently still in the garden, but happy adults now). Now they had an adult white-eye that had survived a close encounter with a cat and couldn't fly. Could I take it. So I did, figuring that if it survived, it could be a good older sibling for the two littlies, and I could eventually release them together as they are highly social birds.

Little did I know what awaited me this morning. Tweedledum and Tweedledumber as I've called the two, decided it would be a good idea to start flying just before bedtime at 11pm last night. Which meant I had to put them in the big cage with Lucky the adult white-eye (the people who rescued him insisted that was his name). This morning, everyone went out on our balcony in the cage, and not even half an hour later, an entire flock of wild Cape white-eyes rocked up.

It was madness. Countless adults arrived with bugs in their beaks, trying to feed T&T through the bars of the cage. I thought, what the heck, and took them out. And there, off they went, after the adults. Last I saw of them, they were in the thickets surrounding our garden, being fed and fussed over by an entire flock. Lucky went out, too, overjoyed to regain his freedom. 

Never in my life have I ever imagined to see such a spectacle. The best place for wild birds is in the wild, cared for by their own. My heart is singing today. Needless to say, my cats are not amewsed as they are under house arrest for the next three or so days...

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Star by Anthony Azekwoh

One of my favourite pastimes is finding novels that wouldn't necessarily cross my path in my regular haunts, and Star by Anthony Azekwoh is one of those. A while back I put out a call for African speculative fiction, so that I could give a signal boost, and this is one of those stories that landed on my desk.

A little rough around the edges, Star could have used a bit more of a developmental edit followed by some spit and polish with a sharp-eyed copy editor, but rough edges aside, this story still drew me in. We learn of a girl named Star who loses her mother. A dysfunctional relationship with the remaining parent sees her adrift, until she discovers that there is a way to bring her mother back from the dead. And then she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, no matter the cost. Or so she thinks.

Except this is not a path to be trodden lightly, and the consequences of certain actions might be far more devious than a young girl would want to consider. This little novel is a dip into Lagos's magical underbelly, filled with wicked witches and other creatures that may not have the best of intentions when it comes to Star's eventual fate. I get the idea that this short tale is part of a larger piece of world building – the assorted threads are most certainly there. There's definitely room to grow.

If you're in the mood for a little contemporary fantasy quest in an African setting by an African author, then Azekwoh weaves a tale filled with dark magic, mystery, and a whole lot of heart.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

It's starting to get real

Recently, I had a long, hard chat with myself about priorities. I'm one of these unfortunate authors who suffers a severe case of what I affectionately term, "Oh, look! Squirrel!" And this is usually related to me getting Yet Another Fabulous Idea for a Novel. Not like I need any more than I already have (you really don't want to know; even my agent doesn't need to know). 

So I've made priorities. Or, rather, one BIG five-part priority – namely The Splintered Fool series that I've been co-writing with Toby Bennett since that fateful evening in 2019, before the Panini hit the reset button on my writing career, he and I struck on the idea that writing a trilogy (hahahhahahaha) might be a good idea.

While we're not quite GRRM in terms of wordage (A Game of Thrones weighs in at a hefty 292k words, A Clash of Kings at 318k ... you get the picture), the five novels we've written together all number between 130k to 150k words, or thereabouts. It's all a blur. I try not to think about it too hard. There's a lot of work. Also, no self-respecting publisher in this day and age of soaring paper and fuel prices is going to touch this epic sword-and-sandals series with the soggy end of a barge pole. George RR Martin or Robin Hobb we are not (yet). 

So, we've joined the ranks of countless thousands of authors out there who've decided to go the self-publishing route. And, to do that properly, takes time. And money. Because one thing I've been investing in is cover art. Which brings me to the whole point of today's post – to talk a little about the cover for book one, The Serpent's Quest, which you'll no doubt be hearing a fair bit about going forward. 

If you've been following my authorly doings for a while, you'll know that I have collaborated with South African artist Daniël Hugo on numerous projects where he's done my cover art. We've even done a rather racy fantasy comic together, called The Salamander Lord, which has only ever seen a limited print run, and you can only purchase by reaching out to either me or Daniël. (It's THAT racy.)

What I love about working with Daniël is that I'm convinced he has an advanced degree in mind-reading. He's one of the very few people who seems to know exactly what I'm thinking when I brief in a job. And he's absolutely nailed it for The Serpent's Quest. I'm really looking forward to seeing what we'll come up with for the next four books in the series. Very little rivals the excitement of seeing your world come vividly to life. 

Where I'm at now with the series is that Toby has just finished proofing book 1. I will still need to go over it with my red pen, and then start inputting the changes. I was hoping for a Christmas release this year, but a lot can happen between this blog post and the end of the year. So best just follow me on my assorted social media to see what's happening.

I did illustrate a map for the world, as well as a chapter header, and there's still some more art I'll be doing for the interiors, when I have a moment. It's been so much fun drawing on all my skills sets with this project.

What I love about having the cover and interior layouts done is that this sucker is FINALLY STARTING TO FEEL LIKE IT'S REAL. It's going to happen, folks!


Every once in a while, I'll end up hand-rearing orphaned birds. I'm currently sitting with two baby Cape White-eyes who were orphaned when the property owner chopped down the tree where their nest was. There was no sign of the parents, so I agreed to take them on. I am now feeding live meal worms every half hour to the hour, every day. It's a time-consuming, often heart-breaking labour of love. I had success with a trio of dusky flycatchers a few years back, so I'm *praying* that these two little tykes can make it. So far, so good.

If you've come this far, thank you for reading. Do consider dropping by at my Amazon author page and picking up a copy of one of my novels – this will help vindicate my obsessive need to check my KDP every five minutes week.