Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer #review

Title: The Art of Asking
Author: Amanda Palmer
Publisher: Piatkus, 2014

Amanda Palmer’s special brand of art-making has been threaded into my cultural landscape for years now. While I’ve never been a raging fan of her music, both solo and in her band The Dresden Dolls, I’ve nonetheless appreciated her attitude, and there’s something to be said for her music; it’s memorable and snarky, and you won’t forget it quickly (or look at the map of Tasmania in quite the same way again).

This formidable artist is the antithesis of the ephemeral, cosmetically enhanced pop divas whose sameness relegate them, ultimately, to a homogenous anonymity.

Amanda Palmer, singer, songwriter and self-described activist, and wife to author Neil Gaiman, is not afraid to express exactly what’s on her mind. If some find her loud and off-putting, it’s too bad, so far as she’s concerned. She has no qualms about over-sharing which, in its own way, is refreshing. She connects with people in a way many celebrity musicians don’t.

Perhaps this very fact is why The Art of Asking is so engaging – Amanda breaks down many of our traditionally held norms and calls into question our natural reticence that prevents us from reaching out to others. This is especially pertinent in situations where we do need to ask for help, but don’t.

Amanda isn’t shy. That is one of the first things we learn about her. Yet that outward mask of bravado also hides a fragile, somewhat brittle interior, and Amanda is frank when she speaks of concepts such as “The Fraud Police” that crop up during moments of crippling self-doubt.

While some have criticised her methods, stating that she’s attention-seeking, that she’s constantly asking for favours and exploiting other artists – and this is despite her recent Kickstarter success – I have to give her this much: she’s honest about her wart-and-all methods. She’s not afraid to admit when she’s made an error in judgement.

What’s also immediately clear is that Amanda refuses to be pinned down by traditional methods of making and transmitting art, and she’s willing to experiment. She discusses also how the music industry is limited by traditional methods, and how musicians (and other artists) can break out and empower themselves. By asking.

Granted, Amanda’s results have been unpredictable (both good and not so good) but there’s no denying that she’s a maverick in the industry (which is bound to result in some folks getting their knickers in a twist).

What we have in The Art of Asking is a unapologetic, in-your-face and highly personal account of how one artist refused to be defined by traditions, and how, despite moments of self-doubt, she carved out a niche for herself. This serves as an inspiration to any of us who ever dreamed of following our passions instead of settling for what is safe and predictable. If you’re looking for a book that will inspire you to break out and connect with others, and find ways to turn your limitations into advantages, then The Art of Asking may resonate strongly with you.

Amanda’s intense bond with her fans highlights just how vital this connection is, and many of us would do well to realise that this sort of relationship works both ways.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Setting Fires #opinion

I shouldn’t do it when I’m feeling fragile, but I do it anyway: I go look at my Amazon ratings and trawl Goodreads to see whether my books have picked up any new reviews. Invariably, I’m disappointed. Invariably, I feel even more like shit. To make matters worse, I then go read my older three-stars-and-less reviews. Admittedly, I don’t have many of those, but it’s not like I’m drowning in new, glowing four- and five-star reviews either.

And I doubt myself. Terribly. And I doubt my ability to form and shape words. And I hate the fact that I’m once again failing in gaining what I believe to be validation for my efforts.

I shouldn’t have to care what other people think of my art, but I do.

I think Amanda Palmer sums it up best when she says it’s about wanting people to see you, and not just look at you. You want them to *notice* you.

Because, face it, as a creative, be it a musician, author or artist, there’s no denying that you *need* to share your vision to help it grow. Simply having the intent and the means to create works of art isn’t enough. Your audience completes the picture. Without that cosy, warm assurance that you’re not completely barking mad for laying your soul bare, you’re essentially shouting into a hurricane. There is no moment where the winds abate and others can hear your song.

(I could also phrase this a little more indelicately by stating that an artist without an audience is basically just wanking.)

Why do we create? I’ve heard some folks say it’s because they want to leave something of themselves behind for future generations – a stab at immortality, if you will. The ancient Egyptian pharaohs had the right of it, in that case.

That’s all fine and dandy, but that doesn’t fill that void I, as an artist, feel *now* – that what I create *now*. I don’t want to be like Vincent van Gogh, who only became famous after he died. His success meant nothing to him once he was dead.
isn’t appreciated

Also, consider this, that an artists needs to be present to curate their own works. They don’t create in a vacuum, but are also shaped by society and events around them. A legacy is not so much that which is produced but it is also the process and the interactions within a society.

Remove the artist from society, and you sit with a stagnant body of work that is only good so long as there are dedicated fans to keep the spirit alive and somewhat functional. Yet there will be no new growth – only deviations presented by others who view the works through their lens, which may not quite match what the artist initially intended.

I want to be here, *now*, and involved in my art. I want to enjoy my art *now*. Even if I write fanfiction for an established fandom without any financial gain – simply having readers respond with enthusiasm feeds my spirit. Rather that than a deafening silence.

When random readers message me to tell me that they’ve devoured my book in one sitting or others as, “So, when is the next one coming out?” I dance on sunbeams. (Yeah, prerequisite fluffy imagery there.)

I am inspired. I will create more because that which I have created has not vanished into a dark hole. To be quite honest, I don’t care what happens to my writing once I’m dead because, well, I’ll be dead, and nothing will matter to me. What’s the point of not being around to witness whether one’s legacy endures?

So, if you’ve read this far, and whether you are an artist or a consumer of art, you may wonder what you can do during present times when nothing is certain.

Here’s the deal, and Neil Gaiman nailed it when he simply said, “Make good art.” If you’ve yet to listen to the keynote address where this immortal line comes from, go do so now. I promise it will make it better. I feel like tattooing those words on my left hand.

Now, whether you are painting pictures of cats on sidewalks in chalk or composing a string quartet, carry on making art. Even if you play your song to an audience of three (and one of those present is your mom) carry on playing. Carry on writing your flash fiction. Embroider a tapestry of a jabberwocky hunt. Whatever it is that makes you happy, *do it*.

Then, if you have heard someone sing, or you have read a book that gave you all the feels, take a moment out of your day to thank the artist. Put a coin in a hat. Tweet @ them on Twitter. Leave a review over at Goodreads. Hell, write them fanmail. Share with them what it was about their art that touched you.

Do it now.

Do it every time their magic sets fire to your spirit, and you will spread that magic and make this world a little brighter, a little less cruel.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

When the ONE Laughs by Tim Chante #review

Title: When the ONE Laughs
Author: Tim Chante, 2013

Okay, this is going to be a difficult review for me, because I really wanted to like this novel. I certainly cannot fault the writing, which is of a high quality, but from the storytelling perspective it fell a bit flat for me, mainly due to the amount of exposition in which the author engaged – to the point where I often felt as if I was being made to read a new age, self-help manual.

That being said, I could see the potential of this story becoming a little like Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, if there had been more of a swing in the direction of satire, but I gained the impression that that wasn’t quite what the author was aiming at with When the ONE Laughs.

While the premise and the setting could have been developed, I felt that the quest-style narrative didn’t quite get off the ground. Main character Priya is involved in a vehicle accident that magically transports her to another earthlike realm where the laughs of physics obey more, *ahem*, esoteric principles. Guardian angels and spirit guides abound, and they take an active interest in the lives of their charges while demons try to bring about a renaissance for the ominously entitled Darkness.

Priya embarks on a quest to help her soul mate, Tohmas, and prevent the aforementioned nefarious Darkness from succeeding in completing its evil plot to expand its operations. Somewhere along the way, she also comes to terms with her place in life, the Universe, and Everything, aided by the mysterious ONE.

This in itself provides a decent backbone for a novel, and the setting itself, with its odd technology (involving hoverbikes and chatty gadgets named speculators, among other things) were decidedly quirky and amusing, but all the while, with the continuous deus ex machina, the pacing never quite gains enough momentum, nor do I feel that any of the characters ever really were in any true peril, which would certainly have helped tension.

Though there are “evil” entities, they seem more cartoon like and not at all threatening. And, maybe that was the point, but I feel that many plot elements were present but not developed. The feline sidekick is one such that in my mind, could have served some sort of pivotal role but didn’t.

Okay, my own misgivings aside, if past lives and alternative spirituality are your things, you’ll probably gobble this feel-good story right up and take something away from it, but unfortunately I was not that reader.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A little gossip from ancient Greece

This week I've decided to share part of my Greek Mythology in Context assignment from university. We were tasked with writing a gossip column about one of the Greek gods' sexploits, and I went for the obvious culprit. Enjoy!

John William Waterhouse Danaë
Well, my dearly beloveds, auntie has had another dizzy week keeping up with the sexploits of our simply divine Olympians. Word has it that Zeus has been up to his old tricks again, but then again, nothing’s new if Hera’s latest public outburst has anything to do with it.

We all know how it went with that Phoenician wench Europa. There she was, minding her own business picking flowers by the seaside (and who could ask for a more enchanting pursuit for a young maiden?) when Zeus found her a particularly tasty morsel. To be honest, we do need to question her taste in men if she found a bull to be so charming.

Then, who could forget Leda? The fact that she was clearly already taken meant little to Zeus, and it is alleged by a source close to her that she wasn’t aware that it was Zeus, at the time.

“He came to her as a swan,” the source claims. “And she does rather have a fondness for birds. She thought nothing of the incident until she started hunting for nesting material not long after.”

King Tyndareous was less than charmed with her hatching those eggs, our same source reports.
When Zeus visited Alkmene, his penchant for disguises really pushed the limits.

“She swears it was her husband,” erstwhile handmaiden Agathos claims. “Though his royal highness was off on a campaign at the time. We all knew something was up, but no one dared to say anything.”

An oracle’s prophecy led to further trouble when it was widely reported that Danae, daughter of King Arkisios, would give birth to a child who would later kill the king of Argos. He thought to solve the problem by having his daughter locked up. This proved no obstacle to Zeus’ amorous intentions.

Danae recounts: “He was so persistent. My father’s attempts to protect his own hide meant nothing to my lover, who came to me as in a shower of gold. Zeus was so gentle, so loving, and I would do it all again. To Tartarus with the prophecies. And my father!”

We all know what happened to poor Io, driven half crazy by a vengeful Hera. Then again, it can’t be much fun being turned into a cow and chased all the way to Egypt by a persistent fly. Just ask Herakles; you really don’t want to mess with Hera.

Speaking of Hera (Looking back, who truly blames her for having had it with Zeus’ philandering ways?) what she did to Kallisto was just plain nasty, turning Artemis against her own handmaiden just because Zeus turned a lecherous eye on the girl. And if you think getting turned into a bear is a raw deal, having your own goddess use you for target practice really takes the cake.

Which brings us to this week’s bit of juicy gossip. And, surprise surprise, it’s not some lass who’s been plucked but a lad. Seems that Ganymede’s pretty face has caught Zeus’ fancy, and he has taken up employment as a barista over at Zeus’ palace. We all know that Ganymede’s going to do a bit more than pouring ambrosia.

His father, Tros, comments: “We are devastated. He was taken so suddenly, but we are assured that he is in a better place and that his beauty will be preserved for evermore.”

Hera was unavailable for comment.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Paradise by Greg Lazarus

Title: Paradise
Author: Greg Lazarus
Publisher: Kwela Books, 2014

Expect the unexpected – that is the only advice I can offer readers who pick up a Greg Lazarus offering. For those who don’t know, Greg Lazarus is the pen name for Cape town-based writing duo Greg Fried and Lisa Lazarus.

Paradise, to put it mildly, is one helluva quirky story – there’s no other way to describe it – and though the plot itself is loosely structured, there is more focus on the characters, all of whom have a more than healthy dose of oddness in their makeup.

Maja is a thief, and has been since a young age, when she and her father collaborated as art thieves. She is now in Cape Town, tasked with stealing a sculpture from an eccentric, philosophising Avram Tversky. Only the theft won’t be easy, because Maja has to work around the socially awkward building manager Hershel Bloch, who has only recently discovered that he has an adult daughter – Surita Adam. And Surita has her own issues, keeping people at arm’s length while being just that little bit hard on herself with regard to her aspirations in competitive judo.

At a glance, it seems impossible that this disparate collection of characters might somehow hang together to participate in a coherent story, but that is the beauty of Paradise.

Though each character has his or her path to walk – and each must face up to some aspect of their selves and others before we reach the conclusion – each has their moment that brings them to a crystallisation of the issues that have been ignored up until that point. Each key character is trapped in a maze of their on devising: Maja must learn to let go of her brother Carel, whom she has carried for a long time; Hershel needs to face up to the fact that he is a terrible building manager, and perhaps it is time that he devotes himself to his passion – if he can find it; Surita needs to take that leap of faith to admit that her present path is untenable, and let down her guard, both emotionally and physically; and Avram exists on the periphery, as part father figure who, at the end of his life, is able to offer his own brand of acerbic advice.

Capetonians will be on familiar turf, as the authors capture the essence of our Mother City’s inhabitants’ vibe, with lashings of absurdity, such as the animal activist antics that occur near the end, or in the oddly apt historical letters peppered throughout the narrative. Paradise is tactile and textured, and though not all the characters are equally likeable, there are many layers to peel back at your leisure. The ending might not bring full closure, but you’ll get to know some souls for whom you’ll cheer as they take those first steps into unknown territory.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Words of Power #opinion

Who among us hasn’t dreamt of what we could do were we in charge of things? A cursory glance at my Twitter and Facebook feeds is a clear indication of a whole number of blood-boiling things that are wrong with the world, from the destruction of priceless artefacts in the Middle East thanks to a bunch of religious fundamentalist cockwombles to the small, everyday issues women face (like a friend of mine who recently took a bunch of wolf-whistling yobbos to task for being, well, yobbos).

Be it issues such as women’s reproductive rights in the United States or the rights of Muslim women to wear their headgear in Europe, or philandering presidents who “unknowingly” misappropriate government funding, there’s a wealth of douchebaggery happening every day that makes me want to maim.

But if I think how it is that I came to my admittedly rather liberal worldview, and my natural inclination to question (and doubt) everything, I lay the blame for that firmly with the books that helped shape me during my formative years. For instance, the first time I encountered LGBTI characters was when I read Mercedes Lackey, Poppy Z Brite and Anne McCaffrey, in settings where sexual orientation simply did not matter, and no matter who you loved, this was perfectly fine.

The moment someone starts using the term “gay” as an insult, I take them to task without blinking. This is despite having grown up in a highly conservative culture where anyone who was “different” was considered wrong, if not the Devil.

Fantasy, SF or horror fiction to varying degrees, create an environment where I could suspend disbelief and let anything happen. Though the worlds were vastly removed from my reality (and I willingly fled into Middle-Earth or Pern, let me assure you); there was sufficient resonance to ground me and empathise with the challenges heroes faced, that were sometimes so close to the issues in our own world.

Speculative fiction opened my mind to the fact that other other cultures, in their own right, are perfectly valid according to their socio-cultural norms. Reading about heroes who go on quests to fight a demon or save a kingdom, I have a well-developed sense of ethics having learnt, by proxy, that all actions have consequences. There have been times when I saw what the protagonist didn’t. Lessons my heroes learnt are lessons that I, by default, learnt too.

Which brings me to the role of the author, as an agent of change in the world. We are often accused of being introverts, who spend more time in our fantasy worlds than real life. And, while it’s good for us to step away from the computer or the book from time to time, we must never underestimate the power our words may have on others.

There are times, in real life, when I’d love to engage with militants who think it’s okay to kidnap young girls and lock them into a life of slavery. There are moments, when I wish I could engage with political leaders who think it’s okay to have a journalist flogged because he dared to question the status quo. Or men who think it's acceptable to beat a woman author because she expressed admiration for Salman Rushdie, FFS.

But, face it, who am I in the bigger schemes of things? Yeah, just a 30-something South African media hack who uses public transport and spends far too much time getting my knickers in a twist about the atrocity of the week. I don’t have the physical power to hop on a plane and talk sense into the idiots. And, even if I could, chances are high that I wouldn’t be able to change their minds (and those of many others) anyway.

However, I can channel all my thoughts and feelings into writing a story. There is a reason religious fundamentalists burn books and persecute writers. The pen is mightier than the sword because words can reach deeper than bullets or blades, and change hearts and minds. Regimes can be overthrown when the people stand up and say, “Hey, this is bull, and we don’t agree with it.”

If my stories can reach even a dozen people and make them think about issues, such as women’s rights, racism or cruelty to animals, then I will have succeeded as an author, to change the world in small, meaningful ways. My words can stir an avalanche. I can spark the empathy that begins to cast those tiny ripples that will eventually become a tsunami.

So, basically what I’m trying to say is your stories of magic, wonder or horror, create a safe place where readers can engage with your ideas without feeling like you are directly attacking their thoughts and beliefs. By creating empathy between your readers and the subject matter, you can add your voice to thousands of others that call for change.

I’ll leave you with this challenge. As a human being, what issues truly gnaw at your sense of injustice? Can you infuse your next story with this same passion? Can you imagine a world that overcomes its greatest issues? Who are the heroes?

Now, go out and write stories that will change the world.

* * * *

If you liked this piece, and you feel like paying it forward and contributing to the starving artist who made these words, do consider picking up my short story collection over at Smashwords. Let me know when you've read it, and I may be able to sneak you another little bit of something special extra.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Wraiths of Will and Pleasure (Wraeththu Histories #1)

Title: The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure (The Wraeththu Histories #1)
Author: Storm Constantine
Publisher: Immanion Press, 2012

I am possibly the worst Storm Constantine fan ever, because I have to admit that I’m yet to read all her books (at time of writing).This is mostly due to the fact that it’s only during the past few years (thanks to the advent of digital publishing) that it has become easy to lay hands on her work all the way out here in South Africa. But I admit my consumption of the Wraeththu Mythos books has been gradual; not only do I not want to rush to get to the end, but I also wish to revisit some of the other authors who had such a massive impact on me during my formative years.

Anyhoo, The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure is the first of the second trilogy, and it is exactly as the name suggests – a somewhat historical account of all the events that occurred behind the scenes in the first trilogy. Also, the biggest difference is that Storm abandons her expected first-person account in exchange for a third-person viewpoint that occasionally flirts with third-person omniscient. Under normal circumstances omniscient storytelling annoys the everloving crap out of me, but Storm is happily one of the few authors I’ve encountered who understands how to employ this narrative style well.

If you’re yet to encounter any of Storm’s Wraeththu stories, do yourself a favour and read in chronological order. The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure is jam-packed to the gills with spoilers.

However, if you wondered about certain key secondary characters, like Seel, Ulaume, Flick, and a number of others who make brief but enigmatic appearances in the first trilogy, you’ll have so much backstory that explains just about everything. Granted, the storytelling is condensed, and Storm does engage in a fair amount of narrative summary, and so long as you keep in mind that this book is intended to fill in the gaps behind the scenes that took place around about the time of Pell and Cal’s catastrophic separation, Orien’s fate and Cal’s eventual arrival in Roselane, you’ll be good.

For me, this book is a veritable goldmine, since I write for the expanded Wraeththu Mythos – so these chunks of history are vital knowledge for me, even if this is more a collection of key individual experiences fleshing out what is in actuality an extended travelogue. And, if you wanted to know more about the Kamagrian, you’re in the right place.

But hush now… I’ve said enough already...