Monday, July 16, 2018

Highlander: The American Dream

Something that I’ve started to do a bit more often these days is read comic books using my kindle app on my iPad – the experience has been quite painless and thoroughly enjoyable, especially when it comes down to purchasing and downloading collections. My friends will know I’m a huge fan of the Highlander franchise (and pity them, some of them had to put up with my obsession since high school – if one of you’re reading this now, realise that I’m waving at you right now). Lately I’ve been dipping back into the Highlander fandom, and it’s even more enjoyable now since it’s so much easier for me to lay hands on the assorted films, series and books – unlike the early 1990s when the internet wasn’t within the reach of mere mortals.

Highlander: The American Dream is a comic series that came out last year (2017) written by Brian Ruckley with art by Andrea Mutti. Generally I tend to be wary of tie-ins but this offering was solid, as in I immediately went back to page through particular sections and I felt that as a prequel The American Dream filled in some gaps for the Connor MacLeod we’ve come to know and love from the first film. More importantly, this offering stays true to the spirit of the very first film, so it will most likely keep the purists happy.

I’m happy enough to add the events here to my headcanon, and themes that are elaborated on are Connor’s loneliness and the burden placed on him and a few other Immortals to counteract the evil of other Immortals such as the Kurgan and, of course the antagonist in The American Dream – John Hooke, who has rather a lot in common with a rabid dog.

We also see the uneasy partnership between Connor and another Immortal, the monk Osta Vazilek (shades of Darius echoing there, perhaps?) as they hunt Hooke down through the ages – so expect hopping between the periods of the American Civil War, the 1950s and the mid-1980s. We also get to see the plucky Rachel in action – and she most certainly has gumption. I’ve always loved her as a character – she dedicated herself to Connor and clearly was utterly devoted to him, despite the fact that he held himself aloof from everyone around him.

Overall, the narrative was engaging – this is a stock-standard “hunt the evil Immortals” battle that dovetails well with the first film. The colouring was lovely; Vladimir Popov has done an excellent job. I especially loved the illustrations between the issues by Claudia Gironi, which evoked Connor so well. As for the art, I’m not hundred percent sure I liked the way Mutti drew Connor or the other characters – there was a lot of sameness in their facial features, and Connor just looked bland without the intensity of the stare that Lambert gifted him in the film. But this wasn’t a deal-breaker for me because the overall production quality was high, and it’s clear that a great deal of thought was put into the visual composition.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ander Lewens deur André P Brink

Ander Lewens deur André P Brink sit al 'n lang ruk op my boekrak, en ek is bly dat ek nou finaal klaargekry het met hierdie roman. Ons volg die deurmekaargevlegte lewens van drie mans – David, 'n skilder; Steve, 'n argitek; en Derek, 'n pianis. Van die begin af speel Brink met lesers se sintuie, met kleur, die materiaal, asook musiek en kos.

'n Ander tema wat deur die drie stories geweef word is die van vreemdheid, wanneer aspekte van hulle wêreld onbekend word. Elke man definieer vir homself in sy interaksie met sy omgewing, in sy verhoudings met familie en minnaars.

Die drie verhale oorvleuel vir mekaar, en lesers kan sien hoe elke karakter se wêreldbeskouing 'n ander kleur en geur tot die storie oorgee. Partykeer voel ek asof die karakters 'n bietjie te sentimenteel en self-geabsorbeer is, en dinge het dikwels vir my ongemaklik laat voel. Wat 'n goeie ding is, ek dink!

Mense sal seker 'n bietjie ontstoke wees as ek sê hierdie is eintlik maar 'n fantasie-roman (miskien spekulatiewe fiksie) – want daar is elemente van fantasie en tot op 'n mate gruwel. Met alles in ag geneem, het ek Ander Lewens nogal geniet – en dit is deel van my persoonlike uitdaging om meer Afrikaans te lees. En om meer in my moedertaal te skrywe (verskoon tog maar dat my woordeskat so lomp is).

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five has been on my radar for quite a while. From what I can see it’s been hyped to hell and gone, and while I enjoyed it, the novel didn’t exactly blow my socks off. That’s not to say it wasn’t a great little book – it was – but to claim that it’s one of the best 100 ever written, according to the Modern Library, is pushing it a bit, IMHO.

The premise is simple: we follow the non-linear narrative as told by Billy Pilgrim, sandwiched between the author-narrator’s opening and closing chapters – so from that perspective, it makes for an unexpectedly different read if you’re used to going from A to Z.

The circumstances surrounding the bombing of Dresden during World War II is central to the story, not only the author-narrator’s fascination with it, but also the role it plays in Billy’s life. What I liked about Billy’s narrative is that we’re never sure whether his alien abduction and apparent time-travelling has any basis in reality, and I’m quite a fan of this sort of ambiguity. For all we know, the delusions of aliens and time-travelling may well be Billy’s response to the trauma he experienced in Dresden.

On top of this, Vonnegut makes some poignant observations about the human condition, about the ephemeral nature of life and its absurdity, so in a sense, I’d peg this as a bit of existentialist literature. The prose is easy to dip into, matter of fact in recounting the sometimes hard-hitting events. War is not pretty. Human suffering is a reality of this life, whether we die in our hundreds of thousands as per Dresden, or if we die slowly and alone. Sometimes we just need to live in the moment, and enjoy a patch of sunshine when we can. It’s all going to end the same way.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

New Keepers by Jayne Bauling

It’s absolutely wonderful to see more SFF being taken on by South African publishers, and Jayne Bauling’s New Keepers is clearly an engaging first novel in what I suspect will turn into a series. Bauling’s post-apocalyptic dystopia sees the survivors of a global catastrophe living in an age dubbed the Prosperity, where every aspect of their lives is controlled by an authoritarian government that provides for all their needs. Society has been stratified into strict castes, each with its own function – the high cost for protection in a hostile world. Only a lucky few are allowed to have children, and you are constantly in fear of being subjected to ominous sounding processes known as Parking or Rinsing.

Our protagonist Jabz is a Stain – a particular caste that lives out in the Margins, at the edges of the Prosperity and in the ruins of the old world. He has a gift for knowing which plants can heal, and in his smoke-visions he’s called to a mysterious mountain that exists far out in the wilds. But he can’t do this alone – he has to bring together a team to help him finance the quest, which is why he assembles a ragtag bunch to accompany him. It’s a bit of a Starship Enterprise scenario as the merry band of misfits boldly venture forth into the unknown.

Bauling has a strong narrative voice and it was lovely to read a YA novel that didn’t shy away from the realities of human existence. I did to a degree feel as if the novel lagged somewhat in the start, but considering that a degree of world building was necessary to establish the milieu, and that this is clearly a first book in a series, this is unavoidable. In addition, the cast of characters is large, and I did feel at times that they didn’t truly get an opportunity to shine or have sufficiently fleshed out character arcs. And I understand how difficult this is – keeping the story flowing forward but having enough threads to develop later if you have a bigger picture in mind.

Towards the end, I did feel almost as if the pace hurried a bit too much and that important bits were glossed over – especially in terms of the try/fail cycles that characters experienced. I’d personally have liked to see a bit more tension, more lows and highs to offer contrast within the overarching structure, as well as more detail in terms of action sequences.

These things considered, New Keepers is still a great read that I enjoyed and made me care about the characters; I’m a sucker for imagining post-technological southern Africa and the sort of what ifs that come into being from envisioning possible futures. New Keepers blends the magical with a dystopian future, and I’m curious to see where the author will take Jabz and his friends.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Living Shores by George Branch and Margo Branch

Living Shores by George and Margo Branch is a one-of-a-kind book that deserves a spot in any reference library worth its salt. I’ve always been a bit of a conservationist nut, and for me this beautiful hardcover book was an absolute treat.

The authors start from the bottom up, showing how the many complex systems active in our oceans interact – from the tides and the landmasses, all the way up to the winds, currents and plankton, as well as the life that depends on it. It’s not just the sea out there, but an incredibly complex web of life. While there is a lot of technical and scientific explanations in this book, the overall friendly tone of Living Shores makes it accessible even for those of us who are not actual marine biologists!

While this hefty tome took me a bit longer to read than expected (it’s well and truly packed with information), I came away from the experience feeling as if I’d learnt an incredible amount about southern Africa’s oceans and the life on its shores (at least to make me feel better about the fact that I never did end up pursuing a career in conservation). I have a newfound respect for the people whose lives revolve around research; they most certainly are the often unsung heroes for the environment.

Something else that I realised while reading this book was that we, as a species, are inextricably linked to the wellbeing of the ocean. We have a massive impact on the environment, and therefore it is absolutely vital that we, collectively, take steps to look after the ocean. And yes, the effects of plastic and pollution are almost too awful to consider.

Life in the ocean and along its shores is linked in a delicate balance often thrown way out of kilter by our impact on the environment. Yet nature is resilient and forgiving, so long as we learn from our mistakes. That is the one positive message I ended up with. It is possible for us to use and enjoy the ocean’s resources sustainably. (So it’s not all doom and gloom – there have been some remarkable success stories in terms of conservation.)

Living Shores is a remarkable resource, and one that will have a permanent spot in my collection. This book has highlighted how special our southern oceans are and why it is important for us as a species to understand how we can work with nature instead of against it.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor

Rom Hardy is no Indiana Jones, but what he lacks in terms of whip-cracking and wisecracks, he makes up in determination and unexpected bravery. Fury from the Tomb by SA Sidor is best described as Indiana Jones meets The Mummy, and it’s fast-paced, pulpy and fun, taking readers from the sands of Egypt to the desolation of the Arizona desert.

Okay, okay, I was sold on this book when I saw the cover. I mean, look at this glorious beast. How could I even resist?

If you like a novel filled with action, impossibilities (malicious mummies, hopping vampires, serenading ghouls and monstrous worms) as well as a nerdy archaeologist, a hardbitten bounty hunter, occult librarian and a resourceful young orphan, then look no further. Fury from the Tomb was exactly what the doctor ordered, blending elements of westerns with tomb-raiding adventure.

If you’re looking for a novel that indulges in protracted navel gazing, this is probably not going to be for you, although there are moments when Sidor’s narrator – a much-older Hardy who frames the narrative – makes poignant observations about the human condition. So yet, despite the somewhat frantic pacing of the main body of the story, you do step back a bit with a degree of nostalgia. And, perhaps, also, the retelling itself is through the lens of an unreliable narrator; it’s never clear how much of the story is coloured by Hardy’s own perspective – something that I like immensely.

All in all, Fury from the Tomb is a solid read, that gets a great big thumbs up from this not-so-humble reader.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Finally … It only took me a few years to finish reading the final book in Christopher Paolini’s four-book Inheritance Cycle, aptly named Inheritance. Now I have many thoughts and feelings on the series, and they are…complicated.

And perhaps here I must add that it is telling that Paolini hasn’t published anything since 2011, according to his Wiki page, though apparently the books have sold well and he is apparently still writing.

My overall opinion of Paolini’s writing is that it’s adequate. He carries a story, but the prose is workmanlike and doesn’t sing off the pages. The setting itself is stock-standard Tolkien, while the overarching narrative arcs across the four novels follows a rather Star Wars-esque, farmboy-turned-godlike-hero fighting the Evil Big Bad. With a side order of Dragonriders of Pern, of course. To be quite honest, not much in the four books really stands out for me beyond the ever-escalating conflict with the evil king Galbatorix that culminates in the big battle at the end. Granted, I had gaps of years between reading the books, so I’m hard pressed to recall anything that knocked my socks off. Okay, I lie. I love dragons. Any interaction with Saphira was sufficient to make me happy.

I don’t feel a particular connection with Eragon, however – he’s very much an everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances. I mean, who wouldn’t want to feel an awesome bond with a dragon? (There’s a reason why I’ve reread all Anne McCaffrey’s DRoP books at least three times.) The first half of Inheritance plodded along, and judging by how long I took to actually read this book, it’s an indication that I struggled to remain engaged. Though I’m OCD enough to actually finish, despite my lukewarm assessment.

Things eventually picked up during the second half, but to be quite honest, I think I mainly soldiered on because the book was a review copy that landed on my desk a long while back, and I’m laden with an additional burden of guilt that my copy has an author-signed bookplate.

Okay, okay, the cycle isn’t unreadably bad. But in terms of fantasy, the books don’t cover fresh ground, and are essentially a remix of the tropes that initially gained popularity in Tolkien. Not that I have an issue with standard, D&D-style fantasy. Hells, I’m a huge fan. But I need a bit more oomph, a touch of an author’s identity creeping through, breathing life into a setting beyond the elves, dwarves, and dragons.

The Inheritance Cycle could have benefited immensely from having its sprawling narrative pared down and streamlined. Three books instead of four, perhaps. That might’ve gone a long way to sort out the pacing issues. Something else I fear hampers the story is the sin of Too Much Awesome – in other words, characters who are so super-powerful, so soon in the story and with so little apparent effort, that they are akin to gods. It’s incredibly difficult to build tension with decent try-fail cycles if your main characters can almost literally move mountains with a mere thought.

I think if the Inheritance Cycle is your introduction to fantasy as a genre, you’re probably going to lap it up and it’ll act as a gateway to other authors (it can be hoped). So in terms of it being so immensely successful and possibly getting so many folks reading fantasy, it’s not such a bad thing (hey, any successful book that gets folks reading is awesome, in my mind, even the FSoG phenomenon, as much as I love to put the hate on it). But the writing for the Inheritance Cycle could have been stronger, more nuanced in my opinion. Therein lies the rub. Paolini was in his mid-teens when he wrote Eragon, and it was also very much a case of being in the right place at the right time in terms of his parents’ involvement in the publishing industry and the immense support he received from them. He had the kind of head start most authors can only envy, and while this sort of good start is no guarantee of success, Paolini hit that magical sweet spot many can only dream of. Whether he’ll ever be able to follow up on these books, remains to be seen.