Friday, November 15, 2019

Cat among the Pigeons by David Muirhead

Cat among the Pigeons by David Muirhead is the quirky, fun kind of book that I'd happily gift to my dad to read. Muirhead's collection of short, humorous musings about assorted species such as killer whale, caracal, elephant, gorilla, gemsbok, and rain frog, among many, offers readers a dip into a veritable bestiary of African beasties.

While this book isn't going to have the kind of meat to its bones that will satisfy a serious armchair conservationist, it's still the kind of read that combines facts with myth, and serves up a dish that is both entertaining and informative.

Muirhead's writing is light, fun and easy to get into – and as he suggests, it's the kind of reading you can do before you go to bed, or even if you don't have a huge amount of time and are looking for a short piece to while away a minute or three. Also, illustrator Patricia de Villiers's art provided a quirky counterpoint to the text.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Wise about Waste: 150+ Ways to Help the Planet by Helen Moffett

Hot on the heels of 101 Water Wise Ways, Helen Moffett wrote its companion, Wise about Waste: 150+ Ways to Help the Planet. Both these slim volumes are, in my opinion, two of the most important books you can add to your reading pile. Who among us hasn't looked at the state of the environment – from the large-scale destruction of our rainforests all the way down to our fragile river systems choking on garbage? And who among us hasn't felt a degree of helplessness – the problems we as a species face in terms of global warming, mass extinctions and pollution seem far too big for any one person to fix.

And as Helen states in this book, it's true. One person cannot change the world. But the message she imparts is clear: one person can reach out to another, and build a community to bring about change where they have control. You don't need to give into suicidal despair. Going green in your life is about creating hope, about creating, as Helen puts it, a life raft when the ship is sinking.

Topics covered in Wise about Waste include taking a long, hard look at how we as individuals consume – more often than not, those of us who have a fair bit of disposable income buy more than we use, and waste a lot. Often our food, and other items we purchase, are packaged unnecessarily in so much plastic. Do we really need to buy new clothing, that new car, upgrade the cellphone? What can we do about the electronics or furnishings we no longer need? Are we recycling? Reusing? How can we as families work together?

Ultimately this is not a book about going out to change the world overnight. Not all of us are a Greta. Helen acknowledges that creating those vital, broad-sweeping changes is difficult. But she does offer us hope, and oodles of practical advice to start creating those changes within our own homes and communities. And who knows, perhaps these changes can ripple outwards. If we look at those changes from a grassroots, individual and community-based level upwards, then it's a start. And maybe a start, with aim to long-term personal accountability is what we need to aim for.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes

Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes is one of those books that languished for far too long on my TBR pile, and I'm so glad I've taken the time to rectify this unfortunate state of affairs. This story is told entirely from the point of view of Con, recently returned from working as a security guard in UK museums and trying to find employment.

The novel fluidly leaps between past to present as we learn of Con's troubled friendship with Mark, and the dysfunctional relationship Con shares with his late mother. His situation with his girlfriend Elyse is on shaky ground too, and their unequal relationship becomes more of an issue as the story unfolds. Con himself is remote, passive – he tends to immersion in his outsider status, incapable of ever truly connecting with the people around him, despite his desire to do so. His absent father haunts the periphery of his life, while Con himself gives the appearance of envying his friend Mark, who has it all when it comes to family and wealth. I'd hazard to say that Con's fascination with Mark may even have deeper roots – that he isn't willing to admit even to himself. Mark is everything that Con isn't, to the point where he feels that association with that which he desires most may create a form of sympathetic magic to enrich his own life.

Green Lion is richly textured, flavoured with evocative alchemical imagery, and it's also a story that is hard to pin down – providing one hallucinatory, dreamlike scene after the other in a Cape Town that exists as a might-have-been. It is also a tale as unreliable as its narrator, who throughout the chapters is stalked by the idea of the predator rather than a flesh-and-blood lion that we can see and trap. And in the end it's the lion that exists as placeholder, a menacing, inescapable fate that awaits Con that he projects his fears and desires onto Sekhmet, the lion in the zoo where he works.

This is also a story about identity – seen in how Con to a degree is a parasite who attempts to assume aspects of self that don't belong to him in an effort to establish an authentic identity. In the end, he is mired in the very illusions he seeks, settling for the facsimile than the real, that is forever outside of his grasp.

I suspect also that this is the kind of story that is so laden with metaphor that you can pick it apart on every read-through and find further nuances. I need to go back and give this one another shot at some point. In the meantime, I remain in awe of Henrietta's writing.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

101 Water Wise Ways by Helen Moffett

The water crisis – or Day Zero as we call it here in Cape Town – may have been averted by an incredible winter rainfall this past year, but it doesn't mean that we should stop our water-saving activities. Helen Moffett wrote 101 Water Wise Ways during the height of the panic, when Capetonians were counting down the days until Day Zero while anxiously glancing at the rapidly plunging dam levels. This book is chock-full of tips for those of us who wish to do our bit when it's clear our government has failed us.

While we were granted a reprieve thanks to a good winter, and some folks may even have returned to their previously wasteful water habits (I'm looking at my neighbour with his obsession with hosing down his car every other day), there are, I'm sure, quite a few of us who haven't forgotten that dull sense of impending doom knowing that the taps might run dry within a matter of weeks.

So, getting back to this book. There are so many tips here, from how to handle your bathroom and personal hygiene, all the way to how to cope with your kitchen, and even tips for visitors to the Mother City. Helen's passion for this topic shines through, and she writes in an easy-to-digest, factual (and often humorous) tone that most certainly succeeds in making the entire water situation far less gloomy.

This book is imbued with a 'can do' attitude, that no matter how awful things get, readers can be inspired to find systems that will work for themselves and their communities. Most importantly, emphasis is placed on finding solutions that work for you individually – not every household can approach water saving as a cookie-cutter process. If you care about water, and understand how absolutely vital water security is, then give 101 Water Wise Ways a shot. Even better, buy a copy for your local school or library.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Fire & Ice (Icefire Trilogy #1) by Patty Jansen

This one didn't quite pass muster for me, and I'm not entirely certain why Patty Jansen's writing didn't grab me. The setting certainly was interesting enough – we enter a frozen world where the previous regime that relied on a type of magic called icefire has been overthrown. In charge now is a cabal of eagle-riding knights who will do everything in their power to remain on top. Folks who have some sort of deformity (they're called Imperfect) are able to wield icefire, and so they face great persecution from the knights.

We follow the trials of an exiled noble Tandor, who wishes to reinstate his royal line. Only he's up against the knights, who have been stealing the Imperfect children Tandor has been grooming for his purpose. We also meat Isandor, and Imperfect who's been able to disguise his deformity and enter the knights' service. And it all culminates during a winter festival in a glorious catastrophe of earth-shaking proportions.

I like the author well enough; I follow her on assorted social media, so it pains me that I simply didn't gel with her writing. And I honestly believe the fault lies with the reader (myself). The story left me cold, like I couldn't suspend disbelief to immerse myself in it, and trust me, it's rare when that happens. Whether it was the uneasy blend of fantasy and sci-fi apparent in this work, of the fact that there was a part of me that wanted the story to be more lyrical in terms of prose, I'm not certain. I'm sure there are folks out there who are huge fans, and they find what they are looking for here. But I am not that reader.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Wild Karoo by Mitch Reardon

My friends know I'm one of those peculiar individuals who seeks solitude in South Africa's Karoo regions, so when the opportunity presented itself to review Mitch Reardon's Wild Karoo, I put up my hand immediately for a copy. This book is every serious lover of the Karoo's wildest dream come true, in which Reardon takes readers on an adventure that starts at the Bontebok National Park just outside of Swellendam in the Western Cape, and travels through the many (and varied) Karoo regions, including the magical Little, Great, Tankwa, Hantam, Namaqualand, Cederberg, Camdeboo and more.

My only complaint is that the book itself could have been elevated to the rarified status of coffee table book, because the current size simply doesn't do Reardon's stunning photography justice. Not only is the photography wonderful, but so is Reardon's writing, as he exquisitely and effortlessly evokes the landscape and its wildlife, as well as the people who live in these regions – farmers, game rangers, researchers. So while the immediacy of some of the interviews may lead to the content of the book dating somewhat over the years, I do believe that it exists as an important snapshot for the status of the Karoo regions at the time of publishing while also highlighting the delicate balance of the assorted regions.

Reardon weaves in snippets of history, from our past explorers and indigenous people in a way that is sensitive but also aware of the great impact that our species has had on the land. And believe me, there are some stories here that will make any ardent nature-lover weep and gnash their teeth – for instance the extinction of species such as the quagga and the blue antelope, as well as the great injustice suffered by the San. While there is currently much doom and gloom in terms of the environment worldwide, Reardon also paints a picture of hope – that here in South Africa we have people who are working hard to find solutions that will preserve our wild places for future generations. He argues most eloquently for the importance that these last refuges for wilderness hold for us, and that a dynamic way forward by building sustainable communities and use around the land is what we need. The truth is that our species has thrown nature's delicate balance out of kilter, and it is up to us to take up the challenge of stewardship.

Wild Karoo finds a permanent spot in my collection, not only as a source book for research, but also thanks to its inspirational nature. And now I'm already planning where my next Karoo adventure will take place. If you love South Africa's wild places and want to be inspired with a story that gives you hope that not all is lost, then this is it.

The Book of Life (All Souls Trilogy #3) by Deborah Harkness

While I admit to slogging through books one and two of Deborah Harkness's All Souls trilogy, I'm happy to say that book three bucked the trend for me. Maybe it was because by the time I reached The Book of Life, I was already conversant with the characters and their dynamics so that I didn't mind the slow-moving pace of the story. Perhaps this is my biggest bone to pick with the author – story is sacrificed to a degree while emphasis is placed on the relationships between characters. Thus this wedges the book a little more firmly into romance territory. Which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but it's not why I was embarked on reading these books in the first place.

The All Souls trilogy is heir to such luminaries as Anne Rice (before she lost the plot), bringing a more mature, witchy riff on the themes prevalent in Twilight. So that's my *very* basic assessment of what we're sitting with here. I also don't think I'm *quite* the right reader for Harkness's writing. While I love her attention to detail, I sometimes feel that it's misplaced (like in book one where there was a whole detour into vampire dietary requirements).

For all the trilogy's faults, however, I do feel that Harkness does an adequate job of wrapping up all the threads. Despite the 'creature of the week' feel you get when you're introduced to (yet) another daemon, witch or vampire, she does eventually smooth out the narrative. But. But.

Focus. We never feel as if we're running out of time, that there is something seriously at stake until right at the end until a particular antagonist strikes and a protagonist responds in a way that immediately entrenches them as TSTL (I won't spoil). Lack of focus and a plethora of subplots trip this trilogy up time and again.

These days it's difficult to breathe fresh air into the whole contemporary fantasy genre when we're faced with supernatural creatures, and to give credit where it's due, Harkness has built a world that is incredibly rich despite it not deviating far from established tropes (hello, New Orleans, Venice, miss us much?). Her creatures, despite their supernatural leanings, are, at the end of the day, still erring more on the side of human – which may frustrate those who prefer their vampires being a bit more other.

Her focus on her characters and their relationships with each other than narrative development, hamstrings her pace. Her writing is quite all right, and I think if you're looking for a trilogy that will essentially be a historical fantasy soapie, this one will be a pleaser. But I am not that reader.