Monday, June 19, 2017

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

I knew there would be ugly tears at the end of Assassin's Fate. Robin Hobb excels at causing me to break down in ugly tears. There are very few authors who can punch me in the feels the way that she does. It's going to be difficult to write this review without spoilers, but I'm going to give it a stab though at time of writing I'm still feeling quite raw.

Anyone who's been in for the long haul with Robin Hobb will know that the FitzChivalry Farseer books (three trilogies) are part of her larger universe that includes the Liveship books and her related dragon books. It's taken me years, but I've finally caught up with Fitz, the Fool and Nighteyes, whose intertwined fates are complex and often take remarkable turns.

Objectively, this is not the strongest book of the series; at heart it is an extended epilogue. And I understand. Ending a saga with such a perennially popular character like Fitz is *difficult*. There is always the temptation to leave open "happy for now" threads but anyone who knows Hobb's writing will be well aware of the fact that she foreshadows *everything*. And while there are a few red herrings in Assassin's Fate, I was not surprised by the decision she made for the conclusion. It was *right*. I could see it coming a mile off yet I cried so much I had to give my glasses a good wipe afterwards and go wash my face.

I'll say this much: Not many authors can make a novel that is basically an extended sea voyage and rescue exciting, but Robin Hobb succeeds, and it's because of her attention to detail, the examination of the lives of others and their interactions and the smaller conflicts within the greater picture. The story is in its subtleties, and Assassin's Fate is the novel that ties everything together for all the stories that have come before. If Hobb wishes to leave this setting here, that would also be fine and right for me. In fact, it would be a perfect place in all its bittersweetness.

The story itself has a dual nature, part laying to rest of ghosts, part coming of age. Fitz is a man outside of time, who lives with his regrets. And he is tired, and this shows in his interactions with others. Bee represents a fresh current, heir to the incredible stories that have happened before her time, and burdened with being the one who is at the heart of the drama that takes place in the present. This is, as can be understood, a heavy burden to bear yet her trials also serve as a crucible.

I'm not going to go into any further detail, because it's difficult to discuss deeper without spoiling the story. If you've yet to read any of Robin Hobb's books, start with Assassin's Apprentice, book one of the Farseer Trilogy. Then read the Liveship Traders and the Rainwild Chronicles. The Tawny Man trilogy slots in somewhere there too, then finish with the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. You will meet an unforgettable cast of characters, and since I've now read many of the early Fitz books for the second time, I can state with authority as a long-time fan of SFF, that Robin Hobb's stories deserve their place among the classics in the genre, right up there with luminaries like George RR Martin, Mark Lawrence and others who write the kind of fantasy that doesn't shy away from treading on difficult topics with nuance.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda (update)

Right. I'm now 50% through Mass Effect Andromeda, and I've come to the sudden realisation that I've stopped caring about the game. None of the characters truly hit me in the feels – I honestly don't have that squishy, emotional mushiness I had with games like Brothers or Dragon Age. The much-vaunted romance frustrating. The gameplay is repetitive. I know I'm OCD, but there are only so many fetch quests I can stomach.

Sure, the maps are lovely, but after last night I feel as if the game is a chore. What nearly did my head in yesterday was the perma-broke glitch with the Nomad on Elaaden. Apparently there is a way to fix it, but then you need to have activated the northern-most forwarding station (which I hadn't). So, guess what? I lost 2 hours of gameplay going back to an earlier save where I still had a functioning Nomad. Fast travel didn't fix the fuck-up either. Nice one, BioWare. Nice one. [grumbles]

My overall conclusion about the game, after reading this article and having a good ponder about my own experiences thus far, is that it was doomed from the start due to multiple reasons, and the fact that it was rushed through to shipping with so may glitches, I just can't even. I'm going to give myself another weekend or two to finish the main quest, and then I'm done here.

I'm really disappointed, as ME:A has so much going for it, but it's cumbersome, badly put together (I mean, haring halfway around the galaxy on Yet Another Fetch Quest and then another ... and then another). BioWare bit off too much with this game, and it's a Frankenstruct of some really schwaai ideas that kinda lumber around making groaning noises while knocking over furniture.

Things going for it include the neat combat system, which was fun (and challenging). And I must thank ME:A for teaching me how to play a shooter, because I was horribly resistant to the idea of playing a shooter up until this point.

Next up on my plate will be Horizon Zero Dawn, however, sooner rather than later. I've been told that even though I still refuse to play Witcher 3, I MUST MUST MUST give Horizon Zero Dawn a chance. (And yes, I have a soft spot for archers, so this is likely.)

A thought on open-world gaming: There is a reason why Skyrim is such a timeless classic, despite there being a skeletal story (and it justifiably being called the "golf" of RPGs). It feels like a second world you can live in, where you can customise the kind of experience you want. As a world it feels cohesive. ME:A just feels ... sparse, hastily populated, where you never really feel as if the choices you make have any real impact on the final outcome. I know that a good RPG plays with the idea that you have the illusion of choice, but I felt with Dragon Age this illusion carried through a lot better, and the game just felt tighter. I'll happily play all the Dragon Age games again (and again). I'm just not sure whether I'll be returning to Mass Effect, even if it's to play the older games.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

I will admit fully that I was horribly afraid that Wonder Woman would be a wee bit overhyped. I mean the cess pit that is media already gave me severe misgivings about whether I wanted to see the film. No, I don't care that she shaves her armpits nor that her thighs jiggle. I mean, FFS, if tooting some sort of identity politics horn is the only reason why you're going to give this film love then well, fuck that.

This is a good film, though. Thankfully. From a pacing perspective and considering character development, this is possibly one of the best blockbuster new cinema I've seen recently (except perhaps for The Arrival).

While I wasn't absolutely floored when I left the cinema, (I've a little issue with super hero films in general and the Curse of Too Much Awesome that seems to bedevil them), I had to recant a little once the husband creature and I had an opportunity to trade our thoughts.

This *could* have been that awful movie that was just put out there to tick feminist boxes. It isn't that movie. Instead we have a very refreshing female hero whose naïveté when faced with a world radically different from her own results in her having reevaluate her stance on the way forward. She goes into battle, amped to take on the Big Bad she's been prepared her entire life to fight, only to discover that the evil she's supposed to root out is a little more complex than that. Now, that's some writing that I like.

The support cast (a Scotsman, a Middle Eastern guy, a Native American ... stop me if you've heard this one) were a little thin on the ground for plausibility, but from a storytelling perspective they served the purpose of reminding Diana of shared humanity is worth fighting for, blah-di-blah ... that sort of thing. That being said, I kinda wanted them to have more than a support cast role and get to know the characters better than just being cardboard cut-outs with a little backstory. But then I'm equally cognisant that you can only do so much in a film, and I've been spoilt horribly by TV series.

Gal Gadot as Diana, however, is as the title of this film suggests, just wonderful, bringing to the screen the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength. Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is your typical bland blond boy who makes me think of a generic Matt Damon type. He was thoroughly unremarkable. Frankly, I found the brief interactions Diana had with Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) to be far more refreshing, and I needed to see more of this. But ja, time. There's only so much you can do without bloating a movie.

Out of all the superhero films I've seen (and I must warn you, I can't tell my DC from my Marvel on the best of days except to say that I fucking HATE all Superman movies) Wonder Woman is most certainly one of the best written and executed where I felt that they didn't just gloss over poor screenplay with piles of CGI. And fuck it, I'm a woman. I dig seeing ladies kicking ass. If I was a little girl... ag, who'm I kidding, I'm still a little girl at heart, it was frigging awesome to have Amazons fuck shit up. It's nice to have films that break from the same tired old stories. And this is about as much whooooo girl power you'll get out of me tonight. Now go watch the film, eat some popcorn and have a good time. Wonder Woman won't disappoint.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A few words with Elaine Dodge, SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment finalist (2014)

A big welcome to Elaine Dodge, one of the finalists of the 2014 SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition, who's here for a quick Q&A. If you've yet to pick up your copy of Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow, you have no excuse – go feed your Kindle app

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

Our actions have consequences and those consequences can open the door to events, people, or darkness which can result in our very souls being enslaved to an evil far greater than any we have ever imagined could possibly exist. And if you don’t know how to fight back, you’re lost.
What do you love the most about writing?

I love reading – moving into an alternative reality, fading into a time warp, coming face-to-face with people I’d never meet anywhere else, having adventures which I’d never be able to have any other way. Writing takes that one step further and instead of hoping someone else can provide that magic carpet for me, that door in the cupboard, I can create them myself.

Why does reading matter? 

They say that people who read are more empathetic. I think this is true. But I also believe it goes deeper than that. People who read are often more able to see behind the façade of the words people say, they can read between the lines and are sceptical about takings things at face value. Readers are often more open to new experiences, more ready to take risks, more able to see possibilities where others only see problems. And this is good. The world needs more people who can peel back the canvas, go through the wardrobe, fall through the mirror and come back out with new ideas, new solutions, new dreams and new insights.

An excerpt from "The Man with a House on his Back"

The fog has arrived. Silently, like the breath of the Scythe Man, it has surrounded the cabin and muffled the dogs. The evening meal finished, we sit silently in a half circle, like subjugated felons around the hearth. Even the fire is sullen. The meagre amount of warmth from the pale blue flames is hardly enough to keep the shadows in the corners of the cabin where they belong. My grandfather, Old Jack, sits, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. It’s a night for stories, for dreams of the past. He stirs.
“When I was a child,” he begins...
The forest was thicker. You could walk for days, weeks, without seeing its end. The trees were older and darker. You stayed on the path or you lost your way. And no one would search for you. There were tales of wild beasts, evil spirits and the heads of the dead. It rained. Not like now, but nearly all the time. Even on those strange, dry days the mist hung low in the air, coiled and sliding around the roots of the trees, masking the trails. Hiding the way out.

What other things have you written? 

I have written a variety of short stories of varying genres. Sticking to one genre seems so dull. All my short stories, some of which are my entries to the Writers Write 12 Short Stories in 12 Months Challenge and some are first chapters for future novels can all be read here.

My first novel, a historical romance adventure, Harcourt’s Mountain is set in 1867, in the mountainous wilderness of British Columbia. There’s Indians, bears, wolves, heroes, heroines, baddies, white water, kidnappings, gold, ships, caves and romance. The synopsis, reviews and a variety of buy-links can all be found here.

My second novel, The Device Hunter is my current WIP (work in progress) and I’m nearing the end. This is a steampunk novel and I’m having a lot of fun not just with the writing but with designing ingenious devices! It’s a good thing I have two friends who went to MIT who can advise me when my creations get too convoluted! You can find a ‘wishful thinking cover’ here.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Kamphoer deur Francois Smith

Kamphoer deur Francois Smith was vir my nogal 'n moelike boek om te lees. Die storie self is nie lineêr nie, en skuif tussen die hede en die verlede, soos dit aangaan. Daar is distansie in die hede, terwyl die herinneringe meer persoonlik, onmiddelik is.

Dit is gebaseer op 'n ware verhaal van Susan Nell, wie se familie bywoners was op 'n Vrystaatse plaas gedurende die Anglo-Boereoolog. Toe sy in Winburg se konsentrasiekamp beland het, was sy verkrag deur twee Engelse soldate en 'n joiner, en toe so wreed aangerand is dat hulle haar byna doodgemaak het. Haar liggaam het van die lykswa afgerol en 'n Sotho man, Tiisetso, het haar ontdek. Al was se erg beseer, het hy en sy vrou Mamello, vir haar gesond gemaak en toe vir haar Kaap toe gestuur, waar die fotograaf Jack Perry vir homself oor haar ontverm het.

Ek gaan nie die hele verhaal oorvertel nie, maar gaan maar net uitskets hoe Susan se belang in psigoterapie vir haar gely het om te werk met die wat deur drie oorloë van bombskok gely het. Sy het ook twee van haar verkragters weer ontmoet, maar dié roman handel meestal net met haar tyd by die psigiatriese hospitaal in Engeland.

Kamphoer is 'n ongemaklike storie, en omdat dit op die waarheid gebaseer is, is daar nie 'n bevredigende einde nie. Die tema is die van die stories wat 'n mens vir jouself vertel, en hoe die lewe eintlik maar niks beteken nie – net 'n leë, oorgroeide graf iewers in die veld.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Western Empires, Christianity and the Inequalities between the West and the Rest by Sampie Terreblanche

Western Empires, Christianity and the Inequalities between the West and the Rest by Sampie Terreblanche is ... well, it's not an easy read. In fact, it's pretty much as hefty and complex as the title suggests. Yet it was one of those books that I felt compelled to dig into because I felt I needed to gain a better understanding of how everything all fits together, especially since I live in a country that has been distorted by the effects of colonialism.

The West has dominated global politics and economics for centuries, and as Terreblanche illustrates, the reasons for this is complex, and most certainly inextricably tangled with a dominant religion, trade and warmongering. For centuries we've swallowed the narrative that a Western culture is somehow superior to those of the the "Rest" as Terreblanche terms the nations that were colonised by the so-called "track-laying powers" of Spain, Holland, Britain and later the USA.

However in order to understand why things transpired as they did, he digs deep, into the history of the East and West, and how different economic models had come into being and what their strengths and weaknesses were, and the world events that happened that would give the West the eventual advantage (hint: it has to do with the plunder of raw materials from Africa and the Americas that led to the eventual destruction of the East's economy thanks to the importation of cheap European fabrics, according to Terreblanche). Yes, the industrial revolution was a key event in world history.

Granted, my own understanding of the complexities of world economics are sketchy at best, and I struggled to get to grips with a lot of the terminology used, but I soldiered on.

According to Terreblanche, Christianity served as a justification for the world powers' military endeavours, and how at different eras, different powers arose (see my earlier comment about the track-laying nations). He points out that globalisation is a part of empire building, and looks at how maritime and military power, as well as the effects of industrialisation, help reinforce the sustainability of the assorted Western imperial powers.

We look at how the West has become what it is due to its plurality, and also the highly competitive behaviour born out of this. The West is grounded in a society that thrives on warfare, and is founded upon it.

Those who have monopoly will use it to oppress – resulting in slaughter, death and dislocation. Terreblanche examines the rise of the nation-state out of city-states and how a nation wielding power does so out of the notion that it does so morally. We see also the hybridisation of culture within a colonial society, and how indigenous populations are often complicit in their exploitation.

Something that I found fascinating was the connections between the four sources of imperial power: political, military, economic and ideological. Gunpowder, printing and the compass were important innovations but Terreblanche also states that private enterprise played a vital role in empire building. Consider also the authoritarian nature of the track-laying nations who built their empires. Modernisation, capitalism and war-making integral to the West. Warfare and imperialism go hand in hand.

Terreblanche looks at how Western empires conquered, subjugated and exploited what he terms the "Restern" world and how asymmetrical power relations lead to unequal growth via mercantilism, industrialisation then post-colonialism. Increased productivity required coercively acquired raw materials and resulted in destruction of local industries. So yes, the slave trade was a very big part of this, and the fact that the industrialised countries scrambled to divvy up the "New World" for their insatiable economy.

Terreblanche exhaustively details a recent world history along these lines, eventually looking at the aftereffects – how many African countries were unprepared for independence. Ruling indigenous elites often used their positions to enrich themselves through the state and the process of decolonisation is, therefore, as destructive as the process of colonisation with poor bureaucracy leading often to armed conflict.

Okay, that's pretty much a *brief* look based on some of the notes I took while reading. As a writer of speculative fiction, this book was incredibly useful to me. It also made me hate the human race just that little bit more too, but it was perhaps one of the most important reads for 2016. Granted, yes, Terreblanche's stance is quite Marxist, but I find I most certainly do agree with him that rampant, unrestrained capitalism is bad for us and the planet overall. And yes, anyone defending colonialism is going to get a serious side-eye from me. However, I will say this much: Colonialism is what it is. We live in a society that is forever altered by its effects, and it's what we do with this knowledge that is important.

This is a difficult read, but perhaps also one that is vitally important, and I wish more people would take an interest in trying to figure out the somewhat daunting bigger picture that Terreblanche has fearlessly painted. I don't think I can fully do this book justice, but I'm still in awe of its depth and breadth.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Captain Jack Sparrow searches for the trident of Poseidon while being pursued by an undead sea captain and his crew.

Auntie's not going to lie, she's had a bit of a thing for Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) since the silly bugger first staggered onto the screen in 2003. Oh gods. Yes. The movie franchise is *that* old. I'm *that* old. Ah, well, never mind.

My first thoughts when I walked out of the cinema was that this fifth instalment in the series isn't awful. I mean, it could have been worse. I was entertained, yes, but the movie wasn't *sharp*. The humour was slapstick at best, and while loads of peeps in the cinema were laughing, I wasn't. It really wasn't that funny.

I mean, I was entertained, and the CGI was pretty. And there were some awesome things happening, but if you're looking for the same snap that you'd get with Guy Ritchie's King Arthur, you're going to be left hanging.

Plot wise, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a pretty standard hero's journey, evenly divided by the two main characters – Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario). Henry is the son of ... yussss, no surprises there. Ta-dum! Will and Elizabeth (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley). And he's after the Trident of Poseidon that will allegedly break all curses so that he can reunite his daddoo and mummoo. Carina is our orphan in the storm, the intellectual lass who's got her father's journal with the "map that no man can read" (get it, she's a chick not a dude, so she can read it, huh, huh) and she's on a mission to also find the Trident.

Captain Sparrow, as always, is the trickster figure who's an agent of chaos with the compass that leads to his heart's desire that he keeps ignoring to his own detriment. His denial of this call to adventure results in the release of his spooky arch-nemesis Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) whom he cursed to undeath (as one does) who's now hell bent on Captain Sparrow's demise (revenge being, of course, one of the noblest causes). Of course to get to Sparrow, Salazar hunts down all the pirates that he can, thereby drawing our old friend Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) into the equation, and what follows are the usual double-crossings and unbelievable coincidences one comes to expect with any of the PotC films (mainly because I don't think the writers could be arsed to actually develop a nuanced screenplay).

Look, the CGI effects are awesome, but they don't quite make up for the lack of substance for the underlying story. To be fair, if you're in the mood for mindless entertainment, slapstick humour and plenty of explosions and stunts, look no further. This instalment most certainly hangs together more cohesively than Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (which is not saying much, I know), but there were still moments where I felt that some of the transitions were jagged, and relied on the wow factor to gloss over what the narrative lacked.

Okay, I'm feeling slightly rotten about my ambivalent review, so I'll say it again, this is not a horrible film. It's fun. There are loads of gags, and it had people laughing. And Carina steals the show, honest to goodness, while Henry is just a bland little porridge boy. Hey, one day I'll be jumped up on too much coffee and sugar, and I may even watch all the Pirates of the Caribbean films back to back because I've always got a soft spot for my favourite pirate captain because I quite enjoy Depp slurring and staggering about, oblivious and yet somehow endearing. (Though I find now that he only ever seems to reprise Sparrow with most of his roles that he takes on these days.)

At time of writing, I've noticed that IMDB has an entry for PotC 6 with nothing cast in stone yet. I hope they lay the movie franchise go to rest, with the fifth movie. No. Really. If anything, maybe look at a spin-off TV series and hire some good writers to develop a solid script, but please don't try to flog this pony you've only just managed to scrape up off the ground. Dead Men Tell No Tales ties up the assorted narrative arcs nicely. Let it end here. Please.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Robbed of his birthright, Arthur comes up the hard way in the back alleys of the city. But once he pulls the sword from the stone, he is forced to acknowledge his true legacy - whether he likes it or not.

If you came to this movie expecting a slavish reproduction of the timeless classic that's already been done to death, then you're probably one of those farts who're walking away from the film sputtering in self-indignant fury. I went into the cinema today expecting lots of explosions, a killer soundtrack and gratuitous displays of slabs of man meat. I was not disappointed. The only elements that were even remotely related to the legend were the Lady in the Lake, a magic sword, a round table and a castle called Camelot.

But there were ginormous elephant demons, a massive snake that appeared out of nowhere for no apparent reason... Suffice to say, if your evil henchmen are all cosplaying Kylo Ren, they're going to die in droves in the most spectacular fashion (kinda like Stormtroopers, if you think about it). Cue also the awfully flash slo-mo action scenes and distorted sound, and King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) brooding his way most delightfully through the role of the prince-raised-in-a-brothel-turned-saviour-of-a-kingdom, and this is just oodles of fun to watch. Even the part where he gets carried away by giant vampire bats and fights off oversized rats.

I also really appreciated that there wasn't a gratuitous insta-love sexual attraction by our hero and The Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) an archetypical the witch of the wilds – who's really absolutely one of the best thing about the film when her eyes roll back and she summons birds animals to do her bidding.

Everything that I absolutely loved about films like Highlander and Lord of the Rings is present (I'm thinking especially of the Boss Fight Scene near the end which made me think of Connor vs. The Kurgan), but only bigger, and way more dramatic, happened in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. High-brow cinema this is not. King Arthur goes through all the stages of the hero's journey, from denial through to a near-literal romp through the Underworld. Vortigern (Jude Law) is our tragic antagonist, whose lust for power sees him sacrifice everything that he loves to the freaky octopus ladies in exchange for his Boss form as a demon from a Frank Frazetta painting.

The editing and CGI are of the best I've seen in ages, and the world itself feels tactile (and most certainly not the England you'd imagine in history books). Yes, most of the dialogue is just one-liners and doesn't really have any cohesion, but I was not watching this film expecting deep existential answers. And I mean, what was the point of that giant snake? It was cool, but served no purpose other than being super cool.

Switch off your inner critic when you watch King Arthur. It's slick, insane and over the top. Also, it doesn't take itself too seriously. I'm also still ragingly incoherent and jumped up on the salt they put on my popcorn. Don't listen to the haters; just go have a blast. Guy Ritchie raped the legend, and he didn't even need to call it King Arthur, because to say it's based on the legend is a bit of a stretch, but it's still awesome.

Edit: Also, seeing Aidan Gillen was a treat. Some of you may remember him as the devious Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish from Game of Thrones.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

Pirate Captain sets out on a mission to defeat his rivals Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz for the Pirate of the year Award. The quest takes Captain and his crew from the shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London.

It's almost a guarantee that Aardman Animations productions will find a way into my heart, and The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) is no exception. Okay, they pretty much sold it to me when I saw that Martin Freeman and David Tennant featured prominently in this full-length animated movie that was as charming as Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run.

The humour is absurd, and firmly tongue in cheek, as The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) goes to extraordinary lengths to win Pirate of the Year among his peers. Assisted by The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman) and Charles Darwin (David Tennant), this party of misfits goes against the evil Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who has nefarious plans on the menu for poor Polly the dodo.

Typically Aardman, this film works on two levels – it will please your ankle-biters while still offering nuance and depth for us oldies. The underlying theme is that of friendship through thick and thin, but it's never heavy-handed, and our pirate captain goes through all the stages of a satisfying hero's journey. The characters are fabulous and wacky, and the level of detail with the technical aspects of the production are, as always superb, and what I've come to love and expect of this studio. I don't even want to know how long it took, but it's beautiful, and is the kind of film I'd like to watch again in the future.

This is feel-good fluff and swashbuckling fun, and if you're looking for a way to while away a bit of your weekend and finish with a smile, then this one's for you.

Bloody Parchment finalist Dave de Burgh

A big welcome to one of the 2014 SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment finalists Dave de Burgh. His short story "Exertion" made the pick during that year's contest.

Pick up your copy of Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and The Valley of Shadow now, and discover the best of our annual competition's entrants in the dark SFF/H genres.

What darkness lies at the heart of your story?

It may sound trite, but I initially wrote this story after a breakup which I took very badly, so this story helped me to communicate some the anger, frustration and loneliness I was feeling at the time. I guess that’s the darkness at the heart of it – the shock of being betrayed, and how that can lead to anger and, in some cases, vengeance.

What do you love the most about writing?

The thing I love most is an aspect very few people can or even will understand – that ability (which isn’t controlled or focused, just allowed) to explore either the hidden or obvious aspects of what it means to be human: that which makes us act and think and feel the way we do. Creating worlds and writing battle scenes and all that other cool stuff is just a very enjoyable bonus.

Why does reading matter?

Reading matters for many important reasons, but the reasons that reading is so important to me are because I’ve been able to explore different religious and cultural points of view, and reading has also taught me the fact that I will never know enough, nor be an ‘expert’ at anything. Above and beyond the escapism inherent in reading (fiction, at least), reading is one of the most incredibly powerful tools for the advancement and understanding of knowledge which exists.

An excerpt...

When I end and it begins, there is darkness. I don’t know where I am in that darkness, whether I hang or float or stand or lie. I know that I am there and that it is here, behind my heart and eyes and breath.

What other things have you written? 

I’ve written two novels (epic fantasy): Betrayal’s Shadow and Conviction’s Pain, as well as a bunch of short stories. See Tales from the Lake Volume 3, and my story, "A Hand from the Depths" and
The Third Spectral Book of Horror Stories, and my tale, "Static"

Follow Dave-Brendon de Burgh on Twitter or see his website.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Modern South African Stories by Stephen Gray

Modern South African Stories by Stephen Gray was on the list of recommended reading as part of one of my English modules when I was still studying through Unisa, and though it's been a while since I've read it, I'd still like to share my thoughts (and thank goodness I left myself copious notes over on Goodreads while I progressed).

Okay, deep breath. In *general* I don't often pick up an SA fiction anthology because I expect a bunch of the stories to go heavy handed with socio-political commentary on the state of the country, and to be honest, I get enough of that on my social media feeds every day. Yes, it's a terrible thing to admit, but that's just me. Slap me with a pap snoek and be done with it.

On the flip side, if you're looking for little bites and commentaries on our past and present, then hey, sometimes fiction is a great place to unpack ideas, turn them over and see how they resonate with you. For that very reason, this is why I *will* dip into contemporary SA fiction because it's good for me to encounter writing that makes me uncomfortable. (Yes, Nerine, eat your vegetables.)

Anyhoo, I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail with every story in this anthology, but I'll highlight a few that jumped out at me.

"If you swallow, you're dead" by Yvonne Burgess was by far the story that gave me the biggest gut punch. I even wrote a paper about it. It's about a narrow-minded Afrikaans woman whose entire life is subsumed in her caring for others, how she's always taken second best, and how her reliance on tradition eventually kills her. And her life is meaningless. A perfect, existentialist dread through and through. This was a horrible story and ugly, and I rolled around in its awfulness. Yes, I'm twisted that way. Life is brutal and short, and then you die, and no one cares.

Bessie Head's story, "The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses" in which an old prisoner manipulates a prison warden, is, of course, cleverly told. Then again, I don't need to remind you that Bessie Head is the bomb, and there's a reason her writing is taught at secondary and tertiary levels.

I'm not quite sure what to make of "The Tongue" by Rustum Kozain. I suspect this may be a nod towards Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose", but in this case we're dealing with a giant disembodied tongue that's been wounded and is now being loaded into a waggon to be removed by medics. Setting feels like surreal Anglo-Boer War. It's surreal, for sure.

Oh dear dog, "Tell Him It's Never Too Late" by Rachelle Greeff is such a downer. Mario and Maria are a childless couple married for more than 50 years. They move into a retirement home, Mario dies, and Maria moves into progressively smaller rooms until she's sharing. She gets ill with cancer and the doctor discovers she's had a lithopedion inside her all this time. Basically this is a story about death/rebirth, and unrequited love from priest. If you don't know with a lithopedion is, please, for the love of dog, DO NOT google the images. If you do, don't blame me 'cos I told you so.

"Heavy Cerebral Metal" by Deena Padayachee was ... odd. The story is narrated by newly married doctor taken aback by the account of abuse told by patient who has a tip of an umbrella stuck in his head. I can't decide if the doctor is flabbergasted or simply feeling solidarity with man. I pray it's the former.

"A Handbag in the Boot" by Farida Karodia is possibly the weakest story in the entire anthology. It features the unnecessarily twee contrasting lives of a streetkid and a rich white madam. I'm sorry, maybe this story had a place somewhere during the 1990s to highlight differences in economic situations, but now it's just overly sentimental and pandering to Great White Guilt. Bludgeon much?

The collection wasn't all bad, however. "Clubfoot" by Ken Barris was possibly one of my favourite stories. We see the world through the eyes of a clubfooted boy who lives a sheltered life somewhere on the West Coast with his mom. His drunkard, gypsy of a grandfather comes to visit and we learn something unfortunate about the boy's origin. There is plenty of ocean/sea imagery, and overall the story has a dreamlike quality.

To be horribly honest, and I'm probably showing what an unsophisticated fart I really am, I didn't really *get* the majority of these stories, and many of them really didn't get to a point (and this is me pulling my nasty editor face for writing that could have indulged in less waffle). There is heavy emphasis on socio-political issues, which automatically gets a knee-jerk reaction out of me, because honestly, there is more to South African fiction than just bashing readers over the head with history books. You are welcome to tell me I am a boorish Philistine for holding this opinion. (But honestly, that will say more about you than me, and I really couldn't give a rat's arse.)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Blood, The Phoenix and a Rose by Storm Constantine

Blood, the Phoenix and a Rose: An Alchymical Triptych by Storm Constantine is, as the name suggests, a collection of three loosely interwoven stories that are set in her Wraeththu mythos. And yes, there is an alchemical theme. For those who're not in the know, this setting is one of her enduring (and endearing) worlds that offer us the tales of the Wraeththu – androgynous beings who are mankind's heirs after humanity is pretty much wiped out by its own efforts. In this setting, fantasy and science fiction blend to offer us an alternate future, where those who would name themselves hara have a second chance to do better.

"The Song of the Cannibals" begins at the mansion of Sallow Gandaloi, where the arrival of a stranger upsets the careful balance of the household. One of the hallmarks of Storm's writing is her love of architecture and how those who reside within the walls interact. This is a story about a har who hides a heart of darkness within, and those hara who do not tread carefully around he who is known as Gavensel.

"Half Sick of Shadows" continues with Gavensel's attempts to delve into his mysterious past, but this time it's told from his point of view as he strives to peel pack the shroud. He is mired in darkness, which is a danger to those who don't handle him with care.

"A Pyramid of Lions" provides us with a window into the world of Vashti, a har who grew up on the breeding farms of the infamous Varr tribe familiar to those who've read the primary books in the mythos. He is pragmatic in approach, and while at first it's not entirely clear how far his story tangles with Gavensel's, this will become clearer later.

I can't truly look at the stories as separate entities, and I'm going to be straight here – if you've not already read the other books in the series, it's probably best to wait with this one until you've done so, as there is a lot of backstory that is referenced that will make no sense to you otherwise.

To those, who like me are lore junkies, this triptych will fill in a lot of blanks, and especially offer insights into the world of the Varr tribe under the rule of Ponclast. The revelations are uncomfortable and deeply frightening as well, because they show how close the Wraeththu as a whole came to falling into darkness, stagnation and destruction as the human race.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Para Animalia: Creatures of Wraeththu

Right, so this is not a review, but I still feel like I should talk about the anthology even though I have two stories in it. Those who know me have an idea how much I love Storm Constantine's Wraeththu mythos. The premise is simple: Mankind bollocksed up one last time and through a genetic mutation the hermaphrodite Wraeththu race came into being – heirs to a ravaged earth. They are magical beings who have the power to both great good and ill, and it's clear that they are near and dear to Storm's heart.

However Storm's done what few other creators of worlds have done: She's opened her mythos to other writers to explore, and this anthology, Para Animalia: Creatures of Wraeththu is but one of a number of existing collections of short fiction that involve other authors. The theme here is self-evident – exploring the relationship between har and creature (har/hara being the term Wraeththu refer to themselves).

Storm's fans will be glad to know that she has two stories here, as well as two offerings from her long-time editor Wendy Darling. Other regulars, such as Martina Bellovicova, Maria J Leel, and ES Wynn are also present (and whose stories I adore). This time I had the wherewithal to write not one but two tales, which gave me such joy.

Fabulous beasts that feature include snakes, dragons, dogs, wolves and owls, among others. I explored my love for owls by writing an owl companion (that I admit I tend to do often in my writing, and I blame Jareth the Goblin King for that), as well as a tale exploring the bond between a har and his pack of African wild dogs. I'm grateful that Storm has given me free rein to play in my conception of Africa, but the other stories take place all over.

As always, the quality of writing is of a high standard, with some stories standing out more for me than others. A particular favourite for me was "Medium Brown Dog", mainly because of the dog's pragmatic and (unintentionally) humorous observations of hara. You don't necessarily need to have read previous Wraeththu mythos novels to understand what goes on in the setting and, if you still have to, then this is a wonderful opportunity for you to dip your toes into mythos as there is a broad range to give you little slices. This collection will especially appeal to fantasy readers who love animals.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Snitch by Edyth Bulbring, a review

The first thing you notice about this edition of Snitch by Edyth Bulbring, is the cover, which reminds me of some of the vintage Adrian Mole diaries (with some of the absurd humour). But all resemblance ends there because while our protagonist is awkward, he's no Adrian (and for that I'm grateful). And, while this is a YA book, typically of Edyth's writing, it goes much, much deeper. 

Ben Smith is what we can consider your everyday troubled teen. He lives with his mom, Sarah, and his sister Helen (who has blue dreads), as well as their aptly named dog Terror. His dad passed away when he was little, but his "uncle" Charlie visits often.

Without spoiling the story for you, I'll say this much, that we follow the heartaches and trials of Ben's school career when he is the subject of terrible bulling for Reasons [redacted due to spoilers]. The bonds of friendship and family are severely tested as Ben endures his ordeals ... and experiences that very first teenage love.

If I have to look at an underlying theme that runs through this book, it's about overcoming the labels that others apply to you. Bulbring's writing is at times humorous and poignant. She remains, as always, a keen observer of interpersonal relationships and how we often damage each other without meaning to. Snitch is accessible and highly enjoyable, and I'll add, not just for younger readers. And she's very much in touch with the issues that affect those who are coming of age.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dark Alchemy, edited by Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois – a review

This is one of those books that I bought ages and ages ago that just lurked on my TBR pile, making me feel awfully guilty for years. I'd thought, at the time of purchase, that this collection was for adults, and indeed there was no indication on the cover that this is a YA read, but there you have it. This is YA fantasy. Not that I'm complaining, because the stories were of a consistently high quality.

I admit there is only one reason that I purchased the anthology, and that was because of Neil Gaiman – my reckoning being that any anthology he appears in will be of a sufficiently high standard, and overall, I wasn't wrong in this assumption. His story, "The Witch's Headstone" is part of the same setting as The Graveyard Book and really is as charming and dark as any typical Gaiman tale.

Garth Nix's "Holy and Iron" goes back to the ancient conflict in the British Isles, stock standard fantasy fare and a tale underpinned by the bonds of blood ... and resolving ancient conflict.

Kage Baker's "The Ruby Incomparable" gave me joy, as it harks back to classic-style storytelling that is conscious of itself within the framework of a god-like storyteller. A very well developed voice.

It was lovely also to see a Peter S Beagle story here – "Barrens Dance" had all the wonderful mythic qualities that are hallmarks of his writing, even if I'll never be certain what exactly a shukri looks like, and maybe that's all right too...

"The Manticore Spell" by Jeffrey Ford also struck me as a stand-out piece, with much sorrow and beauty attached to it.

Of course Tanith Lee's inclusion with the story "Zinder" is a treat. She deserves far more mainstream recognition for her contribution to the genre over the years. The story itself is surprising, and takes twists and turns that I could not predict.

Oh man, and the Gene Wolfe story, "The Magic Animal", was lovely. I can see why the editors left that one till almost last. I stopped reading there as Orson Scott Card is on my DNR list due to his attitude towards LGBTI people. I know folks say that one should separate the art from the artist, but I cannot in good conscience read his work.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Introducing Existentialism by Richard Appignanesi, Oscar Zárate – a review

Existentialism is one of those topics that the more you try to pin it down, the more it refuses; at least that is my experience of it. There is no "quick" way to explain the philosophy, but Richard Appignanesi has provided an oft-tongue-in-cheek volume here that, I feel, acts as a suitable introduction. Granted, most of the concepts he doesn't go into any real great depth, but it should be enough of a taster to provide groundwork for further reading.

Central to what I can gather is that by applying meaning to life, we are in a sense boxing it in, restricting it, when all the different meanings that people might apply to one thing would differ. How I perceive a the colour red, will shift slightly from how someone else does, based on their own life experiences and innate subjectivity. Existentialism attempts to see things "as things in themselves". As we are, we are never aware of existence in its entirety.

The book also examines how it is possible for one to have "bad faith", and engage in self-deception, especially when considering the absurdity of life. And there is quite a bit of discussion on how essentially awful our existence is, because it is limited, and because we are aware of our own incipient mortality.

So, we live life without hope of appeal, in what can be described as a series of "present" moments. Are we a ghost in the machine, an illusion of self? Existentialism may also be about the destruction of boundaries between this illusion and the world around it. Being is that which happens to us, a stream of flowing "nows", and it is limited by time. So how is it that we do not plunge into nihilism? Are we condemned to mean something, not be it?

What I gather is that one should return to a living experience as opposed to trying to structure existence by imposing meaning. Of course I could also be horribly wrong, and need to spend more time reading on the subject.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Shortlist for the 2017 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature

Okay, so generally I don't just copy/paste press releases to my blog unless it's super awesome, and trust me, my precious dah-lings, this one's bloody super awesome. Yes, I'm a finalist for this prestigious award and I can't even begin to tell you how much the announcement has rocked my world. Those of you who're close to me know the many years' blood, sweat and toil that I've put into my writing, so to have gotten this far tickles me pink.

The story I wrote is about adventuring dwarven lasses who save their village from a rampaging dragon. And there's a witch. And a really cute baby dragon. And loads of action. And girls who don't want to be pigeonholed, and who want to be heroes... on their own terms. And, and, and ... You're going to have to read it when it's eventually ready.

A huge-ass congratulations to the other finalists! Now, to survive until October.

Oh, and have a celebratory sparkler.


Sanlam and Tafelberg are proud to announce the finalists for this year’s Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. Six finalists are included in each category: English, Afrikaans and African languages. The total prize money amounts to R54 000: R12 000 for the winner (gold) and R6 000 for the runner-up (silver) in each category.

The finalists in the English category are:
Nick Wood from London;
Nerine Dorman from Welcome Glen, Cape Town;
Lesley Beake from Stanford;
Joanne Hichens from Muizenberg;
Erna Müller from Windhoek; and
Jayne Bauling from White River.

The finalists in the Afrikaans category are:
Nellie Alberts from Calvinia;
Annerle Barnard from Bloemfontein;
Jan Vermeulen from Despatch;
Carin Krahtz from Centurion;
Riana Scheepers from Wilderness; and
Jelleke Wierenga from Napier.

African languages contenders are:
Nguni languages
Dumisani Hlatswayo from Cosmo City, Johannesburg;
Siphatheleni Kula from Butterworth (Eastern Cape); and
Thabi Nancy Mahamba from KwaNdebele (Mpumalanga).

Sotho languages
Mathete Piet Molope from The Tramshed, Pretoria;
Thabo Kheswa from Bophelong, Vanderbijlpark; and
Lebohang Jeanet Pheko from Meloding, Virginia.

Tshivenda languages
Lazarus Mamafha from Kutama, Zimbabwe; and
Thilivhali Thomas Mudau from Rosslyn, Pretoria.

Xitsonga languages
Musa Given Sithole from Kempton Park.

The winners will be announced in October 2017 and the prize-winning books will be available in bookshops and in e-book format shortly thereafter.

The Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature was launched in 1980 and is awarded every second year. This year Sanlam introduced the “250 Words a Day” campaign to make the competition more accessible to young and upcoming writers. By joining the “250 Words a Day” group on Facebook, entrants had access to a panel of renowned authors who acted as writing mentors. To motivate would-be authors to complete their manuscripts before the closing date of 7 October 2016, they were encouraged to write 250 words every day. Author and mentor Page Nick says she loved being part of the project. “The thought of writing a whole book all at once is overwhelming, but breaking it down into chunks makes it much more doable. Congratulations to every writer who finished a piece and submitted it to the competition, it's a huge achievement.”

Apart from making the competition more interactive and reaching a broader audience, the total amount of entries grew by 60 from the previous round.

Number of entries per language:
English: 55
Afrikaans: 33
Zulu: 14
Venda: 7
Xhosa: 7
Xitsonga: 5
Ndebele: 4
Sesotho: 4
Setswana: 3
Sepedi: 2

"As Wealthsmiths, we have a deep understanding of and respect for what it takes to turn the twenty-six letters of the alphabet into something of great value.  The Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature celebrates writers’ ability to make the most of what they have. Their books create enriching experiences for our youth and have the ability to take readers on journeys that will make them cry, or scare them, and to places that will stay with them forever," says Elena Meyer (Senior Manager:  Sponsorships for Sanlam).

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Scarred by Joanne Macgregor – review

What Joanne Macgregor does well is get inside the heads of young adults, and she does so admirably in Scarred. Some people carry their scars on the outside, and for others, though they may appear perfect from the outside, they carry their wounds deep within.

Sloane Munster (and here I was nearly groaning at her surname) was in a horrible car accident in which her mother died. And since then she's been struggling to come to terms with not only the loss (and their relationship had been far from perfect) but also dealing with the disfiguring scars that mar her body. Knowing how important outward appearance can be for young people, this is especially tragic.

Yet Sloane gets by. But there's more guilt to heap on top of things. She has the hots for Luke Naughton, the somewhat arrogant swimming star. But, as we discover, there are Reasons (with a capital R) why Sloane can't be completely honest with Luke about her past. And Luke himself, has Reasons (yes, I'm being deliberately vague because SPOILER ALERT) why he might not accept Sloane for who she really is.

So it's a dance between these two lovely, damaged souls and the push-pull of their attraction for each other in what is a very deftly handled teen romance with a side order of drama. But it's more than just a romance; it's also about how we discover ways in which we continue with life after tragedy, scarred but still alive, still trying to assimilate the fragments that remain.

But Macgregor also treats other issues, such as school bullying, and how different people either fracture or become more resilient in the face of others' cruelty. So yes, there was a bit more going on in this book than your stock-standard YA read, and I commend the author for that (and it's also the reason why I award her a full five stars).

We are never whole again (if we ever were to begin with) but we have no choice but to continue, because life isn't fair.

Okay, so far as reviews goes, I'm getting meta here, which is a bit more than I should be.

The setting is generic USA-ville, though there is a part of me that would have wanted to see a more regional, local flavour to add a bit more dimension to the story (but I understand why the author made the choice). Yet this is a solid read, and the characters have authentic voices, even if I wanted to shout at them to stop being so pig-headed. If you're looking for your next contemporary teen read, this is a goodie. Pick it up; it won't disappoint.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Gardener's Guide: Indigenous Garden Plants of Southern Africa, a review

Everyone who knows me well, will know how passionate I am about southern Africa's fauna and flora, so when this little tome came up for review, I made the grabby hands for it immediately. I'm so glad I did! But a big disclaimer, if you already own a bunch of books of a more heftier and comprehensive nature, and consider yourself a fair boffin on the topic, this book is most likely not going to be for you. It's *very much* an introduction on the topic and it's literally pocket sized. As in the type is tiny, and there's not a lot of space to pack a helluva lot of information.

That being said, it's a super dinky, cute little book – the kind of slim volume I'd gift to friends and family who are budding gardening enthusiasts with a burgeoning interest in indigenous gardening. Most of the the Gardener's Guide is taken up by a list of plants, divided into trees, shrubs, bedding plants and so on, with illustrative photos giving you an idea of flowers, overall shape/situation in garden, and bark/trunk. A quick-reference table lets you tell at a glance whether the plant attracts butterflies, birds, or what sort of cultivation requirements it has. You'll also be able to scan the basic cultivation tips to choose the right species (and how to care for them). Are you looking for a tree, container plant, or groundcover?

And while there is only so much that can be included, Glenice Ebedes has made a lovely selection of species, many of which bear fruit and flowers that are attractive to insects and birds (and by default other small wildlife). I was quite surprised, actually, to see a number of plants I've known for years in gardens in and around the Cape Peninsula, that I hadn't even known were indigenous.

I think what appeals to me most about the book is the fact that it gives an intro into rethinking gardens along the lines of working with nature and not against it. Southern Africa is blessed with different regions, most notably its succulent biome, as well as fynbos, Afromontane forests and bushveld, among others, and Ebedes suggests choosing a theme for your garden along one of these lines (keeping in mind in which region you live and whether you need to be waterwise – so important these days). By planting indigenous, you increase the biodiversity of your immediate environment, and create refuges for insects, birds and wildlife, during an era where the natural wilderness is under so much pressure thanks to urbanisation, agriculture, mining and pollution.

While this is by no means an exhaustive guide for gardeners, it is a great starting point that will, I hope, encourage folks to learn more about the fascinating and beautiful plants that thrive in our often harsh climate.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Warcraft: The Beginning (2016)

As an Orc horde invades the planet Azeroth using a magic portal, a few human heroes and dissenting Orcs must attempt to stop the true evil behind this war. 

With films like this, I'd rather leave my review a while after release, purely to avoid the hype – good and bad. While I never stepped into the black hole that is World of Warcraft, loads of my friends did, and I listened to their tales of derring-do with a fair amount of envy. My own experiences with the game franchise began and ended with Warcraft 3.

So when they announced a film for the game, I was interested, especially considering the cast (um, hello Travis Fimmel, Clancy Brown). Not only that, but this was the first of Duncan Jones's films that I've seen, so I was quite inclined to give the entire production the benefit of the doubt.

It seems in the media that it's become incredibly fashionable to totally bash films like this the moment they come out – the reviewer gleefully tearing the work a proverbial new one mere hours after its release. And oh my dog, if you're looking for issues, you're going to find them with *everything*.

I will say straight up that I enjoyed this film – and I am the target audience (gaming, SFF fan). I was entertained, and in that sense, the film did its job. The graphics were... Well, I grew up during the 1980s with all the blue-screen and stop-motion action. This was a visual feast that hit all the right buttons for me.

I've heard a lot of people bash the story as being weak, and I'm going to disagree. Yes, it was a simplified story considering the large cast of characters and how much is going on with the lore – so to a degree the writers had to paint in broader strokes. This is a movie, after all, not a TV series. But to me the plot was internally consistent. There were some lovely reversals and betrayals – not completely unexpected, but FFS, this was fun. I *enjoyed* myself. That was the point. Games generally are quite pulpy, and watching Warcraft felt like being immersed in one long cut scene. I admit I'm patchy on lore so *a lot* of what happened most likely went way over my head, but I went along with it. Friends of mine who've played WoW were transported saying that the world building was spot on, so that pleases me.

In case you're wondering why the OST is so epic – the composer is none other than Ramin Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame, which only made my experience at the local IMAX all the more awesome.

This is not a deep film by any stretch of the imagination. Stock standard themes abound – of how power corrupts and how we all win when we are able to take a moderate stance (a weeeeedle bit on the propaganda side there, if you ask me). But this one's a keeper, and I'll most certainly watch it again some time in the future. At any rate, there's no stretched-out landscape porn a la The Hobbit and the pacing will keep viewers on the edge of the seat.

Also, griffins. I'm a sucker for griffins. There. I said it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Favourite Braids by Laura & Marie #review

Big disclaimer: I'm on the list of bloggers for a number of publishers and sometimes print books wash up on my shore that really aren't my thing, but I'll give them a fair review.

Okay, for those of you who know me, they'll be well aware that I'm not big on the whole hair and make-up thing. My hair is long and mostly loose, mainly because I'm not bothered with doing exciting things with it. There are days when I strangle it into a bun because it annoys the ever-loving hell out of me. If I were into doing all manner of braids, Favourite Braids by Laura & Marie would most certainly be useful. (And I mean, with hair down to my butt, I really should look at doing something more exciting but who'm I kidding? When I go out, I wear my top hat 'cos that's my vibe and the hair must maar hang and do its own thing.)

Yet, this book is filled with some suitably awesome, elaborate hair styles, as well as the step-by-step instructions and photos to guide you into making them or at least give you plenty of ideas (if you're a budding hair stylist in the making). But I'm not that girl (though I'm sure they're out there.)

My main beef with the book is its design. Here my critic is creeping out of the woodwork to say that whoever designed this book is still stuck in the 1990s with the choice of fonts, colour palette and layout. But if you look at what the purpose of the book is, and the fact that it's probably marketed towards preteens who're not particularly savvy with YouTube and the Interwebz then this is a fun book. I can see this in a school library, for instance. Or it might be the kind of gift a well-meaning aunt or grandmother would gift to a girl who has an interest in hair and beauty. Or a girl she thinks is interested in hair and beauty...

(I was that girl who who had read The Lord of the Rings twice at the age of 12, can't you tell?)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Children Who Chase Lost Voices #review

A coming of age story involving young love and a mysterious music, coming from a crystal radio left as a memento by an absent father, that leads a young heroine deep into a hidden world.

Also know as Journey to Agartha, this film, written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, is one of those that punched me right in the feels. Strongly themed along the lines of Orpheus's decent into the Underworld, this is a story about a young girl, Asuna, who inadvertently stumbles into the secret world of Agartha with its ancient, crumbling mysteries.

Generally I steer clear of your bog-standard anime, but Children Who Chase Lost Voices (which we caught on Netflix) resonated with so much mythic gravity and such strong story writing, that it begs a second look. I gained the sense of startling depth in world building with a solid mythos. Though on the outside, this is very much a young girl's coming of age story and her dealing with her absent father, it is also very much a tale about how one comes to terms with loss through death.

While I'm no fan of cute critter side-kicks, Mimi the cat was adorable while being suitably pesky, and her own story arc was apt, and I won't say any more for fear of spoilers. Characters all have strongly developed narrative arcs that interlace well, and have satisfying conclusions.

The production is exquisite down to every last detail, and the plot gradually unfolds, taking you from the everyday to the absolutely downright fantastical to the point where I was watching with the gooseflesh creeping up my arms. I will add that up until now, my experience with anime has been (mostly) limited to a few Studio Ghibli films, so I don't have much of a repertoire to draw on in order to make comparisons save to say that this compares favourably to the likes of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Tortoro.

Also, I really need to watch more quality anime, so if you have recommendations, please feel free to make them.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Crossroads by Calyah, a review

Ever since KeeperLavellan over at AO3 gutted me with her Solavellan hell in Apotheosis (seriously, go read it and its Dark Solas companion piece) I've been struggling to find another F!Lavellan/Solas piece that works for me. Or, even as I've later developed an unfortunate fixation on the Sentinel Abelas (and how do you even name that ship?) I've enjoyed seeing how writers bring his story out of the brief encounter in Mythal's temple.


I guess so. Google can't be wrong.

Anyhoo, so somehow I stumbled across the writer Calyah, and she'd started writing a rather sweet Abevellan, but then I think she hit the same speed wobble loads of writers did after the Trespasser DLC that knocked our entire storylines sideways. Now, some may gamely have continued with their headcanons despite everything. Others, like Calyah, took down her chapters and revised.

At the time, I remember being quite put out (and more than a bit worried) as I'd thought she'd just deleted the fic. But no. She cam back. Better and with so much bite. She has grown tremendously as a writer when I compare the earlier piece in the series to what she has going with The Crossroads.  Essentially, this is a retelling of the Trespasser DLC, with a whole lot of author headcanon and retelling of the main storyline, giving Abelas and his fellow Sentinels a far more active role in opposing the Big Bad.

And it's every bit as awesome as you can imagine. And satisfying.

If I'm going to nit-pick, I'll mention that there were a few little wibbles and wobbles with grammar and typos et al, but not so much to make me grumble or grouse because the story had me scrolling down, dead keen to see how Calyah was going to let things play out. Her action sequences are exhilarating and the emotional tension strong with few places where the pacing flags or the ball gets dropped. (At any rate, the rough patches didn't bother me – this is still one of the better Solavellans out there.)

And the payoff at the end. Yussss, it was bloody perfect and well worth the wait. The happy-for-now is a perfect set-up for if she should feel the need to leave the story as is, or pick it up later.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Departures by Schattenriss, a review

Yes, I'm still compulsively reading Dragon Age fics written by Schattenriss over at Archive of Our Own. Maybe it's because I've got a mild crush on his Inquisitor Kai Trevelyan and his rather wry humour. Departures is pretty much the origin story of the Shit That Got Weird before the events that occurred at the Temple of Ashes sent everything for a ball of shit with Coryphy-whatsis-face.

So if you've read and enjoyed The Wrong Sort of Whatever – which expands upon the events that transpire during the Trespasser DLC of Dragon Age Inquisition, Departures will be especially sweet and meaningful.

In brief, before he became Inquisitor, Kai Trevelyan was a mage in the Ostwick Circle, and when we meet him, it's pretty much the point in his life where he's had it with his existence. He never asked to be a mage – and he's a damned good one too – and he's had it with being locked up like a dangerous animal. When the shit gets ugly between the mages and templars (thank you, Anders) Kai sees this as his opportunity to scarper. Which he does.

The only problem is that he's got no idea how to fend for himself in the outside world. He can't bloody well walk about openly being a mage unless he wants a lynching, and apart from reading and writing, he doesn't have any marketable skills. So essentially the story is all about how he adjusts to life on the outside, how he finds some comfort with lovers and also his prickly relationship with his parents.

There are some truly awkward social situations that happen, some of which really made me hurt for Kai. And of course there's The Awful Thing that happens near the end that I won't spoil, but it was heartening to see how Kai got through that dip.

There isn't an awful lot of action in this story, so if you're looking for fireworks and earth-shattering events, this is not that story. What you will find here are nuanced, sometimes intensely awkward interactions with people, and often some lively debate too. And loads of foreshadowing for events to follow.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Hot, quick tips to be a BS detector

Of late I find myself getting into a bit of a frothy when folks share sensationalist BS and hoaxes via social media. Seriously, folks, there is already so much garbage out there, you *don't* need to add to the pile. However, something else I've realised is that many folks don't stop and think before they share nor do they possess the skills to tell when they're (sometimes) unwittingly sharing garbage. So, here are my hot, quick tips to help guide you.

Recently an unidentified voice message was doing the round on the community WhatsApp groups, where a chap was mouthing off a currently popular conspiracy theory. I immediately smelled a rat. Why? The guy did not identify who he was nor who he represented (always a warning bell). Nor could he back up any of his so-called facts with actual names and dates. So here's the deal, see what the source of your information is. If it's not an official news site or authority within the field then for the love of dog, don't share the information.

Here's an example: someone claims that a spate of fires in a region are being started by arsonists with political motivations. If that someone isn't the police, the official spokesperson of your local Fire & Rescue or a credible news source (like your local daily paper) then it's probably some idiot trying to get everyone all wound up with his fear-mongering. Avoid! Don't share! Don't pay attention to this!

How do you feel after you've read or listened to the supposed "news"? Are you angrier than usual? Do you feel like you want to go and punch someone? If so, then there's a very good chance that that particular snippet of "news" has been created specifically for that purpose – to get you all GRRRRR riled up and emotional. People who're all GRRRRR are known for making poor decisions. You're being manipulated. Take a step back. Take a breath. Go look for other news sources to compare to the one you've just read. Look at the language usage. See which one is offering a more measured response.

We all know that there are loads of wingnuts and Flat Earthers out there who believe in chemtrails and Reptilians and all manner of really crazy stuff. And they will try to get others to share in their cray-cray by the way that they share their information. Remember this: every weird hoax doing the rounds has a little grain of truth. This is what makes it so appealing for us. We don't like situations that are difficult to explain. We want to have order in our lives, to be able to say that ABC is the reason for XYZ.

First off, it's okay that we don't have all the answers. It's okay to say "I don't know" and spend time looking for a solution ourselves or waiting for the experts to deliver a report. Remember also that all that fake news and the clever hoaxes out there pander to our own biases. So when you read a story that makes you go hmmmm, first check with yourself.

For instance, if you're religious, you're less likely to question the authority of your local pastor or imam. However your religious leader is also just human, and is himself prone to fallacies.

So, check your biases before you go off on a half-cocked tangent. If something sounds unbelievable or just plain odd, go ask the experts. Phone your local police station, speak to a medical doctor, or your city or town's helpline. Or, if you are faced with strange advice (the most recent one being folks claiming that little bags of water taped to windows repel flies), go check it out on HOAX-SLAYER is also a fantastic site, among others.

You really have no excuse. Google is your friend. Question everything and go do your research before you share misinformation.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

You've read the book, now leave your mark

When it comes to folks discovering their next read, word of mouth is best. This could be as simple as a friend shoving a book under your nose and yelling READ THIS BOOK! or you might encounter a review in your local paper. Or, you may belong to an online book club on Facebook. Or you trawl Amazon or Goodreads for books in genres you enjoy reading. Ten to one, before you make your choice, you're going to see what other people have said.

Reviews are, therefore, gold for authors (especially if they're placed on vendors' sites), and a wonderful thank you if you've enjoyed a literary work. (Apart from buying a book or writing a bit of fanmail.)

I've had folks come to me saying they don't know the first thing about what to write in a review. Likewise, I've had authors commenting that readers end up giving a blow-by-blow report of the novel's events rather than share their opinions in reviews. So, here I'm going to give a few tips on how to write a decent review and talk about some of the pitfalls of offering your opinion.

There is no need to rehash the plot. By all means, say a little bit about the characters and the circumstances, to give a (brief) description but be careful to avoid spoilers. As an example, this is my way of introducing a review of Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Goldilocks is a nosy little girl who doesn't respect others' private property, but on the day that she visits the Bears' household, she's in for a little more than she bargained for.

That's enough. It's fine. It sets the scene. Now, ask yourself the kinds of questions you imagine other potential readers might ask.

What did you like about the story?
Mention here that the plot was full of surprises. Perhaps you were up until late reading (authors love hearing this). Perhaps the writer uses poetic language or is really good with descriptions. Perhaps the dialogue between characters is especially witty and made you laugh. Mention things like this.

Were the characters well-realised? 
Characters are either likeable or unlikeable. Don't just say that you hate something or love something. Tell readers why. You have your own personal likes and dislikes, so be aware when these may colour your opinion. Characters may do things you don't agree with or like, but that doesn't mean you're reading a bad book.

Was there anything about the story that annoyed you?
This could be anything from the fact that a novel is poorly edited and there were lots of errors or that the writing itself was simplistic. Perhaps characters' behaviour lacked sufficient motivation. Don't just say something was awful; try to figure out what bugged you. Merely saying "This is a terrible book" won't explain to potential readers why you think it's terrible.

When you write your review, remember that there is another person on the receiving end of your words. It's all too easy nowadays to let rip. While I'm not advocating that you only say nice things, my suggestion is that you sandwich the positive with the negative so that your review is balanced. You might not like that the novel is written in the present tense, for instance, but you enjoyed the way the author depicted the setting.

Take notes while you read so that you have a record of your responses. (Goodreads offers functions for this.) I always love comparing my review to others just before I post it to see if there are other reviewers who've felt similarly. You may find yourself agreeing or disagreeing, and that is fine – each reader will have a unique response to a written work.

One thing I always keep at the back of my mind when writing is that I may very well one day meet the author whose work I've read, so I aim to keep my tone respectful. If I can't share my opinion to their face, then there's a chance that perhaps I should not write it down online (where it may well be carved in stone).

Monday, January 16, 2017


I find myself going round in circles so often with the whole "how to self promo" thing for authors. Plainly put, no one truly knows what works. Some claim a Facebook advertisement garners results. Some say it won't. Some authors don't do a single stitch of advertising, and their books fly off the virtual shelves. Other authors spend hundreds of dollars each month on ads, blog tours and whatnot, and perhaps don't even see a blip on the radar when it comes to sales.


A few authors I know have gained success bundling their books or novellas and pooling their resources (and in that way, they've gained a modicum of success on bestseller lists). This is all fine and dandy, but it just highlights the fact that the market at present is saturated with new releases every day. With the prevalence of permafree copies, 99c specials, giveaways, I can tell you I have more books on my Kindle app than I can hope to read in four years. And that's not even talking about what I've got squirrelled away on my Kobo and iBooks apps.

After the initial boom in ebooks and small presses, we're now entering an age of overabundance. Readers have more choice than ever before, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for authors to make their voices heard (and sell books).

I'm going to put my cards on the table. I'm *lucky* if I sell one or two copies of one of my dozen or so titles each month. Granted, I don't write in a popular genre like romance, and my career so far has genre hopped a bit, and also I haven't been arsed to release any new novel-length works during the past few years.

A lot of work goes into self-publishing. Not only is the author responsible for content creation, but she takes on the role of publisher too – this means being willing to invest in editing, design, formatting, illustration. This means shelling out money. And it stands to reason that the same amount of effort must go into marketing.

Even traditionally published authors can no longer rely on their publishers to handle their marketing for them. While big-name authors will get marketing budget tossed at them, many new and mid-list authors will need to supplement whatever promo they get from their publisher with efforts of their own.

With so much noise in social media going along the lines of BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK! actually selling enough copies to make a decent living is becoming more and more difficult. This is the reality of the system. It's no use crying about it.

You, as author, are not special. Don't try to deny it. Unless potential readers are invested in you, they simply don't care. Accept it. Deal with it. Getting bitter and twisted about it won't change that fact. You simply have to ensure that the product (because yes, your special darling *is* a commodity) you put out is the best that it can be.

Work on the premise that no one cares, and you'll save yourself a pile of heartache. Ask yourself why it is that you write. If you're looking to make oodles of money, be prepared for disappointment. Play the long game. No one cares about your awesome YA kick-ass heroine who resembles "XYZ of that popular dystopian setting's heroine". There are hundreds if not thousands of other authors out there who most likely are publishing books that are similar to yours. And also feel as if they are TWU SPESHUL SNOFLAKES.

So, what can you do?

It's about attitude readjustment. You are not going to sell your book on Twitter or Facebook. You may not even sell your book using your newsletter. Word of mouth is best.

I'm going to say it again.


And there's nothing *you* personally can do to make it happen.

People must care enough about you to care about your writing. If you're a whiny little sh*t who complains about the fact that you're being discriminated against day and night, that everyone else has it soooo much easier than you and your life is just terrible and one disaster after the other...

Guess what?


If all you ever post every day are buy links and bits begging people to BUY YOUR BOOKS, guess what? NO ONE CARES.

If you send people who follow you DMs telling them to BUY YOUR BOOKS, guess what? They'll unfollow or, worse, block you. If you constantly self-promote in communities where self-promo is forbidden, guess what? You'll get blocked.

Your shotgun approach to marketing won't sell books. It won't make people care about you, as a person or an author. You'll just have yourself labelled as "that author" and folks will be resistant to picking up copies of your books.

Sending buy links to other authors won't work either. They're in the same boat that you are. You need to reach readers, not authors. If you think getting [insert famous author name here] to share or retweet your buy link will automatically result in fame and fortune, you're sadly mistaken. Readers aren't stupid. If you don't put down what they want to read, they won't pick it up. If you think getting your novel reviewed in the local papers will make a huge difference, nope, nope, nope. You might see a slight bump, but newspapers and magazines get pulped. And, while reviews on vendors' sites like Amazon are gold, and Good reads is pretty fab too, they still won't sell your books.

So, what to do, if as this post suggests, nothing works?

Cultivating your readership is an exercise in patient gardening. Your readers must be so excited about your next book that they share news of an imminent release for you. Hell, they must love you so much that they make and share fan art. Or gush about what they're reading randomly on social media. And there's no easy way to reach this point.

My suggestion is as follows: go see how your favourite top authors handle their social media. One thing you'll notice is that many of them rarely (if ever) share buy links. Instead they talk about the things that are important to them. They share snippets of (curated) personal info. They might post cat photos or pictures of what they're baking. They might talk about the writing process. What books they're reading. Hell, even what they're knitting. What music inspires them. They might offer insights about current affairs (although here be careful that you don't go overboard with politics – this can also be a turn-off).

Don't inundate people with all the terrible things in your life. Remember, NO ONE CARES whether your left testicle is slightly lumpy or that your dog ate an entire block of hash and has now pooped it all over your afghan. Okay, I digress, the last example is actually quite funny, but I hope you get my point that folks don't want to be privy to the unrelenting existential crisis that you've been having for the past three decades. You won't win awards (or sell books) for being a martyr. Find ways to turn your setbacks into opportunities to shine.

(For instance, if I'm feeling blue, I ask my friends to post me pictures that will make me smile and it's so lovely to see engagement that way).

Thing is, it's not wrong, per se, to post buy links from time to time, but it's *how* you do it and with how much regularity this occurs (less is more, IMO). People want to get to know you, the person, and then they'll be more prepared to care about your writing. If they feel that they can relate to you and you're not like those annoying religious fundies who go door to door trying to sell afterlife insurance when all you really want to do is watch telly, then you're on the right track.

But remember this, it's not a case of overnight fame. You're not going to get rich off your debut novel (those stories are the exception, not the rule). Write because you love to. Tell the stories you love AS IF NO ONE CARES. Don't be that author who makes you want to hit the unfriend button.

PS. Use the fact that no one cares as a way to free yourself from the expectations of others. That's what I do, and I can guarantee that instead focusing on making beautiful books that *you* love to read, makes the journey worthwhile.