Monday, July 24, 2017

Queen of Fire by Anthony Ryan

A while back I stumbled across a fresh voice in military-driven fantasy that had me hopping up and down and excitement – Anthony Ryan, who first caught my notice with his coming-of-age story of the warrior Vaelin Al Sorna in the Raven's Shadow trilogy that begins with Blood Song. To my eternal regret, I let way too much time pass between reading books one through to three. There is a large cast of characters to keep tabs on by book the time you hit Queen of Fire, and I could definitely have benefited from having had the earlier story at front of mind. So don't be dumb-ass like Auntie Nerine. If you're going to start with Blood Song, and you've enjoyed it, and you intend to read the rest, get at this trilogy back to back if you can.

I'll echo what I felt with book two, that Ryan's decision to include new viewpoint characters after Blood Song was a good idea. He keeps the story going and fresh, especially considering that Vaelin's heroic arc is pretty much spent after the events that transpire in book one. By book three he still plays a pivotal role, but he's one of many who each have a crucial task to perform, often under extremely trying circumstances.

Book three is all about wreaking vengeance, and the mighty Volarian empire is about to suffer for the great wrongs they committed against Vaelin, Lyrna and their people. Not just that, but we learn more about the mysterious and frightening Ally and its aeons of evil, twisty machinations. Old friends (I won't spoil) return, and much blood is spilled. In fact, I suspect Ryan is snapping on GRRM's heels when it comes to death, betrayal and strategy gone wrong. Characters are often put through the wringer, and watching how they regain their footing is half the thrill. And trust me, don't ever get too comfortable with a character's situation – Ryan can and will pull that metaphorical rug out from beneath their feet again and again. Awful things happen to people who often have been brought to the end of their tethers. Just expect to be kicked in the feels. Ryan knows how to do this well. Though thank dog he didn't reduce me to ugly crying the way Robin Hobb does regularly. I can only manage one ugly-tears-crying book a year and I've already had my quota for 2017.

Queen of Fire is an action-packed, epic conclusion for Vaelin and the companions I've gotten to know and love. A special mention goes to Reva, whose bravery and daring is unparalleled; I suspect she'd give even Wonder Woman a run for her money. The world building is complex and textured, and you get the idea that there's loads of history just beneath the surface that is never quite fully revealed – and I love it when authors understand how to layer on the mystery of ancient pasts. And yusssss, I'm already looking forward to sinking my teeth into the next Anthony Ryan novel I've got sitting on my shelf.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.

Guys, guys, this film is fucking fantastic. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is completely over the top, but I came out of the IMAX completely and utterly blown out of hyperspace. That's the short review. I will also admit that I have not seen many of Luc Besson's films but those that I have seen (Léon: the Professional, The Fifth Element) number among the ranks of those visual creations that are memorable for being *good* cinema. At least in my mind.

Valerian is best described as Star Wars after dropping a few caps of LSD, and since I enjoyed The Fifth Element, I was right at home with Valerian. This isn't a film that takes itself too seriously; if it did, I don't think it would have worked too well. The visuals are straight out of pulp SF with a slightly poppy edge, and as my husband creature mentioned, the main antagonists look like they come from a world where old ladies' bath pearls are produced.

The themes are a little on the nose with the authoritarian military commander up to (obvious) nefarious plans – I won't spoil – and the seemingly "primitive" civilisation that's been done wrong. Toss in the Han/Leia dynamic between our charming Valerian and devastatingly efficient Laureline, and you have a recipe for one helluva ride. The primary location, the oversized space station Alpha, is a fascinating place, and the beings that inhabit it are diverse and begging for further discovery – some *stunning* world building.

Granted, there's a bit more emphasis on style over substance, and this film simply oozes visual impact, but the pace is cracking, and you don't have a chance to overanalyse any plot holes. It's also abundantly clear that the comic book series from the 1960s, upon which this film was based, was also hugely influential on the Star Wars franchise. Um, hello, I can now see where the Millennium Falcon has its roots.

The only character that I felt was a bit of a loose end in the film was Bubble (Rihanna) – she was kinda tacked on for eye candy and given a small part that didn't exactly go anywhere and The Thing that Happened felt a bit like a kind of GRRM move due to no one actually knowing what to do with the character (for those who'll get what I mean) but her performance piece was lovely, if a bit superfluous. Kinda like shoving a music video right in the middle of an action movie. But then again, it kinda suited the general mood of the film and I really didn't mind that much. And, of course, eye candy. This film is full of eye candy.

Dane DeHaan (Valerian) looks like a baby Leonardo DiCaprio [oh gods, I've always thought of Leo being a baby but he's all hairy and grown up these days ... and oh fuck I feel old for saying this]... But though I do feel that Dane was a bit young for the role (I'd imagine Valerian to be a bit more older and, as the husband creature suggested, rugged), he still pulled off the part with a certain roguish charm that made me forgive him for being such a youngling.

Cara Delevingne is young ... as in I wouldn't have expected her to fit the role either; she carries herself as a woman who's much more world weary than what she looks. That being said, she's dynamite, and put so much emotional tone in the role, that her character seems entirely plausible. I keep thinking she looks like a young Michelle Pfeiffer, and I'll be keeping an eye on her career.

The overall styling is just the bomb; this is definitely the kind of film that begs to be watched again, just for the sheer detail the creatives put into it. Also, the opening sequence coming in the strains of David Bowie's "Space Oddity" nearly had me all teary-eyed – and I just knew, with absolute certainty, that this was going to be a piece of cinema that's going to sit right up there in my heart, along with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and all the others that deserve space on my shelf at home.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bloody Parchment: Meet E Garcia

I've got E Garcia, one of the SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment short story competition winners here today, chatting about her story, "Get out of Death Free?" that appears in our Blue Honey and The Valley of Shadow anthology that was recently released. For those of you wondering about the 2017 competition, we are now officially open and accepting submissions. Go see our blog for all the details.

So, without further ado, let's get on with our chat.

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 
Though this story is more quirky than dark, the theme that I wanted to touch on about being unprepared for Death is not exactly light either. Most of us avoid thinking about our mortality on a day to day basis, and there is little connection with our dead. Funeral homes prepare bodies and not many people spend time with the corpse of a loved one to come to terms with the loss like we used to. The idea of not being ready for Death on both sides of the afterlife is an unsettling thought to me. What if we end up walking in Limbo for eons, never to see our loved ones again, just because our culture no longer had rituals to break ties and prepare everyone for the end?

What do you love the most about writing?
Writing lets me get all the stories out of my head and un-jumble them into some sort of order. It keeps a measure of structure in my brain. Also, I get to escape real life for a while to explore the characters and worlds that spawn from things I read, people I meet, and dreams I have.

Why does reading matter? 
You can’t create in a vacuum. Everything you read impacts how you improve as a writer, gives you new ideas, and pushes you to keep creating. Without reading, I would have no reason to write.

An excerpt...
“I have a coupon.”
Death stared at me. Or at least, I assumed that was what he was doing during the prolonged silence. It difficult to tell what his facial expression was beneath the hood of his blue DO I LOOK LIKE A PEOPLE PERSON? sweatshirt.
 “A coupon.” His voice didn’t come from his chest, but seemed to rise up from all around us, the deep notes reverberating in my bones.
“Yep.” I flipped through the mass of receipts in my wallet and found the ragged square of paper my young niece had given me. “Here. Get out of Death Free.”
Accepting the paper, he inspected it from all angles. Even two years later, I was amazed by the level of detail the then seven-year-old had put on it. It even had fine print.

What other things have you written?
I have one work in progress that is being edited for publication. It is an urban fantasy novel that involves magic, corgis, and more Blues Brothers references than I can count.

Crowchanger by AC Smyth

Crowchanger (Changers of Chandris #1) by AC Smyth is exactly the type of fantasy I love that blends just the right amount of world building, intrigue and magic to keep me happy. We meet a young apprentice changer, Sylas, who belongs to the Chesammos race, who are historically oppressed by the ruling Irenthi race on the island of Chandris. His prospects aren't great. Although he's studying to master his changing and find his bird form at the Eyrie, the hub for changer culture on the island, he's not particular adept at this. If he doesn't shape up soon, he'll end up returning to the little village where he was born, and join many of the men in his particular village who live out their (short) lives digging for valuable gems.

We also get to know Sylas's Irenthi lover, Casian, who's everything Sylas is not – he's scheming, manipulative and horribly ambitious, and his fixation on Sylas makes me genuinely worried for Sylas's future. Casian will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it results in wholesale destruction ... but I won't say more for fear of spoilers.

My friend Masha turned me onto Smyth's writing, and I'm glad I followed her recommendation, because I'm making book two my immediate next read, especially since I need something a little lighter after having finally finished Robin Hobb's Farseer books. Okay, I lie, Crowchanger is pretty heavy in parts, but the writing isn't as dense as I'm used to, which is perfect. It's populated with memorable characters and a world that is vastly different from the standard Eurocentric fare out there (thank goodness). I can't quite peg all the cultural influences, but I like the idea that the magic of this world ties in with the eruptions of a volcano, and that some humans are able to communicate with bird spirits that enable them to shift into various types.

While the writing is generally solid, Smyth does, in some parts, have a tendency to write a bit fast and shallow, especially at some parts where I felt she could have dug a little deeper to give better layering. But this was not a deal-breaker for me (hence the fact that I'm going to read the rest of the series and those who know me well understand how horribly picky I am).

I agree with Masha that in tone, Smyth's style is very close to Anne McCaffrey's, so if you liked all the Pern books, you'll be right at home with Smyth. She's made me care intensely about her characters and has given me a glimpse into a fascinating world that I'd like to revisit, and that says something.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories edited by Doug Murano and D Alexander Ward

Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, edited by Doug Murano and D Alexander Ward, most certainly gave me a little of everything to enjoy, though there were a fair number that I felt weren't necessarily horror so much as simply dark fiction. The mood is apt to change – some tales are quite literary and magical, while others give more of that visceral gut punch one expects from a good horror tale. While I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail with every story, I will highlight those that stood out for me.

"Arbeit Macht Frei" by Lisa Mannetti isn't a story I'd necessarily classify as horror in the traditional sense – though I feel it delves deeper into the horror that we ourselves are capable of rather. Our narrator is a Jew in a death camp with her mother, acting as a nurse's aide. And it's how she copes, atones for betraying her mother even for fear of repercussions.

"Water Thy Bones" by Mercedes M Yardley is a glorious riot of gore – as a victim and killer fall in love and express their devotion in the act of dismemberment. It's not so much that the trope is new – but the writing is lush.

Something that I'd not expected to find in an anthology was a choose-your-own-adventure style story. "A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some are Broken by Paul Tremblay offers the suggestion that the true horror of the story lies in the way that it loops – you, as reader, are incapable of escaping.

"Repent" by Richard Thomas is darkly rich... A corrupt cop makes a deal with the devil to save his son from cancer. The price is his surrender to the corruption in order for the son to live and for him to be expunged from their lives forever. What I liked about this was the ambiguity. Unsure whether we're dealing with madness or supernatural agents.

There is a reason why Clive Barker is considered a master of this genre (and I'd argue that he crosses genres effortlessly and subverts them at will). "Coming to Grief" is lyrical, evocative. Miriam's mom has died, and she returns to pack up her home. As the title suggests, this is all about facing death personified in the Bogey on the walk above the quarry. I love the ambiguity – you're never sure whether the Bogey is real or an imagined personification of grief.

As with all anthologies, I suspect different readers will like stories for their own reasons. Not all the tales collected here impacted me, but if you're looking for an eminently readable anthology of dark fiction that will do the job of unsettling you, then I figure the editors have certainly done their job right.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fanfiction Round-up, June 2017

Okay, I admit it. I’m a huge fan of JayRain now. Dissonant Verses is her prequel for Theodane Trevelyan, and it’s great seeing the background of one of the dudes who’s now become one of my favourite Inquisitors. These four, short chapters detail Theo’s journey to the Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes and how he inadvertently becomes a person of great importance in the history of Thedas. And, like many of the quizzies, he so did not ask for any of this. Having read other stories featuring Theo, it’s really great to see the fresh-faced youth who’s still so horribly, horribly innocent.

Staying with JayRain, and oh my gods, she’s finished The Show Must Go On which has ended on a cliffie, damn you, woman. The ending is seriously a “will he, won’t he” kind of smack upside the feels, and I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Theo and Dorian. For those not in the know, this is a story that plays out during and post-Trespasser, so it has all the expected angst.

And then there’s this little gem JayRain wrote, Necromancer Problems Volume 1: Gifts which reminds me awfully of the years when I was still being gifted with fucking fairies at every end-of-year staff function at the newspaper publisher where I used to work. I think I got about five fucking fairies before my colleagues realised it might be more prudent to give me art supplies rather. But seriously, this is a lovely little piece.

Huge-ass kudos to withah, who’s got me cheering for a redemption arc for our favourite Red Templar we love to hate – Raleigh Samson. I won’t lie. He creeped me the fuck out during my assorted play-throughs in Dragon Age: Inquisition, so it took a little doing for me to see him as something other than a pathetic, corrupted henchman. And yet … Just read the damned story. It’s pretty graphic at times with some sexual content, but there’s more than enough substance to the overarching tale and, I must add, withah handles a character suffering from depression in an authentic, nuanced manner. We don’t often give much thought about how our inquisitors deal with their loss post-Trespasser, but withah does brilliantly with Shield of Shame.

Some of the fic writers I know had a 100-word challenge (which I missed because I’ve not had time to keep up to speed with what’s happening on the Fibbie groups.). Heat by SteveGarbage is just perfect (for all the Varric/Bianca lovers). 
Not to be outdone, JayRain also had a contribution that made me smile, because it was our darling Trevelyan/Dorian pairing. Of course Schattenriss wrote something fabulous (in Dorian’s perspective) for Heat as well.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker – a review

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker was on my must-read list the moment I heard about the book. But a bit of back-story. Ingrid Jonker was always a semi-mythic figure to me. I first heard about her when we studied her writing during high school. It was a short story of hers – "Die Bok" (The Goat) which haunted me even back then. Yet her poetry always struck me as vivid, somehow more vibrant than many of the other poets we studied. My mom and I always disagree about our love of Jonker's writing, but then again, my mom also takes a dim view of Jonker's affair with Brink, so it could be a personal issues that cloud her appreciation of her writing.

I later encountered Jonker's work again when I was studying a languages module through Unisa, which only made me realise even more what an important contribution Jonker made to South African literature. There is little doubt in my mind that she was a perceptive, highly sensitive individual with the talent of shaping words in such a way that she can encapsulate an entire scene in a few brush strokes. 

Brink himself is justifiably one of the great lights of South African literature who has contributed much over the years, and it is to my eternal regret that I never did get round to meeting him before his passing, so it was with great curiosity that I approached this collection of their letters.

Looking at how communication has changed, it's doubtful that we'll have such a legacy to fall back on in the future (unless someone is willing to trawl authors' social media posts and private emails to try reconstitute coherent communication). But even then, what we have collected offers us an almost voyeuristic glimpse into the private world of two highly creative, expressive individuals, who saw and felt their existences in exquisite, painful detail at times. 

Part of me became quite frustrated while I read. I wanted to yell at them that if their lives were so unbearable, why didn't they just take the plunge and move mountains to be with each other. But I guess hindsight is 20/20. I don't think either of them could have predicted the outcome, and I fear that when you have two passionate people as Jonker and Brink were, you're bound to get fire in its destructive aspect. Both were ... complicated ... and their relationship was wracked with intense highs and awful nadirs. 

It galled Brink that Jonker still maintained her previous relationship yet by equal measure, he was incapable of leaving his wife, despite his assurances to Jonker that he was no longer intimate with the mother of his child.

Yet what this collection of letters also does it it demystifies Jonker and Brink. We see them as humans, in their unguarded, often tender moments for each other, as they ponder their existence, as they share their hopes and dreams, and also their great fears. The last letter, from Brink, also pierces deeply – a cold, hard statement. I won't spoil it, but it dashed cold water in my face.

I can't help but imagine what Jonker's last hours were like, the moments that led up to her walk into the wintry Atlantic in Cape Town's Three Anchor Bay. It was a death foreshadowed in her poem "Ontvlugting":

My lyk lê uitgespoel in wier en gras
op al die plekke waar ons eenmaal was.

(My body is washed up in seaweed and grass
at all the places where we once were) – please excuse my rough, rough translation. 

To have read Jonker and Brink's intimacies has, to a degree, tumbled them off their pedestal for me. They were just people, with their faults. Their words in this book are a time capsule, that takes readers back to the past, to get a glimpse into what it was like for writers back then. I had to have a quiet smile to myself, because so much of the politics among South African writers that I've seen first hand was very much a thing back then too – some things don't change, apparently. This was a lovely read, and at some point I think I'd like to pick up the Afrikaans version of the book, as I wonder how much of the communication was lost in the translation. Either way, I still feel as if I've grown in my understanding of the two, which will most certainly inform my further reading of their work.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda – final verdict

Okay, so this is a follow-up from my review for Mass Effect: Andromeda that I wrote here when I had a fit of pique about aspects of the game that annoyed the ever-living crap out of me.

I haven't really changed my opinion of the game, though granted my first play-through was for the story rather than gameplay. If you're looking for the impact that BioWare stories have that every raves about the earlier games, you're not going to feel it here. I ran with the Jaal romance on this play-through and though there'd been much anticipation about this before the game's release, I was underwhelmed to say the least. And I'm not sufficiently invested in the game to immediately play it afresh but with different romance options like I was with Dragon Age: Inquisition. That says something.

As friends of mine noted, the primary quest for ME:A doesn't take all that long, and it was mostly go to this location, take out a few consoles here, free these peeps, kill that dude, and then GTFO. I think because I was playing the game on casual setting, I missed out on pushing the combat system to its full capabilities, and should I have the time and motivation in the future, I'll most certainly take longer and focus on combat, crafting and technique, and play the game on a harder level ... and take my sweet time with it. Which means I'll probably not play through the entire game again by the time I get bored. Because, let's face it, there's a kind of monotony to every quest in ME:A. I heard folks bitching that Dragon Age: Inquisition was already bloated with fetch quests, but oddly enough they didn't bother me as much as they did in ME:A.

There was a huge lot of frothing about bugs and glitches about the game, and unfortunately my play-through had its fair share. Perhaps the most annoying was the times when saved games bombed the game upon a return between gaming sessions, and if it weren't for the earlier autosaves, I'd have lost entire chunks of gameplay. And yes, there was that bloody annoying permabroke issue with the Nomad. Okay, it's not totally a permabroke thing but for the love of fuck, get all your forwarding stations set up before you spend more time on Elaaden. Don't be like Nerine who needed that forwarding station and ended up trashing three hours of game play because there was no way for her to fix her fucking Nomad. Yes, that made me boiling mad.

What did I enjoy? Okay, once I got used to driving the Nomad vehicle, it was loads of fun. And I really, really enjoyed my Remnant-tech sniper rifle. In fact, should I decide to play this game again, I'm going to focus on building up Rem-tech research points and spend time crafting a sick armour and weapons set-up. There was something seriously satisfying in being out of visible distance and taking out all my enemies before they saw me. [Says she who'll most likely either play mage or archer in RPGs]

What's nice also is that you're not locked down to a character concept. Although I started out as a biotic but then upskilled with more sniping skills. My secondary weapon ended up being an Asari sword. My tactic ended up being sniping as many kills from a safe distance, then going in blasting with biotics and my sword, so that I ended up almost like some crazy-ass Jedi. That was loads of fun.

Team members I opted for eventually were Cora, because of her sick shield boosting, and Jaal because he ended up being real bad-ass back-up for my sniper Ryder. Vetra wasn't bad either, and Drack was perfect for when I needed a serious tank.

The lack of any real consequences to choices was the main issue for me with the story. What Dragon Age got *so* right was the emotional wringer they put me through. When I finished Trespasser I moped for weeks after, cursing a certain bald apostate hobo elf roundly. (I honestly felt as if I'd just been dumped.) And there was That Thing with A Certain Party Member that was a real consequence of action taken during the main game that hit me in the feels so hard I felt really, really horrid.

The only thing that made me feel horrid in ME:A was a decision I made that impacted Drack. Yet even that wasn't as heavy as Varric asking me "Where is Hawke?" during one of my DA:I play-throughs. (And the reason why I never ever leave Hawke in the Fade ever again because fuck I love Varric so much and I don't ever, ever want to do anything to make him cry.)

Can you see what the issue is here? There is none of that passionate "oh my god I love these characters so much I'magonna puke" I get with Dragon Age. I was fond of Drack. Jaal's voice reduced me to a slight quivering in my ladybits, and Cora was like a reboot of Cassandra, which is why I took her with me. Everywhere.

Yes, the terrains are lovely, but the wildlife, such as it was, was much of a muchness. The same fucking little bird critters flying around Elaaden are right there in Havarl. It's like BioWare didn't take much time to create enough variance in the eco-systems to give each planet enough of a stamp of individuality. Yes, they're still fun to roar through, and the fact that the environments start out toxic, makes some of the travel quite challenging, but it all started to feel the same but slightly different flavour. Oh, this planet is freezing, this one's radioactive, this one's got poisonous water...

The theme of a twin Ryder was kinda neat, but I feel from a story-telling side they could have done more with it. Though things did go pretty dire for my Scott Ryder, I never really felt that he was in any true danger, and was a bit disappointed that he couldn't play a more active role in the story. His involvement halfway through felt more like an afterthought than anything else.

Anyhoo, I didn't totally hate ME:A, and it's really not a bad game (and the environments are lush). The multiplayer was pretty fun too, but I am honestly not invested enough in the game to spend any more time on it than I already have. It has replay value but its repetitive nature and fetch quests can become stale quickly.

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.