Monday, August 10, 2020

Elevation: The Fiery Spiral (#3) by Helen Brain

 Elevation: The Fiery Spiral by Helen Brain concludes Ebba's journey as she seeks to heal her world. Book two leaves us with Ebba finding herself drawn through a portal into another world, where the challenges she faces in order to come into her own are far more fraught than before. Hampered by her stress and worry about what she's left behind her, and what her enemies are doing to her beloved Greenhaven and Table Island, Ebba must forge ahead to hand the Goddess the necklace with its amulets. But she's not alone. She's found an unlikely ally in Lucas, and together they'll be able to face their challenges head on – that's if they can work through their differences enough to not be at cross purposes. 

While books one and two had some magical elements, most of book three plays out in an alternative realm that offers a surreal environment where nothing can be taken at face value. Both Ebba and Lucas face great personal challenges akin to their own hero's journey heavily laden with symbolism. I can say with great certainty that I have not read a YA fantasy quite like this one, and I'd hazard to say that I kept thinking somewhat of Michael Ende's The NeverEnding Story, as there's a whole lot of meta going on here that can be unpacked, with each scene flowing into the other like sequences in a dream.

I appreciated the novelty offered by this story, especially for its departure from established norms, yet I did feel somewhat that I missed a sense of urgency, especially in terms of what could be lost. Now that I'm able to stand back and look at all three books as a unit, it's clear that book three is a complete departure from what has been set up in the first two. I'm not certain how readers' expectations to this will be affected by the sudden shift so late in the story. Could this have been solved with more foreshadowing at the start? 

This is a difficult book to rate. I like it because it's bold and so different from what I've seen in YA fantasy in recent years. But it has its flaws, and there's a part of me that wonders if the entire trilogy couldn't have been edited as a unit to build in the foreshadowing of events that play out in book three better, so that it is not such a shock to the system when the story shifts from earth to Celestia. The message I picked up was clear: how Ebba and Lucas both learn to look beyond themselves and their issues, to be kind to themselves for their shortcomings, and step up to the plate when they have their chance to prove themselves. So in that sense, this story provides fitting closure to the trilogy.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Black Tides of Heaven by by JY Yang

 JY Yang's writing has been on my radar awhile now, so I looked forward to getting into their writing, especially since this is fantasy that is most certainly not the stock-standard euro-centric fare I'm used to.  Mokoya and Akeha are identical twins, but in their world, children maintain a neutral gender until they decide whether they wish to become male or female. This was a nice touch, which I enjoyed as a breath of fresh air.

Thus the twins' paths diverge as they gain their majority, with Mokoya gaining fame as a prophet, while her brother Akeha drifts into the rebellion between the magic-wielding tensors, who seek to maintain their power as an elite, with the Machinists who, aptly named, work with the mechanical, to bring power into the hands of all citizens of the Tensorate.

Yang's writing is nuanced and rich with description, and the world they evoke is incredibly tactile. I do feel that this is a novel masquerading as a novella, and while I enjoyed the story immensely, I almost felt it moved too fast. This is a world that is ripe for development, and I would have loved to have seen more conflict building up to the ending. Despite this brevity, the story still flows beautifully, providing just enough meat to the bone for me to invest in the telling and the characters.

The book works on many levels, examining the relationship between siblings, as well as siblings and a parent, within a highly complex society with a distinct culture where conflict is brewing between different classes. My only wish is that Yang had stretched out the telling more to take advantage of all the wonderful raw material available.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Sea Star Summer by Sally Partridge

Sea Star Summer by Sally Partridge is the summer vacation book I didn't realise I needed as a diversion from all the dross in my current days. Maybe it's because I grew up in a seaside town, but the ocean has special meaning for me, and Sally *gets* what this is like. Also, her love for the little South African resort town of Jeffrey's Bay, with its ephemeral summer population, shines through. Now I'd love to go visit just to see it for myself.

We meet sixteen-year-old Naomi who is awkward as all hell. I relate hard to her, because I also spent most of my my summer vacations hiding in books. So when Naomi's parents insist that they spend their summer vacation in Jeffrey's Bay, it's not exactly a dream come true for Naomi. But she has her books. So there is that.

What she doesn't expect is running into Elize, whose family is vacationing at the nearby campsite, and although Naomi and Elize are vastly different in terms of their backgrounds, the two hit it off immediately. Elize is everything Naomi isn't, and yet together the two create a special kind of magic.

But then boys. That's par for the course when you're a teenager, and the two who cross Naomi's path cause her no end of complications, but for different reasons. And of the two boys in question, we have blond surfer dude Daniel and Elize's own brother Marius, who's got a bit of a bad-boy vibe going. Honestly, Daniel is, putting it politely, a knob. Every interaction with him made me cringe. Marius was all right. I felt for him. But I'm not going to spoil the story for you.

Central to the story is Naomi's understanding of who she is, and the fact that it's okay that she may not like boys. Much of what she experiences is awkward as all hell, which I think many of us can relate to when we think back to our own first experiences in love. Naomi struggles with what is expected of her and how she thinks she should behave vs. learning to be brave to grow into who she truly is. Sea Star Summer is a sweet tale of a summer romance found when least expected, made poignant by the reminder that the time for it to play out is fleeting.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Black Company (The Chronicles of the Black Company #1) by Glen Cook

I kept hearing about The Black Company by Glen Cook, so when the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed book 1. From what I understand, it's considered a classic, and in fact one of the earliest examples that sparked off the whole GrimDark genre.

Told from the perspective of a mercenary company medic, Croaker, we see the machinations between apparent forces of light and dark play out on the stage of a series of ever-escalating battles. This is military fantasy, plain and simple, so if descriptions of tactics, death and dying, bore you silly, this is not the novel you are looking for.

What I appreciated about The Black Company is that all the characters are morally ambiguous, and we have a big story told from the perspective of someone who's on the lower decks, who is not a big decision maker or player, but nonetheless ends up playing a pivotal part.

Croaker is self aware enough to know he's not in the service of the 'good guys'. In fact, as he picks apart the entire sorry mess of the Lady vs. the Rebel, he comes to realise that everyone has blood on their hands. He's all too aware of his frailty, and stands in awe of the magics at play as the Lady turns her closest servants into undead "Taken", much as Sauron has his Nazgûl. He's caught in the centre, the storyteller trying to make sense of it all, and watching how a prophecy slowly unfolds, and what its ultimate repercussions will be. In fact, there's an element of existentialism in this tale, as Croaker himself philosophises about the ultimate absurdity of it all.

Cook's writing makes you work, and reads like a relatively shallow musing that doesn't dig deeper into motivations, but hurries along and leaves you in the dust if you don't try make connections. So I can see why he's not for everyone. I enjoyed the camaraderie between the characters, the things not spoken of, and that there was a gradually unfolding saga against which Croaker's small part played out. I also liked the idea that things weren't explained to me, so that I had to draw my own conclusions from this morally grey story. Our main character is unashamed by the fact that he takes his pay, does his job, and reserves his opinion for his own private moments. As for whether this makes him good or bad, it depends on which side of his bow you stand.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl as a template for characters' desires

Sometimes we read a story that doesn’t quite hit the mark. Many readers can’t always articulate why it is that a story isn’t as satisfying as it should be, but as an editor, I can tell you that important milestones exist within every story (and every genre) that if they’re not quite ‘there’ then it means that the story falls flat.

I’d like to talk about heroic qualities, and touch on both inner and outer journeys for characters using a film that I’ve loved ever since it came out: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Yes, it’s somewhat silly, and flawed, but what I do believe the writers did well was articulate the main characters’ desires. Each also was the hero of their own story, and each story arc slotted seamlessly in with the others. And most importantly, this film highlights the importance of clearly articulating characters’ desire.

So, let’s go…

Elizabeth Swann is the daughter of Governor Swann, who is in charge of Port Royal. Even though she’s gently bred, she nonetheless yearns for adventure and is a plucky young woman who thinks on her feet. We discover a girl who’s grown up on stories of pirates, and who secretly harbours a desire to experience adventure. Yet she plays the dutiful daughter because that is what society demands. Her initial call to adventure is when as a child she protects the young Will Turner, who is rescued from a shipwreck, and who wears a cursed pirate medallion. She is brave in the face of danger, in sharp contrast to the damsels we often see in film who are the prize and not the ones who claim the prize. Yet she’s not afraid to wield her femininity as a weapon. She is even willing to offer herself up as a prize to Commodore Norrington in order to save the man she loves. Elizabeth shows us a character who despite her apparent vulnerability in a traditionally male-dominated society, is unafraid to give as good as she gets, despite her limitations. Her conflict arises between doing what is expected of her vs following her heart, which is represented in the choice that she makes in whether she will choose a life of security with Norrington or follow her passion and break with tradition by choosing an uncertain life with Turner. A note here on Governor Swann, who bucks the trend of the traditional patriarchal figure who enforces societal norms. He allows his daughter the choice at the end and is concerned for her happiness.

Will Turner is on the standard hero’s quest to find his father, yet his journey to uncover the truth of his past is not smooth. His call to adventure comes when his father sends him a gold medallion, and at a young age he journeys to the Caribbean to find his father. Unknown to him, his father is a ringleader in a pack of pirates fighting over cursed Aztec gold, and he’s been drawn into the heart of this very curse. Employed as a blacksmith’s apprentice with a knack for not only creating fine swords but being a fine swordsman himself, it is clear that he is enamoured with Elizabeth, although she is far about his social station, and theirs would be a most unsuitable match. If it were not for Elizabeth’s kidnapping by the pirates, who mistake her as the scion with the blood who will end their curse, and the fact that Jack Sparrow recognises Will as Bill “Bootstrap” Turner’s son, it is possible that his story would have remained with him crafting swords in Port Royal. Except Sparrow drags him into the adventure, and Will makes startling realisations that horrify him: he is the son of the notorious pirate. And with this he spends most of the film at war with this truth about himself – that there is this wilder side to his nature. He comes fully into himself when he acknowledges his nature, and instead of being the meek blacksmith’s apprentice, he becomes unafraid to take risks and take control of his destiny. While he doesn’t quite gain the closure he desires with regards to his father’s fate, he nonetheless has a better understanding of his place in the world.

Captain Jack Sparrow is perhaps the unluckiest pirate alive, and his existence is filled with one daring escape after the other. He fulfils that delightful grey area of the inveterate trickster who encapsulates both heroic and villainous qualities. Within the story arc of the films it is often through his actions that obstacles are thrown in the path of both protagonist and antagonist, and yet despite his self-serving ways that often are counterproductive to both himself and his allies, he still sets events in motion that are for the good. His desires are clear: he wants to reclaim his ship, the Black Pearl, and he will do anything to attain that goal. The Black Pearl is his prize, his freedom – which is more valuable than gold. It’s these desires of Sparrow that help drive the plot of the film forward and create tension that supports the journeys of Elizabeth, Will and Barbossa.

Captain Barbossa is more than just a one-dimensional villain who rubs his hands in glee. His desire is clear: he wishes to end the curse that sees him endure a shadowy, undead existence, where he is unable to enjoy life’s epicurean pleasures. All he wants is to be able to eat, drink and … well … do the other thing. He is surrounded by opulence, good food, drink, none of which he can taste. He is cursed to sail the Black Pearl through all eternity until he finds that last piece of Aztec gold, which happens to be in Elizabeth’s possession. He needs that medallion and with it spill the blood of Turner. It was through his own greed that he inadvertently sealed his fate when he and his cronies sent Bootstrap to Davy Jones’s locker. Now he has a chance to reclaim his mortality, and his greatest prize, thanks to Will and Elizabeth’s actions. Of course, hijinks ensue, and we end up with a dizzying array of double- and triple crosses.

Where Disney gets this right is that each character is the hero of their own story. If you had to write a book purely from the point of view of any one of these characters, you’d get a perfectly decent story that will no doubt have you at the edge of your seat. Put them all together and balance the tension just right, and you have a beloved, enduring swashbuckling adventure.

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not perfect, and if you ask me, they should have ended at the third movie, but I do believe that we as authors can learn from how these characters’ desires drive them into conflict with each other as each seeks a prize that is unique to them.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Charlotte by Helen Moffett

Anyone who knows me will have a pretty good idea that Regency-era novels are possibly not quite on my radar, but I'm a firm believer of reading widely and reading outside of my chosen genres, so here goes. Charlotte by Helen Moffett is the sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice you didn't know you needed to read. But truth be told, I'd heard so much about darling Charlotte that I went and read Pride and Prejudice so that I'd be suitably prepared with all the back story in place.

I'll start by saying that P&P is an important book to read, and a clever one, because it sneakily delivers biting social critique for its time, and in that sense exists as a capsule reminding us how far we've come in terms of women's rights. Moffett takes up where Austen has left off, and instead of doing the expected, rather continues the story from the point of view of Charlotte Lucas, who is so easy to overlook otherwise yet who nevertheless also has a compelling story. While Mr Collins is the opinionated, somewhat buffoonish, brown-nosed idiot I absolutely loathed in P&P, Moffett does the last thing I expected – she redeems him.

The underlying theme of Charlotte is clear: it's about women not meekly accepting the conventions and expectations laid down by society, but bit by bit finding ways to subvert them and overcome them. This may be seen in how Charlotte deftly handles a matter of inheritance or how an absolutely delightful secondary character goes haring off on a most unsuitable adventure for gently bred women. Even if Moffett does, I feel, take a few more liberties with characters' actions than I think Austen would back in the day, the end result is still plausible and satisfying.

Not only has Moffett continue the storyline with her own, signature twist, but she's also preserved Austen's style of writing, which in itself is no mean feat. And while Moffett's own particular brand of poetry creeps out in key scenes this is in no way jarring. Moffett takes this opportunity to display her rare talent for evocative imagery that had me feel as though I were walking right there on the grounds of Pemberley.

I won't spoil anything further, but I'll urge anyone who's ever loved Pride and Prejudice to go and track down a copy of Charlotte. Moffett has certainly left enough tantalising breadcrumbs that may lead to further stories to follow on from this one.

Charlotte was exactly the comfort reading I needed to read the moment I tucked into it, and I savoured every page.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Author Spotlight: Marvel Chukwudi Pephel

Today I'm featuring prolific Nigerian writer Marvel Chukwudi Pephel for a quick Q&A.

ND: How does your environment and local culture inform your writing?

Marvel Chukwudi Pephel: Thanks for having me, Nerine Dorman. To say the least, I have always wanted to connect with you on the basis of your being a wonderful speculative fiction writer. To your question now: Well, it's obvious that one's environment can influence one's writing. But I don't set out to write an environment-influenced or culture-influenced piece. However, their latent influence cannot be denied. Being a Nigerian, I try to let some aspect of my local culture in; but this cannot be forced. At least, I have learnt this from my years of experience. I let my writings decide for themselves if they want to wear the cloak of my environment and it's local culture. Consequently, the effect is that not all my writings reek of my environment and local culture. So, if not for local names, it might be difficult to tell if the piece was written by an African (Nigerian in this case) or if it was written by a Westerner. And I think this is quite reasonable; for one's imagination should not be confined to the quarters of local culture or its environment thereof. So, in a nutshell, my environment and its local culture has no choking determining hands on the neck of my writing. My subconscious determines when my environment and its local culture should inform my writing; and how they do inform my writing when the situation necessitates it is by making me look at stories about my people that need to be told but which have somehow remained untold.

ND: What do you love best about poetry?

MCP: As a writer who started writing poetry first, I must say that (good) poetry is the foundation of wordly beauty. At an early age, I was exposed to various poets and various forms of poetry. There was Gwendolyn Brooks who wowed me with her poem "We Real Cool". There was Pablo Neruda who set my ambition on higher ground. There was Shakespeare who built worlds of impeccable beauty with his poetry. There was also Wole Soyinka who sat on a cliff in my mind and pointed me to the uncharted territories deep beneath the waters of poetry. I am grateful to all the poets that have affected me in one way or the other. Now, what I love best about poetry is the fact that it is an embodiment of compact beauty. Nothing beats the ability to express an idea in few words nor does anything beat the tingling sensation good poetry gives to the brain. Another good thing is that readers and writers of poetry lead happy lives when they choose to avoid their lives growing moss from the vicissitudes of life. Poetry helps in easy articulation, and I wonder if there is anything more satisfying than this on the intellectual scheme of things.

ND: How has your writing changed your life?

MCP: The truth about writing is that it is therapeutic. Well, my writing has changed my life as much as my life has changed my writing over time. Writing has opened my eyes to the many hidden treasures life has to offer, and has taught me that the more you write the more you care about the humanity of people. It has changed my life so much that I can stay calm when things are not going quite well; and don't we writers face a certain kind of uncertainty when we are at work on a project? If we can endure and persevere, sometimes for years, before finishing up a masterpiece then same endurance and perseverance can be applied to our individual lives. I think writing is an art that can only be practiced by the patient. No one in a hurry has ever produced a work worth reading. My life has also changed my writing. The fact is that my life has always revolved around the appreciation of nature and beauty, and this informs my writing to a large extent. And recently, this appreciation has been growing in exponential, epic proportions. Well, I was taking a walk the other day when I passed through a certain shop popular for its advertisement. This shop sells dogs. I love pets, but not dogs. But this particular Chihuahua sat in its kennel staring so cutely as I walked by; so cutely I felt it was tugging at my heartstrings. So palpable a tugging I returned for it the following day. And now, who's writing a short story featuring a chihuahua named Bliss? Me!

ND: Tell us about your speculative fiction; what are some of the themes that you uncover and elaborate on?

MCP: Speculative fiction is like a darling to me. It offers readers the chance to experience new worlds, which is quite important. In fact, my first fiction to be ever published is a speculative fiction titled "Girl, Blue Eyes, Boy". This particular story gave me quite a tough time. The first version was a mixture of sci-fi and fantasy, but it got rejected twice. It was my essay into fiction-writing, so I was quite sad and annoyed. But I didn't allow myself to be discouraged. Rather, I locked myself in my room and tried to see what was actually wrong with the story. I tried so hard till I fell asleep. A sleep I am quite indebted to; for every unnecessary bit of the story presented itself when I woke up. I quickly edited out the fantasy with satisfaction and sent out the story to Within a short space of time, I received a response; and it turned out to be my first acceptance for fiction. Since then, I have written many more with themes ranging from space travel to alien attacks to time-travel to cybernetics to love and many more. My spec fic can be found on the African Speculative Fiction Society's database, which collects published works of speculative fiction written by Africans.

ND: If there was one thing your current self could tell your younger self, as a writer, what would that be?

MCP: Well, that would be a succinct advice: "It's normal to be uncertain. It is uncertainty that fans the flames of creativity. The progress might seem slow, but wishes can be horses for whoever has the magic of belief.

Marvel Chukwudi Pephel is a prolific Nigerian writer who writes poems, short stories and other things besides. His works have appeared in various media. His poetry was selected for the Best New African Poets 2016 Anthology and the Austrian Haiku Association's Lotosblüte 2018. His short story was shortlisted for the 2019 Sevhage Short Story Prize. His poem titled "Ogene" appears on 10,000 socks printed in Sweden and to be distributed across the world. He is represented by Van Aggelen African Literary Agency. 

Here is a link to his most recent speculative fiction at Kalahari Review.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Instafrights: Short horror stories for the busy gentle(wo)man by John Loc

We don't often have long, uninterrupted stretches of time in which we can sink into a novel, so the aptly titled Instafrights: Short horror stories for the busy gentle(wo)man by John Loc is just right for those of you who want those little snippets of disquiet.

I'm not going to go into great depth with every story, otherwise I'll be here all day, but I enjoyed reading two or three of the stories at a time, then coming back later when I had a moment. Loc's writing style is engaging, with a subtle dark twist of humour that made me giggle every so often. He excels in subverting the everyday, walking that fine line between being deliberately mysterious and paying out just enough information to give a story its sting right at the end. Some tales are just a few paragraphs, but he has a few longer pieces of flash fiction near the end. Instafrights, as the name suggests, is a fun selection of little dark dabs of fiction.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Where the Veil is Thin: An Anthology of Faerie Tales edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy & Alana Joli Abbot

I'll admit upfront it was the cover that grabbed me when I chose Where the Veil is Thin: An Anthology of Faerie Tales edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy & Alana Joli Abbot. And it's been a while since I've reviewed an anthology of SFF stories, especially modern-day fairy tales, so why the hell not. As can be expected, this was a bit of a mixed bag for me, with some stories not quite hitting the mark for me, but overall a pleasing collection of tales.

"The Tooth Fairies: Quest for Tear Haven" by Glenn Parris is a somewhat grisly tale about why tooth fairies are so enamoured with collecting teeth. The story strives for a slightly gritty telling but left me feeling as a little let down. There were some quirky little characters with a somewhat sticky ending.

In "Glamour" by Grey Yuen, hardened cop Jack investigates what he initially sees as a celebrity murder, but with a twist, and leaves more mysteries than answers.

Seanan McGuire's "See a Fine Lady" is easily one of my favourite stories. And who among us who've ever been trapped in untenable work situations haven't fantasised about the weird spilling over and upending our everyday boredom. Here Frankie, who works in Target, has a day that rapidly turns strange when a woman rides a unicorn into her place of work – a unicorn only Frankie can see. Oh, did I mention the unicorn's name is Kevin?

"Or Perhaps Up" by CSE Cooney was another of my favourites – it has an entirely dream-like quality, dealing with concepts of loss, found family, and the spirits of the dead who reside in a sort of magical fae place. Cooney's prose is beautifully descriptive, and the story made me sad for all the right reasons.

"Don't Let Go" by Alana Joli Abbott had a bit more of an urban fantasy feel to it, about a student and her friends who have an extended stay in the Isle of Man, complete with an entanglement with the local fair folk and a clearly defined romance element. I did wonder how the human protagonists accepted the supernatural events so easily, but it was still a fun read.

We meet Rhenna, a fairy who gets by by stealing bodies in "The Loophole: A Story of Elsewhere" by L Penelope. The writing is gritty and tactile, and unashamedly grim in places, and follows the premise of a fairy's struggle to hold onto a stolen body. It feels more like a glimpse into an alternate reality rather than a finished story with a satisfying resolution.

"The Last Home of Master Tranquil Cloud" by Minsoo Kang is told in a standard fairy tale format, but it didn't really blow my hair back. I found myself skimming more often than not, so it's possibly just not for me.

"Your Two Better Halves" by Carlos Hernandez is a choose your own adventure, but as I was reviewing this in ebook format and there weren't any active links to skip pages, I passed on this story, mainly because I also really wasn't in the mood for the format. The writing also didn't engage me enough to put up with the endless paging backwards and forwards. I'm sure in print format this would not have annoyed me as much.

"Take Only Photos" by Shanna Swendson was quite fun, even if it peters out near the end. Our somewhat misanthropic narrator discovers that they have elves in their home, and a colleague helps them get to the bottom of the infestation.

"Old Twelvey Night" by Gwendolyn N Nix is lovely – a relationship between fae of opposing natures that takes a dark turn near the end. This story is strong, crisp and brings forth poetic imagery. Quite possibly one of the strongest in the anthology.

I admit I'm a sucker for selkie stories, but while "The Seal-Woman's Tale" by Aletha Kontis had some nice touches, it didn't quite hit the mark for me. Perhaps some of it lay in the trolls taking on an almost Tolkienesque orcish role, which felt a bit on the nose for me.

"The Storyteller" by David Bowles is filled with wonder and magical realism, and at its heart it's about the interleaving of family myth and the archetypical role of the storyteller. So much to love about this one.

Maybe it's because I used to suffer a chronic skin condition, but "Summer Skin" by Zin E Rocklyn wasn't really my cuppa Joe. Creepy and nasty, and not for the faint of heart.

"Colt's Tooth" by Linda Robertson offers us a creepy riff on the tooth fairy myth, in this American West-themed tale that offers us a run-in with a barber of dubious nature. Also, if tooth violence isn't your jam, stay away from this story.

I do suspect that with this anthology, your mileage will vary, and the stories that I didn't like may well be more to your taste. Well, that's the whole point with anthologies – there's generally a little something of everything, and the editors have put together a fine selection.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Last Kingdom (The Last Kingdom #1) by Bernard Cornwell

I admit freely that I'm one of those readers who fell into Bernard Cornwell's writing courtesy of the Netflix series The Last Kingdom. Since I've blown my way through all four seasons, I've now turned to the books for my Uhtred fix, and boy oh boy, I'm happy to report I've been having a treat.

My biggest gripe is that I didn't start reading Cornwell sooner.

First off, the source material is rather different from the TV series. I understand that the screenwriters had to deviate (budgetary constraints, visual vs. verbal storytelling, etc). So there are differences, the biggest being that in book one, we have far more detail about how Uhtred serves King Alfred on the ships that they build to protect the coast from Danish incursion.

And also, the Uhtred in the books is, ahem, a little less squeaky clean than the one portrayed in the series. That doesn't bother me, because I think Cornwell has done an amazing job bringing this period of English history to life. As a narrator, Uhtred is an outsider, and having that perspective allows him a particularly fine position to comment on the culture of both the Danes and Saxons, and Cornwell weaves together an incredibly nuanced and detailed telling that has me completely hooked. I'm a happy reader, who's busy with the boxed set currently, and each chapter feels like I'm right back there in the old days, grime, glory, guts and all.

I know this is an uncharacteristically short review for me, but all I can say is that I'm a really happy reader on a complete buzz with Cornwell's writing. This dude is goooood. So very good. I need more.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Predators by Michaelbrent Collings

Predators by Michaelbrent Collings is one of those books I suspect would have done better as a live-action thriller on screen or a graphic novel rather than novel. I admit my interest was piqued when the author approached me to do the review, since I am an African and have done the whole 'African safari' thing. So I guess I'd be kinda in the know. And I get it – I don't often have this sort of novel set in Africa land on my desk.

This is survival horror, brutal and bloody. So if that's not your cuppa joe, step away from this book. This is not for you.

We kick the story off with a cast of characters, many of them women who have been damaged by the men in their lives, and they're all off on safari with all manner of dysfunction playing in the background. Except the safari doesn't quite go as planned, and the survivors end up being hunted down by a ravening pack of preternaturally vicious hyenas that made me wonder if these hyenas weren't perhaps demon possessed or something, because amateur conservationist that I am, I'm not hundreds sold on the idea of hyenas behaving quite the way they do in this book. But anyhow, this is a work of fiction, so I'm going to suspend disbelief. People die and the survivors are pushed to their physical and psychological limits. Gruesomely. Rescue isn't likely. The end.

I *get* that the author intended to show a bunch of women being strong in the face of adversity. I *get* that he did a lot of research to make this feel like an 'authentic' African experience. But as an African reader, the whole time I felt like this was a non-African author trying too hard to create an authentic experience for me as a reader, and it didn't quite hit the mark. Don't get me wrong, Collings is a strong writer, but it didn't quite hang together for me in Predators. Whether it was the lack of motivations for certain events that happened (like the catalyst for when things really go wrong at the start that's never truly explained) or for me what felt a bit like contrived back-stories for each woman whose life is defined by the fact that she is hard done by the men in her life, I remain lukewarm at best. If this had been a film, that focused on the act of survival and perhaps a sisterhood that grows out of adversity without dwelling on the demons of the past, this might've worked better for me. And also, just a note, from a technical aspect, this book had a bucketload of little typos – so a more thorough proofread could have helped.

This is not a bad book, just not quite my cuppa, and if survival horror is your thing, you're probably going to ignore the other aspects that didn't work for me.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Die Aanspraak van Lewende Wesens deur Ingrid Winterbach

Ek gaan eerlik wees – ek het gesukkel met Ingrid Winterbach’s Die Aanspraak van Lewende Wesens. Dit is die verhaal van twee uiteenlopende soekers – Karl en Maria. Karl is neuroties, die soort van mens wat sy hande die hele tyd was en wie meer as net ’n bietjie paranoïes is. Maria se lewe is op die oog af suksesvol, maar sy is basies ’n alleenloper, net soos Karl.

Al het albei vriende, is daar altyd ’n versperring tussen hulle en ’n outentieke konneksie met ander mense. Beide ken verlies – Karl met die vergaan van sy liefdesverhouding en Maria met die verbrokkeling van haar huwelik en die dood van haar suster. Karl se ontkenningsreis begin met ’n oproep van een Josias Brandt, wie hom aanraai dat Karl se vervreemde broer Iggy diep in die moeilikheid is en Karl moet hom in Kaapstad kom haal. Maria se paadjie loop ook Kaapstad toe, wanneer sy meer probeer uitvind van die omstandighede van haar suster Sofie se dood.

Winterbach se taalgebruik is ruig met simboliek, maar ek voel amper asof die mooi skrywe die tempo van die verhaal gestrengel het. Met die hart is die ’n storie wat te doenig het met die eksistensiële kwessies wat ’n mens beetkry en die feit dat daar omtrent nooit ’n einde is wat al die antwoorde netjies uitlê nie. Soos my ma my aangeraai het toe sy die boek vir my geleen het – dis maar ’n baie eienaardige storie, met fluisteringe van ’n Gotiese skadu.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Dub Steps by Andrew Miller

Let me start by saying that Dub Steps by Andrew Miller was not quite the novel I expected when I started reading it. The premise hooked me, for sure. But what the ride was entirely unexpected in all the best ways. If you're expecting a TWD setting sans zombies, this is not your book. What you will get is a strangely reflective meandering on the meaning of life interspersed with people trying to figure out what they want while coping with a new reality where more than 99.99% of humankind simply winked out of existence in the blink of an eye. (You'll find out why, near the end, never fear, and it won't quite be what you expected.)

How the remnants cope, varies, and in the telling of their uncovering of their new world and the absurdity of the human condition, we get to know a variable cast of personalities. What I appreciated the most about Miller's writing is the way he humanised even the most unfortunate in his cast. Roy, our incredibly unreliable narrator, sets out on a journey that ends up being both inward and outward. Crippled by his sense of never fitting in, he nonetheless takes on a role within his tiny community of survivors in a South Africa transformed by its people's absence.

Miller manages to pack so much into this book. It is both poignant and pithy, and delivers so much social commentary, even if Roy's constant awkwardness and contrary nature got to me. He's exactly the kind of dude I'd love to hate, yet I couldn't help but feel fond of him. He's a sort of broken-wing, mediocre everyman, and a somewhat tragic figure who stumbles through his world. And yet Roy also displays uncommon wisdom at times, which redeems him as he compulsively attempts to chronicle the world that was – as if that will somehow help him understand what went wrong not only in his life but also preserve the story of the world that was.

While Dub Steps can be considered a work of dystopian science fiction, it's so much more than that. And much in the same way that our lives are messy, often unfinished and all over the place, this is a story that celebrates not only the ephemeral fragility of our existence, but shares the uncommon moments of unbridled joy. This is not an easy read, but it's one that I'll recommend, even if it left me feeling sad and somewhat scratchy behind the eyes by the time I was done.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

On collaboration, and writing in mammoths – with Toby Bennett

Toby and I didn't quite have our book launch in Cape Town like we planned, due to The Thing I Don't Really Want to Mention, and neither of us were up to setting up webinar or something equally sophisticated. So we had a chat via Google Docs, in which we discuss how we've been collaborating on our new novel together. 

Nerine Dorman: Wow, so I believe the world wasn’t quite ready for us this year, was it, eh? Just when things were starting to get interesting, we end up in virtual house arrest. But silver linings, eh? We finished writing a novel together. And in about six months as well.

Toby Bennett: The world has never been ready, and when the device is finally finished they shall all quake before… oh… oh right, you’re talking about the book… Yes, the one solace I have is that I am able to use this time in lock down to polish The Serpent’s Quest… Before turning it over to your red pen for a final pruning – it may have bloomed a bit during my audio review, but I am having a whale of a time which is preferable to wailing all the time I suppose…

So yeah book one all but in the bag and two more to go – the dreaded obligation of a trilogy – still it is nice to be able to share the responsibility with someone… A bit like having a gym partner to spot you I guess. Yes we can have war mammoths AND terror birds! Feel that burn!

ND: Creating this world together feels almost like having part of the benefits of running a roleplaying game without having to roll any dice. To a large degree I think what’s helped us with this story is that we were able to merge our crazy ideas seamlessly. I mean, the novel sounds kinda crazy when summed up as 'ancient Egyptian elves meet Vikings on horseback with a side order of ancient Chthonic beings'.

Despite the initial plans, the writing didn’t quite pan out quite the way I expected, and it’s different with every writing partnership I’ve encountered. Back when I wrote with Carrie Clevenger, we used to swap chapter points of view. And what we’ve got going here is closer to what I know that Alex Latimer and Diane Awerbuck have when they wrote South and i as Frank Owen.

You and I have worked closely on laying down the foundations, but you’ve been an absolute machine knocking out the words while I’ve kinda gone in afterwards pruning, snipping, adding a bit here and there, writing a few key scenes. In a way I feel kinda guilty, but we’ve each played to our strengths in this – so it’s a win-win.

TB: Well that’s the thing, no writer is flawless at every aspect of the craft, and it’s very easy to get bogged down in a single perspective. Collaboration frees us from an individual viewpoint and allows us to offer an amalgamation of the very best each of us has to offer. Though on a side note this does require the skill of unfettering one's ego and asking “what would be best for the story?” It’s not something I would ever recommend any writer do until they are relatively comfortable with their own voice and have developed enough professional objectivity to let go while still caring.

Of course when there is synergy one can never be sure if it is a question of great minds think alike or fools never differ but there has to be a shared vision and an understanding that the work is paramount. Which I think we’ve managed.

For all the potential pitfalls, collaboration is a rare treat. I’ve done it twice now and found it to be professionally and personally rewarding. Writing is often a solitary activity and I think that writing with someone is as close as we come to the enjoyment of musicians jamming together. There’s a bit of extra effort in being mindful of the other person, but the joy of being able to share the process is thoroughly exhilarating. You often find yourself going to some unexpected places and stretching further than you might have on your own.

ND: What I’ve appreciated this far is having someone else to bounce ideas off of – someone who’s as invested in the story as I am. There are moments when I’m writing solo that I encounter tangles that often take weeks if not months to figure out, like how I hit a brick wall with my novel The Company of Birds. My editor at the time could tell me that something wasn’t working, but it wasn’t her place to tell me what I had to do to fix it.

A friend of mine who was co-writing a novel with her daughter would often go on long walks with her, and by the time they got home, would have hashed out the sticky plot points that had been bugging them. Likewise, how our video calls end up spawning mammoths and weird curve balls that I’d never have considered.

It’s like a game of tag, with each writer picking up where the other left off and running with the idea until it blooms monstrous fruit. But as you point out, it’s also about being mindful, and knowing when to step back or step in.

One of the big concerns that I do think a lot of authors have is unevenness in tone, especially if each writer has a particular style. I’d say that you and I are not that vastly different from each other. I also feel that you have a particular knack of looking into a scene and digging just that little bit deeper in terms of motivations, as well as the to-ing and fro-ing of dialogue.

TB: You are far too kind, but I’m a writer so I will take ANY validation! Tone is certainly an issue, but one that I think can be resolved by having each writer review the work. Right now, I am doing an audio read through The Serpent’s Quest and you’d be amazed how many things I am catching – little inconsistencies in tone and story from both of us that seem more stark now that the first book is real and the shape of things better set (We recently started focusing on the northern continent of our world and those changes are having little effect on details in The Serpent’s Quest).

Once I have finished the audio review you’ll get the chance to go through it, which means the tone and language in each scene should be nicely sanded down so no one can see the seams…

I don’t think I can overstate the usefulness of having another brain helping you spark on a story. The big bad in book two got a whole lot nastier and more credible to me when you mentioned a parallel with Alexander the Great – I’d always know there was a schism between our main character, Kelbrin, and his traitorous protege, Dugan, but I suddenly saw how the cracks in their relationship might have developed as Dugan took on the ways of the Abrassian necromancers that Kelbrin had helped him overthrow (many Greeks murmured that Alexander was changed after his conquest of Persia).

It’s the little details that fill out a story and add richness – so two heads really are better than one. I guess what anyone contemplating this kind of project would be interested in is process. The first and most obvious requirement is good communication (stay in touch and share those documents!). I’m typically more comfortable with letting a story unravel as it occurs to me, but in this case the work requires us to be quite specific about where the story will go.

With collaboration one needs a well established framework, preferably with set scenes and events that can be assigned to each writer. Naturally nothing is carved in stone, and the narrative can evolve, but I’d say it’s worth taking the time to get the scaffolding in place.

As I mentioned, new details are already coming up as book two starts to solidify, but we basically know the entire arc of our story and have mapped out the big events already. I’m thinking that will pay off and let us work together better. Know who handles what, and of course the double review process allows each of us to shape every scene to the shared vision we laid out. Oh, also, in case anyone doesn’t know this one, always have a shared map and glossary for reference.

ND: Having that bigger-picture view most certainly helps. I don’t know why the Alexander the Great thing only occurred to me much later. So many villains are hampered by the ‘let’s be evil for evil’s sake’ so I feel it’s absolutely vital that we give Dugan sufficient motivation for doing what it is he’s doing. If we look at all the great empires of the past, in many cases each emperor had their motivations.

For some it was simply a need to expand borders to reclaim previously lost territory – an act within itself that can lead to further expansion once the machinery goes into action. In other cases, for instance the Scramble for Africa, we can see it as a sort of arms race and a quest for raw materials. For instance, the British Empire annexing the Cape Colony from the Dutch to also keep it out of the hands of the French. Dugan starts out, I believe, with the earnest desire to rid his world of the corruption posed by a powerful, corrupt city-state, but good intentions are not necessary enough to keep one from being corrupted in turn.

As authors, we can take lessons from historical events. In terms of collaborating, I’m really appreciating the fact that we can hammer out these details together. It also helps that as individuals, we share a lot of common ground in terms of our personal philosophical world views – so we riff off each other quite a bit. And the best part is that now when I dive in for formal edits, so much of the structural work has been done. We’re playing off of each other’s strengths, which I think will give us a massive advantage by the time we start querying.

TB: Ah, querying, when we find out if the gatekeepers see what we see… joy! Win or lose at that particular game I’m proud of the work we’re doing. I’m not sure what the literary world is going to look like post Covid-19. It wasn’t exactly going gangbusters to start with, but I think that just about the most exciting thing that any of us can do is share our dreams – it’s the reason any writer puts ink on paper (or pixel on screen). Surely the natural progression of that need to reach others must be mingling visions with someone who can dream with you.

I don’t mean to wax too poetic, but there are times when I think the ivory walls of the skull may be the true prison for all of us, the impulses we get from the outside, the only antidote to crippling solipsism… but that may just be a moth of lockdown talking. In either case I look forward to continuing Hetephes and Kelbrin’s journey and I hope that others are keen to come along for the ride. I mean come on, war, betrayal, intrigue and mad gods who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

Certainly it’s a good idea for anyone who wants to take the plunge with us to take a deep breath now because I have every intention of letting up till we reach a gasping, bloody conclusion! WAR MAMMOTHS, HO!

ND: Don’t forget the dragons.

* * *

Pick up Toby Bennett’s fantasy novel The Music Box, or Nerine Dorman’s science fiction novel Sing down the Stars.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Ingenious by Darius Hinks

Okay, so wow, hats off to Darius Hinks for world building. In The Ingenious, he's created a city that immediately grabbed my attention in a way that I won't forget in a hurry. Run by a group of enigmatic alchemists known as the Curious Men, the city of Athanor is not bound by location. Fuelled by alchemy, the city travels from world to world, where it siphons off resources until its rulers deem it time for them to move again. Consequently, the city is a true melting pot of cultures, a sprawling grotesquery of races and architectural styles steeped in squalor for those who don't have power or wealth. I loved this dark, baroque setting hard, and Hinks does a good job of gradually revealing the city's nature.

Enter Isten and her people, a small group of exiles who want to go home. Except they have no say in where Athanor will next settle, and they're hard pressed on all sides by gangs. We stagger into the story just as Isten reappears from a year of drunken indulgence. She's a rogue and a drug addict who has lost her way, and scoffs at her group's idealism. She's also not above using them to get what she wants, and she can't think beyond the next hit.

I get it. She's not a nice person. And she ends up getting mixed up in events that are way beyond her ken when she tangles with one of the Curious Men. Alchemy is involved, as well as dubious moral codes, and just when you think things can't get worse, they do. Isten has no morals, no scruples, until suddenly she does, except after her dark teatime, she's so deep in the dreck that she has to do some fancy footwork to get both herself and the people she's close to out.

This novel has most of the hallmarks I adore in fantasy, but it falls just ever so slightly short of the mark, and I believe it's developmental in the sense that we don't dig deep enough into Isten, in terms of her motivations and her sudden about-face near the end when she has to turn from rogue to hero. We have hints of a wonderful interplay between her and her polar opposite, but I feel as if the story wasn't quite driven far enough for this to feel satisfying. After a promising start, the novel flounders and eventually rushes to tie up loose ends in what feels like a slightly haphazard fashion that left me needing a stronger resolution. Kinda like me sitting back at the end, saying, "Is this it?" There was a particular thread involving the Exiles and a secondary character that could have been foregrounded more to help create a greater sense of upping the stakes and lending more of a sense of urgency.

If you're in the mood for a slice of GrimDark with serious Gothic flavouring, then yeah, this will be your jam. There were some great ideas here, and a simply fabulous setting that's begging a deeper plunge, but I would have loved to have seen more in terms of better realised structure and deeper character development.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

I'm a little on the fence with All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. It's a sweet little book that I feel doesn't easily rest in an exact genre. It's contemporary fantasy but feels more like magic realism with a slight surreal twist. There's also a fair amount of gentle mockery aimed at the whole East Coast hipster vibe that may also see this book not ageing well.

For the most, I couldn't really immerse in the story; it felt like there was a degree of separation between me and the characters, so it came across like the author narrator was at the wheel telling me the story rather than me having my preferred deep point of view. This in itself is not a major sin, and some authors do it really well, like Neil Gaiman, for instance, but it didn't really work for me here. I kept getting jerked out of the story, and I felt as if the tone, although charming, lacked sincerity.

The heart of this story centres around the age-old trope of magic vs. science, with two main characters who are polar opposites of each other, and you can see from a mile away that they're going to get romantically entangled no matter how much they have a prickly friendship as children. The novel follows them from awkward childhood to equally awkward adulthood, as they each become masters of their particular professions: Laurence is some sort of hotshot computer whizz while Patricia is a witch.

Anders' writing has a lot of whimsy, and some of the imagery is quite lovely, but in the end what salted it for me was the fact that I felt that distance from the meat and bones of the story. I also felt that there was a lot of build-up to the cataclysmic conclusion, which then sort of fizzled out near the end. I don't know if it was a case of the author being unsure of where they were headed or if they were rushed to finish. I also didn't feel strongly about either Patricia or Laurence – perhaps I liked Patricia more than I did Laurence, but the lack of immersion in either's point of view didn't help. All in all, I wasn't sold, even if I generally found this an enjoyable ride that I'll appreciate discussing with others who've also read the book.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Last Wish (The Witcher #0.5) by Andrzej Sapkowski

I'm hopping on the fandom bandwagon a bit with this, but hey, YOLO. I've meant to read The Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski for a while now, and while my reading speed is seriously slow, I felt it would be an interesting exercise to tackle the books the series and the games are based on, and see where they differ. The Last Wish, which is where one needs to start, chronologically speaking, is more a selection of short stories from Geralt of Rivia's world, that are are more a nod towards our perennially popular fairy tales than a cohesive saga. Backstory, if you will. My favourite out of the whole bunch was the retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Nivellen will be adapted for screen.

While the fandom is not quite as toxic as that of other IPs (like Star Wars, for instance), it will forever be divided between the gamer fanbois, book-thumpers and thirsty Henry-gasping females. Okay, that was possibly a bit disingenuous for me to describe it as such, but I've dabbled in the games and only really came on board after watching the series, and I can well imagine the scorn heaped upon me by the One True Fans who see me as a Jenny-comes-lately. Whatever. I don't care. And in any case, my opinion doesn't count for much in the bigger scheme of things. I believe there is room in a fandom for the source material and its adaptions to exist cheek by jowl, with the adaptions allowed to be exactly what the word 'adaption' means: a riff on the original, so expect there to be differences. And no, I don't give a flying fig whether you think game Triss or Yen are better than the series versions. 

I'm here to discuss the book, and it's clear that the show plays fast and loose with the source material, but in a way that I do feel stays true to the spirit of what I've read so far. It took me a few chapters to get used to Sapkowski's writing, as I'm sure much of the nuance was lost in a clunky translation from the original Polish. Little quirks with the dialogue tags bugged the hell out of me at first – smiling, nodding, grimacing etc of words – but I decided to shut my eyes and just go along with the ride. Highbrow literature this is not.

What is clear to me is the slyness of Sapkowski's humour. And Geralt is dry – very dry. In a way that makes me smile. This dude, he's seen pretty much everything, and yet here he is. Still putting up with people's nonsense. So in that sense, he makes a great narrator, and there's a fair deal of social commentary that flows in the undercurrent to make this more than just a bunch of action-riddled, monster-bashing quest.

What matters is that I'm invested. Thanks to the series and the games, I'm invested enough to go pick up the rest of the books. They have a charm all of their own. The Witcher is fun, surprisingly quirky, and should satisfy fans of the genre. Oh, and I'm here for the elves. Because I'm unashamedly shallow like that.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I'll admit, the thing that made this novel easier for me to figure out was that I'd watched Pride and Prejudice (2005) starring Keira Knightley. I'd put off reading the actual Jane Austen novel for most of my life. This is not my usual fare, at all, but because a good friend of mine, Helen Moffett, is seeing the release of her P&P sequel Charlotte, I figured I'd better get reading so that I could have the background.

Historical fiction written during contemporary times is one thing, but actual fiction from more than hundred years ago is quite another. Austen writes for an audience that would take conventions in clothing and the environment for granted, focusing instead of dialogue and mannerisms. So we're left with a kind of shallow, limited third person that doesn't feed readers who're used to a deeper point of view. So it helps immensely for folks like me, who honestly don't have a clue, to have watched that film. It gave me useful context. Don't be ashamed to watch the film before reading the novel.

I believe it does the book a disservice to evaluate it using contemporary standards. Authors these days have a deep well of literary conventions to draw from, so applying those to Austen will rob the book of much of its character. For me, P&P exists as a time capsule, offering a glimpse into particular cultural and social mores prevalent within English society at the time. We step into a world where characters are trapped by their status within society, and while it can be argued that many of Austen's characters are shallow (um, hello, Mr Collins much), I feel that Austen is taking stabs at society. And it makes me also realise how much society has changed, and what we, as women, take for granted in terms of our liberties and empowerment in contemporary times.

While I didn't gain the same sort of enjoyment from Pride and Prejudice as I would from the usual titles I'll slide onto my Kindle, I nonetheless walked away from this novel feeling as if I'd gained a better understanding as to why Regency-era stories have carved themselves such a beloved niche among readers. It's easy to loathe some of the characters, and at a glance, people like Mrs Bennett seem facile and annoying, but if you dig a little deeper, the social commentary becomes crystal clear. Sure, Mrs Bennett's obsession with marrying off her daughters seems exhausting, but if you understand her very real fears that she would not be able to care for them if they never got married – for there were no prospects for a woman in those days to have a career – then it's possible to be more sympathetic towards her. Despite each character having perceived privileges, they themselves are trapped by their social standing. And don't get me started on Mr Collins, and especially his appalling commentary when one of Elizabeth's sisters elopes.

It took me some time to get used to Austen's style, and now that I'm done with the novel, I also realise it's a story that begs being reread at some point. The beauty of the telling lies in what the characters have to say to each other, and how they respond to circumstances, and I feel on the first read through there were many subtleties that I may have missed.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Beachcombing in South Africa by Rudy van der Elst

One of my earliest memories involves going for walks on the beach with my family. We often found such magical items such as mermaid's purses, cuttlefish shells and sometimes, if we were lucky (or early) even paper nautilus shells. We once even found a boomerang! So it was with a fair amount of nostalgia that I picked up Beachcombing in South Africa by Rudy van der Elst.

This light, easy-to-read guide gives a very basic overview of what one can expect to find while on the beach, be it items that are from the sea, such as shells, jellyfish or fish, to items that have floated on the tide such as seeds from trees or manmade flotsam and jetsam. In case you were interested, yes, there is a difference between flotsam and jetsam, and you'll find out what that is.

Due to the scope of the book, there isn't space for Van der Elst to go into any great detail about any of the topics, but he does provide a good jumping off point for those wishing to dig deeper (the references and further reading section right at the end will provide loads of content to seek out).

Each section is amply illustrated with informative photos and info panels, that offers a taste of information that will at least lend seekers with some authority when explaining what they've found – especially useful I reckon to parents embarking on a seaside holiday with kiddos. There is some indication of the legalities and protocol to keep in mind when finding certain objects, and what to do when encountering sea mammals and birds in distress. The useful contacts and numbers right at the end is also a nice touch.

All in all, this is a useful book, and if you're one of the lucky sods who has a beach house, get yourself a copy to leave there for those seaside holidays.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Raft by Fred Strydom

I'm going to be straight-up honest. I don't think The Raft by Fred Strydom quite worked for me. I've heard so much about the book, that it's amazing, and all that, but my feeling upon finishing the novel was that it could probably have had about a quarter of its content dropped on the cutting room floor and been a stronger novel for it.

If you're looking for a post-apocalyptic quest in a similar vein as kind of world you'd expect in The Last of Us, or The Walking Dead, sans the zombies, this is not that book, although there is an inner and outer journey–just not in any strict linear fashion. What we do have is a nested narrative filled with seemingly unconnected vignettes and a fair amount of existential dread.

So if something a bit more reflective and ambiguous in tale-telling is your thing, go for this book. This story will most likely speak to you then. I personally found it a little too loose, and taking just a little bit too long to reach a point. Reality is fluid, and it's difficult telling dream sequence apart from the actual happenings, to the point near the end that I was almost too afraid to trust anything the author laid down in the story. And who knows, maybe that was his intention. There's even a space where Strydom shifts to second person, instead of first, which just jarred me out of the story.

There were times where things got a little Event Horizon for me, so I suppose this is sufficiently SF, but even so, I do feel that the navel gazing Mr Kayle engages in kinda rubs the edges off the impact of the ending. The twist in the ending, when it came, wasn't wholly unexpected, and it had a pleasant sting. I just feel that we could have fewer twists and turns before we got there. Strydom can write, though, and he makes some great observations. I feel if The Raft is viewed in a more literary light, it stands a little straighter. But right now, lit-fic just isn't my jam.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Immortals' Requiem by Vincent Bobbe

I'll start by saying this much, Immortals' Requiem by Vincent Bobbe is not for the squeamish. Blending slashes of horror with dark fantasy, the story follows the points of view of multiple characters as they begin their descent into the catastrophic events that play out when an ancient evil awakens in Manchester. The apocalypse has arrived, and it's very hungry.

Cu Roi, otherwise known as The Miracle Child, is out of control, and after thousands of years asleep, intends to make his mark on a world ill equipped to deal with the being and his monstrous children, the barghests. In the time that he has been out of circulation, magic has faded even more, and those who would oppose him face a seemingly insurmountable challenge to fight a monster and its spawn.

If you, like me, don't have huge piles of time, this story is perfect – each section is short, and filled with non-stop action, so it's the kind of novel you can read bits of when you're on the go. At times I did feel that I had a little whiplash from all the shifting points of view, but overall Bobbe does a decent job of giving each character some screen time.

Briefly we dip into the world of the elves and their ilk, where a great cataclysm has all but destroyed the way of life of the two towers where the fair folk live. My favourite character out of the entire story was Cam, who's lived among humans for most of his life, having spurned his elven heritage, and who has fallen into a nihilistic pit of despair thanks to the fact that his people's magic is dying. The smart-mouthed elf is merely marking time, from bottle to bottle, and the fact that he doesn't want to be a hero, makes the fact that he's dragged, kicking and screaming into misadventure, all the more entertaining to watch.

Immortals' Requiem is a blood-drenched, ultra-violent quest that features a veritable bestiary of supernatural creatures. There's not much time for navel-gazing, and I'll hazard to say, don't pick too many favourites, as the body count is high. Be warned: this novel has its Army of Darkness moments. That should give you more than enough idea of what to expect.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

eSnakes of Southern Africa, PDA Solutions

I can pretty much guarantee that every time I've encountered a snake in my garden or while on a hike out in the veld, I haven't had a chance to quickly run into the house to grab a field guide. So to have an app handy on my phone is absolutely brilliant. eSnakes of Southern Africa is based on A Complete Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa by Johan Marais, and is an absolute must for anyone who's passionate about identifying the scaly critters. And who knows, perhaps recognising a snake might even be a life-or-death situation.

The app is easy to use, its primary drop-down menu giving your a list option with all species, adders or vipers, back-fanged and so on, as well as a useful smart search function where you can fill in fields to identify a snake you're not sure of. There's also a handy spot where you can list which snakes you've seen according to species, location and date, and then also handy extras that give you basics about snake biology, behaviour and more. Each section also has ample photos and illustrations. You have a choice between English and Afrikaans as well.

Now on to the individual species. What makes this app far more useful in practice than a book, is that you're not going to waste time paging. If like me, you already have a basic understanding of the different snakes and species of the region, you'll already know the difference, at a glance, between an adder and a house snake – you'll be able to fine tune your search quite quickly.

Each species profile gives you a good selection of photos to aid identification, diagrams illustrating length, head shape, as well as basic information about length, scale count, colour, preferred habitat, habits, distribution maps and more. Even better, there is a tab for emergency contacts – dog forbid you'll ever need that.

If you're often out and about in the region, this app is invaluable, especially for natural lovers, and is well worth the investment, especially if you don't want to lug books around with you when you're travelling.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Introducing Kevin E Green, narrator for the Inkarna audiobook

I am *so* excited to introduce Kevin E Green, a UK-based actor who'll be narrating the audiobook version of my revised edition of Inkarna. The novel's been out of print for a number of years now, but I'm currently working hard to bring out the sequel, and for that to happen, it's meant that I've had to roll up my sleeves and spruce up book one too. I'll be welcoming a whole host of new readers to the world of Those Who Return.

But first, a little about Kevin...

"I started narrating in earnest when I took early retirement some years ago. I have since narrated over 70 books covering all genres from steamy romance to psychological thrillers, plus a number of non fiction. I have over 30 years acting experience which helps in voicing and characterisation. I think my favourite genres are murder mysteries and thrillers.  My background before retiring was in science and engineering, so I have no problems narrating technical non-fiction! I live in Lancashire, England with my wife Dianne and our dog Rupert. See"

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Ventifact Colossus (The Heroes of Spira #1) by Dorian Hart

With fantasy in general being rather grim and dark these days, it's quite refreshing to encounter The Ventifact Colossus by Dorian Hart. This is the kind of book that reads like your typical D&D campaign, but with a slight Disney-esque flavour to keep things from getting too heavy. Magical McGuffins, check; wizards, check; weird beasties, check; a flying carpet, check. Dorian also does what so many authors struggle to do – balancing a story where there are multiple viewpoint characters, and giving each a unique voice. I'm team Morningstar all the way, just so you know.

The gist of the story is that a ragtag of eight random characters who seemingly have nothing that makes them remarkable, are drawn together by a wizard's spell for the purpose of saving the world. All are, to a degree, rejects or your average joe, thrown together to do the extraordinary, heading off on quest after quest while hoping to find all they need to stop the Big Bad. It feels a little like a lower-deck story, but I suspect in subsequent novels in the series, that the characters will really come into their own.

I can't say much more other than this was a fresh-faced, fun story that although I struggled to suspend disbelief with certain events near the end, I was overall entertained. And I'd say that this is also a novel that you can happily pass on to even your teen readers. This feel-good adventure has a sincerity to it that I've been missing in fantasy of late. It may be too light for some tastes, but it's just right if you're in the need of reminding that the world is not all doom and gloom.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Mythumbra by Storm Constantine

What I love about Storm Constantine's writing is not so much the story, but rather the mood and the environment that she evokes with each piece. And if you're looking for plot-driven narrative structures with wicked twists, then perhaps this collection of short fiction is not for you. Mythumbra: A Collection of Stories sees Storm collecting stories that have appeared in a number of different publications, and offers a mixed bag in terms of what you might encounter, ranging from secondary world fantasy and sci-fi, to gothic fantasy with Lovecraftian notes. Storm very much pays homage to the rich weirdness of Tanith Lee's writing.

"The Drake Lords of Kyla" is perhaps one of my favourites, with a traveller encountering a dragon-like people known as Lighurds. There's the narrator's fascination with the exotic, and the thrill as she sees a slice of a culture entirely different from her own. This story is more reflective mood piece and travelogue.

"Long Indeed do We Live" was not a story that I really gelled with. It examines how mankind might not flourish as intended in a controlled environment, even though every need is catered for when the environment beyond the protected domes has been destroyed. And yet there is an element of horror, of the supernatural hinted at. Whether this is the imagination of the people in the tale, is a matter of conjecture.

"A Winter Bereavement" brings us into the world of the countess Areta, and her younger companion Mimosa, as the former embarks on a seduction. This is a very mannered, almost Victorian tale, that focuses on mood and gesture, and yet heads off into unexpected, uncharted territory at the end.

Okay, so I loved "The Saint's Well" which pitted a man of the church against the miracles perceived by a small town in the country. It delves into the magic of subjectivity, and now an event may not need to be objectively true for it to still maintain some profound, private truth for those who experienced it. Storm's evocations of the countryside are vivid, and make me feel as if I am right there, walking with the protagonist.

"At the Sign of the Weeping Angel" is filled strangeness, of how when one is plunged into an unfamiliar environment – especially if it is a party of someone you don't know – the act of entering a strange space can put you in contact with nameless mysteries. Storm doesn't explain much here, and I feel this is the kind of story that will give you something different with the next read.

"Master of None" was dark. Horribly and wonderfully dark, and takes a stab at the consequences of someone addicted to New Age courses – and how the plethora of qualifications offered are at the end of the day, rather quite absurd. And yet the hapless protagonist, in her obsession with finding yet another certificate for her wall, stumbles onto something that is a little more than what she expected.

"In the Earth" was another that I adored. At its heart it's the story of childhood reminisces, and how our opinions of events in the past may be coloured over time. Once again, Storm effortless evokes the sense of old houses, the countryside, oppressive weather, and awkward interactions.

"From the Cold Dark Sea" brings a classic touch of Lovecraft, but with a more feminine angle. This is a journey, about an outsider offered a glimpse into a world that she may never be part of. And that is all I'll say. Once again, wonderful imagery, deeply evocative, involving the ocean and the life teeming beneath the surface and washed up on the shore.

"In Exile" is a story that offers a slice of life, yet another where an outsider is offered the opportunity to glimpse into a world that is not her own. Mabelise and her sister have been sent to live in a villa, where they are strangers on the island, and not privy to the true meaning of the rituals the locals enact. Mabelise's sister is there to recover from a serious illness, yet Mabelise has no real hope for her sister's healing. The women who are caring for them may have an unconventional approach, however.

"The Serpent Gallery" is a peculiar piece. It feels as if it has a contemporary setting, and yet there's a strangeness to it that pitches the story into oddness. I loved the unsettling descriptions of the mysterious paintings. I won't say more, for to do so would ruin the experience.

The last story, "The Foretelling" is, in Storm's own words, a Pre-Cataclysm tale of of Azeroth. She makes no secrets of her love of the World of Warcraft setting, and while it's not a setting I know all that well, I still enjoyed dipping into the world.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Reject by Edyth Bulbring

Edyth Bulbring brings her readers back to Juliet Seven's world in The Reject. Events in book one, The Mark, were left a little in the air, with Juliet escaped on board a stolen yacht with a price on her head while Mangeria was dumped into turmoil. There was no HEA for her and her love Nicholas.

It's going to be difficult to review The Reject without massive spoilers, so I'm not going to discuss specific plot points. At its heart, this is a quest-novel, with Juliet aiming to return to Mangeria and reunite with Nicholas. Except the Fates have other things in mind for her, and she's blown far off course with two major side-quests, as it were.

The story isn't straight-up SF, but blends in elements of fantasy as well, so be warned that occasionally there are dream-like sequences involving beasts of omen, like hadeda ibises and yes, even a great white shark. This novel reads far grittier and darker than I expected – Juliet is a hard young woman, and most certainly a product of her environment. This means that she's not particularly likeable, but her strong will to survive and yes, her bitterness, make a lot of sense. She doesn't allow folks to push her around. Or if they do push, she will find ways to push back.

I did feel that the pacing was a little off with The Reject, but then Edyth does compress a lot of time in the story – and although there are events that take place, they are almost lost in a kind of narrative summary. My suspicion is that this novel suffers a little bit of what I term as 'middle book syndrome' where there's a measure of setting up for a book three. Not that I've heard whether a book three is in the works, but it wouldn't surprise me a book were to drop at some point in the future. The first half of the novel feels like a detour, offering important back story, before it gets on the move again.

There are some pop-culture nods that made me smile, which I suspect may go a little over the head of readers who haven't watched older films. But I enjoyed the intertextuality. I will, however, suggest that folks might reread book one before dipping into book two, especially if some time has lapsed since the last read – and here the fault lies with me, the reader. I was a little overwhelmed with the cast of characters and their relationships in the last part of the story, where things really start moving. I think if I were more solidly grounded in the context, this wouldn't have been so much of a problem for me.

The Reject offers a cracker of a story, and when it really gets going, it rushes at a headlong pace, perhaps sometimes a little too fast, in my opinion. I would have liked to have seen more immersion in the world, a bit more tactile, sensory input to flesh the setting out. But these were not dealbreakers for me. I enjoyed seeing Juliet's interactions with the people around her, the way she's often in denial about her own feelings, and also how she tries (and perhaps even fails) to do better than the people in her past who let her down.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Shadow in Summer (Long Price Quartet #1) by Daniel Abraham

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham is one of those fantasy novels that are difficult to quantify in  brief review. It's also an incredibly textured, layered story that peels away gradually, and stylistically clearly has its roots in an Asian-inspired setting.

The heart of the story is that poets control gods, otherwise known as andats, who are bound to do their bidding. The andat of the city of Saraykhet, Seedless, specialises in removing things, be it seeds from cotton or babies from wombs – and a "sad trade" as they call it is the pivotal moment that sets a series of events in motion as characters plot and plan around each other. If intrigue is your crack, then A Shadow in Summer will provide this in abundance.

I'm not going to go into all the characters, except to say that Daniel spends a lot of time laying the groundwork for future machinations – we have a rogue accountant, an accountant's assistant, a prince in hiding, and a poet-in-training. I'd never thought an accountant could have such a devastating adventure, but there you have it. There's young love, betrayal and disappointment. In essence, this novel reminded me a lot of Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor in that that we don't deal with any cataclysmic events, but there is a slow burn of unravelling events.

Book two is most certainly in my sights, and I'm glad I've had the opportunity to discover Daniel's tales. His writing is detailed and his worlds are solidly realised, and will appeal to fantasy readers who enjoy a slower pace.