Monday, March 1, 2021

Quick ID Guide: Wild Flowers of the Cape Peninsula by Hugh Clarke and Corinne Merry

The Cape Floral Kingdom is considered a hotspot in terms of biodiversity, and many truly special species can be found in the Cape Peninsula. The City of Cape Town is unusual, in that it has a National Park running right through its heart, and for many Capetonians it's as simple as a ten- to fifteen-minute drive to get close to nature. Observant nature-lovers are bound to see any number of floral beauties, no matter the time of year, and in this Quick ID Guide: Wild Flowers of the Cape Peninsula, authors Hugh Clarke and Corinne Merry sketch out an introduction to the most commonly encountered blooms.


Wild Flowers of the Cape Peninsula
 not only serves as a guide to the different species, but also provides simple maps that assist with the planning of your hiking trip and offers an introduction to the floral beauties of the region that is useful to those who are new to putting a name to a flower and more seasoned nature-lovers alike.

I've found the way the book is laid out to be quite useful too – flowers are not arranged by the season, as I would have expected, but rather by their colours, with photos that display their defining characteristics. Further information includes the flowering season, height, descriptions, leaves, distribution and habitat. Pointers on how to find particular flowers is also offered, along with helpfully colour-coded walking routes and advice on how to explore safely and sensibly – especially if you are considering an ascent of Table Mountain.

This slim volume will easily slip into your backpack, and it's most certainly a book I'll be referring to the next time I head out into the veld. As a Capetonian who's done a fair bit of hiking, it's been wonderful to be reminded how much beauty exists right on my doorstep.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Orca by Richard Peirce

Anyone who's local to the False Bay coastline will no doubt have a passing familiarity with our local shark cage diving industry that's a huge tourist attraction. In Orca, Richard Peirce, takes a deep dive into the shark cage diving community of Gansbaai in particular, and gives us a glimpse into the complex, interlocking of community and nature, and the difficulties a community faces when they rely heavily on a natural resource that is increasingly under environmental pressure.


The great white sharks of False Bay are known for their population density and also their habit of breaching, when hunting their prey of Cape fur seals. This understandably has resulted in many exciting photographic opportunities in addition to the chance for visitors to get up close and personal in the cages that are submerged at the spots sharks often frequent. 

Sleepy little seaside towns like Gansbaai have, over the years, been transformed into mini tourist meccas, with many local operators launching several shark-viewing trips a day. At least that was until the majestic great white sharks vanished. Even more disquieting were the carcasses of mature sharks washing up on beaches in the region. What could be killing the sharks? 

Peirce pieces together the mystery, relating how a pair of roving orcas, named Port and Starboard for how their dorsal fins have flopped over, have developed a somewhat grisly taste for great white sharks – particularly their livers – and how they periodically return to prey on a supposedly apex predator.

Naturally, when the great whites vanish, this has a catastrophic effect on the community, which has consequently adapted to these 'droughts'. Fortunately, there are species of shark that have saved the day, for instance the smaller bronze whaler sharks, and tour operators have looked at diversifying the activities that they offer to make up for the times when the great whites are MIA.

What Peirce highlights is the fragility of our ecosystems, and especially our oceans, which are under so much pressure. Is this new behaviour from the orcas? How have humans had an impact on our environment? While there is no convenient closure to this book, it does serve as a cautionary tale for those of us who live close to the ocean and those who rely on it for a livelihood. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Entreat Me by Grace Draven

I can never get quite enough of Grace Draven's writing when I'm in the mood for a gothic romance, which is very much her forte, offering crumbling edifices, doom-laden loves and clever dialogue. Her writing feels as though it harks back to the Brontë sisters, which makes me entirely happy (and yes, I'm a huge Wuthering Heights fangrrrl, so bite me). In Entreat Me, Draven riffs off the old classic Beauty and the Beast, but done in her signature style, which means you'll recognise elements of the template, but the story takes quite a number of surprising twists and turns.


In short, the widow Louvaen is fiercely protective over her younger half-sister Cinnia, and when the latter pulls a runner to abscond with a dashing son of a mysterious warlord in his remote demesne, Louvaen thinks nothing of it to play chaperone while the young lord courts her sister. Except Louvaen has run straight into the snarled thorns of a centuries-old curse, and her presence may well prove the linch pin to end it even as she finds her own love in the most unexpected place. 

Firstly, Louvaen is my kind of heroine. She's an older woman, she is brimful with courage and attitude, and she is not afraid to speak her mind ... or act. Which in a man's world can and does make her a powerful enemy (but I won't spoil). Draven has outshone herself with this book, delving deep in to the daily life surrounding a castle, and I absolutely adore the ring of authenticity she imbues in her writing, even to the details of spinning flax (yes, this is something I've actually recently researched). 

Entreat Me unravels slowly until it tangles into a cataclysmic end, filled with magic and danger and yes, true love. Her characters' interchanges are an absolute treat too, and she manages to bring across an archaic feel that is lively with humour. (Louvaen really has a sharp tongue that is a wonder to behold.) Yes, this is a kissing (and more) kinda book, but the erotic elements never overshadow the plot, which makes it my kind of romance.

Now excuse me, while I go track down the next book by Grace Draven that I haven't read yet...

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Fire Within by Morten W Simonsen

Fire Within by Morten W Simonsen is a fantasy novel that at the start, I felt, had a lot going for it. We kick off with a prison break then immerses readers in a world on the brink of war with a non-human race. The story centres around two brothers who, through circumstances, are placed at odds with each other by a father who requires nothing but exact compliance – and it's brother Ivan who's drawn the shortest straw, cast out of his family, outlawed and reviled, who now seeks to tear it all down from the bottom up with his outlaw gang. We have Thedric, who lives in the shadows of his elder brothers, who feels he can never quite measure up, to the detriment of his own selfhood as he tries and fails to impress his father, the Lord Styles.


Then we also have Ani, who is in possession of the kind of secret that will see her a valuable pawn in the hands of men who desire power. Out of all the characters, I feel she was the most poorly developed – either the author purposefully drew her out to be hopelessly naïve on purpose, or he doesn't know the first thing about writing a female character in the first place. I know I'm coming out a bit harsh here, but honestly, as a woman who's an avid fantasy reader, this has got to be one of the most frustratingly annoying characters I've encountered in years. Either way, she was the one reason why I wanted to hurl my iPhone across the room out of sheer annoyance. Then, the Thing (I think you can figure out what I mean without me saying it) that happens to her near the end was, in my opinion, so hopelessly unnecessary and as a plot device felt wedged in and something along the lines of 'let's do a terrible thing to a woman for the sake of being grim.' I get that her character is 'special' but the way she is developed as a character in this first book is the reason why I'm downgrading the review to three stars and will in all likelihood not bother reading the rest of the books. 

This is clearly the first book of a series, and as such there's a lot of set-up with a bunch of threads left up in the air at its close. Simonsen's writing is adequate, but I do feel this work could have used a bit of spit and polish not only from structural edits, but a bit more of a thorough copy edit overall. I saw quirks that only a copy editor would notice, which jerked me out of the reading (and I do try to separate my reader brain from my editor brain, but in this case I was not as successful, evidently). If you're looking for action-packed, grimdark, then this story will most likely hit the right buttons, but its execution was in my not-so-humble opinion a bit rough around the edges and in need of deeper development.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Field Guide to Mushrooms & other Fungi of South Africa by Gary B Goldman & Marieka Gryzenhout

Mushrooms have fascinated me from a young age, and always with my mother's admonishment of certain death should I even think of touching them unless they were prepackaged from the local store. Yet in recent years we've also seen growth in interest for foragers taking advantage of South Africa's great diversity of fungi, many of which are not just edible, but downright delicious, be it a pine ring or Kalahari truffle. In their Field Guide to Mushrooms & other Fungi of South Africa by Gary B Goldman & Marieka Gryzenhout have created a functional and informative guide that, I hope will, not only serve as a clear guide to steer foragers to delicious edible boletes but help them identify the poisonous copper trumpets, salmon coral, aptly named death caps and more.


But this book is more than that – in my mind it serves as an enticement to look closer at nature, for there are so many fantastic types of fungi – a whole wonder world of them worth exploring. By the time I was done flipping through these pages, I was on the verge of buying a macro lens for my iPhone. My sense is that we spend so much time exploring South Africa's macro-fauna, we completely overlook these subtle, ephemeral beauties.

As with any field guide, there is only so much information that can be given. The introduction offers the usual of the instructions on how to use the book, what mushrooms are, their growth and reproduction, their identification, the fungal kingdom as a whole, the role of mushrooms in nature, edible and poisonous kinds, foraging, and also photographing mushrooms.

The species accounts offer many clear photos and concise descriptions that most certainly make IDing mushrooms far easier, and not only that, but there's even a bunch of recipes at the back – so I'd hazard to say, this book offers just about everything you need to get started for your mushroom hunting, whether you're framing photos, taking spore prints or collecting for your next meal.

The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

When you mention the word 'pirate' these days, folks generally either point to the well-known Pirates of the Caribbean films or to the TV series Black Sails. The subject of piracy is far less glamorous than either will paint it out to be, and is far more complex than just a bunch of roving sea dogs out to steal treasure. According to Colin Woodard, the so-called roots of the Golden Age of Piracy lay much deeper, and he explores as much in The Republic of Pirates – Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down.


I downloaded the audiobook as part of my monthly Audible subscription, and found it to be both meticulously researched and well presented, with Woodard going into not only the history of the forerunners of piracy, as with Captain Avery, but also examining the complex political intrigues in Europe, slavery, and how these contributed to the phenomenon of piracy during the early 18th century. We follow the doings of the notorious Blackbeard, 'Black Sam' Bellamy and Charles Vane, among others. 

What I found particularly interesting was the notion of piracy as a small counter-revolution (and to a degree a proto-democracy) to the authoritarian nature of government prevalent in the UK and the Americas at the time. Life at sea then was incredibly harsh, with many men being press-ganged into service aboard naval vessels where chances of surviving storm, disease and other misfortune were often slim indeed. And not just that, but these seamen were often merely a step above slaves themselves. Woodard explains how piracy and privateering were natural responses to an oppressive system, and also examines the complicity and insubordination of the communities that supported them.

While Spanish treasure galleons often made the greatest prizes, these sailing fortresses were often challenging prey, so pirates and privateers often turned their sights to easier targets, gradually building themselves up to the point where they could take larger prizes. Woodard also relates the hazards of maritime warfare in great detail, and examines the context in which a number of illustrious and notorious figures rose and fell, until piracy was eventually stamped out. 

This is a well-produced, well-narrated audiobook that I heartily recommend to anyone who is fascinated by the topic and wishes for a starting point in their research. At some point, if I do encounter a print version of this rather hefty tome, I'm certainly adding it to my permanent collection. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Circe by Madeline Miller

A few years ago I picked up a copy of The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, and having read and enjoyed Mary Renault immensely, I was hooked immediately – it's my opinion that Miller is Renault's literary heir. Miller not brings ancient Greece to life, but she populates it with gods and mortals in a hypnotically lush narrative. When Circe came out, it was a no-brainer – I immediately bought a print copy for my permanent collection.


While you needn't have read The Song of Achilles in order to follow the events in Circe, a basic understanding of the Greek myths will most certainly enrich your reading experience, and chronologically speaking, the books do in a way follow on from each other.

Circe is a daughter of Helios, the sun god, but she's despised by her kin. She's nothing special to look at, compared to them (though mortals will still find her bewitching) and she hasn't exactly been gifted with a divine voice either. Not quite divine to please her fellows, she isn't mortal either – and exists in a liminal space between the two states. And though she has no innate powers like other gods, she has something else that is forbidden to them – the power of witchcraft. The gods' static, decadent world holds no allure for the young nymph who grasps after personal sovereignty. And she is punished for her efforts.

While most could create a herbal poultice or tincture, Circe's creations are powerful elixirs that can bestow divinity or even turn men into swine. Yet this is not enough to pardon her for a perceived slight against the gods, and she is banished to the isle of Aiaia. Readers might make the assumption that a novel that is mostly set on an island for the duration of the main character's exile would be dull, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are gods and monsters, and oodles of betrayals and intrigue – as one would expect in any good Greek saga.

Both mortals and gods have a habit of straying into Circe's domain, and her weavings entangle a fair few. A key theme of this tale focuses on transformation, of self-realisation. Those who may be fair of face harbour monsters in their hearts, men's true, bestial natures are revealed when they partake of particular herbs, and Circe eventually realises her destiny – though the route she walks towards this moment of self-realisation takes requires many years and both sorrow and joy.

This is a story carrying a powerful message of feminine power wrested from a male-dominated world, of embracing a Promethean path despite it being fraught with risk. Circe might not be physically strong, but she is cunning and subtle, and watching her grow into herself is a a wonder to behold. Miller's writing is filled with rich descriptions of environment, redolent with emotion, and she adds to the incredible body of work inspired by and based upon Greek mythology. Circe will not only please long-time readers of historical fantasy, but also those who are looking for a tale that appeals to the heart, that's filled with magic and a sense of wonder.