Monday, January 17, 2022

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

One thing I do a lot of these days is listen to audiobooks on subjects that will broaden my horizons as an author. And not only that, since I edit professionally where military situations often crop up, so it's important that I Know All The Things when it comes to the smaller details – like battle. The Face of Battle by John Keegan was included in my Audible subscription, and it was a no-brainer for me to pick it up. It helps, also, that the narrator, Simon Vance, has a wonderful voice. I'm now putting more works that he's read on my TBR list purely because I like him so much. 

Keegan's writing takes a little time to get into, but once I got past the introduction, I was accustomed to his diction and the subject matter. The Face of Battle looks primarily at how the experience of battle was for the average soldier – a reality often overlooked or glossed over in historical accounts that tend to glomp together combatants' experiences as if the armies were singular entities rather than units made up of individuals. 

How we, as human beings, face the trauma and tribulations of battle and extended warfare, is an undeniably complex subject. How we do battle, too, has changed profoundly over the years, as Keegan explains. While the topic of warfare over the centuries is certainly broad, Keegan picked three famous battles in which he showcased the changes: that being Agincourt (1415 CE); Waterloo (1815 CE); and the Somme (1916 CE). 

Once thing that is clear, is that our ways of killing our fellow humans have gone from the personal – featuring one-on-one conflict using blades – to the impersonal, involving ranged artillery bombardment that often lasts for months. How we write about these battles and history matters, for if we lose sight of how things are for the man on the ground, it's far too easy to embellish and gloss over the sheer weight of human misery. Issues such as supply lines, lack of communication, and dealing with injuries are just as important to consider as strategy and final outcomes. We see how commanders were once hands on, moving from site to site in order to maintain efforts, to the fact that those in charge often never set foot at the front – directing troop movements remotely. 

Keegan does well to illustrate the often fraught situations combatants find themselves in, giving a deep dive into the conditions in which many brave and often terrified men perished. I'd recommend this classic to anyone who is fascinated by military history or who wishes to gain a broad idea of how battles are enacted – and this is an important resource, I feel, for those who are looking at writing historical or military fiction.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Hidden Karoo by Patricia Kramer and Alain Proust

I make no secret of the fact that South Africa's arid interior is my 'heartland'. My father was born in the Groot Karoo, and at times lived in little dorpies like Aberdeen, Hanover, and De Aar. During the holidays, when most sensible folks head to the beach, we head to the hinterlands, and the Klein Karoo, especially the area near Ladismith and Oudtshoorn, is high up on my list of favourite destinations. When Hidden Karoo by Patricia Kramer and Alain Proust landed on my review pile, I was immediately all grabby-fingered over the book. 

And for very good reason. On a long road trip through the interior, it is so easy to dismiss the landsdape when all one sees passing by in a blur of windpumps, scatterings of sun-bleached sheep, flat-topped koppies, and long stretches of what at a glance appears to be a Martian wasteland. Yet if you harbour a love the history of South Africa's dry hinterlands, or are idly curious and wish to know more, then this book will be for you. Those in the know understand that if you take the time to step off that highway, and spend a little time off the beaten track, you'll fall irrevocably in love with the land, its people, its nature, and its history. 

Hidden Karoo is not only informative, but it really *is* a beautiful book, filled with stunning photographs, bits of history and architectural detail, and plenty of information to get you planning your next road trip. The authors have divided the Karoo into a variety of regions, each of which is treated in a chapter, from the Tankwa in the west, the dry interior, and all the way east to the Camdeboo. 

South Africa's history is incredibly complex, the stories often painful when one examines the role colonisation and war played in shaping our nation. And by the same measure, we are left with a rich melange melding indigenous and European, in a way that is wholly unique and captures the imagination. Hidden Karoo takes you on a journey through time, to Loeriesfontein's collection of windpumps; ancient petroglyphs near Vosburg; British blockhouses of the South African War; outsider artist Helen Martins's Owl House in Nieu Bethesda... I can go on.

This book is a must-have for anyone who loves travel, loves South Africa, and wishes to dig a little deeper into some of the cultural and natural history of a region redolent with contrasts and ancient magic, and I cannot recommend it enough. 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Making Sense by Sam Harris

I've been listening to Sam Harris's podcast on and off now for quite a few years. For those who don't know him, he's an American philosopher and neuroscientist who's possibly best known for unpacking many hot-button topics. Obviously, this has earned him a fair amount of criticism from certain quarters, but it doesn't detract from the manner in which he approaches his rational inquiries. Whether you agree with him or not, I still feel that he often raises points that are worth turning over.

Making Sense
is a selection of discussions that appeared on his podcast, and features the likes of Nick Bostrom, David Chalmers, David Deutsch, Daniel Kahneman, David Krakauer, Glenn C Loury, Thomas Metzinger, Robert Sapolsky, Anil Seth, Timothy Snyder, and Max Tegmark. All these contributors are specialists in their fields that range from philosophy and physics to neuroscience and history.

Some of what is covered includes consciousness, notions of the self, the nature of knowledge, intelligence (and AI), ethics, and a range of topics that slot in among these bigger pictures. I'll admit straight up that some of the discussions strayed into territory that I found incredibly challenging, but I'm also a big champion of reading outside of my comfort zone, so this hefty tome most certainly presented a worthy investment of my time that stretched my grey matter a fair bit. So, perhaps a word of caution – this is not an easy read for the average person (like me!)

My biggest takeaway from Making Sense is that as a species we need to be able to take a collective view that is broader and more objective, and to be especially aware of how easy it is for us to remain within the parameters that are 'easy' or 'less effort'. From what I can glean, there are many exciting developments in the worlds of computer programming and neuroscience, and especially so where the two fields are starting to overlap in the development of AI. It's interesting to see also how the experts in these fields often disagree with each other, but most important is Harris's emphasis on ethics, rationality, and growing an understanding not just how we think, but how we share the collected wisdom for future generations. 

This is most certainly a book to delve into again in the future, especially to see how things might have developed since then. Harris and his contributors often engage in lively debate, and it's good to see some of that flavour translate from the spoken to written word. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

I have no idea why I've waited so long to read Guy Gavriel Kay's fiction. He keeps getting mentions from some of my favourite authors, so I'm ridiculously glad that I've finally made the effort to pick up his writing. I stumbled across The Lions of Al-Rassan in one of my local second-hand bookstores, and it languished on my bookshelf awhile longer. 

I won't lie. There's a lot to unpack with this novel. Kay mentions in an interview* that he became interested in examining historical times through the lens of the fantastic, and the way that we can glimpse particular world views through the lenses of the characters. And that's exactly what he does with The Lions of Al-Rassan, which is a book that's going to stay with me for a long, long time and begs that I revisit it at some point in the future, as there is no doubt much that I missed on the first read through.

At its heart, this is a story inspired by the Reconquista, and examines how people, when possessed by strong ideologies, will act when greater forces are at play. Most of the conflict plays out between the kings of EsperaƱa, who worship the sun god Jad, and the slowly crumbling Cartada empire, that is past its prime and inhabited by the Asharites who worship a stellar deity, Ashar. Each social group sees itself as having the right of things, and the lunar-orientated Kindath – a landless people much like our Jewish folks – are caught between greater powers and often turned into convenient scapegoats. 

Yet there is a basic humanity at play, too. EsperaƱan military leader Rodrigo Belmonte serves his king, but falls out of favour, and his path crosses with the infamous Asharite poet and assassin, Ammar ibn Kharian. An unlikely friendship is forged, but tension remains, and caught betwixt them is the intelligent, talented Kindath physician Jehane bet Ishak.

Much like Scott Lynch, Kay writes with a remote third-person verging on omniscient, and succeeds so incredibly that I will hold him up as an example for those wanting to see how this somewhat tricky writing style can be done, and done well. His writing harks more to the measured, classic style akin to Tolkien rather than the fast-paced fantasy that's deemed popular these days. As a guide, I'd also recommend him to people who enjoy Robin Hobb. Kay often turns over the kinds of ideas that are difficult, if not impossible, to discuss in polite company (or on social media, for that matter). But he brings these themes, many of which are pertinent to today's current issues, with empathy and nuance. His characters are incredibly well realised, and although not always likeable, they are deeply fascinating. He does not shy away from depicting violence, either, so if you are squeamish, perhaps skip those pages.

A word of caution if you're new to Kay's writing: there are many names, much exposition (beautifully handled), and much nuance, that is difficult to parse at first. But Kay is a master of weaving, and if you are a patient reader, willing to slow your pace, persevere, and allow the words to carry you along, you may well find yourself enchanted like I was.


The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker

The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker was included in my Audible subscription, so in the cause of dipping into more of the Gothic literary classics, I gladly gave this one a listen. People tend to overlook Stoker's other works, which are overshadowed by the perennial favourite, Dracula. I do think it important to offer a little context for The Jewel of Seven Stars, which came about during the time when much of Europe was in the grips of Egyptomania during the twilight years of the British Empire. Many wonderful archaeological discoveries were being made in Egypt during this time, which deeply fascinated many, and most certainly also inspired imaginations and sparked myriad esoterically minded folks to flavour their approaches to mysticism. Which is a completely different topic for another time.

The Jewel of Seven Stars
is also very much a product of its time, deeply embedded in the culture of British Imperialism and Victorian sensibilities (hah). And yet, as I've observed in Dracula, there's a subtle current of feminism at work – this time expressed in the characters Margaret Trelawny and the fictional ancient Egyptian queen Tera.

Margaret is the precocious daughter of the Egyptologist Abel Trelawny, and she is no shrinking violet, even though the men around her try to pull the usual stunt of treating her like a delicate bloom. Queen Tera ruled thousands of years ago, and not only was she a woman ruling as pharaoh in a traditionally male-dominated society, but she was a powerful sorcerer who held sway over the material and unseen worlds. So feared was she, that when she was eventually interred, great pains were taken to ensure that no one went near her tomb.

Fast forward a thousand centuries or so, and Tera's eternal slumber is indeed disturbed when explorers carry off her mummy and grave goods, thereby unleashing a powerful curse (a theme often exploited in media related to ancient Egypt). We follow the story primarily from the first-person narrative of Malcom Ross, a barrister upon whom Margaret calls to help solve the mystery of the ailment that strikes her father. We also dip into the journal of an explorer who first describes the ominously named Valley of the Sorcerer, where Tera is entombed. 

What follows is part attempted-murder mystery, part-horror, as Malcolm, Margaret, and others, try to discover what forces threaten Abel. We are transported from the logical world Malcolm is accustomed to, to a milieu of unquiet spirits, malevolent mummies, and magic. In my research, I discovered that Stoker wrote two endings for this book, and I'm glad that this edition has the happier one (although the first ending he wrote is entirely delicious in its own way). I do feel that the second ending is not as powerful or cataclysmic as that in Dracula, but this is nonetheless an intriguing and engaging novel that will entertain lovers of Gothic literature. To close, Simon Vance is a wonderful narrator, and he did a lovely job with this edition. I'll certainly be hunting down more of the works he's read.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Dracula (Audible edition) by Bram Stoker

As part of my continued campaign to revisit classics, I chose to dip into this perennial Gothic favourite by giving the Audible edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula a spin. Then again, who can go wrong with this wonderful cast, including Alan Cummings, Tim Curry, and the late veteran audiobook reader Katy Kellgren, among others. 

I think it's safe to say that most of us have seen the movies and series inspired by Stoker's work, but so far few of them have been able to capture the depth and breadth of the source material. I first read Dracula in high school, and I admit freely that many of the subtler undercurrents went way over my head. Also, having just gone through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and with the work fresh in my mind, I can compare these two classics within the Gothic genre better. Each is quite a different beast, and while there is, in my opinion, more emotional and philosophical weight to Shelley's writing, there is, nonetheless, an astonishing attention to detail in Stoker's work.

Perhaps what makes this edition all the more special is the way that it cleaves to its epistolary nature by employing different readers to take on the letters and diary entries of the characters, imbuing each with their particular flavour and tone. In that way, Audible Studios has done well in their creative decisions. It's easy to close your eyes and sink into the narrative as the setting becomes fully tactile. 

Dracula is very much a product of its time, in which women are placed upon a delicate pedestal, and yet, if one is able to look deeper, it becomes apparent that Mina Harker is indeed one of the more heroic characters within this story. Her resilience and ingenuity is easily overlooked by Jonathan, Van Helsing and the others, and yet without her capable, stalwart assistance, I'm certain they would never have overcome the great evil that nearly overwhelmed them. The fact that they sought to shelter her from the dangers posed by the count nearly proved their undoing. 

This edition is slick, eminently listenable, and if you've yet to hit up the source material behind so much of our modern horror media, I highly recommend this audiobook.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Ancestral by Charlie Human

Charlie Human brings readers stories with bite, action-packed while still poking sticks at aspects of South African society and the world at large with a flash of the absurd – and Ancestral is no different. If you're looking for a tale with a slowly unfolding pace, then this one is not for you. We are dropped right in the middle of the action, with erstwhile soldier Clementine Khoza on a mission to retrieve her kidnapped son, Drew.

But this is no straightforward retrieval quest. The world in which Clementine immerses herself is dark and dysfunctional, the once-utopian, exclusive gated neighbourhood of Welcome Shade – now overrun by gangs. Not the kind of territory for the faint of heart. But then again, Clementine is a hard woman, made so by the upbringing of her strict Zulu grandfather who taught her the martial art of stick-fighting and the years of conflict in which she has been embroiled over the years.

As she travels further into uncertain, dangerous territory, she uncovers a far more sinister threat to mankind that is inextricably linked to her very blood and heritage, and she teams up with unlikely, unasked-for allies without whom she would not stand a gnat's chance in a windstorm for survival. Whether she likes it or not (and trust me, she doesn't) Clementine is a chosen one – a last bastion of hope for our species.

All in all, this is a fast-paced read – so much so that I sometimes felt the writing was a little rushed in places and could have used a little more depth. But then this might be down to my own personal preference, so if you disagree, don't mind me. There were moments where I wondered exactly how long a drone's batteries can last after heavy use without a recharge, but I won't spoil the story by worrying overly much about these sorts of details. 

I do think this is the sort of tale that will no doubt appeal to folks who enjoy a good manga. Ancestral is fun, charges along at a breakneck pace, and offers a roller coaster ride of one untenable situation to the next, garnished with a healthy dollop of cosmic, insectoid horror.