Monday, July 26, 2021

Authentically Mexican by John Paul Brammer

In the spirit of mixing things up, I downloaded Authentically Mexican by John Paul Brammer, which was included in my Audible subscription. It's not a long audiobook, but in terms of it being vastly different from the cultural slant I'm accustomed to, it nevertheless offered a slice of novelty for me.


I admit that I struggled a bit with the narration – Brammer reads his own work, and he has a particular upward inflection that annoys me. So it took me a bit to get into the audiobook. What I did love was his discussion of identity – something I do relate to a lot. Brammer stands in a cultural no-man's land somewhere between his Mexican and American heritage, and most of the book is about how he tries to bridge that gap and find an identity that is uniquely his own – by digging into his Mexican roots through food.

His family is anything but standard, but what shines through is Brammer's love for his grandmother and the recipes that underpinned his world. This book is part discussion on food, family, cultural heritage, and identity, and how all are inextricably linked. Joy, sorrow, and nostalgia mingle in a way that you can almost taste and touch the meals discussed. As a South African, the chances of me ever getting to eat any of the foods mentioned here, as cooked authentically across the pond, are slim, but I do feel like I've stepped away from this reading with a better understanding of the complexities of a culture that is vastly different from my own yet has some universalities that transcend culture geographic separation. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Caesar's Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins

For many years, Julius Caesar was a cartoon character for me – I admit that I learnt to read by paging through dog-eared copies of Asterix and Obelix comics. But of late, in my increased delving into history, my fascination with the Roman empire has grown, perhaps because some of the juicier bits involve Egypt. Also, as an author of fantasy fiction, I'm a huge believer in gaining an understanding of things of a more military persuasion. Caesar's Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins, which is well narrated by Stuart Langton, certainly gave me a much deeper understanding of the Roman legions, and also the machinations of the empire itself. 


Although the work focuses most on the doings of the renowned Spanish Tenth Legion, we get a broader picture of the Roman military in general, as well as the conflicts from within and without the empire. Love him or hate him, Julius Caesar really was a force to be reckoned with – and there's a reason why he's been immortalised in our cultural objects. While Dando-Collins does enact some dramatic license in this work, he nevertheless leans heavily on existing primary sources – so if you're looking for a meaty engagement with the topic, this is pretty darned good, giving everything from how the legions ordered their camps all the way to the many campaigns the legions were engaged in.

Empire building is a tricky business, as we discover. There are the struggles at the beginning, the glory days, and then the inevitable slow winding down. While it can be argued that imperial powers do a lot of damage to the smaller cultures they assimilate, empires also build something that is bigger than the sum of all their parts – and we still see echoes of Rome in contemporary Western culture to this day. Caesar's Legion is an incredibly useful resource to anyone fascinated by this culture, and if I ever do lay hands on a printed copy, it will be part of my permanent collection. If you're a history buff like me, or simply someone curious to learn more, this is an excellent resource.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Origins: The Search for Our Prehistoric Past by Frank HT Rhodes

I was one of those kids who grew up watching way too many National Geographic documentaries at a child, so every once in a while I still love to indulge in content that will not only prove to challenge me, but also broaden my understanding of the natural world. Origins: The Search for Our Prehistoric Past by Frank HT Rhodes, narrated by Derek Perkins, is one such title that, as the the name suggests, digs deep into the origins of life on our planet.


This is an ambitious work, and the periods it covers is vast, but what I really appreciate about it is that it really put into perspective our position as a species when viewing the vast history of life on Earth. Truth be told, our existence as member of the family of great apes is a mere addendum when all is considered. In evolutionary terms, mammals are pretty much latecomers on the planet.

Rhodes not only delves into the history of life on earth, and all the multiple theories and hypotheses lying at the root of our understanding, but he also tells the story of the very early geologists and palaeontologists whose life works contributed to the theories that are currently accepted by the majority of scientists this day. Great care is taken into explaining how the theory of evolution functions, as well as how the taxonomy of living things is executed. It doesn't matter if you know next to nothing or, like me, are an armchair enthusiast – you'll get a wonderful broad overview that acts as a springboard for further study.

To be fair, this is such an enormous topic to cover, but I do think Rhodes does admirably well to paint in broad strokes – especially when it comes to explaining how evolution works. What I appreciated also was the way in which he touched on the reality of extinction, examining the mass extinction-level events or circumstances of the past, as well as reminding readers of the essential ephemeral and somewhat tenuous nature of life. 

The only downside to listening to the audiobook is that you don't have ready access to any of the accompanying diagrams or illustrations that you'd find in the printed book, but you can download a handy reference guide as a PDF from the Audible website if you're of a mind to delve deeper.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The King Must Fall – in conversation with Adrian Collins

I'm a huge fan of Grimdark Magazine. They bring out a lot of awesome material, so it goes without saying that I sat up and noticed with editor Adrian Collins told me about his project, The King Must Fall, which has a stellar ensemble – go check out the Kickstarter page when you have a moment. I can't wait to read the anthology when it's out. In the meanwhile, Adrian has stopped by my blog for a quick Q&A...

Nerine Dorman (ND): Was there a particular creative brief that you put together for the authors for The King Must Fall


Adrian Collins (AC):
Definitely. For The King Must Fall I asked each author to write a story about a king or authority figure being deposed. I didn’t specify if they had to be simply removed, or killed, or if the attempt even needed to be successful – I can’t wait to see what they all come up with.

However, I think the most interesting part of this story is that the theme wasn’t my idea. I was trying to think of how to follow up Evil is a Matter of Perspective and just wasn’t having anything cool coming to mind. Out of the blue I received an email from Bradley P Beaulieu telling me about an idea he’d had for an anthology, but just didn’t have the time to drive – and because I love stuff like this, The King Must Fall was born!

ND: That's quite the stellar cast you've got going for your contributors. Which are the stories you’re most looking forward to? 

AC: That’s a hard one to pick. Just because I haven’t published them before, I’m really looking forward to seeing Daniel Polansky and Kameron Hurley’s short stories. 

ND: Did you think that certain themes will come through – I find this fascinating as an editor of anthologies myself, that there are often ideas that echo in the submissions – as if they have inadvertently drawn from the same well.

AC: I’m with you! One of the things I love most about building and reading anthologies is seeing how each creator puts their own angle or spin on the theme. Sometimes there will be similarities, and sometimes an idea completely out of left field will blow you away.  

For The King Must Fall I’ve received four first drafts, and a few of the other authors have sent through their ideas on what their stories will be, so I’m feeling really confident that they will all be thematically on point. And based on the authors we have, I know they are going to be dark AF and diverse in delivery. 

ND: What have you, as editor, enjoyed the most about putting together the anthology?

AC: I actually love the process of it. Pulling together all of the authors by leveraging years of author and artist relationships, speaking with printers and distributors and shipping companies, deciding how it’s going to look, planning out the financial requirements, timeframes, etc – all of the tiny pieces of a publishing project that eventually turn into a book. This is the stuff that I love doing. We already have stories coming in, and I’m loving reading them. I can’t wait to show the final product to our customers.

ND: Congratulations for funding this via Kickstarter – what, in your opinion, makes a Kickstarter campaign so successful? 

AC: In short, a clean, clear product that’s marketed really well makes a successful Kickstarter. Compelling content, an engaging video, rewards that can be grown upon through stretch goals, and consistent market engagement through advertising.

There’s also so many things that can go wrong during a process that’s often 6-9 months long. I’ve listed five key learnings from the three Kickstarters I’ve run over on Booknest.eu.

ND: Things in the industry have been, well, weird of late. What are some of your tips and tricks for keeping your publishing endeavours alive?

AC: GdM has experienced a pretty solid period of growth throughout the pandemic, to be honest. Key to where we are at the moment has really come down to a key structure change we implemented about 18 months ago: we split GdM into two arms – the publishing side, and the online content team – and got the right people in place to drive both.

The online content focus drives web traffic to our site and products. It’s created additional and improved revenue streams and grown our brand in the market, which has helped us thrive.

Other than that, the article I wrote for Fantasy Hive, called Starting and Running an Ezine in a few Simple, Soul-destroying Steps covers it in the further detail. 

ND: In the stories that you publish in GdM, what are the elements that you are looking for specifically? What makes you perk up when you read a submission?

AC: I’ve been looking for and finding the same thing for seven years: a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist. Authors will blow me away with an anti-hero story that matters. A perspective that perhaps makes me recoil at first, and makes me want to engage more by the end. There doesn’t have to be a single drop of blood, but you need to show me grey morality.

And I can’t reiterate that enough: blood, guts, and sexual violence do not a grimdark story make (especially that last one, just leave it out please). It’s the anti-hero and the grey morality that win me over.

ND: Who are three up-and-coming voices in the grimdark genre you believe people should pay attention to?

AC: This is actually a hard question for me to answer. Before GdM I used to have time to read 50-60 books a year. Now I’m lucky if I get through ten. I’ve fallen behind the times on new authors I’m afraid! 

I will say that P Djèlí Clark, RF.Kuang, and Anna Smith Spark are three authors where I can’t wait to see what they release next.

ND: What do you love about grimdark fiction?

AC: I love that it feels more human. It feels like a story with somebody I know at the helm – like actual people and not indestructible superheroes are involved. I can relate to these characters because I can be and have been a screw up, and grimdark heroes are generally just bigger screw-ups trying to do better, but screwing up more.


More about Adrian...


Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced – just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.

Adrian and his team are currently working on The King Must Fall through Kickstarter.


Saturday, June 19, 2021

Blood of Elves (Witcher #1) by Andrzej Sapkowski

Here I am, gamely trying to stay ahead of the Netflix TV series for The Witcher. I picked up a slightly battered copy of Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski at my favourite local secondhand bookstore, and it's taken me a while to get to reading it, but here we are. My feeling, as always, is that Sapkowski is a pantser. He writes the story as it unfolds in his head, with only the vaguest notion of where he's headed and where he's going to end a particular instalment.


If you're firmly team Geralt, then Blood of Elves is going to be a bit of a let-down for you, for this book very much focuses on the mother/daughter relationship that develops between Ciri and Yen. We also get to see a fair amount of Triss, who has it bad for Geralt, which he doesn't quite reciprocate because, well, Yen. And having read somewhere that season two of the TV series draws heavily from this book, I'm highly curious to see how the showrunner will spin out a cohesive, satisfying season. Because the book itself is basically a large chunk of prequel.

While the preceding titles in the series were very much vignettes, there's a touch more structure here as we get a taste of the bigger picture, which centres around racial tensions arising courtesy of the elves and others who feel disenfranchised by human encroachment. We also have the looming presence of the Nilfgaardian Empire that is stretching its long-fingered hands into territories not previously its own. And of course Ciri's growing powers that hint at a more terrifying danger that lies beyond all these mundane troubles.

No, I haven't played the games, and only a little of Witcher 3, so I'm blissfully unaware of all the other content. For now. But I can see stuff is brewing, and most of Blood of Elves is all about Ciri learning about her powers, training not only with the remaining witchers, but also with the mages, courtesy of Yennefer. We have hints around the edges where we catch glimpses of what Geralt is up to, and there are a number of parties who are far too interested in the girl – and between Jaskier, Triss, Yen, and Geralt, they go out of their way to keep her hidden from those parties. 

So, in terms of overall plot, not much happens in this book other than character development. What Sapkowski does well is his characterisation, especially in dialogue – with some truly pointed social commentary that I feel is all too relevant to contemporary culture, delivering observations about race and identity and resultant, related conflict.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Three Bodies by NR Brodie

Crime novels aren't my usual fare, but I read them when I like the author, and I'm rather fond of NR Brodie. Three Bodies follows on from her occult-noir novel Knucklebone, where we meet Reshma Patel and Ian Jack, who initially work together to solve crimes related to an animal poaching ring. Both realise that there is more to reality than meets the eye, though. Then again, if you tangle with sangomas, expect things to get a bit strange.


Three Bodies
is no different. At the outset, when drowned women start showing up, Ian is roped in to investigate, despite no longer having an interest in police work. Reshma finds herself drawn into an elite crime-fighting unit – with a bunch of tough cops who work against the cash-in-transit heists that are so prevalent in South Africa. It's scary, high-stakes stuff. And here Brodie has done meticulous research to offer an authentic ring to the police work. 

But then a sinister link between the drowned women, dark muti, the cash heists, and old-guard apartheid officials who were never brought to book, is formed, and Reshma and Ian find themselves racing to solve a case of a missing woman before she, too, ends up drowned.

Overall, I found the gradually unfolding pace a little on the slow side, but things picked up a lot quicker near the end. Reshma is one hell of a tough woman, and it shows, and Ian's quiet empathy with others also shows that he possesses qualities that complement Reshma's. They team up with an unlikely bunch for the finale, and then ... well. I'll leave it up to you to find out what happens. As always, the whiff of the supernatural is just a taste. Perhaps too light a touch that may have required smidge more foreshadowing, but I loved it anyway. I'm reminded of an old HP Lovecraft quote:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

Which will make sense for those who've read the book and understand how Ian must struggle with what he sees unfold at the satisfyingly cataclysmic ending. Gritty, dark, and somewhat weird, this novel is definitely an enjoyable read, and it's great seeing fantasy elements creep across genres.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Ancient Rome by Thomas R Martin

I will admit that I'm not as well versed in the history of ancient Rome as I am in that of ancient Egypt, but considering that there is overlap between these two civilisations, it most certainly helps to get to know ancient Rome a bit better. Ancient Rome by Thomas R Martin is narrated by John Lescault, and gives listeners a great introduction into Roman history.

Perhaps what I find most fascinating is seeing how ancient Rome continues to influence Western civilisation even now, hundreds of years later, and it's also possible to gain an understanding of how Rome managed to dominate much of Western Europe for so many centuries.

While a deep dive is beyond the scope of the work, Martin does examine the political, religious, and military structures that created this important chapter of Western European history. What I found of particular interest was seeing especially how religion was a shaped as a way to control society, and how the emphasis shifted from the original pagan gods to the Christian religion so intrinsically linked to authoritarianism. What's particularly fascinating is also seeing how Roman military discipline most certainly contributed to the conquering of so much territory. Of course, holding onto that territory afterwards is where the difficulties came in – and it's no surprise that the empire split in its latter years. 

Overall the quality of the audiobook was not uniform – not so much to detract from my enjoyment, but there were clear sections where the sound shifted ever so slightly, possibly where parts were dropped in. That being said, I'd still recommend this to anyone who's yet to explore Roman history – this has certainly offered me the bigger picture I need in order to delve into other, more focused works.