Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Famous Modern Ghost Stories #review

Title: Famous Modern Ghost Stories
Introduced by Dorothy Scarborough
Publisher: Knickerbocker Press,  1921

It's sometimes both awesome and awful to return to the classics and see where the roots of horror lie, and this anthology is no exception. Since we live in an age where we suffer from an overabundance of information, it is far easier for authors to gain an understanding of the trends within particular genres.

Having read this collection of short fiction, I can clearly judge how the genre has grown in depth and, also, has devolved. That which is it's boon in contemporary times is also its curse. Not all stories that are released onto today's market are ready for publication.

And, likewise, looking back at the stories in this volume, not all of the tales are paragons of literary greatness. That being said,  I do believe it important for us to be able to look backward and see how far we have come. The short story, as a form, is so vital to fiction, since it creates a literary snapshot of a time and place. And especially so to those who're interested in a particular era.

So, Famous Modern Ghost Stories is a bit of a mixed bag. If I'm going to be objective, I'll state flat out that some of the authors come across like people I probably wouldn't want to hang out with in present times. There were, however, a number of stories that did stand out from the pack.

"The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood deserves its place in the classics section. What starts out as a travelogue in the spirit of high adventure, quickly decays into a tense and decidedly weird and frightening dilemma. The creeping horror is not so much the supernatural phenomena, but rather Blackwood's fantastic evocation of the environment. His world building is masterful, and I got sweaty palms at the parts where the characters were in a race against nature's inexorable flow. It's man versus environment, and the realisation that there is little to separate us from complete catastrophe.

"Lazarus" by Leonid Andreyev is unrelenting in its crushing misery. To be honest, I was startled by the choice in subject matter, of taking a biblical story and subverting it so. Therein lay the horror. Sometimes the dead should remain dead.

"Ligeia" by Edgar Allan Poe, of course, is a treat in all his wonderful wordiness, followed closely by another favourite (and highly underrated) Guy de Maupassant, whose "A Ghost" is suitably atmospheric.

The majority of the other stories didn't really grab me by my short and curlies. There were even a few where I sat back and asked, "What's the point?" We really have come far with the short story as a form.

So, my advice—this slim tome will interest those who would like to dip into vintage horror for the first time or who would like to lay hands on a particular story. I certainly enjoyed this collection and feel it's a keeper that has pointed me in the direction of further reading.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis #review

Title: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia #1)
Author: CS Lewis
Publisher: HarperCollins, 1950

I was about eight or nine when I first read all CS Lewis's Narnia books. If I consider the paradigm in which I lived at the time, much of the author's thematic treatments did not bother me in the least. While it has always been at the back of my mind to pick up Lewis's writing again in the future, the experience of dipping into The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was interesting...And troubling.

Much like his contemporary, JRR Tolkien, Lewis, to a degree, has been placed on a seemingly unassailable pedestal. The Narnia books are often mentioned and, as per many classics, have also spawned cinematic adaptations.

Okay, I'll admit I absolutely adored the Narnia books when I was younger. Our library at school and in Hout Bay didn't stock much fantasy for my age group, and to discover Narnia was like finding a box of chocolates when I least expected it. Talking animals, magic, supernatural creatures...and, of course, to younger self, Aslan represented an enigmatic, charismatic and utterly benevolent father figure.

When I was younger, it didn’t matter so much that there was plenty of Christian moralising in the tale—nothing contradicted what indoctrination I already received thanks to the religious instruction at school and at church.

And yes, if you've never stepped beyond that paradigm, then Lewis's Narnia books will most likely retain their childlike wonder, and perhaps not tarnish the way they have for me in adulthood.

Here I'd like to add that I feel the fault lies with the reader, and perhaps the fact that as the years have progressed, I've developed a taste for the GrimDark.

If I have to compare this book objectively to titles in the same age group that are currently available, I'd have to comment on the disconnect I felt while reading. This tale is told very much by an older person addressing younglings, and to a degree there is a fair amount of patronising apparent. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are placeholders rather than fully formed characters, with Edmund drawing the shortest straw when it comes to action and consequence. To be honest, they are a bit twee to me.

Then, of course, the thinly veiled Christian cosmology, executed to portray a particular mindset.

Okay, so those were the aspects that annoyed the ever-loving bantha pudu out of me. I do, however, consider that CS Lewis is very much a product of his time.

What I won't forget easily from my childhood, and of which I caught a whiff of with my reread was Lewis's wide-eyed sense of wonder. I gained the impression that Lewis really lived *in* Narnia while he wrote. His world is incredibly detailed, and though to a degree it suffers from the curse of a well-defined light vs. dark dichotomy, it is nonetheless a fantastic way to introduce the fantasy genre to children—probably best read out loud or enjoyed as an audiobook. In these situations I suspect that the story will gain so much depth.

Monday, May 26, 2014

On the art of art, and thinking and feeling people...

No one liked Miss W when I was in primary school. She was our art teacher, and she was constantly shouting at the kids who ran in the passages and made noise. Miss W was also very strict in her class, and I don’t think many of us liked that. I mean, hell, who likes anyone cramping their style when you’re under 12?

The kids at school didn’t like me much either. Or, rather, not many of the cool kids did. The trolls. I hung out with the dregs, the handful of Afrikaans kids or the ones whose parents didn’t have much money. Oh, wait, and the two token coloured kids, because this was the early 1990s in South Africa, just when the schools were becoming open to other races. The rejects didn’t much like each other, but we didn’t hate each other either. We had very little in common except that the trolls ganged up on us. So we stuck together because at least this way no one bothered us. Safety in numbers and all that.

Looking back, I couldn’t handle being teased, which was kinda like a red flag for the trolls, who delighted in making my life miserable. I didn’t know how to react. (I laboured under the impression that if I was nice to people, they’d automatically be nice to me.) Sarcasm baffled me. Witty come-backs eluded me. So I got a reputation for roughing up the boys who tormented me. It was the only way I knew how to protect myself. My primary school years were seven years of misery, in which I escaped into art, books and music.

I digress.

There was something else. I loved art, and when Miss W spoke about how to make good art, I listened. Whenever I did art in Miss W’s class, I felt good about myself, because here was something that I could do well. Art classes were quiet, and we lost ourselves in the greasy texture of oil pastels or the smears of poster paint. No one bothered me in art class and often the kids admired my creations. Some were probably jealous, but hey, that didn’t stop my quiet swell of pride.

“Look at what Nerine did,” meant the world to me.

Later, they’d pull my hair, hide my things or they’d lift my skirt so everyone could see my knickers or laugh at my hairy legs. Or they’d gang up on me to say horrible things about me being a nerd, that I had to wear braces or that I was Afrikaans. (As if my culture or me doing well in tests somehow qualified me to be less than human.)

In hindsight, I think Miss W wasn’t very happy either. She’d had polio as a child and consequently walked with a terrible limp. Teaching art to a bunch of privileged, snotty middle class kids during the 1980s and 1990s probably hadn’t exactly been her dream job. Those little trolls would rather have been doing other things than learning about pattern, colour and composition.

I thrived, however. Miss W’s classes numbered among the bright sparks from my childhood that I’ll carry with me ’til the day I die.

“An artist is a thinking and feeling person,” she told us. Miss W wrote that on the blackboard and the words stayed there permanently.

She explained what it meant, but the trolls just sniggered. Someone passed comments on how the teacher was trying to be “all deep and stuff”.

Miss W’s words remain etched on my mind, though. I often think about them as an adult, when one of my mentors discussed how our lives should be a balance of passion and precision. How we change the world and ourselves is not an exact science. Inspiration and reason need to work hand in hand.

I keep coming back to art. Though I studied graphic design, majoring in illustration in photography, I ended up as a commercial features sub-editor at a newspaper publisher. I spend a large portion of my day worrying about fixing advertising copy and checking that clients send big-enough images. Any layout work I do is mostly template based. Not very exciting, but I earn a living, and I guess that counts for something. I find ways in my spare time to make words, music and art to get me by.

Art sustains me. It feeds my soul.

My education in graphic design gave me an appreciation for the visual arts and communication. I might not *like* certain artists or styles much, but I can appreciate them on their own merits. I admit a fondness for the Arts and Crafts movement, as well as the aesthetics of Bauhaus. I love letting “Less is more” roll off my tongue. (Thank you, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.) It’s become something of a mantra for me when I design my book covers. I’ve considered the ethics behind the hyperrealism in contemporary advertising, and how we manipulate consumers with clever words and pictures. I am passionate about good design. I love art in all its forms.

So, I admire professional artists. People whose entire lives are consumed by that which sets them apart from everyone else. Who make art and get paid to do so.

Because, once upon a time, there was a little girl sitting in art class who thought she’d one day make a living painting pictures. That she'd be an artist. Today she’s moving little blocks of text around on a white screen and positioning them with images of houses for sale. Or she aligns photos of botoxed faces with captions for society pages celebrating events she’ll never be invited to. She’s still not one of the cool kids, but can’t bring herself to care. Or rather, she realises that hanging out with the cool kids isn’t all that it’s cracked out to be, and she’s happy in her little world.

I might not *like* a professional artist’s work, but when I don’t like his or her art, I ask myself these questions: “Why don’t I like this art? What does this say about me? Do I hate his art because of my own subjective aesthetics? Or do I dislike his art because I feel that he fails to create something of objective worth?”

Art is a complex subject. You cannot please all of the viewers all of the time. (Like an author can't please all of the readers, all of the time.) More often than not, your dislike of a subject is a reflection of your Self. How you choose to respond to art shows to the rest of the world who you are.

In that, the artist is a magician, because he has held up a mirror.

Now the question is, dear reader are you a troll, or are you a thinking and feeling person?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

By Chance by Cat Grant #review

Title: By Chance (Book one of the Courtland Chronicles)
Author: Cat Grant,
Publisher: Cat Grant Books, 2012

I’ve been meaning to read one of Cat Grant’s titles for simply ages now, so when I laid hands on By Chance, I grabbed it. (It’s a free read on Amazon, BTW.)

Eric Courtland has it all, except a happy home life, it would seem. Money can’t make up for the realities of a dysfunctional family and Eric has withdrawn from meaningful human interaction as much as possible. Whatever sexual encounters he has are quick, anonymous liaisons – no strings attached. He’s quite happy – or at least he thinks he is – alone in his college dorm room. One that he’s paid good money to keep without any annoying roomies.

At least that’s until Nick washes up on his doorstep due to a problem in the dormitory where he was supposed to be assigned. Eric has to share his space with this football jock, and he is beyond unhappy about this unexpected, unwanted interloper into his carefully ordered existence.

But there’s more… (Well, of course, otherwise this wouldn’t get juicy.)
Eric’s been out and proud since he was sixteen and Nick… Well, Nick’s decidedly straight (I mean, really, he’s on the football team, y’know.)

Nick’s sunny disposition thaws Eric’s glacial chill in short order, however, and it’s lovely seeing the dynamics shift as Nick pries Eric out of his shell. Nick’s ex and best friend, Ally, helps too, even though it’s clear from the outset that she’s still holding a torch for Nick. Love triangle much? But that’s okay. I feel for Ally, but she’s a good, loyal friend to Nick when he needs it, and she’s got fire enough to stand up to Eric when he’s engaging in douchebaggery.

The tension between Eric and Nick quickly heads toward the bedroom, and Nick discovers that he might not be as straight as he initially thought he was. Of course he now faces a conundrum: does he come out publicly? And Eric has his own demons to face, with his ailing mother preying on him the most.

Grant’s writing is deliciously easy to slip into, and at the time of reading, I really needed a pleasant diversion, which she supplied by the bucket load. The blossoming relationship between Eric and Nick is sweet until it hits its first, inevitable snags. Both lads need to work through their issues, but of course I won’t delve into spoiler territory suffice to say it’s satisfying to see them resolve their conflict.

By Chance is perfectly balanced – great dialogue, characters and external and internal dramas. If you’re looking for a quick m/m read, this one’s a treat.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Fulfilments of Fate and desire (Wraeththu #3) #review

Title: The Fulfilments of Fate and Desire (Wraeththu #3)
Author: Storm Constantine
Publisher: Immanion Press (First published 1989)

This is the final instalment in Storm Constantine’s trilogy, and is told from Cal’s point of view, ostensibly in the form of his journal keeping while he travels. We join him in Fallsend, as far from the light of Immanion as he can get, surrounded by all the dregs of Wraeththu society, many of whom have run and can get no further. The Cal we meet here is vastly different from the Cal we got to know through Pellaz’s and Swift’s eyes.

Bitter and negative, he has very little purpose, and revels in his outcast status. He hits a nadir we could never have imagined in the preceding books, even when he murdered Orien after being driven mad by Pell’s apparent death. Though it is clear he still has feelings for Pell, he also labours under the assumption that Pell has rejected him. Thiede’s second-rate offer has also been spurned. Cal will have all of Pell, or none.

What follows is a hallmark of Constantine’s writing echoed in Sea Dragon Heir – the protagonist embarks on a quest, that changes him both physical and metaphysical levels. Cal journeys through the territories of various Wraeththu tribes and gradually heals, reclaims his power and discovers purpose, not to mention becoming entrusted with a great secret that rivals the Aghama himself. Such is Cal, an antinomian figure in Wraeththu society, always daring where others fear to tread. As much as Pellaz is the light of Wraeththu, Cal is the dark – but to reveal more is to ruin the story.

As always, Constantine envisions a remarkable setting laden with esoteric meaning and populated with fascinating characters – all combining to lay a feast for those readers who appreciate this sort of thing.

The conclusion was suitably apt, even if I personally felt that the execution came off a bit rushed – there were parts where I wanted Constantine to offer more complex layering. This being said, and when the mythos is viewed as a whole, this issue doesn’t detract from my overall enjoyment. Granted, I do feel that the writing style for book three is a bit choppy compared to the preceding two, and I’m not certain whether this was done on purpose to show how fragmented Cal had become at first.

What Constantine excels in doing is her world building, which is as always incredibly tactile. The story unfolds at a leisurely pace, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll revisit this particular trilogy some time in the future and inevitably discover other elements I did not at first consider.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Actor – in conversation with Aidan Whytock

Exciting things are happening with the homegrown film industry, and The Actor is one initiative that has drawn on local independent filmmaking talent. This feature-length film is the brainchild of actor and director Aidan Whytock, known to local audiences for his lead role in the 2013 Fleur du Cap People’s Choice award-winning production, I am Hamlet.

Whytock shares a little about how it all came together: “The idea came to me in a proper lightbulb moment. I wasn’t trying to come up with a story – it hit me while I was in the back of a friend’s car coming back from play rehearsals. Heath Ledger and his relationship with The Joker originally inspired the story. Out of respect we chose to not tell that specific tale.

“The process was surprisingly quick – I had the idea on May 10 last year and four months later we had our fifth (and final) draft. I have Colin Pegon, our frighteningly talented writer, to thank for that.

“Our strongest influences came from Oren Peli and his first film, Paranormal Activity, and spectacular characters such as Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and Edward Norton’s Aaron in Primal Fear. Oren’s work gave us a blueprint of how to create a high production value first feature without a big budget. Christian’s and Edward’s characters inspired us to dive deep into the character of our story and grip the audience from there."

Not only was The Actor filmed and edited in record time, Whytock also worked on a shoestring budget, to accomplish his vision.

He adds: “We realised that we have a certain amount of creative juice on this and the longer we took, the more juice we would burn. Our approach was to leverage the inspiration and excitement we had by working quickly without sacrificing quality.

“We weren’t sure quite how much power our setup would need. So we experimented and turned on devices one by one until we found our limit. It turns out we were fine as long as we didn’t boil the kettle - luckily Cape Town has great takeaway coffee."

Independent filmmaking is not for sissies, however, and Whytock certainly did not approach production for The Actor without the right balance between passion and precision.

He cites years of dreaming as common ground. He says: “The cast and crew all have this in common – we got into the film industry because we love the art of movies. We all had a dream of making something bigger than ourselves. However it’s not an easy game and there is a lot of rejection and hearing ‘no’. After hearing ‘no’ a certain number of times it became clear that if we want to make a feature film then, well, we’ll damn well do it ourselves. So rejection, followed by resilience and stubbornness helped prepare us.”

Fans of scary movies can look forward to a dark, tense psychological thriller with horror undertones, to which Whytock adds: “Without giving too much away there is a showdown scene where Simon faces off with his dark side in the mirror. There’s a knife involved and… well. You’ll have to see who wins the argument.

“Our story is universal. Even though it’s made in South Africa you don’t have to be South African to relate to the story. It’ll appeal to anyone who likes the process of movies and is curious about what an actor goes through preparing to perform a role."

Fans and those wishing to be part of the movie-making process also have an opportunity to help out the cast and crew of The Actor.

Says Whytock: “Now that is where our supporters will make the decision. When we hit our Indiegogo fundraising target we will take the movie to the international film markets. From here we want to partner with someone who believes in it as much as we all do and take this into cinemas near you.”

In conclusion, he remains upbeat on what lies ahead for South African independent filmmaking, and adds: “Local film quality is very much touching on world quality. It’s an exciting time, especially as we service more and more international projects,” and those who're considering a career in film should, “have faith, have vision, back yourself and work damn hard.”

See the Indiegogo fundraiser, and stand a chance of getting loads of rewards. 

Go check out the official trailer here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Officially going "ta-dah"! – The Guardian's Wyrd

Okay, today I'm totally pleased to officially reveal the ebook cover art for The Guardian’s Wyrd, my YA fantasy novel which will release later this month via Wordsmack*. The blurb says it best, I reckon.

Sometimes having a fairytale prince as a best friend can be a real pain. 

Jay didn't realise that sticking up for Rowan, the gangly new kid at school, would plunge him into the dangers and politics of the magical realm of Sunthyst. But if anyone is up for the challenge it's Jay September. With his trusty dog, Shadow, at his side, he braves the Watcher in the dark that guards the tunnels between the worlds, and undertakes a dangerous quest to rescue the prince.

It's a race against time - can he sneak Prince Rowan away from under King Lessian's nose and bring him safely back home - all before the prince's sixteenth birthday? Or is Rowan's mother, the exiled Queen Persia, secretly trying to hold onto her power by denying her son his birthright?

Jay is ready for anything, except, perhaps, the suffocating darkness of the tunnels. And that howling…

Some early readers have had this to say:
This was an adventure I can go on again and again. The book is not just for one reading, but one that can be taken out on any rainy afternoon. Jay and Rowan and the other characters will become lifelong friends. Except for King Lessian. He’s definitely not friend material! – Amy Lee Burgess

Once Jay and his new friend Rowan reach Sunthyst, however, the pace picks up dramatically, with plenty of nail-biting tension and heart-racing action, leavened with just the right amount of humour, to keep hold of the target audience’s attention. – Tracie McBride

Fantastic, 'just one more chapter' fantasy book about a South African boy who realizes his nerdish new friend is a lot more than he seems. Jay is soon sucked into a world of royalty, monsters, and magic, when all he wants to do is get back home. – Brian Katcher

Sign up here to be notified when the book has gone live on Amazon and other digital platforms.

* The print edition will release later this year via Dark Continents Publishing.

Penelope by Rebecca Harrington #review

Title: Penelope
Author: Rebecca Harrington
Publisher: Virago Press, 2013

If I have to pick one word as the underlying theme for this novel, it would be “awkward” – everything from the writing to plot and characterisation. Penelope is the kind of girl who’s gone through life agreeing with everyone and never having a strong opinion about anything. She has no recognisable passions or interests, either. She’s so bland and self-absorbed that she’s incapable of connecting meaningfully with anyone. Even her interactions with her mother are painful to behold; her gauche behaviour at Harvard even more so.

Secondary characters all have their quirks and are generally not likeable, perhaps existing as exaggerated archetypes of the students you might recall from your own college or university days. Predictably, Penelope gets involved with a highly unsuitable boy, while the obviously suitable one ends up dating someone else.

That the characters themselves seem so obtuse and unaware of what is going on around them doesn’t ring true. Not much happens in this book, which can pretty much be summed up as “socially inept woman attends Harvard, sleeps with a heartless cad and acts in a terrible play”. We follow Penelope from one snatch of stilted dialogue to the next, all the while silently yelling for her to get a life.

Granted, there were points in the story when I found myself vaguely amused at the author’s observations of life at Harvard, but then Penelope’s floundering became tiresome again. Eventually, when she gets a little spine near the end, it’s not with any earth-shattering Oprah-worthy “A-ha” moment.

In conclusion, I’m not quite sure what the author was trying to achieve. The book switches between satire and sincerity, so that at its close it comes across as an uneasy and somewhat lukewarm mixture of the two.

The writing is simplistic and the dialogue feels unnatural; whether this was intentional, I don’t know. Lack of plot or character development don’t help this vaguely humorous story that may amuse some. But it could definitely have been better if there’d been a little more voema.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Silver: Humanotica by Darcy Abriel #review

Title: Silver (Humanotica #1)
Author: Darcy Abriel, 2010

We enter a fascinating future where those who have become modified with robotics – humanotics – over a certain percentage, are considered the chattel of the wealthy upper classes. Political decisions are made not only in governmental departments, but also through the sexual liaisons that can easily decide outcomes and tip the balance of power.

The humanotic Silver is our viewpoint character, and she is a trinex – possessed of both male and female aspects, and as humanotic, she is the chattel of her powerful, enigmatic and charismatic master Lel Kesselbaum. Though she still chafes at her lost freedom and being subservient to Lel, and is no better than a sex slave that exists as an object of aesthetic pleasure, she revels in her submission and the exaggerated sensuality of their relationship and her heavily modified body.

We also encounter Entreus, another humanotic, but one who is rogue and allied with a human resistance movement fighting to overthrow the current regime. He an Silver are obviously captured in an orbit of mutual fascination as the story progresses.

First off, be warned, various highly graphic sexual encounters form the mainstay of this novel. Also, Dacy Abriel’s vision allows for fluidity in gender and sexual preference, so if you’re a bit squeamish about the idea of a hermaphrodite who’s well-endowed and all too comfortable with her sexual orientation and appetites, then this might not be the story for you.

Essentially, we are faced with the inevitable coming together of these three main characters, and we eventually see the story from all three points of view. Lel himself does eventually reveal some dangerous secrets, and I so did not see these reveals, erm… coming.

Abriel mixes fantasy and SF in a heady melange. At times I was left with the sense that plot development and resolution was abandoned in favour of the highly eroticised encounters, but then this might just be a matter of reader’s taste and my own need for stronger narrative elements. My main feeling is that there could have been more effort put into heightening tension and elaborating on the closure, which definitely got overshadowed by the erotic elements. It’s also my feeling that the characters themselves weren’t challenged enough, but that being considered, this was still an enjoyable, entertaining read. Abriel’s writing and visualisation is highly detailed and evocative, and for that alone this is a treat.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Bushman Winter Has Come by Paul John Myburgh #review

Title: The Bushman Winter Has Come
Author: Paul John Myburgh
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2014

Up until recently, the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert roamed “the Great Sand Face”, living as their ancestors had for millennia. Anthropologist Paul John Myburgh expressed his love for Africa and spent seven years wandering with a small band of /Gwikwe Bushmen. The Bushman Winter Has Come is the result of this sojourn.

If you pick up this book and expect a linear story from start to finish, you will be disappointed. If you expect a historical account, forget about it. What you will find is a collection of Myburgh’s impressions and understanding of the way of life of the Bushmen.

Fact and fable commingle in a glorious celebration of survival in a harsh environment and a record of the cosmology of the “First People”. Through this, Myburgh explores that which makes us human and our individual relationships with the environment that has broader repercussions on a bigger scale. In addition, he brings us a record and an understanding of a way of life that is now relegated to the past.

He writes: “The great sadness is not the passing of a people; it is our failure to remember, our failure to bring forward the knowledge, our failure to consecrate the wisdom and so redeem the sacrifice of those who came before us.”

That sense of irrevocable shift in time and place underpins this book, which is at times dreamlike, and others a record of how our ancestors lived.

Myburgh explores the world of his /Gwikwe band with the knowledge of what lies in wait for them, and in that his telling of their lives is tinged with sorrow, for that final change when the people make the decision to move to the settlement is unavoidable.

The world changes and those who are unable or unwilling to adapt will fall by the wayside. While Myburgh’s writing style is uneven, this is nonetheless a haunting treatise that deserves to be treasured. He evokes a sense of place, as well as the spirit of an age, and it is clear that he writes from the heart – and that’s what matters.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok #review

Title: Sister-Sister
Author: Rachel Zadok
Publisher: Kwela, 2013

The moment I read the opening lines of Sister-Sister, I was submerged in Rachel Zadok’s almost apocalyptic vision of a possible future South Africa. At the heart of the story we follow the journey of twin sisters Thuli and Sindi, but if you think this is merely an examination of the sometimes uneasy relationship between two sisters, think again. Sister-Sister is so much more than that.

Zadok effortlessly evokes an oppressive setting in the township – a decaying environment where people’s relationships are twisted by circumstances. Underlying themes of poverty, disease and social inequality are evident, yet at first the relationship between Thuli and Sindi shines as a beautiful, pure thing. But the rot sets in even here, and events unfold that unravel this closest of bonds.

This is a story told on multiple levels, fluid in shifting between times and viewpoints. Patient readers who love detailed, lush prose filled with descriptive narrative will be rewarded. There is a dreamlike, non-linear quality here reminiscent of William Burroughs’s Cities of the Red Night in both style and structure.

Sister-Sister is complex, filled with contrasts and ripe with dark visions, populated with enigmatic characters like Ben and Joe Saviour, among others, who exist on the outskirts and take on archetypal, mythic roles. Innocence and the seemingly unbreakable twin bond is threatened by aeons-old superstition, and the girls encounter the somewhat sinister cult of the Believers, whose interference in their lives is a source of dread. The ring road encircling Joburg becomes a symbol of the grinding futility of life, and further tension grows out of an escalating heatwave that bakes the landscape, adding to the sense that there is no hope and no life-giving rains to come.

Tragedy and horror are juxtaposed with beauty in a gradual unveiling that paints a picture where our future has taken a path that is slightly left of field – familiar yet alien at the same time. It encapsulates an African essence that is quite unlike anything I’ve encountered so far. Though filled with equal measures of despair and the darkly poetic, Sister-Sister is a brave work that defies pigeonholing.

Zadok’s work reads like the secret lovechild of Nick Cave and Poppy Z Brite. If there is one South African novel you give a chance this year, make this one your choice.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Citadel by Kate Mosse #review

Title: Citadel (Languedoc #3)
Author: Kate Mosse
Publisher: William Morrow, 2014

Although Citadel is a work of fiction that offers a whiff of the supernatural element blended in, author Kate Mosse nonetheless writes in her author’s note that the novel was inspired by real events.

She relates that a plaque in the French village of Rouellen, near Carcassonne, commemorates 19 prisoners who were put to death by the Nazis shortly before the end of World War II. Two of these people remain unidentified, and are honoured as “two unknown women”. This proved to be a perfect story seed for Mosse.

She is known for her other books, Labyrinth, Sepulchre and The Winter Ghosts, but Citadel is the first of hers that I’ve read and my interest is suitably piqued to pick up the rest at some point.

In Citadel, we mostly follow in the shoes of Sandrine Vidal, who begins her active participation in the French Resistance in 1942 when she stumbles across a young, unconscious man by the river. Though Sandrine is young, she has a lot of spirit, and a keen sense of justice.

Through her sister’s involvement with the Red Cross, she gets a taste for her work, and eventually runs an underground network that is code-named “Citadel”. With the aid of the love interest, Raoul Pelletier, and the mysterious Audric Baillard, she finds herself in a dangerous dance with Captain AuthiĆ© who, apart from collaborating with the Nazis, is also on a shadowy quest to retrieve a document known only as the Codex.

If the Codex is found and its words spoken, an army of the dead will supposedly rise to bring victory, and so far as I can see, it’s been the enigmatic and unusually resilient Baillard’s mission to stop the Codex from falling into the wrong hands.

Raoul and Sandrine’s romance is touching and somewhat tragic given their circumstances, but it’s clear that they inspire each other during the darkest times when it seems that France is doomed to remain under the Nazi yoke. Mosse also sketches in believable secondary characters; it’s easy to care about Lucie, Max and his sister Liesl, Marianne, Marieta and Suzanne – who all seem like people who feel real – who keep me turning the pages.

So often war stories deal with heroes at the front line, when we forget about the many thousands behind the lines who might not have been great movers and shakers in the bigger scheme of things.

I feel that Citadel is a suitable tribute to these souls, and even if I struggled at first to get into the story, I was soon swept away by Mosse’s vivid evocation of Languedoc during the tail end of World War II. This is a worthy read about courage in the face of great adversity.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A Memory of LIght by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson #review

Title: A Memory of Light (Book #14 of The Wheel of Time) 
Authors: Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
Publisher: Orbit, 2013

No fantasy section in any library or bookstore would be complete without Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. This saga began in 1990 with The Eye of the World and ends 14 books later with A Memory of Light; these books are all doorstoppers – consider yourself duly warned.

It is perhaps not advisable to approach A Memory of Light the way I did; I read book one more than a decade ago then didn’t ever get round to reading the rest by the time A Memory of Light landed on my desk. The Wheel of Time series represents a huge investment of a reader’s time, yet I bravely, and perhaps foolishly, plunged right in with the final instalment.

The first thing I must add is names and things and powers – there are dozens of viewpoint characters to keep track of. Sanderson, who completed this book from Jordan’s notes after his death in 2007, had the task of developing the multitude of plot arcs. Consequently, the scenes are short and the author hops to fresh viewpoints with great regularity. First-timers might feel a wee bit overwhelmed.

I didn’t have any back story to form a solid foundation for the various events taking place, so I know I missed out on a lot. (And that could quite possibly be the biggest understatement of my reading career.) That being said, Sanderson deftly handles enough exposition for me to get into the flow and pick up the missing details.

The Wheel of Time has all the hallmarks of classic fantasy, complete with magic, heroes, battle and the archetypical struggle between good and evil. The final instalment concludes one of the biggest epic sagas you could wish for. There’s battle – a lot of it – and the aptly titled chapter near the end, The Last Battle, is very long, almost a quarter of the book.

If military fantasy isn’t your thing and you’re hankering after George RR Martin’s Machiavellian intrigues, then wait for The Winds of Winter. A Memory of Light is chock full of fighting, strategy, chase scenes, duels – most notably Rand al’Thor’s showdown with the Dark One himself. Various other characters have their final altercations with suitable antagonists.

It’s all very thrilling. And it can get a bit repetitive. Without giving spoilers, the ending is apt, and I finished the novel with a sense of relief. I am the first to admit that my heroic bid to master this hefty tome might have been ill-advised but I’m glad I persevered. You’ll need to be made of stern stuff to tackle this without reading the preceding books but at the heart of the matter is the fact that this is an unforgettable read.