Thursday, February 26, 2015

Monday Evening, Thursday Afternoon by Jenny Robson #review

Title: Monday Evening, Thursday Afternoon
Author: Jenny Robson
Publisher: Tafelberg, 2013

Louise and Faheema are a bit of an odd couple, but they’ve been best friends since they first started school together in the fictional Western Cape town of Gap Falls. The girls often spend many hours at their favourite waterfall, which in a way grows to become a powerful metaphor for their friendship.

Though their cultural differences are vast, the two girls are nearly inseparable, mainly because they each seek to understand the other. This friendship endures for many years, despite their parents’ initial misgivings.

Yet as they grow up together, their bond comes under increasing fire from those who seek to separate them, especially in the light of incidences of terrorism perpetrated by religious extremists – Louise goes to great pains to point out that the extremists are not representative of the entire religion. Her frustration is palpable because her words often fall on deaf ears.

Monday Evening, Thursday Afternoon is written from Louise’s point of view, clearly in the aftermath of whatever separated her from her friend. She uses a format that addresses Faheema directly, a kind of hybrid journal/letter, which gives us an intensely personal and emotional account of the friendship between the two girls, and what obstacles they faced together. You’d have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by Louise’s impassioned words as she tries to unpick the series of events that eventually parted them.

Author Jenny Robson’s message is clear: as adults we so easily allow ourselves to be swayed by differences and our own and others’ prejudices, as we descend into hypocrisy. The younger generation are (mostly) potential bridge builders between cultures, and are in a position to present solutions instead of creating further problems. Most importantly, Robson underscores the importance of love and tolerance, which is often so lacking in the thoughts and deeds of many.

Robson’s writing is lyrical and heartfelt, and I was completely immersed in Louise’s world, and felt her triumphs and sorrows as she shaped her story. In the light of current affairs, this novel is also an important reminder for us to focus rather on our common ground than be ruled by hate- and fear-mongering. Robson has given us a wonderful, brave book that has been released at a time when it’s needed most, and I’ll happily recommend this story for ages ten and older.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Twelve by Justin Cronin #review

Title: The Twelve
Author: Justin Cronin
Publisher: Orion Books, 2012

Sequel to the post-apocalyptic, vampire-outbreak novel The Passage, The Twelve picks up the story again as humanity’s hardy survivors battle to hold onto what vestiges of civilisation remain. Though I had not read book one, this was no obstacle to my enjoyment of The Passage, as Justin Cronin weaves in enough back story to fill readers in.

We are introduced to a large cast of characters on both side of the human and viral line. The latter are all in some way related to strains descended from the menacing and enigmatic Zero, who appears to have complete world domination at the top of his list of priorities.

Yet not all the infected are of the same mind. The mysterious girl Amy has her own agenda as she marshals her meagre forces against great odds. We get to know Peter, a soldier; Sara, a survivor in concentration camp conditions; and Alicia, who battles daily with viral infection that threatens to overwhelm her human side, who are but a few of the fascinating characters readers encounter, many of whom are prepared to die for their cause.

Cronin blends the horrors of Nazi-style death camps with present-day terrorist tactics, to create a dystopia that is drenched in blood and fuelled by incredible cruelty – so if graphic scenes of violence upset you, then this is probably not the book for you.

It’s clear that Cronin has put a great deal of thought into his world building, and it shows, because his writing is vivid and tactile. That being said, to his detriment, his having to divide his attention between so many characters often makes it a little tricky to keep track of everything and everyone, and some of the outcomes felt a bit by the by once I reached the conclusion.

The pacing, however, is relentless, and Cronin never lets his readers get too comfortable; there certainly are more than enough explosions to shake things up.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Diving by Helen Walne #review

Title: The Diving
Author: Helen Walne
Publisher: Penguin Books SA, 2014

I’ve always enjoyed Helen Walne’s newspaper columns and, as it turns out, The Diving – her account of her relationship with her brother Richard, added further dimension to my appreciation of her talent.

Those who know Helen for her somewhat wry humour will see a contrasting side to her words, initially a serious examination of dealing with severe depression in a loved one and, thereafter, coping with a complex cocktail of guilt and bereavement.

It is immediately clear that Helen’s relationship with her brother was close, and that he was a large part of her life growing up and well into adulthood. She looked up to him, but also nurtured him.

Helen shares many memories of Richard, both good and bad, and we are left with a sense of her great helplessness while she did her utmost to help him. In the wake of his death, she almost foundered due to her crippling grief, and had her own journey to make through her personal bleakness before she was able to find fresh current.

Throughout the book she makes many profound statements that resonated powerfully. One such is “Grief is not a gift, no matter what New Age books tell us. It is not given to us. It happens to us. And even though I didn’t have to learn anything, I did gain new insights after Richard’s death.”

Helen’s observations are poignant and heartfelt – and she evokes her environment and the people who populate it with great vividness. In places, her signature humour is evident, tempered by her sorrow but redolent with incredible depth of feeling. This is not an easy book to read, because you know from the start what you’re in for, but as a personal account of those struggling in the aftermath of a suicide, it is rich in love despite the pain. And yes, the all-important letting go.

Helen has crafted a truly beautiful masterpiece that reaches beyond the page to kindle empathy and awe. This candid account of life, love and grief – and the complex entanglements of living with loved ones suffering from depression – deserves all the praise I can muster.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head #review

Title: When Rain Clouds Gather
Author: Bessie Head
Publisher: Pearson Education Limited, 2008

This book is part of my required reading for the Unisa BA course that I’m busy with at time of writing, so please forgive me if I go a little deeper with this review than my regular offerings.

Firstly, I need to look at the context in which this book was written. Bessie Head, the child of a white mother and a black father, was born during a time in South Africa when interracial marriages were illegal, so she grew up within a racially segregated country. She was also involved in the media as a journalist, which naturally made her more outspoken and vulnerable to persecution due to her opinions, which were contrary to the government of the time. Consequently, she went to live in Botswana in 1964 as a refugee rather than endure the apartheid regime.

These issues lend authenticity to When the Rain Clouds Gather, as one of the primary characters, Makhaya, is a South African insurgent who has fled to Botswana, where he plans to live in exile. He is caught in a social no man’s land – a wanted man in South Africa, and unwanted by elements in Botswana.

In the novel, Head spends a lot of time examining the human condition, especially in the conflict that arises between traditionalism, colonialism and the need for progressive thought. Botswana at the time is a land administered by the British, but is still ruled by tribal chiefs. Great disparity exists between a wealthy elite (the chiefs) and the common folk. There is little in the way of education, and people prefer to stick to their time-honoured traditions as a way of life.

This in itself would not present much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the Botswanan countryside is in the grips of a severe drought, and traditions have exacerbated issues such as soil erosion, which only compound the people’s plight. Much of the novel is related to the discussion of agriculture, and people’s relationship with the land and each other.

Head puts great stock in the powerful metaphor of water in this thirstland, from which the title of the book derives.

“You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep the rivers inside us. that is why all good things and all good people are called rain. Sometimes we see the rain clouds gather even though not a cloud appears in the sky. It is all in our heart.”

People are central to this story – as agents of change and progress, as nurturers, and of course obstacles that result in great evil.

Primary to the narrative is Makhaya, who is troubled, and whose faith in people has been damaged. When he arrives at the village of Golema Mmidi, he is rootless and has no real plans going forward. He has a lot of residual anger too, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, and of not being able to create the change he’d like to see. We learn that he is a man who is dissatisfied with traditional values and who also has no great love for authority figures (which is understandable, considering that he has fled South Africa).

Yet in the village, he encounters a white man, Gilbert, who has also rejected his home (Britain) for the life of a pioneer in Africa. In the UK, Gilbert is stifled, forced to live according to social conventions. He is once again coming up against tradition in Africa, yet he is a dreamer who sees boundless potential for prosperity, and here he feels he is in a position to inspire those around him to strive for this brighter future.

Together, Makhaya and Gilbert work for a change for the better in the village, because they are able to think outside the box and are also not afraid to try new methods when they see that the old ways aren’t working.

But we are also faced with the two chiefs. Paramount Chief Sekoto is not a bad man, though he enjoys the many fruits of his powerful position. It is at his behest that the biggest decisions affecting his lands and his people are made. For all his faults, he is a generous man, and he has a good relationship with the British administrators and his own people. Although his younger brother Matenge is the opposite to him, that same generosity of spirit sees him give Matenge the benefit of his doubt.

Chief Matenge rules over Golema Mmdi but he is a small-minded, petty man, concerned that he should be respected because of who and what he is. For him it is all about the principle of being the one in power rather than caring for and guiding a community as a true leader. Consequently, Matenge sees the free-spirited Makhaya as a threat to his authority, and machinates against him.

Perhaps the most telling is Head’s way of framing the attitudes of the tradition-bound chiefs:
“The Matenges and Paramount Chiefs Sekotos did not have to lift up the spades and dig the earth. It cost them nothing to say yes, yes, yes, build your dam because we have no water in this country. But it gave them deep and perverted joy to say no, no, no.”

Two women feature. One is Maria, the daughter of the elder Dinorego, who is an apt counterpart for Gilbert. Their courtship takes place in fits and starts, but its conclusion is nonetheless a cause for joy in an otherwise bleak setting. Paulina, the other primary female character, has her sights set on Makhaya, but they must first see eye to eye, and make important realisations about themselves before anything can move ahead.

In the end, life goes on for the villagers, despite death, despite drought, and the beautiful simplicity of love and family, and their interconnectedness with each other and the land. All this continues, despite the intentions of the powers that be – the joy and goodness of people flow through everything.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Garden of Dreams by Melissa Siebert #review

Title: Garden of Dreams
Author: Melissa Siebert
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2014

I’ve had an abiding love for India and her culture for many years, so when the opportunity presented itself to read Garden of Dreams, I grabbed it with both hands. In this story, we encounter the quite unconventional De Villiers family, and especially fourteen-year-old Eli, who finds himself in a predicament when his mother, Margo, abandons him. She feels that he is adult enough to complete the journey to Nepal, to be reunited with his estranged father, Anton.

Only Eli never makes it to his destination. He is kidnapped by child traffickers and ends up in a brothel in Delhi owned by the horrible madam Lakshmi, who develops a decidedly unhealthy fixation with the pretty lad.

The plucky Indian inspector VJ Gupta assures Eli’s parents that he is doing his best to find the boy, but as the weeks pass, hope dwindles. Margo falls into dissolution and despair, while Anton falls in with Maoist rebels in a desperate bid to save his son.

Meanwhile, Eli is made of sterner stuff than his parents expect, and when an opportunity for escape presents itself, he embarks on an epic quest to find his father – lost in a strange land and with no one to turn to other than the ragged band of children all trying to get home – and stay one step ahead of the child traffickers.

In Garden of Dreams, it’s not so much the physical journey that transforms Eli (and to a certain extent the secondary characters) but rather how his external circumstances impact on his inner landscape.

At the start, Eli strikes me as a self-involved boy (as many young teens are), and we join him at a time when he is at his most vulnerable – and in his case his naïveté has severe consequences. Yet this crucible in which he discovers himself, though fraught with danger, serves to strengthen him by stripping away the child to reveal a sensitive, resilient young man who, above all is a survivor who possesses much compassion.

Margo and Anton each have their realisations to make, particularly that they have failed as parents. Anton has run away from his issues by trying to save the world, whereas Margo sinks into her maudlin introspection to the point where she is mired in her feelings of inadequacy. Gupta and Lakshmi exist as polar opposites, each caught in an eccentric orbit around the other – their navigation of a corrupt world brings two distinctive perspectives of the same setting into play.

Much like real life, there is no tidy, convenient closure to Garden of Dreams. And as reader, I am content with this. Rather, it is a space for reflection against a cultural backdrop both alien and exotic, filled vividly with equal measures of beauty and darkness.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Thirty Second World by Emma van der Vliet #review

Title: Thirty Second World
Author: Emma van der Vliet
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2013

Anyone who has ever had a career in advertising will relate to the shenanigans in Emma van der Vliet’s Thirty Second World. We follow the lives of two women, both at different parts of their careers.

Alison, or Al, as she prefers to be known, is a control freak who thrives on micromanaging everyone and everything around her. Consequently, and despite her tough demeanour, she is blind to her own needs. She is a woman who wants everything – a career and a family – and in her bid to prove her worth, her relationships with her partner, friends and children suffer.

On the other side of the coin we have Beth, who’s just starting out in the high-pressure world of commercial filmmaking. Though she has much to learn, about the work and the people, she brings a refreshing attitude to the jaded crew she joins. Beth hits the ground running, despite her lack of experience. Even though she finds her colleagues’ behaviour a bit trying at times, she clearly has a passion for her chosen career. Her primary problem, however, lies at home, with her boyfriend Dan, who struggles with the fact that Beth is getting sucked into the industry.

Beth and Dan’s relationship comes under pressure, which is not helped by the arrival of a predatory male colleague at Beth’s work. Readers will be able to see the inevitable confrontation coming from a mile away – and it does become more than a little bit uncomfortable for all parties involved.

On the whole, there isn’t much of an earth-shattering plot here. Rather, we see the lives of two women bound in work and friendship, come to important realisations about themselves and the people around them. This is a story about friendship and love, set against the backdrop of the Cape Town film industry, with all its ridiculous demands on people’s time. The writing is detailed, and Van der Vliet is adept at painting detailed, fascinating characters. A bit of head-hopping in the narrative did annoy me, as well as a somewhat implausible, out-of-the-blue event involving a spinster aunt near the end, but overall I found this to be an entertaining read that felt spot on regarding the advertising industry I’ve come to know and loathe.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Is this it?

Very little could rival the excitement I felt many, many years ago (2007, if I’m not mistaken) when I opened my email to find a message from a publisher that wasn’t something along the lines of,

Dear Nerine
Thank you for your submission, but unfortunately your novel, The Splaytoed Bumblefoot isn’t quite what we’re looking for. While this doesn’t reflect, blah blah blah mudhut fishpaste…

If you’re an author who’s been on the query mill, you’ll know exactly how tired you get of those polite but generic form rejections that trickle in. That’s if the publisher or agent even bothers getting back to you in the first place.

My first novel, Khepera Rising, was rejected 67 times (yes, I counted) before I finally homed it with a small press in the US. It then went on to sell a grand total of one copy every three or four months for the next three years until I requested my rights back. Now it sells approximately one copy every three or four months… But at least all those few pennies are nearly all mine as opposed to giving the publisher 65% or more of my royalties. One day I'll hit Amazon's $100 threshold for non-US citizens and they'll pay me...

And, let’s face it, unless you’re writing a genre that’s perennially popular or you’ve lucked out by writing something that’s totally grabbed readers by the pubes, there's a chance your writing career might probably look similar to mine. You’ve written some solid fiction, but because you a) don’t whore yourself out on social media or b) either self-publish or run with small presses that don’t do much in the way of marketing or c) haven’t met with much luck getting the book into reviewers’ hands…

You get the picture.

Then… don’t depress yourself by going to look at your Amazon rankings. Just don’t do it. Therein lies madness.

On good months, you *might* get double-digit sales. On bad months, you’ll sell zilch. It’s no reflecting on the quality of my writing, which I know (without exaggerating or being completely vain) is above average. I’m a realist. Stephen King I am not, but I *can* write.

Why do I do this writing thing again?

Oh wait. And this is where I have to remind myself. I write because I want to tell stories.

When I was in high school, I was bored out of my skull 90% of the time that I wasn’t walking around the school field during break, rereading Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern for the umpteenth time or lurking in the library. If I wasn’t sneakily reading novels in class when I thought the teacher wasn’t watching, I was drawing pictures of dragons and unicorns or writing opening chapters of grand epics that never got completed.

Not much has changed now at work. (However, I make sure I meet my deadlines first before I doodle pictures of demon cats or dragons.)

I’ve been involved in the publishing industry for ten years now. I’ve got ink in my blood. It’s chronic. However if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the past year or so, it’s that I’m only going to make myself unhappy if I try to create words because I think they’ll make other people happy.

Believe me, I’ve been there. I wrote two erotic romance novels. They were fun, at the time, and they sold marginally better than my fantasy. But truth be told, unless I’m churning out one romance novel every three to four months, there’s no way I’m going to get my voice heard over the countless thousands other authors doing exactly the same thing.

That’s not to say I’ll never write erotic romance again. Just that my heart isn’t in it right now. And there are so many other stories that I’d rather write.

I’m also clearly at my happiest writing fantasy, horror or SF. Why on earth was I trying to keep bats in a canary cage?

Looking back now, I truly *get* it why I keep hearing the message, “Write what you want to read.” Only now I have internalised this message. Especially in the light of what I’ve learnt by stalking following some of my favourite authors on social media, many of whom still have their day jobs.

There’s a lot of glamour attached the publishing industry, but the runaway success stories are the exception rather than the rule. (Don’t quit your day job anytime soon, honey bunny.) I’ll be honest and say that this figurative whiff of success *does* serve to motivate me to an extent, because writing is a lot like gambling. We roll the cosmic dice every time we submit a story and say, “Is this the one? Is this my break-out novel?”

Our emotions go ride the Looping Star roller coaster until we gradually touch down on the ground and realise that the novel we slaved over for many months isn’t going to make us the next JK Rowling...while enduring the day job. (And trust me, there’s *nothing* glamorous about being employed in newspaper publishing, except the shizzy medical aid and the pittance of a pension waiting for me once they've extracted every last drop of goodness I've retired.)

Yet we continue to write. And hope. And dream of agents arranging bidding wars for your rights that reward you with that mythical six-digit figure.

And this is why: stories. I have stories to tell. When I’m writing in my groove, it’s like I’m hearing, seeing, tasting and touching, *feeling* and *being* where my character is. For that time, I get to leave this reality. I get to order reality as *I* want it. I create a safe space for me to unpack ideas and play in another world. I get to ride dragons on thermals. I shoot lightning bolts from my fingers. I travel to distant exo-planets. I am a queen. I am a warrior who lops off heads. Hell, I am a griffin or a vampire. I am limited only by my imagination.

I invite my readers to share in my magic.

And that's it. Whether I have ten rabid fans or ten thousand, it doesn't matter in the end so long as other lives are touched by the magic I've wielded.

Edit (Feb 3, 2015):
My author and good friend Icy Sedgwick responded to my post from yesterday, with one of her own.