Wednesday, September 30, 2015

bitter + sweet by Mietha Klaaste, Niël Stemmet #review #foodie

Title: bitter + sweet
Authors: Mietha Klaaste, Niël Stemmet
Publisher: Human & Rousseau, 2015

bitter + sweet, which also has an Afrikaans edition bitter + soet, is the kind of book that simply begs you to pick it up and take a closer look. Not only is it, exactly as it says, a cookbook filled with, as Niël Stemmet names as heritage food, but it also serves as a record of stories about Niël and Mietha Klaaste’s remembrances. Hence the “bitter” to counteract the “sweet” of many of the traditional dishes offered by South Africa’s coloured people.

Mietha was born on a farm in the Robertson district and cared for him from the day he was born until the time that his family left when he was 15. In many ways, it can be seen, she played a bigger role as nurturer in his life than his own mother, and in this book he has had the opportunity, as he says, to “put her memories into words, remember the recipes”.

We are tactile beings, and as we grow older, we also fall prey to nostalgia; therefore the tastes of our childhood become precious. For those of us who grew up during a certain era or among particular people, recipes such as baked sago pudding, dried beans with sugar and vinegar, tomato bredie, yellow rice with raisins or old-fashioned pancakes may conjure up visions of lazy Sunday lunches with relatives or even the church bazaars from childhood, with the taste of cinnamon sugar and lemon juice lingering on your lips.

Mietha takes readers on a culinary journey through the past, offering a glimpse into the historical context in which meals were served. Not only that, but we are offered a perspective of what life was like for coloured people living out in the countryside at time; and it’s important that her voice is heard, to lay down visceral memories of an era in which we experienced great social injustice.

Yet for all the sadness, there is the love – and there is no denying the special bond between Mietha and Niël, as heart-rending as some of the events were that they endured. For all the beautiful stories, there are the darker, painful ones, sustained by the meals.

Mention must also be made of Adriaan Oosthuizen’s photography and the food styling, which together present minimalistic yet lovingly vintage images of a number of the recipes – which work well with the bold, colourful layout.

Even for those who’re not great cooks but have an interest in culture, this is a must-read; for those whose passion involves cooking, you can’t go wrong – there are some timeless recipes included. bitter + sweet will linger in my mind for a long time, for the sadness and its joy.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Kingdom by Robyn Young #reviews #historical

Title: Kingdom (The Insurrection Trilogy #3)
Author: Robyn Young
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

If there’s one thing that author Robyn Young has excelled at with Kingdom, it’s the sheer attention to detail that many writers of historical fiction would do well to learn from. If ever you wish to be dropped into the muck and mire, and pure visceral experience of what life was like in years gone by, complete with sights, sounds, smells and all the attendant discomfort, Young achieves this in bucketloads.

In Kingdom, she ties together the final conflicts faced by Scotland’s King Robert Bruce, as he struggles against the English King Edward, and strives for a united, independent Scotland. Consequently, it’s easy to see where so much of the enmity between the two nations stems from, and both sides have blood on their hands and treachery staining their souls.

Edward’s hunt for Robert drives the Scottish king close to his end so many times, it’s almost impossible to believe that Robert’s tenacity resulted in his survival. That he was able to bounce back at all is a miracle. Yet so history would lead us to believe, and this epic is brought to life in Kingdom in a way that is gripping.

That being said, the very qualities of this story that deliver such a vivid tableau of a Robert’s struggles are the very things that hamper it. I found it difficult to relate to any of the large cast of characters precisely because Young was attempting to paint in such broad strokes. Her voice is very much omniscient, which kept me from immersing in the story nor feeling any particular emotional investment.

People die, horribly and often in most gruesome fashions, yet I couldn’t bring myself to care for their deaths. In Young’s intention to capture the bigger picture, she has, unfortunately had to sacrifice the engagement with narrative arcs in favour of interpretation of the greater events. That being said, this is still a thrilling read with some interesting assessments that will no doubt give history buffs much to consider. Those who’re not completely au fait with the history of the British Isles and who haven’t read the preceding two books may, however, find all the name-dropping and references to past events bewildering, though savvy readers will jump right in and be swept away by the turmoil.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Whispers of the World that Was by ES Wynn (Storm Constantine's Wraeththu Mythos) #review #fantasy

Title: Whispers of the World that Was (Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu Mythos)
Author: ES Wynn
Publisher: Immanion Press, 2015

Those who’re into the gothic beauty of Storm Constantine’s creations may well recall the world of the Wraeththu with great fondness. Constantine was initially responsible for two trilogies, The Wraeththu Chronicles and The Wraeththu Histories, which were pretty much required reading among lovers of dark fantasy. Subsequently Constantine has gone on to release other titles in the same setting, but has also breathed new life into her mythos by opening it to select authors, of which ES Wynn is one.

In my mind, the Wraeththu fall somewhere between vampire and angel – beings that inherited the Earth in Constantine’s post-apocalyptic, post-technological vision. Neither male nor female, the Wraeththu express qualities of both in addition to possessing the ability to shape reality magically. Naturally, a world in upheaval provides prime fodder for storytelling, as characters transition from the old to the new.

ES Wynn has more than done justice to the setting by telling the tale of Tyse who, when we meet him, works as a salvager aboard a vessel crewed by other Wraeththu. They sift through the debris of humanity for any useful items, which they then trade for their necessities. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Tyse salvages a meteorite that has unusual properties. His discovery brings down the unwanted attention of a mysterious foe hellbent on destroying Wraeththu culture before it has had a chance to pick itself up out of the ashes of humankind.

Wynn’s writing is lush and detailed, and he effortlessly evokes a post-apocalyptic setting so vividly, that it’s possible to taste the dogwood berry wine, so to speak. If I dare to compare his style to another’s, I think back to the sensual textures I encountered in vintage Poppy Z Brite, and leave it at that. Readers with particular tastes will understand. Ghost and Steve. Um, Hello.

While those who’ve read the Chronicles and Histories will certainly get some of the more obscure canon references in Whispers of the World that Was, this knowledge is not a prerequisite, primarily because Tyse himself is largely ignorant of what it entails to be Wraeththu. All in all, this is a satisfying read, and a worthy addition to an established fantasy mythos that deviates from standard visions involving dragons, mages and elves.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Rock Steady by Joanne Macgregor #review

Title: Rock Steady
Author: Joanne Macgregor
Publisher: Protea Book House, 2013

Even though this is book two in what appears to be a series dealing with the adventures of friends who attend an exclusive girls’ boarding school up in the Drakensberg, Rock Steady can be read as a standalone adventure. From the get go, I must add that Joanne drew me into the story, told from the point of view of Samantha, who is attending Clifford House Private School for Girls on a scholarship. It goes without saying that she’s under a fair amount of pressure to perform academically, so when they get a new – and aptly named – maths and science teacher Mr Delmonico, that things begin to become unpleasant.

Sam, Jessie and Nomusa navigate their Grade 9 year with all the usual trials and tribulations – sports events, school outings, boys, bullies and dances – and the banter between the three friends comes off incredibly refreshing and natural. It’s not often that an author manages to express the sheer energy of teenagers, but Joanne totally convinced me that she’s secretly a teenager herself.

The main narrative arc in this story isn’t so much the girls’ school year, however, but also how the three friends get tangled in the doings of a nefarious gang of thieves intent on plundering South Africa’s cultural heritage. For those who don’t know, the Drakensberg is a region in South Africa that has some of the highest concentrations of ancient rock art, which not only faces natural threats thanks to gradual (and totally natural) environmental erosion, but also suffers thanks to human agents who deface or attempt to steal it.

Joanne deftly weaves in the main plot with the secondary plots in a way that doesn’t feel forced. She drops hints throughout that savvy readers may pick up on so that when the final confrontation occurs, it’s not completely left of field. Joanne’s teens are bubbly, sensitive and are possessed of a lively curiosity and sense of fun, who worry about their schoolwork, about boys, about issues at home. They feel real. Too often I’ve read YA fiction where the teens’ world seems to vanish into a boy-induced solipsist nightmare, where everything just revolves around the boy. Um, hello, teens do have genuine interests beyond boys (even if boys do feature quite high up on the menu, so to speak).

All in all, this is a fun read that I’ll happily recommend to anyone who’s got a bookish kidlet from the age of ten and older. Yes, there is – *gasp* – a kiss, but the romance elements are slight. The story focuses on the eventual altercation with rock art thieves and also weaves in a fair deal of cultural history related to the rock art without being heavy handed about it. Joanne’s writing gets a big thumbs up from yours truly for South African youth literature.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Guns & Romances author Kim Murphy

K Murphy Wilbanks wrote a short story that we included in the Guns & Romances anthology that bit me quite hard, in all the right spots, and I'm more than pleased to welcome here here today for a little Q&A. Pick up your copy at Amazon, Kobo or Smashwords.

Welcome! Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is K Murphy Wilbanks, and I'm from Chicago. Once upon a time I was a freelance court reporter, but these days I'm a stay-at-home parent. My story "Heavy Things" from the Guns & Romances anthology is my first published piece of fiction.

Tell us more about your story and what you enjoyed about writing it.

While brainstorming a song to use for inspiration, my husband was talking about all the different musical acts he met while working as a bartender on Beale Street in Memphis. He happened to mention Phish. I have a friend who's a big fan of theirs, who was always encouraging me to check them out, but I just never got around to it. I decided what the hell, now's as good a time as any, and Googled them. The first song that came up on YouTube was "Heavy Things." I listened to the lyrics and thought the mordant, madcap irony of the whole thing would fit well with the kind of story I wanted to write. I knew I wanted to set it in Chicago, and I thought about that title and how it could possibly relate to the general idea I had of this woman bartender who was romantically involved with her boss and finds out he's got a secret. The title brought to mind a memory of a strange tragedy that was big news back when I was working in downtown Chicago back in the '90s. Bingo! I had a climax, the nature of that particular news story gave me the season, and everything else just sort of fell together after that.

Why do you think short fiction is important? 

The broader answer is that human beings like to tell stories. It's hardwired into our brains, and the earliest form, oral storytelling, was by necessity short fiction – you know, acting out around the campfire how Glargh the Unfortunate got his ass handed to him by a saber-toothed tiger while out on the tribe's big hunt.   So I think we're born with a hunger for short stories, and that whets the appetite for longer, more immersive forms, like novels.

In a more personal sense, short fiction has helped me learn how to get my point across in fewer words than is my habit. And while laboring on my first novel, each short story I've written has become a message to myself, repeated over and over, that, yes, I really can finish stuff. If you've been at it a long time, you start to wonder after a while whether you're kidding yourself, so it's good to have some kind of concrete proof, however small.

What is your favourite short story? 

"Bartleby, the Scrivener" by Herman Melville. I remember reading it my junior year in high school, and  the line "I prefer not to" just grabbed my teenage attention in a big way. The story was written sometime in the 19th century, and it still generates relevant questions about how work and individuality are looked upon in society, as well as how the poor are viewed. When I read it in the 1980s, the United States was in the midst of a recession and I was wondering what was in store for me once I got into the working world. With the prevailing economic conditions and corporate models of the world today, I think these questions are critical to ask ourselves going forward.

Have you got upcoming projects you'd like to talk about?

I'm hoping by the end of the year I'll have finished the first draft of my urban fantasy novel going by the working title of The Lesser Evil about a woman whose twin brother, thought to be dead, resurfaces after twenty years to recruit her to join a secret society of people with psionic abilities.   I'm also writing a collection of twenty short stories, each one inspired by a different letter of the Irish Ogham alphabet, set in different eras in Ireland, written in various styles and fantasy genres; and I'm currently working on the eleventh.

Twitter: @kmurphywilbanks

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Guns & Romances: Five minutes with Alyssa Breck

If you've not picked up a copy of our recently released Guns & Romances anthology, you're seriously missing out. And I'm not just saying it because I was one of the editors. This collection of short fiction is a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of lust and action. Pick up a copy on Amazon, Kobo or Smashwords.

For today, I've got author Alyssa Breck in the hot seat. Welcome, Alyssa!

Who are you?

This is a question I often ask myself. *smirk* I’m Alyssa Breck, author of horror, paranormal, romance and erotic fiction, sometimes all at the same time.

Tell us more about your story and what you enjoyed about writing it.

"Homicide" is a dark, gritty story surrounding two detectives who discover some things about themselves and each other after one of them kills an armed suspect.

Writing "Homicide" allowed me to mix up my favorite genres being dark romance, erotica and crime fiction. I really enjoyed exploring the emotional impact triggered by taking a life and how different people deal with violence and death in unique ways.

Why do you think short fiction is important? 

I’ve always enjoyed short fiction. I think it’s important to different people for different reasons. For me, I believe that writing and reading short stories are exercises for the creative brain. As a reader, it’s like a quick roller coaster ride where you immediately start climbing the track knowing that the first fall will happen fast and hard. It’s almost like instant gratification. As a writer, there’s a particularly satisfying challenge in successfully capturing a complete story within a very limited word count. It forces the author to use a higher level of critical thinking to do more with less, in my opinion.

What is your favourite short story? 

Hmm. This is a tough one. I’d have to say it’s a tossup between "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson and "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe. Both stories are brilliant in their own right.

Have you got upcoming projects you'd like to talk about?

There is one I’d like to talk about but I don’t think I’m supposed to yet. I’ll just say it involves Vikings and some very talented authors. I’m also working on an F/F erotic romance inspired by two of my favorite female rockers, Joan Jett and Debbie Harry.

If you’re so inclined, you can learn more about Alyssa by visiting her website and by following her on Twitter @AlyssaBreck and Facebook.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Demon Stones by Michael Drakich #review

Title: Demon Stones
Author: Michael Drakich
Publisher: Traanu Enterprises, 2014

So far as the premise goes, Demon Stones certainly tempted me to pick it up out of my slush pile of review books. So far as small press/indie-published books go, this one *looks* good. The cover illustration featuring what I assume is the malignant imp Hiss is masterfully done and perfectly suits the tone for what follows.

Essentially, this is the story of the farmboy Garlin – or Gar, as we get to know him – who discovers that he has the ability to hear and affect the demons trapped in the monolithic demon stones scattered throughout the land. As we can surmise from the get go, releasing ancient demons from stones in which they were imprisoned *for good reason* is never a good idea. Gar reaps the harvest of his folly for the rest of the novel when he gets tangled up in a war made worse through his actions.

Gar himself is not a nice boy, and it’s the nasty, petty side of his personality that helps make things worse. So far as protagonists go, I’d peg him rather as the inadvertent antagonist throughout the novel, as he blunders his way along, freeing more and more catastrophic demons and making one bad decision after the other. Even near the end, there is very little that is redeemable about him, and I plant him firmly in the TSTL category.

Darlee, Gar’s sister, and their grandfather, Pap, do their best to fix Gar’s mistakes. Their efforts, though in the end largely fruitless, are commendable. Darlee suffers a great injustice stoically, and though part of me wished she would have gone on to give her brother a swift kick up the rear, I feel she’s the true hero of this story for all that she goes through. Secondary characters, like Captain Brusk and Lieutenant Devron, play pivotal roles as well, as they attempt to save their little kingdom from being completely overwhelmed.

My feelings about this novel are conflicted. On one hand, I feel about Demon Stones pretty much the same way that I feel about Magician by Raymond E Feist, to which I’ll make a near-direct comparison with regard to writing style and dogged by similar issues. This is not a bad book. I was able to finish reading it, which says something because I’ve reached the point in my book reviewing career where life is too short. I am not shy to relegate a book to the DNF pile.

I finished Demon Stones.

Did I enjoy it? Kinda. The premise entertained me. I was sufficiently invested to see what would happen. But…

The writing itself, like Feist’s, felt a bit flat. There’s no lacking for imagination but characters could have been better developed. Layering could have been denser, in that I didn’t *feel* immersed in the setting, which came across, like Feist, as very generic dot fantasy type setting. I wanted to taste/hear/see things. Don’t tell me it’s a house. Show me that it’s half-timbered with mullioned windows that need cleaning. Let me smell the scent of resin, hear the wind soughing in the bows of the pine trees. That sort of thing. Overall, very white-roomy. Details, like combat sequences, the training of men, the interaction between characters, could have benefited from more attention to nuance.

All that being said, I’d consider this an adequate fantasy read. The author has a strong voice and an engaging narrative that doesn’t lag, and he provided a product that is well edited and well produced. If there were any gremlins in the body of the text, they didn’t jump out and grab me by the eyeballs – so there is that. So, if you’re of a mind that considers Raymond E Feist a paragon of his genre, you’re probably going to dig Demon Stones. I’m possibly looking for a little more meat and grit with my preferred reading material.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Guns & Romances: Five Minutes with Marc Nash

Some of our Guns & Romances authors have agreed to sit in the hot seat here on my blog, and today I introduce y'all to Marc Nash. Don't forget that you can pick up your copy of Guns & Romances for your Kindle or download a copy from Smashwords

So, Marc, who are you? 
Marc Nash, literary Molotov cocktailist, bringing narrative conflagration to a book near you. I like to push the boundaries of narrative form and language to try and reflect our contemporary world and get away from dusty old Aristotle's "Poetics" of beginnings, middles and ends. Human life doesn't follow character arcs, nor is our brain linear in function.

Tell us more about your story and what you enjoyed about writing it.
I worked in the music industry for 19 years and so this project gave me the chance to bring together two of my passions, texts and tunes. I suppose it was inspired by Charles Whitman's Texas clocktower shootings, but I wanted to plot my sniper's emotional tenor through the mixtape he'd put together for ordering his mind for the shooting spree ahead. It seemed like a curious juxtaposition worth exploring. I had to keep the songs fairly mainstream in case readers hadn't heard of the more obscure titles I have taken to my heart.

Why do you think short fiction is important? 
Because it's much easier to mess with expectations of story, narrative, language over a short form than trying to sustain any of these across a novel. I write flash fiction (stories of 1 000 words or less) and it allows me to be way way more radical than anything in my novels. Stories without characters, stories composed entirely of endings, stories made up of 100 single word sentences, etc.

What is your favourite short story? 
Kafka's "Metamorphosis". so rich in imagery and expertly plots the family dynamics. Ben Marcus' "First Love" is pretty neat, what he does with language is extraordinary, like stripping down a car and rebuilding it to be an entirely different vehicle.

Have you got upcoming projects you'd like to talk about?
My 5th collection of flash fiction "Extra-Curricular" - tales told out of school is published September 18. I'm also really excited to be working with a video designer to turn one of my flash stories into a kinetic typography video. I've had one done, but this one is going to a whole new level.

Follow Marc on Twitter.