Monday, January 25, 2016

Ten of the Best – Top Reads for 2015

I’m a bit late with my “best of” reading list for 2015, but hey, it’s better late than never. Sadly I don’t get as much time to read as I used to before I went freelance, but then some things can’t be helped. What you’ll get here is a mix of books that are both old and new, because I’m a firm believer that we *do* need talk about older titles. So, here, in alphabetical order, are my top ten reads for the year, accompanied by extracts from my reviews, many of which appeared in the Pretoria News and on my blog.

Allegiance by Beth Bernobich hit all the marks for me with a well-defined, diverse cast. This the third of her River of Souls fantasy trilogy filled with intrigue, magic and adventure. More than that I won't say. Ilse and Raul are most certainly unforgettable, and if you're looking for a richly textured, gradually unfolding saga, then this is the sort of tale that harks back to the classics.

Not only am I drawn to her writing because of her solid worldbuilding, but also because she has created a society where there is less division between the roles played by men and women, and also a fluidity of sexuality. Women are soldiers, they can take on positions of power, and it doesn’t matter who you love. What else I adored was the fact that Bernobich breaks away from the Eurocentricism still prevalent in contemporary fantasy, to gift us with a saga that is distinctly Eastern in flavour without being heavy handed. – an extract from my review.

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen is another story that gave me the shivers. Cat has been one of my guiding lights and her writing is lush, nuanced and immersive. In Beastkeeper she retells "Beauty and the Beast", but from the point of Sarah, a lonely child whose parents have separated. She is sent to live with her remote grandmother, and discovers that her family harbours many secrets.

As always, Hellisen seems to effortlessly touch on the universality of fairy tales to delve even deeper and bring up underlying themes. One one level, this is a children’s quest to break a curse. On another, it’s a parable of how twisted love has soured to hate and indifference, and how one young person can find it in herself to step outside the trap of a destructive cycle. This is a dark, painful and elegant tale, made all the more beautiful, because Hellisen weaves with mystery and doesn’t hand over all the answers on a plate.

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan is book one of his Raven's Shadow trilogy, and has been one of my new discoveries in fantasy, and I've been gushing like a complete fangrrrl to anyone who's been within earshot. Anthony is an example of where self-publishing can lead to greater things, and this is coming-of-age story turns into a military fantasy that rubs shoulders with a fair amount of adventure and derring-do.

Ryan is relentless in what he has his characters endure, and the results are hardly convenient or tidy (as one can expect in an authentic setting). Expect bloodshed, violence and much death. Vaelin is a complex character whose actions aren’t always kind, but he is consistent in his logic, and I couldn’t help but admire him, even if I did not always agree with his decisions.

Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 1 by David Gaider, Ben Gelinas, Mike Laidlaw and Dave Marshall (editor) was oh so worth the effort of giving my money to BioWare (as I seem to be wont to do of late). I'm a huge fan of the game, not only because it's what I term as a fantasy RPG for Generation X, but because hells, the lore. So. Much. Lore. I'm a lore junkie. Also, this is just a really, really pretty book. And I'm unashamedly a fangrrrl.

I've yet to write a full review, but if you're a collector of stuff to fulfil your inner geekness, this lovely hardcover book is what you need. The illustrations are beautiful and many of those little snippets of tomes and manuscripts that you encounter in-game are replicated here, along with other fascinating bits about the different nations, their people and its history.

Radiance by Grace Draven was one of those rare situations where Amazon made a recommendation that actually hit the mark – she's pegged as being somewhere along the lines of Jacqueline Carey and Storm Constantine (which is the equivalent of catnip for me). This is dark fantasy with a romantic spin, where we have a day/night type relationship. Two young people, Brishen (of the Kai people) and Ildiko (human) have an arranged marriage to solidify the political relations between their people. They weren't supposed to fall in love too... But they did. I eagerly await book two of the Wraith Kings.

This book is sweet, but it’s not without its claws. The non-human race portrayed in this book (the Kai) are not cuddly, and their actions are quite bloody at times. They also make a lovely shift from vampires, elves or angels (I’d peg them as somewhat toothy, predatorial elves that don’t like going out during the day.) The human Ildiko may be soft and gentle on the outside but she has nerves of steel, and adapts quickly to her new people. By the end of the book, she’s a force to be reckoned with – while retaining her feminine qualities.

Sirkus Boere by Sonja Loots is one of two Afrikaans books I read during 2015. Yes, I know I'm terrible that I hardly if ever read anything written in my mother tongue but then again, there's a dearth of fantasy fiction in Afrikaans. Sirkus Boere was set reading for my varsity module, but I enjoyed it anyway because Sonja's writing is oh so clever and the topic (the Anglo-Boer War) fascinates me.

There are plenty of subtexts here. Mainly we deal with four main characters who're each trying to deal with the trauma of what they've lost during the war. Three of them get dragged off to be performers in a spectacle arranged by a circus showman. There's plenty of discussion about racism, colonialism, and how one overcomes the past. Do you embrace it? Walk away from it? Allow it to eat you up and paralyse you? What stories do you tell about your past?

The Children of H̼rin by JRR Tolkien is one of those must-reads that has been languishing on my TBR pile for too long Рuntil 2015, that is. In his usual fine, style, Tolkien takes the template for an ancient European myth and recasts it within Middle-earth. I am completely unashamedly a huge Tolkien fan. I am also aware that his writing is not perfect. But he's been part of my journey as reader and author since I was first able to read. Allow me this indulgence.

PS, if you’re emotionally correct and easily upset by bad stuff that happens to good people, go read about unicorns pooping rainbows. This book will make you very, very angry and you’ll probably ask for it to be banned from your library.

The Diving by Helen Walne is another of those books that doesn't full within my usual purview, but because it's my policy to read outside of my chosen genres from time to time, and because this one really hit me in all the feels, it deserves its spot here. I've been somewhat of a huge Helen Walne fan for years, and really enjoy her weekly columns in the Cape Argus. I also had fangrrrl moments whenever I bumped into her in the corridors of Independent Newspapers while I was still employed there. I mean, really – I had to stop myself from tripping over my tongue and telling her in a rush of words how fabulous I think she is.

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.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison is a standalone fantasy (which is good news for those of you who're positively exhausted by all the trilogies and series out there). When a friend whose opinion I respect and whose good taste in literature I trust implicitly told me in no uncertain terms that I would enjoy this book, I went and bought it. I wasn't disappointed. Yes, it's a slow-moving courtly intrigue kinda tale, but I loved Maia's wide-eyed horror as he learns how to become an emperor immensely. Oh, yes, and elves and goblins. That is all.

This is not a fast-moving novel by any measure. Katherine Addison’s prose is detailed and textured, and at times the array of names for people and places is bewildering (and possibly intentionally so, to create a sense of disorientation that Maia might feel at his situation). Yet the story is compelling, down to the last chapter, to be savoured for the rich world building and the slow weave of power play. The Goblin Emperor’s awarding of the 2015 Locus Award for “Best Fantasy Novel” is well deserved.

Whispers of the World that Was by ES Wynn is a Wraeththu Mythos novel. Fans of dark fantasy and who've had their brush with Storm Constantine's worlds will not be disappointed. ES Wynn is a gifted author whose style reminds me a lot of Steve-and-Ghost era Poppy Z Brite. Oh, and don't read this book while you're hungry either.

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.

While I welcome queries from authors and publishers seeking reviews (and I take pride in the fact that I will accept requests from self-published authors and small presses) my reading time at present is severely curtailed due to me having gone full time as a freelance designer and editor. I currently have a huge backlog and will therefore be incredibly picky about which books I accept. Please *do* read my review policy. Potential editing clients are also welcome to email me at – I am happy to provide a five-page sample, and offer a range of services, including proofing, manuscript assessment and developmental edits.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham #review

Title: The Boer War
Author: Thomas Pakenham
Publisher: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 1993

Granted, I started reading this book because I wanted a better idea of the Anglo Boer War for my Afrikaans module during my first level at Unisa for my BA, so this was pretty much supplementary reading – which means I was more consistent about finishing what I started. Plainly put, The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham (which is apparently considered a “go to” for the subject) is very, very dry. And that’s putting it mildly.

Informative, yes, but I had to do my reading in bursts.

That Pakenham did his research is clear, because he’s sifted through a daunting pile of primary sources to put together a fine tome that definitely succeeds in giving me a better idea of the entire debacle. Also, I feel that he succeeds in a degree of objectivity on such a contentious topic because when it comes to exposing the foibles of those involved in the conflict, he doesn’t pick sides. Both the British and the Boers are revealed as perpetrators (and most certainly not very nice people), and both sides have their heroes and villains, depending the perspective of the viewer.

Pakenham also examines the outcomes of the war, and it’s incredibly high cost in lives and material possessions; South Africa’s indigenous populations suffered the most. If one has to look from where the roots of the later oppressive apartheid system grew, they clearly lay deeply entrenched in this time, especially in the attitudes shared by colonial powers in Africa. Thank you, Rhodes, Kruger. You’re both scoundrels, and not the nice kind of scoundrel either (like Han Solo).

As an overview, I feel this book is a good starting point, but as stated earlier, I simply didn’t gel with Pakenham, who failed to engage me. What made reading this bearable is that I have an illustrated hardcover edition that had many wonderful images (yay for pictures) – but if and when I do decide to read further on the topic, I’d like to find an author whose writing style doesn’t make me unintentionally skip pages.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tower Lord (Raven's Shadow #2) by Anthony Ryan #review

Title: Tower Lord (Raven’s Shadow #2)
Author: Anthony Ryan
Publisher: Ace, 2014

While book one of Anthony Ryan’s Raven’s Shadow trilogy, Blood Song, is a coming-of-age story involving the young man Vaelin Al Sorna, and his rise as one of the greatest military leaders in the realm, Tower Lord diversifies the saga by adding fresh voices to the mix. To avoid spoilers, there’s an old (and favourite) individual from book one who makes a reappearance (no, he’s not dead, as you thought, and that’s all I’ll say), as well as the addition of two women who both show that they are not stereotypical damsels in distress.

Those hoping for the bulk of the story being told from Vaelin’s point of view will necessarily be disappointed, because his role is reduced to being assigned the duty of Tower Lord of the Northern Reaches, who then unites disparate groups in an army that then travels across the land to fight a great battle. I support Ryan’s decision to add new characters, because to a degree, the greater part of Vaelin’s achievements have already reached a peak in book one. To push for more would mean falling into the trap of “Too Much Awesome”, a flaw in many fantasy trilogies (You’ve rescued the princess – now what?). Though Vaelin is nonetheless a key figure in all that transpires in Tower Lord, the other three new viewpoint characters are given the opportunity to show that their roles are equally game changing when the realm is invaded, and its people are hard pressed to fight off enslavement.

Just like its predecessor, Tower Lord is red in tooth and claw, and is military fantasy to the highest order, with just a dab of magic for added spice (if you’re expecting dragons and elves, this is not for you). As always, Vaelin is drawn unerringly by his own magical “blood song”, as he calls it, which aids him in facing down impossible odds to pull off a rescue no ordinary person would even dare attempt. Reva and Princess Lyrna are well rounded out, and their story arcs are at times nail biting, because Ryan doesn’t spare them any grief.

There isn’t much to nitpick with Tower Lord apart from the fact that it clearly suffers book two syndrome in that it’s a continuation of events in book one with foreshadowing for events in book three – which means it feels unfinished, and the pacing might not have the same sense of urgency and energy present in book one. The writing, however, is tight and Ryan succeeds in offering his fans exactly what they’re looking for – a stonking good fantasy epic.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Guns & Romances author Matt R Jones

In the last of my series of interviews with Guns & Romances contributors (go get your copy now if you're in the mood for a selection of action-packed, lust-fuelled tales) I've got Matt R Jones stopping by for a few questions. 

Welcome, Matt. Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

My name is Matt R Jones, and I’m the author of the (R)Evolution By Night series, formerly known as the Hollywood Vampires series. I love vampires, horror, science fiction, comedy, monsters, and vintage genre films and comic books...I incorporate all of those things, and then some, into the (R)Evolution series. Because why shouldn’t a violent, bloody encounter between vampires and creatures from another dimension at least have a few moments of silliness?

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

“The Dance” has been a piece of unfinished business since 1997, having gone through several drafts and variations in the ensuing years, with each version getting just a little closer to the story I’d always envisioned it as. Having a chance to write this final, definitive version was immensely satisfying, and it finally felt like I put the damned story to bed.

“The Dance” is a peek into the relationship between the enigmatic vampire Wade (from the Unholy War duology) and the bright-eyed, playfully murderous vampiress known as Raven. This isn’t an origin story, and it’s not a final chapter, either, but one of a long series of brutally screwball run-ins between the two powerhouse immortals. Some couples argue over the bills, the thermostat, or where to put the washrag on the sink--it’s part of life, and part of the relationship, right? Wade and Raven, on the other hand, have been trying to kill one another since the waning days of the Roman Empire, and it’s an arrangement that works for them...though it could be argued it doesn’t work so well for anybody else in their general vicinity.

For this particular vignette, which takes place in a shit-hole bar on the bad side of Los Angeles, Raven has brought a new partner to their ongoing ancient, nigh-unstoppable creature from another dimension, which is simply out to kill everybody and everything it encounters because it’s colder than deep space and hungry as hell. Of course, she thinks it’s hilarious. She would. Wade begs to differ, and things are going to get ridiculously bloody, vicious, and explodey before all’s said and done.

Why do you think short fiction is important?

Not everybody has time to read a novel, and not everybody has the inclination to read a novel. Reading a novel is a pretty serious commitment, and even people who regularly read and love novels aren’t always in the market for 80 000 to 100 000 words...sometimes you just want to read something short and sweet. It’s fun to sit down and read something start to finish in a single sitting! Short fiction is a way for an author to present a complete, fully-realized story to the reader without asking for the massive time commitment.

There’s also the fact that not every story needs an entire novel to be told. Ray Bradbury was the master of presenting a whole world to the reader in just a few short pages, as were Richard Matheson and H.P. Lovecraft (though admittedly, Lovecraft’s short stories tended to run a bit long). People who complain about Stephen King’s monstrous tomes should really check out his short fiction, as King can totally kill in the short form.

A well-written short story is, in some ways, more satisfying than a full novel. Because the story’s shorter, everything is compressed...big events come faster, pacing is increased, resolution is reached swiftly, and the author is forced to build their world with a few well-crafted sentences or paragraphs  rather than spend page after page on exposition.

Working in the short form has the benefit of forcing an author to up their game and choose their words carefully, and even if an author’s strength is in telling monstrous, sprawling epics, there’s a lot to be learned from having a limited word-count and being economical while telling a tale.

Well-written short fiction is a win for both author and reader.

What is your favourite short story?

Probably either H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer In Darkness” or Ray Bradbury’s “The Million-Year Picnic.” “Whisperer” is a slow, fascinating build, laden with cosmic dread, and the way Lovecraft melded sci-fi elements with horror blew me away. “Picnic,” on the other hand is short and bittersweet...even though the world’s come to an end, Bradbury ensures you don’t mourn its loss, and leaves you with wistful hope for the future.

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

My Unholy War duology -- The Gathering Storm and Rage & Redemption -- are currently available in ebook form, and the paperbacks should be out within the next few months, so I’m looking forward to that. Both books are chock-full of vampiric action, adventure, and humor, and take place in the same universe as “The Dance,” and Wade is a notable character within, so if you’ve enjoyed “The Dance,” check 'em out.

I’ve also finished writing the first Unholy War follow-up novella, Fallen Star, which further mixes the combination of horror, sci-fi, and action found within “The Dance,” and I’ll be figuring out a release and all that good stuff for it in the near future, as well.

And I’ve got a big backlog of (R)Evolution By Night material that I’m looking to reissue over the next couple of years, as well, so there shouldn’t be any short of stuff from me to keep your eyes open for! So many stories, so little time...

Monday, January 4, 2016

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert #review

Title: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 2015

Anyone who knows me, will have a good idea of how I give books that have at some point or another been excessively popular with book clubs the side eye. For that very reason, I was mostly inclined to give anything by Elizabeth Gilbert a wide berth. I mean, if my mother had heard about Eat, Pray, Love all the way out in Swellendam then it was probably not a book I’d like to read (says she who makes a habit of often reading obscure fiction).

That being said, when a close friend whose opinion I value placed her copy of Big Magic in my hand and told me in no uncertain terms that I must read this book, that I *needed* to read this book, I paid attention. As it turned out, she was oh, so right. (She usually is, bless her little cotton socks.)

Though Big Magic is clearly aimed at writers, the advice that Gilbert offers from her own experiences in life and the publishing industry, can be applied to other forms of creativity. Essentially, and to sum up from what Gilbert has written, Big Magic is all about letting go of your fear to create and to understand why you create, and also gain an appreciation of how creativity functions. To paraphrase very loosely, Big Magic is your permission slip to go on and write those stories you’ve always wanted to, and to hell with whatever else anyone says or thinks.

What makes this book especially lovely is that it consists of short chapters, summing up base ideas almost as little lessons, which you can treat as such; really, this is the sort of book that you can keep a hard copy on your desk so that every time you feel down, or that you and your writing are worthless, you can pick the book up, open it any page, and find a little bit of inspiration.

It can be argued that much of what Gilbert writes is common sense, but sometimes it really, really helps to hear it from someone else.