Sunday, May 28, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Robbed of his birthright, Arthur comes up the hard way in the back alleys of the city. But once he pulls the sword from the stone, he is forced to acknowledge his true legacy - whether he likes it or not.

If you came to this movie expecting a slavish reproduction of the timeless classic that's already been done to death, then you're probably one of those farts who're walking away from the film sputtering in self-indignant fury. I went into the cinema today expecting lots of explosions, a killer soundtrack and gratuitous displays of slabs of man meat. I was not disappointed. The only elements that were even remotely related to the legend were the Lady in the Lake, a magic sword, a round table and a castle called Camelot.

But there were ginormous elephant demons, a massive snake that appeared out of nowhere for no apparent reason... Suffice to say, if your evil henchmen are all cosplaying Kylo Ren, they're going to die in droves in the most spectacular fashion (kinda like Stormtroopers, if you think about it). Cue also the awfully flash slo-mo action scenes and distorted sound, and King Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) brooding his way most delightfully through the role of the prince-raised-in-a-brothel-turned-saviour-of-a-kingdom, and this is just oodles of fun to watch. Even the part where he gets carried away by giant vampire bats and fights off oversized rats.

I also really appreciated that there wasn't a gratuitous insta-love sexual attraction by our hero and The Mage (Astrid Berg├Ęs-Frisbey) an archetypical the witch of the wilds – who's really absolutely one of the best thing about the film when her eyes roll back and she summons birds animals to do her bidding.

Everything that I absolutely loved about films like Highlander and Lord of the Rings is present (I'm thinking especially of the Boss Fight Scene near the end which made me think of Connor vs. The Kurgan), but only bigger, and way more dramatic, happened in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. High-brow cinema this is not. King Arthur goes through all the stages of the hero's journey, from denial through to a near-literal romp through the Underworld. Vortigern (Jude Law) is our tragic antagonist, whose lust for power sees him sacrifice everything that he loves to the freaky octopus ladies in exchange for his Boss form as a demon from a Frank Frazetta painting.

The editing and CGI are of the best I've seen in ages, and the world itself feels tactile (and most certainly not the England you'd imagine in history books). Yes, most of the dialogue is just one-liners and doesn't really have any cohesion, but I was not watching this film expecting deep existential answers. And I mean, what was the point of that giant snake? It was cool, but served no purpose other than being super cool.

Switch off your inner critic when you watch King Arthur. It's slick, insane and over the top. Also, it doesn't take itself too seriously. I'm also still ragingly incoherent and jumped up on the salt they put on my popcorn. Don't listen to the haters; just go have a blast. Guy Ritchie raped the legend, and he didn't even need to call it King Arthur, because to say it's based on the legend is a bit of a stretch, but it's still awesome.

Edit: Also, seeing Aidan Gillen was a treat. Some of you may remember him as the devious Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish from Game of Thrones.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012)

Pirate Captain sets out on a mission to defeat his rivals Black Bellamy and Cutlass Liz for the Pirate of the year Award. The quest takes Captain and his crew from the shores of Blood Island to the foggy streets of Victorian London.

It's almost a guarantee that Aardman Animations productions will find a way into my heart, and The Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012) is no exception. Okay, they pretty much sold it to me when I saw that Martin Freeman and David Tennant featured prominently in this full-length animated movie that was as charming as Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run.

The humour is absurd, and firmly tongue in cheek, as The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) goes to extraordinary lengths to win Pirate of the Year among his peers. Assisted by The Pirate with a Scarf (Martin Freeman) and Charles Darwin (David Tennant), this party of misfits goes against the evil Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton), who has nefarious plans on the menu for poor Polly the dodo.

Typically Aardman, this film works on two levels – it will please your ankle-biters while still offering nuance and depth for us oldies. The underlying theme is that of friendship through thick and thin, but it's never heavy-handed, and our pirate captain goes through all the stages of a satisfying hero's journey. The characters are fabulous and wacky, and the level of detail with the technical aspects of the production are, as always superb, and what I've come to love and expect of this studio. I don't even want to know how long it took, but it's beautiful, and is the kind of film I'd like to watch again in the future.

This is feel-good fluff and swashbuckling fun, and if you're looking for a way to while away a bit of your weekend and finish with a smile, then this one's for you.

Bloody Parchment finalist Dave de Burgh

A big welcome to one of the 2014 SA HorrorFest Bloody Parchment finalists Dave de Burgh. His short story "Exertion" made the pick during that year's contest.

Pick up your copy of Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and The Valley of Shadow now, and discover the best of our annual competition's entrants in the dark SFF/H genres.

What darkness lies at the heart of your story?

It may sound trite, but I initially wrote this story after a breakup which I took very badly, so this story helped me to communicate some the anger, frustration and loneliness I was feeling at the time. I guess that’s the darkness at the heart of it – the shock of being betrayed, and how that can lead to anger and, in some cases, vengeance.

What do you love the most about writing?

The thing I love most is an aspect very few people can or even will understand – that ability (which isn’t controlled or focused, just allowed) to explore either the hidden or obvious aspects of what it means to be human: that which makes us act and think and feel the way we do. Creating worlds and writing battle scenes and all that other cool stuff is just a very enjoyable bonus.

Why does reading matter?

Reading matters for many important reasons, but the reasons that reading is so important to me are because I’ve been able to explore different religious and cultural points of view, and reading has also taught me the fact that I will never know enough, nor be an ‘expert’ at anything. Above and beyond the escapism inherent in reading (fiction, at least), reading is one of the most incredibly powerful tools for the advancement and understanding of knowledge which exists.

An excerpt...

When I end and it begins, there is darkness. I don’t know where I am in that darkness, whether I hang or float or stand or lie. I know that I am there and that it is here, behind my heart and eyes and breath.

What other things have you written? 

I’ve written two novels (epic fantasy): Betrayal’s Shadow and Conviction’s Pain, as well as a bunch of short stories. See Tales from the Lake Volume 3, and my story, "A Hand from the Depths" and
The Third Spectral Book of Horror Stories, and my tale, "Static"

Follow Dave-Brendon de Burgh on Twitter or see his website.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Modern South African Stories by Stephen Gray

Modern South African Stories by Stephen Gray was on the list of recommended reading as part of one of my English modules when I was still studying through Unisa, and though it's been a while since I've read it, I'd still like to share my thoughts (and thank goodness I left myself copious notes over on Goodreads while I progressed).

Okay, deep breath. In *general* I don't often pick up an SA fiction anthology because I expect a bunch of the stories to go heavy handed with socio-political commentary on the state of the country, and to be honest, I get enough of that on my social media feeds every day. Yes, it's a terrible thing to admit, but that's just me. Slap me with a pap snoek and be done with it.

On the flip side, if you're looking for little bites and commentaries on our past and present, then hey, sometimes fiction is a great place to unpack ideas, turn them over and see how they resonate with you. For that very reason, this is why I *will* dip into contemporary SA fiction because it's good for me to encounter writing that makes me uncomfortable. (Yes, Nerine, eat your vegetables.)

Anyhoo, I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail with every story in this anthology, but I'll highlight a few that jumped out at me.

"If you swallow, you're dead" by Yvonne Burgess was by far the story that gave me the biggest gut punch. I even wrote a paper about it. It's about a narrow-minded Afrikaans woman whose entire life is subsumed in her caring for others, how she's always taken second best, and how her reliance on tradition eventually kills her. And her life is meaningless. A perfect, existentialist dread through and through. This was a horrible story and ugly, and I rolled around in its awfulness. Yes, I'm twisted that way. Life is brutal and short, and then you die, and no one cares.

Bessie Head's story, "The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses" in which an old prisoner manipulates a prison warden, is, of course, cleverly told. Then again, I don't need to remind you that Bessie Head is the bomb, and there's a reason her writing is taught at secondary and tertiary levels.

I'm not quite sure what to make of "The Tongue" by Rustum Kozain. I suspect this may be a nod towards Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose", but in this case we're dealing with a giant disembodied tongue that's been wounded and is now being loaded into a waggon to be removed by medics. Setting feels like surreal Anglo-Boer War. It's surreal, for sure.

Oh dear dog, "Tell Him It's Never Too Late" by Rachelle Greeff is such a downer. Mario and Maria are a childless couple married for more than 50 years. They move into a retirement home, Mario dies, and Maria moves into progressively smaller rooms until she's sharing. She gets ill with cancer and the doctor discovers she's had a lithopedion inside her all this time. Basically this is a story about death/rebirth, and unrequited love from priest. If you don't know with a lithopedion is, please, for the love of dog, DO NOT google the images. If you do, don't blame me 'cos I told you so.

"Heavy Cerebral Metal" by Deena Padayachee was ... odd. The story is narrated by newly married doctor taken aback by the account of abuse told by patient who has a tip of an umbrella stuck in his head. I can't decide if the doctor is flabbergasted or simply feeling solidarity with man. I pray it's the former.

"A Handbag in the Boot" by Farida Karodia is possibly the weakest story in the entire anthology. It features the unnecessarily twee contrasting lives of a streetkid and a rich white madam. I'm sorry, maybe this story had a place somewhere during the 1990s to highlight differences in economic situations, but now it's just overly sentimental and pandering to Great White Guilt. Bludgeon much?

The collection wasn't all bad, however. "Clubfoot" by Ken Barris was possibly one of my favourite stories. We see the world through the eyes of a clubfooted boy who lives a sheltered life somewhere on the West Coast with his mom. His drunkard, gypsy of a grandfather comes to visit and we learn something unfortunate about the boy's origin. There is plenty of ocean/sea imagery, and overall the story has a dreamlike quality.

To be horribly honest, and I'm probably showing what an unsophisticated fart I really am, I didn't really *get* the majority of these stories, and many of them really didn't get to a point (and this is me pulling my nasty editor face for writing that could have indulged in less waffle). There is heavy emphasis on socio-political issues, which automatically gets a knee-jerk reaction out of me, because honestly, there is more to South African fiction than just bashing readers over the head with history books. You are welcome to tell me I am a boorish Philistine for holding this opinion. (But honestly, that will say more about you than me, and I really couldn't give a rat's arse.)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Blood, The Phoenix and a Rose by Storm Constantine

Blood, the Phoenix and a Rose: An Alchymical Triptych by Storm Constantine is, as the name suggests, a collection of three loosely interwoven stories that are set in her Wraeththu mythos. And yes, there is an alchemical theme. For those who're not in the know, this setting is one of her enduring (and endearing) worlds that offer us the tales of the Wraeththu – androgynous beings who are mankind's heirs after humanity is pretty much wiped out by its own efforts. In this setting, fantasy and science fiction blend to offer us an alternate future, where those who would name themselves hara have a second chance to do better.

"The Song of the Cannibals" begins at the mansion of Sallow Gandaloi, where the arrival of a stranger upsets the careful balance of the household. One of the hallmarks of Storm's writing is her love of architecture and how those who reside within the walls interact. This is a story about a har who hides a heart of darkness within, and those hara who do not tread carefully around he who is known as Gavensel.

"Half Sick of Shadows" continues with Gavensel's attempts to delve into his mysterious past, but this time it's told from his point of view as he strives to peel pack the shroud. He is mired in darkness, which is a danger to those who don't handle him with care.

"A Pyramid of Lions" provides us with a window into the world of Vashti, a har who grew up on the breeding farms of the infamous Varr tribe familiar to those who've read the primary books in the mythos. He is pragmatic in approach, and while at first it's not entirely clear how far his story tangles with Gavensel's, this will become clearer later.

I can't truly look at the stories as separate entities, and I'm going to be straight here – if you've not already read the other books in the series, it's probably best to wait with this one until you've done so, as there is a lot of backstory that is referenced that will make no sense to you otherwise.

To those, who like me are lore junkies, this triptych will fill in a lot of blanks, and especially offer insights into the world of the Varr tribe under the rule of Ponclast. The revelations are uncomfortable and deeply frightening as well, because they show how close the Wraeththu as a whole came to falling into darkness, stagnation and destruction as the human race.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Para Animalia: Creatures of Wraeththu

Right, so this is not a review, but I still feel like I should talk about the anthology even though I have two stories in it. Those who know me have an idea how much I love Storm Constantine's Wraeththu mythos. The premise is simple: Mankind bollocksed up one last time and through a genetic mutation the hermaphrodite Wraeththu race came into being – heirs to a ravaged earth. They are magical beings who have the power to both great good and ill, and it's clear that they are near and dear to Storm's heart.

However Storm's done what few other creators of worlds have done: She's opened her mythos to other writers to explore, and this anthology, Para Animalia: Creatures of Wraeththu is but one of a number of existing collections of short fiction that involve other authors. The theme here is self-evident – exploring the relationship between har and creature (har/hara being the term Wraeththu refer to themselves).

Storm's fans will be glad to know that she has two stories here, as well as two offerings from her long-time editor Wendy Darling. Other regulars, such as Martina Bellovicova, Maria J Leel, and ES Wynn are also present (and whose stories I adore). This time I had the wherewithal to write not one but two tales, which gave me such joy.

Fabulous beasts that feature include snakes, dragons, dogs, wolves and owls, among others. I explored my love for owls by writing an owl companion (that I admit I tend to do often in my writing, and I blame Jareth the Goblin King for that), as well as a tale exploring the bond between a har and his pack of African wild dogs. I'm grateful that Storm has given me free rein to play in my conception of Africa, but the other stories take place all over.

As always, the quality of writing is of a high standard, with some stories standing out more for me than others. A particular favourite for me was "Medium Brown Dog", mainly because of the dog's pragmatic and (unintentionally) humorous observations of hara. You don't necessarily need to have read previous Wraeththu mythos novels to understand what goes on in the setting and, if you still have to, then this is a wonderful opportunity for you to dip your toes into mythos as there is a broad range to give you little slices. This collection will especially appeal to fantasy readers who love animals.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Snitch by Edyth Bulbring, a review

The first thing you notice about this edition of Snitch by Edyth Bulbring, is the cover, which reminds me of some of the vintage Adrian Mole diaries (with some of the absurd humour). But all resemblance ends there because while our protagonist is awkward, he's no Adrian (and for that I'm grateful). And, while this is a YA book, typically of Edyth's writing, it goes much, much deeper. 

Ben Smith is what we can consider your everyday troubled teen. He lives with his mom, Sarah, and his sister Helen (who has blue dreads), as well as their aptly named dog Terror. His dad passed away when he was little, but his "uncle" Charlie visits often.

Without spoiling the story for you, I'll say this much, that we follow the heartaches and trials of Ben's school career when he is the subject of terrible bulling for Reasons [redacted due to spoilers]. The bonds of friendship and family are severely tested as Ben endures his ordeals ... and experiences that very first teenage love.

If I have to look at an underlying theme that runs through this book, it's about overcoming the labels that others apply to you. Bulbring's writing is at times humorous and poignant. She remains, as always, a keen observer of interpersonal relationships and how we often damage each other without meaning to. Snitch is accessible and highly enjoyable, and I'll add, not just for younger readers. And she's very much in touch with the issues that affect those who are coming of age.