Monday, January 29, 2018

Master of Crows by Grace Draven

I'm a hopeless romantic at heart; I admit it freely. The moment I read Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights at age 13, I had a thing for brooding, tormented heroes. I first encountered Grace Draven's writing when I ran across Radiance, so despite my horrendous reading piles, I still aim to read her older writing: Case in point – Master of Crows, which is book one (yay!) featuring the sorcerer Silhara, who is the ahem, archetype of Heathcliffian well ... attractiveness.

We encounter the slave Martise, who's the property of the bishop of Cumbria. He promises her her freedom if she can dig up enough dirt to condemn Silhara, who's pretty much been banished to a crumbling mansion. Silhara has had a bit of a rough start in life, and as we discover, he has a reason to have a fair amount of beef with the bishop.

Yet Martise finds herself irrevocably fascinated by Silhara as they try to discover how the ancient god Corruption (who's pretty much gasping to possess Silhara as his new avatar) may be defeated.

What I love about Grace's writing is that it's easy on the eye, and the story drags you in. If I have to compare, she's got the sweet sincerity of Anne McCaffrey's writing style but the gothic setting so beloved of Tanith Lee, with a hint of Storm Constantine for flavour. Some may find this a wee bit too sentimental, but there are times when I just need a slow burn romance in a dark fantasy setting that slowly unpeels with sensual delights. And Grace has a lovely way of describing her surroundings, the tastes, the colours, that appeals to me.

I'm not a huge romance fan, but aesthetically Grace does it for me, and does it well, with more than enough plot to support the erotic elements (which are just right, and not overdone at all). The dialogue between characters also sparkles, and she pays attention to her secondary characters too, so that they're well rounded.

So anyhow, these gothic fantasy romances just work for me, even if I'll make a big deal about reading heavier literature, and I thoroughly enjoyed Master of Crows, which I admit sat in my Kobo app for far too long before I pulled it up onto the screen. The fact that I have to rein myself in from immediately rushing off to purchase the next book says something (I'm still desperately trying to read more of the books that have been lurking in my apps for goodness know how long).

If Grace does by any small chance end up reading this review, do realise you have a serious fangrrrrl sitting right here fanning herself.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

SSOTBME by Ramsey Dukes

The first time I met Ramsey Dukes, it was over breakfast at the now-defunct Tibetan Tea Shop in Simon's Town. A friend had put me onto him, as someone I should meet and talk to, and as they say, the rest is history. He is a thinker of rare wit and deep insight, and it is through this slim little volume SSOTBME: Revised, an Essay on Magic, that I've rediscovered my delight in the Western magical system.

Dukes outlines a system of approaching our experience of our world into four directions: Scientific, Religious, Magical and Artistic. Each is a valid way of evaluating and making decisions. Each has their own purpose, and in fact, he goes on to show how each individual will at different times employ that sort of thinking.

Chiefly, he deals with magic, explaining it as an approach that is unafraid to be selective in which criteria one adopts when it comes to problem solving – IOW, the stories that we tell ourselves to explain a set of circumstances. According to Dukes, magic embraces both truth and falsehood, as well as illusion, knowingly. He suggests that it's not so much how one arrives at a solution, but the point that one's actions produces tangible results, even though they might not be considered logical.

A magician, according to Dukes, is aware of his surroundings, of the patterns, and is adept in manipulating them according to a particular expression of his will. [My explanation, using the Parking Fairies is – if asking the Parking Fairies to help you find a spot near the mall entrance on a busy Saturday appears to help you chill the fuck out and find that parking spot, while giving you the illusion that the task was attained easier, then why the hell not]

Mostly, Dukes explains how magic is a way to engender wholeness. There's a certain degree of playfulness to it as well, if you ask me. And there's the fact that as a magician you become more aware of the interconnectedness of things around you, and better able to manipulate outcome because of the changes you have wrought to your own responses.

Imagination is a powerful tool, and we're apt to be dismissive of it, but often this "set dressing" as it were, adds meaning to how we approach our daily challenges. Also, what Dukes points out is that you cannot use the same criteria to evaluate magic as you would for, say, religion or science. To do so is absurd (and a waste of time). And similar to art, magic is about creating and manipulating meaning around you. And to be unafraid to play with subjective viewpoints – and to do so fluidly and not locked down by dogma.

He underscores that Magic, Art, Science and Religion should not be at war with each other, but that those forms of approaching our daily lives are often intertwined and various expressions thereof have prominence at different situations. Magic is merely a way to maintain a perception that is different from the norm, it is about creating powerful metaphors that you can use to solve problems or create change, and embraces both light and dark aspects of Self, so is therefore beyond morality. (Which is probably why religious folks hate it so much.) Magic is what it is, it's how we approach our personal wholeness that matters to us, as individuals, and exploring the unknown. (So no dogma, as such.)

SSOTBME came at a good time for me, when I'd hit a stage in my life where I was wondering what the point of it all is in terms of maintaining an interest in esoteric matters. Needless to say, Dukes has offered a rather valuable way of looking at my own work. If you've yet to discover his writings, and this seems like the sort of thing that interests you, I can't recommend him enough. He also maintains a YouTube channel that might be worthwhile checking out.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Jim Henson's Labyrinth by ACH Smith

I go into reading novelisations of films rather warily, and unfortunately I was not exactly blown out of the water by ACH Smith's novelisation of the Jim Henson film Labyrinth. To give a little background, this film was hugely influential on me when I was younger – it ranked among productions such as The Neverending Story, Willow, and their ilk, that occupied a large part of my imagination.

I revisited the film Labyrinth quite recently, but because I'm the special kind of fantasy fan who wants to eke out the full experience over multiple media platforms, I had to get the book too.

I wish I could say that Smith's writing does the film justice, but it doesn't. At least not for me. I've always felt there's something a little deeper, grittier in Labyrinth, that the book kinda skates past. On the surface, it may appear a bog-standard quest, and with a strong female protagonist as well (which for its time was quite unusual). But Henson goes a lot deeper, especially pitting a young teen girl, Sarah, against the plotting Goblin King Jareth.

There is something uncomfortable in this May-December pairing, verging on the forbidden. Jareth is both creepy and sensual at the same time, and I could go all Freudian and Jungian at the same time, and spend reams and reams of pages unpicking the archetype and frothing about a young woman's awakening sexuality expressed in her opposition to her animus. But I'm not going to, and it's beyond the scope of this review, which is supposed to focus on Smith's writing.

Even if the novelisation of the movie was aimed at a middle grade readership, the writing itself feels simplistic even compared to some of the other books in this age group that I've encountered. Smith himself also takes liberties with the script that I feel are unnecessary deviations that don't progress or enhance the plot in any way. Language usage itself is somewhat twee (hence my thinking it might be aimed at much-younger readers ... but then That Scene in the ballroom between Sarah and Jareth is ... well ... not age appropriate and downright creepy.)

Smith aims for a near-limited third-person point of view, but he skips between characters randomly, which just annoyed me, along with clunky monologues without developing a strong enough voice for the author-narrator. Perhaps the story might work better if read out loud... I don't know. Just that I've enjoyed better YA literature that doesn't feel as if the author is being somewhat patronising to his readers.

(All right, it's my opinion that good YA fiction will appeal to both young and older people.)

Despite my misgivings, this is still a decent read. I'm glad I bought this particular edition because, well, duh, I'm a huge fan of the film, even if it's completely cringe-worthy whenever Bowie breaks into song. And those tights...that leave very little to the imagination.

I digress...

What I like about the book is that they've included some of Brian Froud's concept art as an appendix, along with some of Henson's notes, so for those who're interested in the behind-the-scenes details, these little additions are sweet. Also, it's a pretty hardcover, so will look great on my bookshelf right next to my first-edition English translation of Michael Ende's The Neverending Story... Because that's the sort of fantasy geek I am.

Chain Reaction by Adeline Radloff

Chain Reaction by Adeline Radloff was a book that landed on my desk unasked for, but in the spirit of reading outside of my chosen genre, I'll give this one a fair assessment. I must mention that this was awarded silver in the 2013 Sanlam Youth Literature Prize but from what I can see on Goodreads and Amazon, hasn't seemed to have met with much of a response from readers.

And [sigh] I think I know why.

At a glance, the concept behind the story is quite fun. Radloff has essentially written two short stories about the same characters, but employs the butterfly effect in that one seemingly random action in the first chapter has massive consequences later on in the story.

But here's where the wheels fall off, in my opinion. The first version of events has a negative outcome due to one character's inaction, while the second has an overwhelmingly positive knock-on effect for all the characters, and while I read, I felt that chain reaction was almost too simplistic in its dualistic expression of the right or wrong way for characters to respond to circumstances.

Young readers aren't stupid. If they feel as if they're being preached at, and if the writing is set up to primarily focus on moralistic outcomes, they're going to balk. I know I balked, and often found myself saying, "I can't see teens responding like this, this seems implausible".

Look, the writing isn't irredeemable, and the concept of starting the book and reading through halfway to finish the first part, and then turning the book upside down and around to get to the other half ... that's kinda cute in a way. Perhaps the one character I felt that had the most spunk and personality was Alexis. She came across authentic, perhaps because a diary format had been used and her tone came across well. What Radloff then did was jump between different ways of writing for the various characters – first person, second person, cellphone chat, social media. It's an easy way to show that we're dealing with different characters. It also means that it's not that easy to develop an attachment with the multiple characters.

This isn't a bad book, but I can't help but feel it's the type of story a guidance councillor might prescribe for their class to read, and if your kid already likes their Harry Potters and The Hunger Games, or whatever else is currently popular for younger readers, they're probably not going to be the reader for this book.

Friday, January 26, 2018

On water security, and attitude

I had a long conversation with my mom yesterday, and of course the topic of water came up with Cape Town's current water crisis. My mom grew up during WWII. Her father was a farmer in Hout Bay on the farm Kronendal. They grew veggies, like carrots, tomatoes, cabbages and such. It wasn't an easy life, and from a young age, she was expected to work the same as the adults – both during harvest time and domestic chores. As the daughter of the household, it was expected of her to do her share of the housework, which included doing laundry, and as she grew older, and her mom went back to work as a nurse, my mom took on even more of the work.

Her father didn't want her to finish school. He didn't see the point of a woman getting an education. After all, he didn't get a matric and he was doing just fine. But my mom fought to get her matric. On top of her household work, she worked in the store that my grand-aunt ran. And then she still had to make time to study, and she eventually obtained her teaching certificate. This is her attitude, which I understand today has greatly influenced how I approach my life.

My mom had to fetch water from a tap outside. This water came from a spring high up on the mountain (so it was untreated). The Hout Bay farming community was very strict about how they maintained that catchment area, as this precious water served several households in the valley. No one was allowed to build or farm in the catchment area. They only got municipal water when my mom was 12. Water that was treated and piped in from Cape Town. So, my mom knows all about how to make do without piped water.

I think of all my fellow South Africans who, in this day and age, STILL don't have access to basic water and sanitation, and I understand implicitly that I, as a member of a privileged middle class, have had it easy. And as they say, 'n boer maak 'n plan (a farmer makes a plan). I am fortunate in that I do have the resources available to make this time a little easier, and where I can, I will reach out to others in my community who are not so fortunate (be it that they might need someone to fetch water for them, or find ways in which I, as an able-bodied adult, may assist them).

I'm not saying it's right that our government has failed us in terms of water security. You are allowed to be angry and afraid, because we're entering a time of great uncertainty. But use those emotions as fuel to affect change around you. We need to change our attitudes to water. It is a scarce resource in a drought-stricken country. We need to cherish our natural water resources – respect them for they are fragile and precious. We need to look around us for opportunities, such as rainwater harvesting. We need to examine our use of waste water, and where we ourselves may be wasting water unnecessarily.

Whether you believe in a god or not, is not the point. It's easy to sink to our knees and pray, but it takes hard work and courage to get to our feet and help each other. I'd like to think that if there is some sort of god, it would prefer to see its children taking responsibility for their own welfare. That is why we have free will, no? Blaming idiot politicians is easy. We have all the proof that they fucked up, and that some of them are blaming us for wasting water, as if that will absolve them of the fact that they didn't take action sooner. But what can *we* do in the meantime?

I am my mother's daughter, and I don't kneel.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Overkill by James Clarke

How many South Africans of my generation remember visiting a lion park or reserve where one had the opportunity of bottle feeding lion cubs? I do. Like many visitors, we were fed the lie that South Africa was breeding lions for "conservation purposes". Sadly, this was far from the truth. Oh, South Africa had thousands of lions, but what these lion parks or farms were not telling us, was that these hand-reared lions were not being sent to go live out their lives in some glorious bushveld. No, they were being shot by wealthy foreigners supporting our country's barbaric canned lion hunting industry.

This is just one of the topics James Clarke touches on in his book Overkill, which makes for some pretty gripping (and horrifying) reading for anyone who's interested in finding out more about how the African continent's megafauna is faring. If you're wondering who Clarke is, he's one of the founders of the wildlife NGO the Endangered Wildlife Trust, whom I'm sure you'd have heard about if you're conservation minded.

Clarke takes you on a journey of understanding the complexities of mankind's relationship with wildlife, and how its colonial past has also contributed greatly to the way the continent's natural resources are exploited today. Whether it's the lion, elephant, rhino or whale, or just generally humankind's attitude to the wild, it's something that needs to be discussed.

He lays a large portion of the blame for the current extermination of species at the feet of the Chinese government, and the continued trade in goods such as ivory as well as the misconceptions that rhino horn and yes, even crushed lion bones, serve some sort of medicinal purpose. Clarke doesn't shy away from pointing out that broad-sweeping corruption all the way up to government is responsible for the continued pillaging of natural resources.

Perhaps what he doesn't state overtly (and I don't know if this is intentional) is that mankind's increasing population – with its resultant pressure placed on the environment – is perhaps also a factor that needs to be taken into account. We simply cannot continue reproducing at the rate we are. (All right, but that's basically my take on it.)

While Clarke doesn't come out against responsible hunting – he acknowledges that proper management of natural resources does have benefits in the long run – I do echo his sentiment that it would be better if mankind could eventually curb this lust to hunt game. The overall picture he paints about the state of conservation in Africa in general, is quite grim, but it's not without its glimmers of hope. For Africa's wildlife to survive, we need to bring together international communities to recognise the importance of the continent's wildlife for all.

Clarke writes clearly, and with great passion, and I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the environment and its conservation. He touches on a broad range of issues in a manner that is handled sensitively, and it is my belief that this is an important work that attempts to examine the complexities of issues in a nuanced fashion.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Louis Botha's War by Adam Cruise

The moment I saw Louis Botha's War by Adam Cruise, I knew it was a book I needed to read. I'm fascinated by South Africa's complex history, and I was looking for a book that would not only be accessible for someone like me who's not au fait with politics, while also filling in the blanks in terms of history.

Louis Botha is not a figure who's lauded much, yet I know of him because of the statue that is situated outside of the parliament buildings in Cape Town. In terms of South African history, it's still curious (to me) why we'd have a statue of an old Boer general up. Well, now I know.

When Louis Botha was prime minister of the South African union, the Anglo Boer War was still front of mind for many South Africans. Botha had the unenviable task of putting a unified army in the field when the UK requested that South Africa invade what was then German South West Africa. How I read the book, it's my opinion that the South West African campaign (1914-1915) was primarily a European war fought on African soil, the bastard offspring of colonial powers' weakening grip on the continent.

Cruise focuses on the military tactics Botha and his opponents employed. He discusses the incredible difficulties the armies faced; knowing Namibia, it's not exactly a landscape you go waltzing into. The extremes in temperature and lack of water make it daunting to travel by land across the country now even. Back then, when warfare in Africa was still largely fought by infantry, cavalry and artillery, with minimal support courtesy of motorised vehicles ... I garner fresh respect for what Botha achieved. Aircraft were only starting to be used in warfare, though the railway proved to be absolutely vital too.

Yet this is not just a dry book about military tactics. Cruise also looks into the socio-political reverberations caused by this war, such as the rebellion that occurred in the union, as well as the later effects that bloomed into full-scale Afrikaner nationalism. Our history is incredibly complex.

Namibia itself is a land that holds special fascination for me, and I admit this is partially due to the fact that I'm married to a Namibian, and we've visited the country a few times. I've fallen irrevocably in love with the wide-open spaces and the incredible diversity of the landscape that can be at times barren and desolate (and eerily beautiful) or the alien qualities of locations like the oasis Goanikontes. What Cruise does exceptionally well is combine a narrative of the conflict with little tastes of the history of the land, so that places I've visited (like the grassy plains just beyond Aus) come to life for me in terms of the past.

Louis Botha is revealed as a remarkable individual – not just a statesman (and the devil knows we have few enough of those these days) but also a shrewd warrior. It's doubtful that we have people like this as decision makers in these days of celebrity presidents and career politicians. Granted, Cruise doesn't shy away from the fact that Botha himself was less than perfect (his attitude towards non-Europeans are typical of his time) but he does come across as a reasonable man who was considerably less extreme in his views than Herzog, Verwoerd and his ilk.

Cruise gives Botha his due in this slim volume that is easy to read, both informative and fascinating, with well balanced content. I certainly feel as if I have a firmer grip on southern African history of a time period that I was fuzzy about, and in such a way that I engaged with the book from cover to cover.