Monday, February 26, 2018

The Firebird and Empty Monsters joint release day

My fellow Skolion author Cat Hellisen and I decided to celebrate our book birthdays on the same day – February 27. Today I celebrate the release of my new fantasy novella The Firebird, while Cat is releasing her next, long-awaited Hobverse book, Empty Monsters, which tells a piece of the story that happens before events in her novel When the Sea is Rising Red.

So, we’ve shared a little Q&A, and you can read the first bit here… And I’ll provide a link below for Cat’s half of our discussion.

Nerine: Ade fascinates me – he’s a liminal creature who doesn’t quite fit in the role that he has been cast and he exists in an uneasy state that is not wholly of his world. Can you shed a little light about his role as a midwife within his community?  (And he’s not quite an ordinary midwife either.)

Cat: The Onnerys are a family of Hob midwives and they perform the usual midwifery services in their community, but they have one significant difference. The eldest Onnery has an ability to sense magic in others and remove it. They do this because their people are under threat of the colonial powers who would use any trace of Hob magic as an excuse to commit genocide. Ade is interesting in that he was never meant to be the Onnery with power - it’s always the first-born female. He has never actually had to perform the magic-removing, and doesn’t know if he could do it and sentence that child to grow up in need of lifelong care. He’s a strange thing, kept controlled both by his mother and by his own sense of insecurity, but under all that is a person who will find out just how powerful they can be.

You have a fondness for liminal characters yourself, and the conflict that creates as they try find their place. Unia is in a constant struggle to prove her worth - as a member of the order of the Fennar, as a woman in a world where men hold power, as the sister to a traitor, and as a magic user. Even her tribal roots are held against her. What is about Unia that you found most relatable when writing?

Nerine: I think with Unia, what spoke to me the most was that she was absolutely determined to succeed, no matter what the cost – as we discover. With her I draw upon that early certainty I had as a young teenager about truth and, yes, religion – and how that can blind you to a more nuanced way of examining the world. Adversity and her deep-rooted sense of dissatisfaction with life causes her to double down – not always a good thing – and yet that same determination also gives her the bravery to take action when it’s called for. We are sometimes our own worst enemies, if that makes any sense?

But back to Ade – he really does dig himself a deep hole with the choices that he makes, and he has quite a few fetters to overcome. He goes from being quite passive to taking action, which is a joy to behold. What are some of the greatest obstacles that he faces?

Cat: At first glance, his biggest obstacle probably looks like the way he looks and how he has been brought up, but that lack of confidence is something that he overcomes throughout the story. Yes, he’s an anxious figure, but how much of that is something innate and how much is down to the things that were done to him without his understanding or knowledge. So I think for me, the biggest obstacle he faces is his own upbringing. His family and what they have taught him. At the same time, it is his family that provide him support, and his love of family that provides the catalyst for the story. Hard to fight your roots - when what gives you support also cages you.

Family - and the complicated ties that bind us to them - is also prevalent theme in The Firebird. When Unia must watch her brother tortured as an enemy, that stirs up all kinds of warring memories and forces Unia to make some tough choices. Again, I think like Ade, Unia’s biggest obstacles are ones within her.

But let’s talk worldbuilding and symbolism. We’ve both lived many years in the same area in South Africa. I can recognise it in your writing, but can you explain a little more about how where you live influences your worldbuilding in you (gorgeous!) setting for The Firebird.

Now, go visit Cat's site to read the rest of this discussion here.

Buy Empty Monsters here.
Aden Onnery is the eldest son of a family of midwives who use their power to eradicate magic. As a boy, he was never meant to take on the Onnery mantle, but an accident of birth has left him marked and strange. His whole life he has believed that the Onnerys destroy the monsters that will bring the end of his people, until he is forced to enter into a bargain with a magical survivor.

In order to save his sister from the harsh law of the colonial powers, Aden chooses to enter the world outside his experience and go against everything he has been taught to believe. He must help save the very thing his family are meant to exterminate—a magical lineage in his people. In doing so, Aden will confront the truth that the monsters are his own family.

EMPTY MONSTERS weaves magic, family, and love into a bitter tonic about growing up and accepting that even the best intentions can exact a terrible price, and love is never simple.

Buy The Firebird here.
What is true evil? How do you fight it? 

Since she was little, Lada wanted to be part of the Order of Fennarin, one of the warrior-monks who are the last bastion in a war against the demons and insurgents that threaten her island home. Yet to achieve her dream, Lada turned blood traitor, her decision leading to the death and exile of her family.

Her betrayal comes to haunt her now, ten years later, when her elders demand that she oversees her brother Ailas’s trial. Lada feared him lost forever, thanks to his covenant with demons, which makes him anathema to her and her order.

Will she deny her blood and uphold the order that’s become her family? Or will she listen to the whispers of the demons? After all, they might just be telling the truth – though a truth that may make her question everything, even the organisation to which she’s entrusted her very soul.

Hap by Lesley Beake

I'm going to start by saying that Hap by Lesley Beake absolutely deserves gold for the 2017 Sanlam Youth literature Prize. In this tale, we discover the world according to Lucy, 16, who's been packed off by her mum in NYC to go spend a few weeks with her father, Peter, in South Africa.

Peter is busy on a dig on the West Coast, somewhere near Lambert's Bay (that's about all I can find out about the location of Barclay Bay). It's quite a change from the air-conditioned apartment in the city, but Lucy needs her space. She's recently had something awful happen to her, and needs time and space to remember and deal with the event.

The entire novel seems to exist in a dream-like state – and there's not much that happens beyond Lucy reconciling with her (relatively) absent father, working through her own dark teatime (being rejected by your mother is a terrible thing) and then the events that happen on the dig. We have a large-ish cast of wonderfully eccentric secondary characters who add interest and some conflict to the narrative. There's a storm. The descriptions of the environment are absolutely gorgeous. And then there are the sort-of visions that Lucy has about the enigmatic Hap, her counterpart who lived here many thousands of years ago. I loved the fact that it's left open-ended as to whether Lucy merely had an active imagination or whether she in fact did tap into a distant past.

This is a story about life, and about the connections made between people, and how even though thousands of years separate us from our ancestors, we still have the same needs – to be loved and to endure. And it's also about connecting to that sense of belonging and being part of the land that has formed our bones.

I enjoyed seeing Lucy gradually unfold – and this very much is a novel about coming to terms with hurt and moving beyond it – a story containing subject matter that is often difficult to write about sensitively. (A hint: Beake nails this, BTW. Much better than many authors I've seen over the past while.)

Hap will stay with me for a long, long time. It might be because I already have a massive interest in archaeology – so having a novel immersed in the day-to-day (and rather unglamorous) doings of archaeologists most certainly worked for me. Lucy herself may be at times be self-absorbed (but it's understandable why), but her perceptions of the world around her and the people with whom she interacts make for a fully immersive story. Beake's writing is lyrical and evocative, and I cannot recommend this book enough – whether you are a teen or a teen-at-heart.

Friday, February 16, 2018

To query or not to query...

At some point of an author's life, they might decide to query a literary agent. For those of you who're currently asking, "Pray tell, what is this literary agent thing, and why do I need it?" I'm going to go through the basics of the querying process that I've been following for the past ... well. A while. I had a literary agent once, but we weren't a right fit, and to be honest, a literary agent is only really going to be useful to you if you're writing fiction that has commercial value. To be honest, no agent is better than a bad agent, so here I am...

So, why am I still querying literary agents? Essentially, literary agents are your friends when it comes to getting your manuscript in front of the editors at the big publishing houses. Also, if you're currently an indie author who's been approached by one of the bigger publishing houses, it's a good idea to get yourself a literary agent. These rare beasts will be able to help you negotiate better terms on your contract. Also, they Know People. And hopefully the Right People.

If you're content to carve out a career as an indie author, chances are good you'll probably not need an agent, but for those of us who're aiming at a hybrid career,  having an agent when you eventually reach the stage of needing one, is a good thing.

So the next question: When do I know that I'm ready to query? Most importantly, you'll have a complete manuscript. Finish your novel. Aim for a sweet spot of around 75k to 100k for adult fiction. Please, for the love of dog, don't be the kind of author who dashes off a first draft and starts querying immediately. Especially if you're still new in this game. No novel is perfect. Take time to edit your manuscript. Get your betas to go through it. Revise it again. Revise, revise, revise, until you are so sick of the thing and want to burn it with fire. 

I've heard horror stories of authors who started querying their manuscript when it was not finished, only to have an agent request a full submission when only the first 10k words had been written. You really don't need to do that to yourself. Make sure that your novel is the best it can be before you start querying. And don't rush it.

What next? Write a query letter. It's as simple as that. To break a query letter down to its basics, you're going to say three things: what your project is, a (brief) summary (about 2 paragraphs) and then your writing credits. An agent (or their assistant) will scan through the queries. Remember they get hundreds of queries a day sometimes. You have, probably literally) about 15 to 30 seconds (if that) to tell them exactly who you are, what you want, and what you have to offer. You need to make that query letter count. My advice: keep it simple. Don't be cute. Don't try to make out that you're the next Stephen King or JK Rowling. Agents and their assistants have seen *everything*. Trust me on this. They're sick of authors who think they're trying to be witty or clever. They see it Every. Day.

I always send folks scurrying off to Query Shark. Hell, whenever I'm about to write a query letter, I still go get ideas there.

Now, what the hell do I send a literary agent? Once I'm done writing my query letter, I save it as a .txt file. This is so that when I copy/paste it into my email, it doesn't have any weird formatting. (Just something I find useful over the years.) I also prepare a longer synopsis of about 2 pages that I save as a .doc, and then the first three chapters and/or first 50 pages as a .doc. Most of the time agents won't ask that you send attachments, and that you paste your query letter, synopsis and sample text in the body of the email. Increasingly, of late, I've seen them use online forms (which is also super convenient, but then they do request that you attach the .doc files as required). Lastly, I also create a one-sentence description or, as they call it, an elevator pitch, for the novel.  I also try to keep in the back of my mind which existing novels are similar to mine and who the targeted readership is. Some agents request this sort of information.

I can sense the next question. Where the hell do I find a literary agent? My two go-to sites are Publisher's Marketplace and Query Tracker. Both sites are super easy to use, and convenient because you can tailor make your searches according to your chosen genre.

How do I choose an agent? This should be a no-brainer since it makes sense that you choose an agent who already sells in your chosen market. What I do is once I've narrowed down which agencies handle SFF, I take a gander at their recent sales and releases. If I see their tendency is more towards literary or children's fiction, then I think twice about submitting. If I see that they sell mostly to only one or two digital publishers that accept unsolicited queries, I smell a rat. And I most certainly don't submit. Mostly, I pick agents who have sales with the big publishers I usually can't query unless they have an open submissions period. If, by any chance, an agent gets back to me with an offer, I go do my homework, usually by searching the Absolute Write forums. Believe it or not, writers talk, and if they have shitty experiences with agents, they'll be quite vocal about it. So, do your homework. Take time to evaluate each agent. Read their profile info on their personal sites to make sure that you're as good a match as you can imagine.

Which brings me to the submission guidelines.  Each agent will have a preferred method for you to query. Some only want a query letter. Some want your first 5, 10 or even 50 pages of the manuscript. Some accept attachments. Others don't. Which means you DON'T send out an impersonal, blanket bcc email to a hundred agents simultaneously. Don't be that special douchenozzle.

It goes without saying too that you need to keep track of your queries. Some folks use Query Tracker. I just make a spreadsheet that I colour code as I go along. It's generally not a done thing to blanket query all the agents at one agency. So make sure that you pick the best fit and only the right fight for you, so that you don't accidentally query simultaneously. I do a query a day for the duration of my querying process. That's 5-10 minutes out of my day where I check out the agents' website, craft my individualised email and then send. And I fill out my spreadsheet as I go along (and that has helped me in the past when I nearly did send queries to two agents at the same agency). Most agents know that you're going to be querying more than one agency at a time, but the common courtesy is that as soon as you've had a request for a partial or full submission, to let anyone else know who may have a full or partial submission. 

Also, I tend to make about 50-100 queries per project. Yes. That many. About half of these will be polite form rejections. I might get three or four requests for partial submissions (agents wanting to see the first 50 pages). I may even have one or two requests for a full submission. Many agents simply don't respond.

Loads of agents say "if you haven't heard back from us in a month, then consider it a no". It's nothing personal. Move on. Ditto for those wonderful form rejections that go along the lines of "this project isn't right for me" or "this project isn't the right fit" or whatever. IT'S NOTHING PERSONAL. Move on. Grow rhino skin. Don't phone them. Don't pester them. 

Granted, if you have a request for a full, and the agent has been sitting for six months, and circumstances have changed (you may wish to self-publish or have had an offer from a publisher) then of course, do the agent the courtesy of following up. But if your manuscript vanishes into a long, sticky silence, don't let it get to you. This entire industry is all about hurry up and wait.

And lastly, keep writing, revising, querying, submitting. Realise that these stories about "JK Rowling got rejected seven times" are fairytales. Authors who make it big are the exception, not the rule. For most of us, it's a long, hard (and unglamorous) slog. You need to channel your inner rhino, and weather the sting of rejections with a super thick skin. I promise you, if you work hard, develop your talent, improve your writing, and persevere, you will see a steady growth. Don't measure yourself according to other writers. They're not you, and their career path is vastly different from yours. Concentrate on being the best you can be.

And good luck! 

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Goodbye, Chocolate Charlie by Marga Jonker

This is the second Marga Jonker book I've reviewed – from the pile of titles that occasionally arrive unannounced at my front gate. Goodbye, Chocolate Charlie tells the story of Nicky, who is recovering from a terrible riding accident where her horse, Charlie, plunged to his death down a mountain.

While Nicky's physical scars have healed, her mental scars haven't – much to the despair of her horsey family who live on their big farm in the Cederberg.

But the first steps of Nicky's healing being when her grandfather buys a mysterious palomino pony at an auction, and she slowly comes to terms with the events that happened that fateful day.

Firstly, I'd say this is a book that will chiefly appeal to younger middle grade readers who're completely horsey. As before, Jonker shows that she's a keen observer of everything equine, so from that perspective, this is a lovely little book.

I did find the subplot with the girls coming to stay on the farm to finish their training for a big sporting event a bit tacked on, but the banter between the kids was mildly entertaining. Jonker touches on the work being done by the Cape Leopard Trust, which brings in a nice environmental angle, and also gives a nod to the TV documentary series 50/50.

The invariable big climax happens, but I kinda saw that one coming a mile away, and felt almost as if it was a bit too conveniently set up. There was a bit of misdirection in terms of the plot with regard to the way Nicky overcomes her fear of riding, which I felt was a nice touch.

There isn't much depth to this story, and its parts felt a bit too loosely stranded together for me to be doing backflips in frabjous delight. I'd peg this as *very* light reading, and happily pass this book on to younger readers who might feel differently.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

City of God by Cecelia Holland

Okay, City of God by Cecelia Holland is a book I'd meant to read ages and ages ago, but have only just managed to finish. I do have a soft spot for historical fiction, and to be quite honest, I went into this one expecting more than what I got out of it.

I must mention here that I had a Kindle version that was a bit oddly laid out. There were no chapter or scene breaks, so the text really just flowed in one clump, which I found both annoying and somewhat disconcerting, because I had to catch myself figuring out when scenes shifted.

The setting's great – Rome during the reign of the Borgias, and Holland does a passable job showing us the day-to-day workings of the ancient city. Our viewpoint character is one Nicholas Dawson, an Englishman whose ex-pat parents died in Spain, where he was raised in a monastery. Somehow, he attached himself to the Florentine ambassador, where he has a nose for intrigue.

And intrigue there is aplenty in Rome, when Nicholas gets tangled in the schemes of Valentino, who has a mad scheme to unite the Italian city states under one crown. Plus we have the meddlesome Spanish and French.

Nicholas as a character is incredibly bland, and I struggled to even like him. I don't know whether Holland has merely written him as someone who suffers great disconnect with his own emotions on purpose, or if she didn't do a good job to dig a little deeper with character development. Either way, I guess it doesn't really matter. Nicholas comes across a bit like a limp fish, a man of little power and great ambition, who overreaches himself amid the power struggles of his betters ... Or rather I wouldn't even say they're his betters, because everyone in this novel is awful in one way or another, and they all do awful things.

Dear Nicholas's attempts at stringing a web of his own are rather dismal too, and while he struggles along, it's clear things are going to get worse before they're going to get better.


I wanted to like this story, and it had its moments when it held my interest, because I really do love the time period, but I need to have my emotions engaged. The prose all felt very workmanlike, with Nicholas carried along as more of an observer rather than an active participant. In addition, I'm not quite sure whether the proofreader was asleep, but there were quite a few obvious typos – the kind someone would make if they were typing out this entire document from a physical copy ... or using type recognition software but then they just didn't quite get round to employing a human proofreader afterwards. Considering that this novel was first published in 1979, this may very well be the case, which is a pity. And hells, I'll say it again: chapters and scene breaks WOULD BE LOVELY.

I've seen Holland compared to the likes of Mary Renault ... but I feel with this novel in particular that there just isn't the spark or the lushness and regal poise that Renault's writing has. Or perhaps it's just Nicholas, and therein lies the rub. The Englishman isn't exactly the most effervescent individual, and the character does the story no favours.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Writers' Life: Six Things I Need to Tell You Today

A post I saw on a writers' group this week sparked off a bit of a fat Facebook rant yesterday. I may have upset some people. I'm not apologising either, because these things need to be said. There's a lot of pressure on writers to make a living these days, to work the algorithms with Amazon, Google, whatever. I lurk about a number of writers' groups online, and I hear wonderful stories about some authors who're absolutely creaming it self-publishing. Bully for them. By equal measure, I see many more authors (the vast majority, in fact) who simply cannot fathom why their books aren't moving. Many become heartsick about their careers. Some even give up.

I don't have a silver bullet for you, sorry. But after more than a decade in this business, I am going to offer you some advice that will give you a little perspective, and perhaps even a glimmer of hope.

Burnout is a thing
There is so much pressure to succeed, that I've seen people push themselves to the point where they have nervous breakdowns. Darlin', I was there. I ended up pushing myself to the point where I had a grand mal seizure. Scrambled brains FTW, along with a drinking problem. I ended up in hospital with liver failure due to an adverse reaction I had to anti-convulsants. I used to work a day job in newspaper publishing, then follow up at night as a freelance fiction editor while still trying to write a book a month. I nearly died. Like ferealzies. For many months after my recovery, I could barely write, and this is after I pushed myself to put out 100k words a month. It's not sustainable. You can damage yourself. You can rob yourself of the love of writing. Repeat after me: YOU ARE NOT A MACHINE.

This is not a horse race
So, you see Bob Penworthy gloating over the 7k words he writes every day. Wow. That means he can write a novel in two weeks. AMAZING. But. BUT. You are not Bob. You are not in a race to see who can poop out X amount of words that are somehow going to make you this absolutely brillo writer who's going to be the next Stephen King. Something I say often to writers: It's quality, not quantity. You are not trying to "beat" someone else's career. Let's be realistic here (and yes, I'm going to say something that's going to sound super depressing). Thousands of books are published DAILY. Yours is but a drop in the bucket. Also, with all the books that are remaining in circulation thanks to digital publishing and print-on-demand, titles are not going out of print. That means the bucket is getting bigger and bigger EVERY DAY. Chances of your discoverability grow slimmer EVERY DAY. You're only going to make yourself sick with despair trying to stay ahead of the tide. ENJOY THE PROCESS OF WRITING.

And repeat after me: THIS IS NOT A HORSE RACE.

Pace yourself with achievable goals
Staying along the lines of burnout, and the fact that this is not a race, find daily writing goals that are achievable. Stop worrying about Bob and his 7k words. What can you write that won't make you feel as if you don't have a life. Because, guess what, if you're like most of us who have primary careers that bring in the bread and butter, plus children and other responsibilities, you don't have a helluva lot of time for writing. So set yourself goals that you can keep up in the long term.

Yes, there will be times when you have a deadline – I recently had three months in which to outline, write and revise a 100k-word novel for an open-door submissions period. Guess what? I managed to do so without killing myself by *planning* ahead. I found a rhythm that worked for me, and I also had time to watch films, TV series, hang out with friends, walk the dogs. And do my day job.

Set yourself targets. For some, it may be writing three or four 15-minute writing sprints a day. You'd be amazed by how many words you can manage in 15 unbroken minutes where you're ignoring social media and other distractions. For others, it's that golden hour before work. Or a lunch hour. Or an hour after dinner. Something I found worked for me while I was writing my big novel last year was the Pomodoro Technique. But sometimes also just setting myself a target of writing three, 1k-word sprints throughout the day. But mix and match. Some days you might be absolutely exhausted. Then write a minimum of three pages. And go to fucking bed. Get some rest. This is not a horse race. You might find that you'll catch up the day after. Currently, if I'm up to it, I only write two pages a day. This is because I'm busy with the production of a novella that's releasing at the end of the month. I'm going easy on myself because I want to enjoy the process of writing.

Every writer is different
Stop paying attention to Bob Penworthy. Perhaps he's vomiting out fast-paced thrillers, and he's in his zone. And hells, it might even be working for him. But maybe you want to write a novel set during WWII, and you need time to research, take time to develop your characters and setting. Or you fancy you're the next GRRM. I don't know. Every writer is different. (I was going to say something about precious snowflakes but that term's been so tainted over the years that it doesn't even have the meaning I'd have intended for it.) Your career is YOURS. Your books are YOURS. Sure, so Betty Whiplash writes super BDSM erotica involving werespiders. Bully for her. She brings out a book every three months. But maybe she's got a husband who supports her, so she has time to do so. Or Joe Coffeepot is retired, and he's writing his military adventures. He has the resources to do so, so when he brings out his books, his entire situation has been different, and maybe he's had money to throw at an editor that you didn't have. Every book is different, will have a readership uniquely its own. Find your tribe. Build your own support network, and stop worrying about what Bob Penworthy is doing. It might work for him, but it might not necessarily be right for your career. This is not a zero sum game. Just because Bob's earning a triple-digit figure each month from Amazon doesn't mean he's robbing you. So be happy for him if his pooped-out novels are selling, but don't break your neck trying to emulate him if it's going to lead to you ending up in hospital.

Set aside dedicated time
Don't quit your day job just yet. And don't allow your writing to jeopardise your day job either. (Been there, done that, and had the disciplinary hearing to prove it.) I hear all sorts of stories about writers who take their writing to the office, and some even write those 7k words a day AT WORK. Sure, if you've got absolutely no other work, that's fine. But if you're finding creative ways to hide that Word or Scrivener files behind Excel spreadsheets every time your boss walks past, honey you have a problem. Ask yourself this: How focused are you on your actual writing if you're trying to divide your attention between working out a budget or doing a report ... and getting into a writing zone? This goes back to my earlier pointer of setting yourself achievable goals, and being focused on your writing. I can write fast, like the best of them. Hells, I can poop out 2k words in an hour if I'm in the zone. So if you're pooping out 7k words a day at the office, let's be realistic ... you're spending maybe half your work day on your own personal writing ... and either you're neglecting your day job or, even worse, you're being unfair to colleagues (and employers) who have to pick up your slack. Don't be a douchebag.

For sure, maybe write during lunch. Or if you *honestly* don't have other work. But don't put your ability to keep a roof over your head (and by default have a space for your writing) by taking the piss at the office.

Good books take time
This should be a no-brainer. Digital publishing has made it SUPER easy to put out books. Hells, it's ridiculously simple these days to publish a book. But ... NO book is ready to be published after you've typed 'the end' on the first draft. Allow your book to lie fallow for a while in your hard drive. Give it one or two editing passes BEFORE you send it on to your beta readers. Maybe even give it a three-month break before you start serious structural edits. If you can afford an editor, that's absolutely brilliant. Don't be afraid to take all the time you need to unpick the threads and revise. A savvy writer will have more than one manuscript at various stages of development, so that they perhaps have one first draft they're crafting, a book mellowing on a hard drive, a book with betas... a book they're outlining... One that's out on the query mill if you're busy looking for literary agents.  Some books take years before they're ready. It's easy to poop out a book, but to truly craft a story, where you've been able to take a step back to look at it with fresh eyes, to be unafraid to make necessary changes ... now that takes time. And sometimes time means all the difference between a hastily cobbled-together document riddled with sub-par syntax and typos, vs a polished masterwork you can be proud of for years to come.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Frogs of Southern Africa: A Complete Guide by Louis du Preez & Vincent Carruthers

If this Frogs of Southern Africa by Louis du Preez and Vincent Carruthers had fallen into my hands when I was a preteen, chances are good I might've spent even more time poking about rivers, vleis and any other places where frogs are to be found. As it is, I was that weird girl child who was constantly bringing home tadpoles so she could watch them become frogs. (Alas, my mom's poor jelly bowl that was press-ganged into serving as an aquarium.)

And I loved visiting my grandparents during autumn and winter, as it meant there was a chance that I could find tadpoles. Catching frogs was another matter entirely, but I was pretty quick. And whenever I went hiking or travelling, my mom would always tell me to stop and listen to the froggy choruses. Going to sleep at night, even here at home, when there's been rain, and hearing the frogs – that is without price.

Thing is, I've never been able to match up the frogs' calls with their names. Until now. This book is gold, and I suspect it's the kind of guide that will appeal to not only your average nature lover, but also be useful to those who're a bit more serious about their studies.

Okay, now the best thing about the book (for me, that is) is the QR codes that link to the frogs' calls. I spent a long, long time identifying all those frogs that I'd heard over the years, discovering yes, that the frogs in my grandparents' back garden were Cape moss frogs, and that yes, I've heard the call of micro frogs. Obviously the downside is that you're not always going to be in an area with internet when you're out and about, but hey ... you can always record the frog call with your phone for later identification (yes, I've done that before). Or you can download the calls to your phone, if you've got the capacity.

Next thing: While this isn't going to be the book that you tuck into your backpack while hiking, its size does mean that the many photographs are big and clear enough for you to make good identifications. Not only that, but morphological differences have, where possible, also been included, along with handy size guides for the smaller beasties.

The clear distribution maps are useful too, so depending on whether you're only hearing a frog or you've spotted it, you've got two potential methods for identification. More often than not, frogs are heard and not seen, so by having a basic idea of what a particular family sounds like, it's quite easy to go by distribution to figure out which frog you're looking at.

The front matter is pretty thorough, giving not only a list of the species in southern Africa, but basic morphology and physiology, reproduction and vocalisation, their environments, their relationships with humans, and field keys and descriptions.

I always knew that we had loads of frogs in southern Africa, but I had absolutely no idea of their diversity, and the broad range of habitats in which they live. But something I've come to realise too, looking at this book, is that frogs are an important indicator of our environment's state. Because they are dependent on water, they are often among the most vulnerable species when it comes to habitat degradation and pollution. If the frogs fall silent, then I fear we're in deep, deep trouble. They truly are marvellous creatures that play an integral part in any ecosystem, and are totally deserving of our protection.