Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Choice Between Us by Edyth Bulbring

Every once in a while a book lands on my desk that I immediately know is an important read, and The Choice Between Us by Edyth Bulbring is one of those books. While at a glance this is a story that's skewed by the lens of two highly unreliable narrators, there's a bigger tale at play in which Bulbring offers readers snapshots of two very different South Africas, her narrators both in some way limited by their environments.

The Choice Between Us
alternates cleverly between the lives of two young girls. It's 1963, and we see the world through Margaret's eyes. Her father is a well-to-do doctor, and she has a closer relationship with her nanny than she has with her own mother. Incredibly sheltered and totally naïve, she makes social blunders that ultimately have dire consequences within the toxic stewpot of apartheid-era South Africa. She is very much a product of her time, and reflects many of the social mores you'd expect from someone growing up in these circumstances – a privileged, oft-indulged child, yet I can't help but love her for her obliviousness.

Fifty years later, her relative Jenna goes to help her grand-aunt C-C pack up the old family house, and in doing so uncovers tantalising snippets into the history of her family. A damaged young woman, she in turn damages people around her through her actions. My heart bled for her, and there were times when I was yelling, "No, don't do it!" at the book. Yet watching her arc unfold was also incredibly satisfying, because despite her quirks, Jenna shows a surprising resilience and uncommon wisdom once she decides to take responsibility for her actions.

But what makes this book so powerful in my mind is how it effortlessly juxtaposes two vastly different eras. As a child of the 1980s, I grew up during the tail end of apartheid, so some of what Margaret expresses echoed with me in my family's attitudes from when I was younger. And yet Jenna's great disillusionment and, dare I say it, borderline nihilism, also touched me. This is not so much a story about two young woman, but rather glimpses into the lives of other people viewed through imperfect lenses and coloured with pronounced biases, and therein lies the charm. As always, Bulbring's characterisation is spot on. She understands the multitude of human cruelties all too well, down to the false smiles and barbed comments, to the larger evils. And yet she also offers us a glimmer of hope among the brokenness. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Jivaja (Soul Cavern #1) by Venessa M Giunta

 I have a sweet tooth for vampires in film and fiction, so naturally Jivaja by Venessa M Giunta caught my fancy. While I do enjoy the standard tropes, it's often refreshing to see an author push the mythos a little further, as Giunta does.

Mecca has a special power – she can see into "cavern" of a living being and steal their power. It's a family gift, or curse, depending on how it's viewed, and until the day she's accosted by a man at a diner, she's never intentionally used it to kill. Until now.

Except the man she's killed is no ordinary man, he's Visci, a breed of vampire, and by killing him, she's essentially painted a massive target on her back.  Dragged into this murky world of immortal blood drinkers and their minions, Mecca must learn to use her powers and figure out whether she'll deal with the devil or do her best to remain free. Only things are not at all simple, for as it turns out, her father too is gifted, and he's not going to let the Visci take his daughter without putting up a fight.

Giunta's writing carries a whiff of classic Anne Rice, but it moves quicker, and the characters feel a little more in touch with their world. While the story does take a few chapters to hit its stride, I was nonetheless engaged, and enjoyed a well-realised, well-executed setting with hints at deeper lore. The writing is solid, the author has put a lot of heart into this story, and in Jivaja lays down more than enough threads to continue the saga. The only thread I felt that wasn't developed, was an incipient romantic interest which I didn't feel had sufficient motivation, but it isn't a dealbreaker. 

I particularly liked the complicated father-daughter dynamic in this fresh take on the genre, and would most certainly recommend this story to those who cut their teeth on Interview with the Vampire back in the day.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

It's always exciting to see short African speculative fiction gain traction in an anthology, and Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora edited by Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald most certainly delivers a range of tales. I will admit upfront that not all of the stories hit the mark with me, but I'll give a quick run-down.

"Trickin'" by Nicole Givens Kurtz provides an unsettling, post-apocalyptic vision involving a monstrous entity named only as Raoul who goes about wreaking bloody havoc on Halloween before sinking from the land again. The writing is solid, evocative even, but I felt as though I wanted a bit more of a wrap for the ending.

Any time I crack open a Dilman Dila story, I know I'm in for an unusual treat. "Red_Bati" introduces us to the artificial intelligence Akili, who deals with somewhat of an existential crisis. Dilman's writing is clever, and also a bit unsettling, and makes us examine non-human awareness and rewriting reality.

"A Maji Maji Chronicle" by Eugen Bacon is filled with beautiful imagery. As always, her style is lyrical and evocative, and gives us magical time travel with a twist as two visitors from the future cause mischief in Africa's past. It feels like a fairy tale, but has a darker undercurrent to counterbalance the whimsy.

"The Unclean" by Nuzo Onoh is a grim story of an arranged marriage and the cruelty people inflict on each other, spiced with a side order of serious body horror. You discover from the get-go that there's a heavy supernatural element, but it's the slow build to the unsettling finish that gives the quiet thrill. Powerful writing here.

As always with any anthology, there will be a story that didn't work for me in any shape or form. Unfortunately I didn't gel with "A Mastery of German" by Marian Denise Moore. The story took too long to get off the ground and I was disinvested quickly – perhaps mostly due to the story playing out in a sort of corporate/research environment.

"Convergence in Chorus Architecture" by Dare Segun Falowa may have quite a pedestrian start, but it melts into a vision of what can best be described as the lovechild of Salvador Dali and Zdzisław Beksiński. It's weird. It's wild. It's nightmarish. And I loved this story so very much.

While I didn't care much for her short story in this anthology Marian Denise Moore's poem "Emily" offers stark imagery filled with yearning. It's short but haunting. 

"To Say Nothing of Lost Figurines" by Rafeeat Aliyu has more of a standard fantasy-adventure feel, which follows the doings of the magician Odun who is searching for a magical figurine that was stolen from him. Of course its retrieval does not go smoothly. This story has more of a feel of a prelude to longer-form fiction, but it's still enjoyable. 

Oh my gosh, "Sleep Papa, Sleep" by Suyi Okungbowa Davies hit all the right notes for me. Max deals in illicit body parts, but he gets more than he bargained for when he sells bits and pieces harvested from kin. I really don't want to spoil this one for you – Suyi is a master of building tension.

"The Satellite Charmer" by Mame Bougouma Diene offers a vision of Africa pillaged by Asian mega-corporations equipped with terrifying technology. And it's about Ibrahima, who struggles to come to strike a balance between the old and the new, and the siren call of a destructive power beyond the reality he knows. This story is is a threnody of lost innocence, endings and transitions.

"Clanfall: Death of Kings" by Odida Nyabundi is another tale that feels more like an action-packed prologue than a fully rounded short story. That being said, I was left wanting more of this melding bio-mechanoid warriors and tribes duking it out for dominance. 

"Thresher of Men" by Michael Boatman didn't work for me at all. I couldn't immerse and ended up skim-reading. The fault most likely lies with the reader, not the author, so you'd best make up your own mind on this one.

"Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon" by Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald tells of a people living in a world ravaged by a cataclysm. Society as we know it has crumbled, and these hardy survivors battle against a hostile environment poisoned by radiation and rife with mutations. The people themselves have beneficial mutations, and they survive by enforcing a rigid caste structure – for the benefit of the whole. But what happens when someone yearns for individuality? How does this put a precarious community into peril when there is a threat from without? At times violent and bloody, this action-packed tale of survival nonetheless offers some brutal twists in terms of challenging traditions.

All in all, Dominion offers a diverse selection of stories that showcases the depth and breadth of African speculative fiction. If you're tired of the same-old, same-old in speculative fiction, then step off the beaten track with this anthology. There's some strong stuff here. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Space Race narrated by Kate Mulgrew

We finally caved and got an Audible subscription, and The Space Race narrated by Kate Mulgrew was the first title I picked up. She's the voice actor for my favourite video game series, Dragon Age, but she's also one of my favourite characters in the series Orange is the New Black. And some of you might know her as Captain Janeway of Star Trek fame. Needless to say, she does an absolutely fantastic job narrating The Space Race.

When I was a wee sprite, I wanted to be an astronaut, until it was pointed out to me that South Africa (at the time) didn't have a space programme. But that hasn't stopped me from having an interest in all things space, although I've gone from wanting to be an astronaut to writing the occasional science-fiction, so there is that.

The Space Race comes alive not only with Mulgrew's narration, but also interviews with the movers and shakers in space-faring technology, and also the little dramatical reconstructions slipped into the main body of the narrative. We get to see the roots of space exploration seeded in the R2 rockets of WW2 all the way to our potential for setting human feet on Mars. We relive dramatic events, for instance the Shuttle Challenger disaster that traumatised me as a child. We see also how space exploration, once dominated by white male Americans and Russians, is now opening to people from all over the globe, of different nationalities, who work together in our international space station.

What I love about this audiobook is that it reminds me that we, as a species, have broader horizons to conquer if we have any hope to survive into the future. If you have a love for the history of mankind's exploits in space, or just want to catch up, this is a good starting point packed with content.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3) by VE Schwab

I'm glad that I've been able to dip into VE Schwab's Shades of Magic trilogy. It has all the elements I love, including princes, thieves, pirates and courtly intrigue, all tied together with a well-realised magical system. Her writing offers just enough description to let your imagination fill in the rest to create a vivid world populated with fascinating characters.

In hindsight, I feel that book 2 and 3 are basically one book that's been split in two, with book 1 of the trilogy giving us a prequel of sorts. But what Schwab does well is tie up all her loose ends while leaving just a hint where this world might be revisited in the future. (And I have many Thoughts on that.)

While parts of A Conjuring of Light felt a bit left of field (a fetch quest in the middle of the story), Schwab nonetheless delivers a tale that's engaging and filled with lore at every turn. We get to see a bit more of the world, other than just the various Londons.

Rhy really has an opportunity to shine in book 3, which is both beautiful and filled with much sadness as he plays a more prominent role, and a redemption arc that develops is ultimately quite satisfying. The dynamic between Kell and Lila is intense yet prickly as always, with Alucard and Holland offering a solid counterbalance. The situation between characters is often fraught with tension, which makes for some entertaining scenes.

I don't really have that much more to say, other than this being a satisfying read that hit nearly all the right notes. Considering that I was looking for something that has a whiff of Gaiman's The Sandman, this was a good match.