Thursday, December 30, 2021

Dracula (Audible edition) by Bram Stoker

As part of my continued campaign to revisit classics, I chose to dip into this perennial Gothic favourite by giving the Audible edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula a spin. Then again, who can go wrong with this wonderful cast, including Alan Cummings, Tim Curry, and the late veteran audiobook reader Katy Kellgren, among others. 

I think it's safe to say that most of us have seen the movies and series inspired by Stoker's work, but so far few of them have been able to capture the depth and breadth of the source material. I first read Dracula in high school, and I admit freely that many of the subtler undercurrents went way over my head. Also, having just gone through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and with the work fresh in my mind, I can compare these two classics within the Gothic genre better. Each is quite a different beast, and while there is, in my opinion, more emotional and philosophical weight to Shelley's writing, there is, nonetheless, an astonishing attention to detail in Stoker's work.

Perhaps what makes this edition all the more special is the way that it cleaves to its epistolary nature by employing different readers to take on the letters and diary entries of the characters, imbuing each with their particular flavour and tone. In that way, Audible Studios has done well in their creative decisions. It's easy to close your eyes and sink into the narrative as the setting becomes fully tactile. 

Dracula is very much a product of its time, in which women are placed upon a delicate pedestal, and yet, if one is able to look deeper, it becomes apparent that Mina Harker is indeed one of the more heroic characters within this story. Her resilience and ingenuity is easily overlooked by Jonathan, Van Helsing and the others, and yet without her capable, stalwart assistance, I'm certain they would never have overcome the great evil that nearly overwhelmed them. The fact that they sought to shelter her from the dangers posed by the count nearly proved their undoing. 

This edition is slick, eminently listenable, and if you've yet to hit up the source material behind so much of our modern horror media, I highly recommend this audiobook.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Ancestral by Charlie Human

Charlie Human brings readers stories with bite, action-packed while still poking sticks at aspects of South African society and the world at large with a flash of the absurd – and Ancestral is no different. If you're looking for a tale with a slowly unfolding pace, then this one is not for you. We are dropped right in the middle of the action, with erstwhile soldier Clementine Khoza on a mission to retrieve her kidnapped son, Drew.

But this is no straightforward retrieval quest. The world in which Clementine immerses herself is dark and dysfunctional, the once-utopian, exclusive gated neighbourhood of Welcome Shade – now overrun by gangs. Not the kind of territory for the faint of heart. But then again, Clementine is a hard woman, made so by the upbringing of her strict Zulu grandfather who taught her the martial art of stick-fighting and the years of conflict in which she has been embroiled over the years.

As she travels further into uncertain, dangerous territory, she uncovers a far more sinister threat to mankind that is inextricably linked to her very blood and heritage, and she teams up with unlikely, unasked-for allies without whom she would not stand a gnat's chance in a windstorm for survival. Whether she likes it or not (and trust me, she doesn't) Clementine is a chosen one – a last bastion of hope for our species.

All in all, this is a fast-paced read – so much so that I sometimes felt the writing was a little rushed in places and could have used a little more depth. But then this might be down to my own personal preference, so if you disagree, don't mind me. There were moments where I wondered exactly how long a drone's batteries can last after heavy use without a recharge, but I won't spoil the story by worrying overly much about these sorts of details. 

I do think this is the sort of tale that will no doubt appeal to folks who enjoy a good manga. Ancestral is fun, charges along at a breakneck pace, and offers a roller coaster ride of one untenable situation to the next, garnished with a healthy dollop of cosmic, insectoid horror. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

A Kind of Magic: Making the Original Highlander by Jonathan Melville

Way, way back, in that delirious summer vacation between my primary and high school years, I watched a film that I'd best describe as pivotal in my development as an author and musician. The original 1986 Highlander, starring Christopher Lambert, Sean Connery, and Clancy Brown, lodged itself in my imagination, and taught me two things: fantasy is my calling, and Queen's music is the best.

In A Kind of Magic: Making the Original Highlander, Jonathan Melville sets about the ambitious endeavour of chronicling the making of the film that sparked a cinema and TV franchise, accompanied by tie-in fiction and card games that have garnered a small but rabid fan following over the intervening decades.

It can be argued that the original Highlander has its flaws, yet for those of us who've comfort-watched it more than a score of times (yes, I'm one of those people who can say the lines before the actors even open their mouths), it's an immortal classic that provides a visual feast thanks to director Russell Mulcahy's savvy eye and the creative team that had his back. And of course, let's not forget the killer soundtrack developed by British rock band Queen and composer Michael Kamen.

Melville's legwork and interviewing skills result in deep dive into the process of how a film comes together, from the writing to pre-production, filming, and eventual distribution, as well as life beyond the big screen. For all the things that did go wrong (as it inevitably does in the production of any film), so much somehow came right. We get the good, the bad, and the ugly, as well as a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes into the unique pressures in the industry back in the 1980s. Knowing what I do of contemporary filmmaking thanks to my own involvement in the industry, exactly how cast and crew managed back then absolutely blows my mind.

I savoured every chapter of this book, and value it as an important artefact and time capsule of sorts to both entertain and inform those of us who have enjoyed this fantasy cult classic that's part-romance, part-historical adventure epic. This is one for the fans.

Friday, October 22, 2021

The Ape's Wife and Other Stories by Caitlín R Kiernan

The Ape's Wife and Other Stories by Caitlín R Kiernan has been sitting on my Kindle app for far too long, and I'm glad that I've finally gotten around to reading it – especially since some folks have drawn parallels between her writing and mine (why thank you). First off, as with all short story anthologies, whether single or multiple authors, this is a mixed bag. I gelled with some and not with others, and to go into a deep dive about each story is going to go beyond the scope of this review.

A diverse range of stories is showcased here, from steampunk-infused and somewhat Lovecraftian to plain old weird and re-envisionings of Beowulf told from a queer feminist perspective. I'm not going to go exhaustively into each, as I feel that will ruin the magic and mystery. What I will say is that if you're expecting neat, tidy endings with satisfying twists and likeable characters, maybe step away from this collection and go read Somerset Maugham or Saki.

Kiernan's prose is textured and tactile, and her tales often left me feeling out of sorts and scratchy behind the eyes – all hallmarks of good storytelling. This is not a book I'd recommend for anyone who's looking for comfort reading. I'd hazard to say that each story encapsulates a mood and a setting, and emphasis is mostly placed on emotion and engaging the senses to detriment of a tidy plot. And if that is what floats your boat, then hey, this will work for you. Kiernan doesn't shy away from characters who often maintain objectionable outlooks and opinions, so if you're easily triggered by casual racism and sexism, perhaps step away from this book, too. I feel I must add that some readers appear to be incapable of separating the author from their characters. [le sigh]

As a publishing professional, I feel I must point out that my edition was riddled with small typos of the kind that a savvy proofreader should have caught. I tend to overlook the odd dropped word here and there, but this volume could have done with a more thorough read through before it was published. 

This anthology is disquieting and darkly atmospheric, and while not to everyone's tastes, is nevertheless a lovely dip into the writing of one of our important contemporary SFF authors.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Opinion: On Sarah and Jareth

This started out as a FB post but quickly mushroomed, and the thoughts here are, IMO, important for storytellers, so I'm saving them here.

Today's bugaboo which has resulted in a mini blog post. I'm *so* tired of dudes explaining how Labyrinth, with a then-39yo David Bowie and -14yo Jennifer Connelly is basically child p**n in the same vein as Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Just stop already. I've heard this refrain so many times over the years. 

Labyrinth is NOT Lolita

And Connelly's memories of him are good. After his passing, she had this to say: "I think it's very sad, his passing, for so many reasons. To me, not only was he a genius, he was a genius who had the time to be kind. [That] was my experience of him.” 

Here's my hot take: Jareth the Goblin King acts as an animus to Sarah's sexual awakening. And while there was implied sexual tension between the two characters, it was never followed through. 

I always view what happens once Sarah steps over the threshold from our reality into Jareth's labyrinth to be some sort of dream-sequence. She enters a liminal space in which she comes to terms with the fact that she's no longer a child and must soon put away the things of her youth. This is a story about the dawn of sexual awakening. 

Yes, Jareth's age makes one uncomfortable, but I believe it's *meant* to. In the beginning of the story, she externalises her power. 

This line from Jareth is telling: Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for *you*! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn't that generous? 

And until she learns her own true will, she is powerless, lost in a labyrinth of her own making, IMO, until she stands up to that mystery presented by Jareth. 

She wins back everything by saying this: Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great... You have no power over me. 

In terms of magical workings, this is pretty awesome stuff, and a film that had a massive impact on me when I watched it as a preteen. It's an initiatory fairy tale that still speaks deeply to me years later, it still has all its resonance, despite the dating of the SFX and soundtrack. 

Monday, October 11, 2021

Silence of the Soleri (The Amber Throne #2) by Michael Johnston

Book one of The Amber Throne, Soleri, by Michael Johnston, got off to a promising start with an Egyptian-themed epic fantasy world, but unfortunately book two, Silence of the Soleri, didn't quite follow up. I feel that this can be attributed to there not being sufficient development for individual character arcs, in addition to a polarisation of the main arc. 

Johnston's writing is strong, but I feel that more stringent attention in the developmental edits could have helped lift this story out of the somewhat muddled novel that was eventually released. One good thing is that we didn't have any characters withholding key information as what happened in Soleri. Yet I do have a bone to pick with the mysteries of the Soleri themselves, that were left hanging by the end, which came off with a deus ex machina. Action sequences often felt rushed, with characters' motivations for their behaviour not clearly expressed, which marred the compelling world building for me somewhat.

I know it's awful making comparisons with other, more popular works, but I kept feeling as if these books were offering a serious nod to GRRM's ASoIaF, which wouldn't have been wholly unpleasant if individual character arcs were fully fleshed out.

There's not much else I can say, for fear of spoilers. Johnston has much to offer, and with an editor lending a stronger hand in the developmental stages, this novel could have been so much more. Also, I don't want to come down too hard, if there are more books to follow in the series, and this one is intended as middle book in a trilogy – in which case the loose threads will be picked up later.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Tales of Terror by Edgar Allan Poe, narrated by David Thorn, Bruce Blau

It's time for me to make yet another awful admission. I've made it past 40+ years on this planet without reading much of Edgar Allan Poe's writing. If I recall correctly, I read "The Black Cat" when I was a wee little thing, but I don't think it stuck with me. Tales of Terror by Edgar Allan Poe, narrated by David Thorn and Bruce Blau was included in my Audible subscription, so I figured why the heck not. 

Included in this batch were the following stories: "The Tell Tale Heart", "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", "Hop Frog", "Murders in the Rue Morgue", "Masque of the Red Death", "The Pit and the Pendulum", "Fall of the House of Usher", "The Black Cat", and "The Cask of Amontillado".

So, in other words, all the great classics. My big takeaway from this is that Mr Poe has a bunch of favourite words, some of which include "ghastly", "grotesque" and "hideous", among many others, and he had an especial love for describing the beating of hearts of the horror of staring into eyes.

I will admit that as a cat lover, I found "The Black Cat" hard going – more so this time around than when I first read it. "Masque of the Red Death" was oddly apt for the times in which we live. Overall, I appreciated delving into these tales, as the prose is slow-moving, highly descriptive, and layered. Dark, of course, too, which is a bonus. And very much what I would term Gothic fiction.

The production quality was a bit patchy in places – I could clearly hear where extra bits were dropped in, as there was variance in the sound which jumped out at me enough for me to feel the need to comment. Some of the accents the narrators put on also grated on me a wee bit. Not enough to toss the iPhone across the kitchen, but enough to raise a brow.

If you're looking to add to your literary experiences, this is a good introduction to Poe's writing. And I can say that it very much comes alive as spoken word – to get past the author's general wordiness, that is. And he does take a while to get to a point – but then the writing is very much a product of its time, which is something to be kept in mind.

Friday, September 24, 2021

The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu

I knew from the moment that I read the blurb that I'd enjoy The Kingdom of Back by Marie Lu. The premise is right on the mark for me: the musically gifted Nannerl Mozart wishes to be remembered, but in a world that favours men, with women relegated to being carers and mothers, a future as a shining star in music is out of reach. Not only that, but Nannerl finds herself overshadowed by her younger brother Mozart, who becomes the focus of their father's obsession for fame. 

As a musician, I already knew some of Mozart's history, and I enjoyed how Lu brings Nannerl's world to life, where travel was often a wearying, toilsome process in a shaking carriage and diseases like smallpox drove fear into people's hearts. Lu's knowledge of and love for music shines through in every chapter.

At its heart, this is a story about family, and the special bond between brother and sister, but also a journey into the dream-like kingdom of Back, where the unnerving faerie Hyacinth presides. I got serious Labyrinth vibes off the novel as a whole, with Hyacinth's fair façade masking a more disturbing darkness much in the same way that Jareth the Goblin King at first presents himself as a dubious benefactor to the innocent, trusting Sarah. And in much the same way, Nannerl's own awakening as a young woman is reflected in Hyacinth as her animus.

What at first seems a magical intrusion into Nannerl's life soon takes a more sinister turn, as she navigates the choppy waters of growing up and finding her place in the world, while also coming to grips with the bargain she's struck with Hyacinth. I won't spoil, but I will say this much: the ending was bittersweet and subtle, and the author's message about women's rights crystal clear. How many other young women throughout the ages have had to take a back seat due to societal norms? This resonated strongly with me. 

Lu's writing is as musical as her subject matter, and her descriptions bring the story vividly to life. There were parts of the tale that dragged a little, and the conclusion is more a gradual, somewhat predictable unfolding as Nannerl aims to set injustices right, but overall this is a thoroughly enchanting story that I'd recommend to anyone who cares about the dreams of young women.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

A Blessing of Unicorns by Elizabeth Bear

I've been meaning to get into Elizabeth Bear's writing for a while now, so when A Blessing of Unicorns popped up in my Audible suggestions, I thought why the hell not. Only in hindsight do I see it's book 2 of a sequence of stories – The Sub-Inspector Ferron Mysteries, but it didn't bother me none that I missed the first instalment, and I may well go back to pick it up when I have a moment.

I will admit that it took a little getting used to narrator Zehra Jane Naqvi's voice, perhaps because the previous audiobook I'd listened to had been read by a man with a much deeper voice, but once I was over the initial shift, I got into Naqvi's style.

Set in the 2070s, which aren't that much different than current times, save for the deeper reliance on virtual and augmented reality than we have currently, A Blessing of Unicorns has Bangalore-based Police Sub-Inspector Ferron trying to figure out why internet-famous influencers are going missing. Not to mention figuring out why the missing women's flats are filled with small herds of artificial lifeforms in the form of multi-coloured unicorns.

Overall, this is a somewhat playful mystery that pokes sticks at society's tendency to put internet-famous influencers and their rather artificial lives on a pedestal. I enjoyed it, especially for the non-Western-centric flavour in speculating on an India of the future. And Ferron is a delight, and a pleasing change from the usual jaded, hard-bitten cops that often crop up in these sorts of stories.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I have a terrible admission to make. In all my years, up until the tender age of 43, I had never read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Yes, I know. Unforgivable. Especially if you consider how iconic the character is in terms of how the monster has permeated Western culture in fiction and cinema. Chances are also good, that many of you might've seen the creature on screen rather than leap off the pages of the source material. And I'll add here that loads of people didn't quite get the nuance of Shelley's story when we peel back the layers to understand who the real monster is.

Hint: It's not the creature.

At least, that's not how I see it.

What makes Frankenstein or, as it's also known, The Modern Prometheus, even more amazing is that Shelley started writing it at the tender age of 18, and it was published when she was 20, in 1818. How many of us can boast such a feat? Hells, I only finished my first novel after I turned 30. And it certainly wasn't even a touch near the mastery that Shelley boasts.

Frankenstein is a classic example of a Gothic novel, and I'd hazard to argue that it firmly straddles both the science-fiction and horror genres, and if you're serious about writing SFF, it's one of those works that is an absolute must to have delved into if you consider yourself an author who has earned their chops.

I haven't had as much time as I'd have liked to sit down and read the novel, but was able to pick up a copy included in my Audible subscription – a win. So I'd like to give a massive shout-out to the narrator, Dan Stevens, who did an absolutely amazing job with his characterisation of not only Victor Frankenstein, but the creature, and also Captain Walton, all of whom are important narrators.

Each has a particular viewpoint of the situation as unreliable narrators of the story: Frankenstein in his hubris and denial in his role as creator; the creature in his failed quest for personhood; and Walton as an impartial observer who introduces and ties up the story. 

There's much more to this story than merely a mad scientist playing god – if you delve deeper, it's a look at what makes us truly human, the capacity to reason, to feel pain. On a meta-level, it can even be viewed as a story that shakes its fist at an uncaring, unfeeling and selfish god who creates without care for his creations. And, also, a cautionary tale of not taking anyone or any situation at face value – with far-reaching consequences. 

I kept asking myself: what if Victor had not recoiled in horror? How different would this story have been? Instead, I found myself growing increasingly angry with the man in his hubris and denial in his role for having created this monster. Yes, yes, there'd have been no story otherwise, but I couldn't help but feel for the wretched monster so desperate to find love and acceptance. 

If you, like me, have yet to give this story a spin in its original format, but don't have the time to read, then I wholeheartedly recommend this edition from Audible. It's incredibly well produced and Shelley's writing is nothing short of magnificent. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd #1) by Giles Kristian

I've been meaning to get back into Giles Kristian's writing for a long, long time, and picked up God of Vengeance (The Rise of Sigurd #1) when it was on sale not so long ago. Perhaps it's because I've really enjoyed The Last Kingdom as well as the source material (Bernard Cornwell's books), and just a general fuzz for anything Viking Age related – so God of Vengeance really just pushes all the right buttons for me currently.

First off, Kristian writes combat sequences well, and with a ring of authenticity that is hard to find in the historical fiction or even epic fantasy genres. He really makes you feel like you're present, as a reader, and the cast of characters he brings to life is diverse and complex.

We start the journey with young Sigurd, son of the jarl Harald. And the worst happens to a young man – his entire family is killed in a plot by a crooked king, and unsurprisingly, our enterprising lad vows vengeance. The only problem is he's got no boat, no resources, and no warband – to go up against a bunch of back-stabbing wolves who hold all the power. And not only that, they've taken his sister, Runa, to be married against her will to a man she doesn't love.

So, yeah, Sigurd's got a huge axe to grind, and this story is all about how he gets his stuff together, against all odds, to rescue Runa and spill his enemies' blood. And a lot of warning: so. Much. Blood. Kristian also skirts around the edges in terms of the supernatural. We never know if the gods are real or whether Odin really does favour Sigurd, but enough happens to show how the gods' actions are all too real to their believers. While Sigurd claims to be favoured by Odin, a boast that will make most god-fearing folks reconsider whether they want to cross him, we must remember that Odin is not exactly a kind nor gentle god, and for all victories claimed in Odin's name, a terrible blood price must be paid. 

This action-packed revenge-epic is just right. Now excuse me while I toddle off to pick up book 2.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Peacocks & Picathartes – Reflections on Africa's Birdlife by Rupert Watson

When I was 12, most kids my age were into ... well, whatever it was that they were into. Me, on the other hand, I was into birdwatching. Armed with a brand-spanking new copy of the Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, I set about figuring out the names of the birds around me. It was something of an obsession. And while today I have the trusty Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa app, not much has changed. Friends and family still look at me like I'm a little sad and strange when I interrupt the discussion to go, "Oh, look, a Southern Boubou."

So it goes without saying that I was overjoyed when Rupert Watson's Peacocks & Picathartes: Reflections on Africa's Birdlife arrived on my doorstep. Although he was born in England, Watson has lived in Kenya for a large portion of his life, and his love for, nay fascination with, our beautiful continent's birdlife shines through in every word. I must also give a shout out to illustrator Peter Blackwell, whose characterful graphite drawings of various birds are used as chapter headers, and add much joy to the book.

There is no denying how special Africa and its natural heritage is, and there are many species found here and nowhere else. Climate change and the impact of human activities on the environment, be it encroaching agriculture, urbanisation, and forestry – these all are massive threats to our natural biodiversity. By highlighting birds, their habitats and distribution, Watson reminds us of the fragile balance in nature.

Watson maintains a factual account of the birds' habits and characteristics, peppered with often amusing anecdotes of his own adventures in seeing some of the rarer species, particularly the occasions he sought out the Congo Peacocks and Picathartes that lend their names to the book's title. He divides the book into sections that focus on birds that are found only in Africa, those that are mainly in Africa, and then six species that are iconic, such as the Egyptian Goose many of us love to hate; the Udzungwa Forest Partridge; the Congo Peacock; the Bateleur; and not to be outdone, the Hadada Ibis whose raucous calls many of us know all too well at 5am on a Sunday when we'd rather be sleeping in.

If birdwatching and conservation are your passions, then don't miss out on this book. 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Authentically Mexican by John Paul Brammer

In the spirit of mixing things up, I downloaded Authentically Mexican by John Paul Brammer, which was included in my Audible subscription. It's not a long audiobook, but in terms of it being vastly different from the cultural slant I'm accustomed to, it nevertheless offered a slice of novelty for me.

I admit that I struggled a bit with the narration – Brammer reads his own work, and he has a particular upward inflection that annoys me. So it took me a bit to get into the audiobook. What I did love was his discussion of identity – something I do relate to a lot. Brammer stands in a cultural no-man's land somewhere between his Mexican and American heritage, and most of the book is about how he tries to bridge that gap and find an identity that is uniquely his own – by digging into his Mexican roots through food.

His family is anything but standard, but what shines through is Brammer's love for his grandmother and the recipes that underpinned his world. This book is part discussion on food, family, cultural heritage, and identity, and how all are inextricably linked. Joy, sorrow, and nostalgia mingle in a way that you can almost taste and touch the meals discussed. As a South African, the chances of me ever getting to eat any of the foods mentioned here, as cooked authentically across the pond, are slim, but I do feel like I've stepped away from this reading with a better understanding of the complexities of a culture that is vastly different from my own yet has some universalities that transcend culture geographic separation. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Caesar's Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins

For many years, Julius Caesar was a cartoon character for me – I admit that I learnt to read by paging through dog-eared copies of Asterix and Obelix comics. But of late, in my increased delving into history, my fascination with the Roman empire has grown, perhaps because some of the juicier bits involve Egypt. Also, as an author of fantasy fiction, I'm a huge believer in gaining an understanding of things of a more military persuasion. Caesar's Legion by Stephen Dando-Collins, which is well narrated by Stuart Langton, certainly gave me a much deeper understanding of the Roman legions, and also the machinations of the empire itself. 

Although the work focuses most on the doings of the renowned Spanish Tenth Legion, we get a broader picture of the Roman military in general, as well as the conflicts from within and without the empire. Love him or hate him, Julius Caesar really was a force to be reckoned with – and there's a reason why he's been immortalised in our cultural objects. While Dando-Collins does enact some dramatic license in this work, he nevertheless leans heavily on existing primary sources – so if you're looking for a meaty engagement with the topic, this is pretty darned good, giving everything from how the legions ordered their camps all the way to the many campaigns the legions were engaged in.

Empire building is a tricky business, as we discover. There are the struggles at the beginning, the glory days, and then the inevitable slow winding down. While it can be argued that imperial powers do a lot of damage to the smaller cultures they assimilate, empires also build something that is bigger than the sum of all their parts – and we still see echoes of Rome in contemporary Western culture to this day. Caesar's Legion is an incredibly useful resource to anyone fascinated by this culture, and if I ever do lay hands on a printed copy, it will be part of my permanent collection. If you're a history buff like me, or simply someone curious to learn more, this is an excellent resource.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Origins: The Search for Our Prehistoric Past by Frank HT Rhodes

I was one of those kids who grew up watching way too many National Geographic documentaries at a child, so every once in a while I still love to indulge in content that will not only prove to challenge me, but also broaden my understanding of the natural world. Origins: The Search for Our Prehistoric Past by Frank HT Rhodes, narrated by Derek Perkins, is one such title that, as the the name suggests, digs deep into the origins of life on our planet.

This is an ambitious work, and the periods it covers is vast, but what I really appreciate about it is that it really put into perspective our position as a species when viewing the vast history of life on Earth. Truth be told, our existence as member of the family of great apes is a mere addendum when all is considered. In evolutionary terms, mammals are pretty much latecomers on the planet.

Rhodes not only delves into the history of life on earth, and all the multiple theories and hypotheses lying at the root of our understanding, but he also tells the story of the very early geologists and palaeontologists whose life works contributed to the theories that are currently accepted by the majority of scientists this day. Great care is taken into explaining how the theory of evolution functions, as well as how the taxonomy of living things is executed. It doesn't matter if you know next to nothing or, like me, are an armchair enthusiast – you'll get a wonderful broad overview that acts as a springboard for further study.

To be fair, this is such an enormous topic to cover, but I do think Rhodes does admirably well to paint in broad strokes – especially when it comes to explaining how evolution works. What I appreciated also was the way in which he touched on the reality of extinction, examining the mass extinction-level events or circumstances of the past, as well as reminding readers of the essential ephemeral and somewhat tenuous nature of life. 

The only downside to listening to the audiobook is that you don't have ready access to any of the accompanying diagrams or illustrations that you'd find in the printed book, but you can download a handy reference guide as a PDF from the Audible website if you're of a mind to delve deeper.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The King Must Fall – in conversation with Adrian Collins

I'm a huge fan of Grimdark Magazine. They bring out a lot of awesome material, so it goes without saying that I sat up and noticed with editor Adrian Collins told me about his project, The King Must Fall, which has a stellar ensemble – go check out the Kickstarter page when you have a moment. I can't wait to read the anthology when it's out. In the meanwhile, Adrian has stopped by my blog for a quick Q&A...

Nerine Dorman (ND): Was there a particular creative brief that you put together for the authors for The King Must Fall

Adrian Collins (AC):
Definitely. For The King Must Fall I asked each author to write a story about a king or authority figure being deposed. I didn’t specify if they had to be simply removed, or killed, or if the attempt even needed to be successful – I can’t wait to see what they all come up with.

However, I think the most interesting part of this story is that the theme wasn’t my idea. I was trying to think of how to follow up Evil is a Matter of Perspective and just wasn’t having anything cool coming to mind. Out of the blue I received an email from Bradley P Beaulieu telling me about an idea he’d had for an anthology, but just didn’t have the time to drive – and because I love stuff like this, The King Must Fall was born!

ND: That's quite the stellar cast you've got going for your contributors. Which are the stories you’re most looking forward to? 

AC: That’s a hard one to pick. Just because I haven’t published them before, I’m really looking forward to seeing Daniel Polansky and Kameron Hurley’s short stories. 

ND: Did you think that certain themes will come through – I find this fascinating as an editor of anthologies myself, that there are often ideas that echo in the submissions – as if they have inadvertently drawn from the same well.

AC: I’m with you! One of the things I love most about building and reading anthologies is seeing how each creator puts their own angle or spin on the theme. Sometimes there will be similarities, and sometimes an idea completely out of left field will blow you away.  

For The King Must Fall I’ve received four first drafts, and a few of the other authors have sent through their ideas on what their stories will be, so I’m feeling really confident that they will all be thematically on point. And based on the authors we have, I know they are going to be dark AF and diverse in delivery. 

ND: What have you, as editor, enjoyed the most about putting together the anthology?

AC: I actually love the process of it. Pulling together all of the authors by leveraging years of author and artist relationships, speaking with printers and distributors and shipping companies, deciding how it’s going to look, planning out the financial requirements, timeframes, etc – all of the tiny pieces of a publishing project that eventually turn into a book. This is the stuff that I love doing. We already have stories coming in, and I’m loving reading them. I can’t wait to show the final product to our customers.

ND: Congratulations for funding this via Kickstarter – what, in your opinion, makes a Kickstarter campaign so successful? 

AC: In short, a clean, clear product that’s marketed really well makes a successful Kickstarter. Compelling content, an engaging video, rewards that can be grown upon through stretch goals, and consistent market engagement through advertising.

There’s also so many things that can go wrong during a process that’s often 6-9 months long. I’ve listed five key learnings from the three Kickstarters I’ve run over on

ND: Things in the industry have been, well, weird of late. What are some of your tips and tricks for keeping your publishing endeavours alive?

AC: GdM has experienced a pretty solid period of growth throughout the pandemic, to be honest. Key to where we are at the moment has really come down to a key structure change we implemented about 18 months ago: we split GdM into two arms – the publishing side, and the online content team – and got the right people in place to drive both.

The online content focus drives web traffic to our site and products. It’s created additional and improved revenue streams and grown our brand in the market, which has helped us thrive.

Other than that, the article I wrote for Fantasy Hive, called Starting and Running an Ezine in a few Simple, Soul-destroying Steps covers it in the further detail. 

ND: In the stories that you publish in GdM, what are the elements that you are looking for specifically? What makes you perk up when you read a submission?

AC: I’ve been looking for and finding the same thing for seven years: a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist. Authors will blow me away with an anti-hero story that matters. A perspective that perhaps makes me recoil at first, and makes me want to engage more by the end. There doesn’t have to be a single drop of blood, but you need to show me grey morality.

And I can’t reiterate that enough: blood, guts, and sexual violence do not a grimdark story make (especially that last one, just leave it out please). It’s the anti-hero and the grey morality that win me over.

ND: Who are three up-and-coming voices in the grimdark genre you believe people should pay attention to?

AC: This is actually a hard question for me to answer. Before GdM I used to have time to read 50-60 books a year. Now I’m lucky if I get through ten. I’ve fallen behind the times on new authors I’m afraid! 

I will say that P Djèlí Clark, RF.Kuang, and Anna Smith Spark are three authors where I can’t wait to see what they release next.

ND: What do you love about grimdark fiction?

AC: I love that it feels more human. It feels like a story with somebody I know at the helm – like actual people and not indestructible superheroes are involved. I can relate to these characters because I can be and have been a screw up, and grimdark heroes are generally just bigger screw-ups trying to do better, but screwing up more.

More about Adrian...

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced – just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.

Adrian and his team are currently working on The King Must Fall through Kickstarter.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Blood of Elves (Witcher #1) by Andrzej Sapkowski

Here I am, gamely trying to stay ahead of the Netflix TV series for The Witcher. I picked up a slightly battered copy of Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski at my favourite local secondhand bookstore, and it's taken me a while to get to reading it, but here we are. My feeling, as always, is that Sapkowski is a pantser. He writes the story as it unfolds in his head, with only the vaguest notion of where he's headed and where he's going to end a particular instalment.

If you're firmly team Geralt, then Blood of Elves is going to be a bit of a let-down for you, for this book very much focuses on the mother/daughter relationship that develops between Ciri and Yen. We also get to see a fair amount of Triss, who has it bad for Geralt, which he doesn't quite reciprocate because, well, Yen. And having read somewhere that season two of the TV series draws heavily from this book, I'm highly curious to see how the showrunner will spin out a cohesive, satisfying season. Because the book itself is basically a large chunk of prequel.

While the preceding titles in the series were very much vignettes, there's a touch more structure here as we get a taste of the bigger picture, which centres around racial tensions arising courtesy of the elves and others who feel disenfranchised by human encroachment. We also have the looming presence of the Nilfgaardian Empire that is stretching its long-fingered hands into territories not previously its own. And of course Ciri's growing powers that hint at a more terrifying danger that lies beyond all these mundane troubles.

No, I haven't played the games, and only a little of Witcher 3, so I'm blissfully unaware of all the other content. For now. But I can see stuff is brewing, and most of Blood of Elves is all about Ciri learning about her powers, training not only with the remaining witchers, but also with the mages, courtesy of Yennefer. We have hints around the edges where we catch glimpses of what Geralt is up to, and there are a number of parties who are far too interested in the girl – and between Jaskier, Triss, Yen, and Geralt, they go out of their way to keep her hidden from those parties. 

So, in terms of overall plot, not much happens in this book other than character development. What Sapkowski does well is his characterisation, especially in dialogue – with some truly pointed social commentary that I feel is all too relevant to contemporary culture, delivering observations about race and identity and resultant, related conflict.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Three Bodies by NR Brodie

Crime novels aren't my usual fare, but I read them when I like the author, and I'm rather fond of NR Brodie. Three Bodies follows on from her occult-noir novel Knucklebone, where we meet Reshma Patel and Ian Jack, who initially work together to solve crimes related to an animal poaching ring. Both realise that there is more to reality than meets the eye, though. Then again, if you tangle with sangomas, expect things to get a bit strange.

Three Bodies
is no different. At the outset, when drowned women start showing up, Ian is roped in to investigate, despite no longer having an interest in police work. Reshma finds herself drawn into an elite crime-fighting unit – with a bunch of tough cops who work against the cash-in-transit heists that are so prevalent in South Africa. It's scary, high-stakes stuff. And here Brodie has done meticulous research to offer an authentic ring to the police work. 

But then a sinister link between the drowned women, dark muti, the cash heists, and old-guard apartheid officials who were never brought to book, is formed, and Reshma and Ian find themselves racing to solve a case of a missing woman before she, too, ends up drowned.

Overall, I found the gradually unfolding pace a little on the slow side, but things picked up a lot quicker near the end. Reshma is one hell of a tough woman, and it shows, and Ian's quiet empathy with others also shows that he possesses qualities that complement Reshma's. They team up with an unlikely bunch for the finale, and then ... well. I'll leave it up to you to find out what happens. As always, the whiff of the supernatural is just a taste. Perhaps too light a touch that may have required smidge more foreshadowing, but I loved it anyway. I'm reminded of an old HP Lovecraft quote:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

Which will make sense for those who've read the book and understand how Ian must struggle with what he sees unfold at the satisfyingly cataclysmic ending. Gritty, dark, and somewhat weird, this novel is definitely an enjoyable read, and it's great seeing fantasy elements creep across genres.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Ancient Rome by Thomas R Martin

I will admit that I'm not as well versed in the history of ancient Rome as I am in that of ancient Egypt, but considering that there is overlap between these two civilisations, it most certainly helps to get to know ancient Rome a bit better. Ancient Rome by Thomas R Martin is narrated by John Lescault, and gives listeners a great introduction into Roman history.

Perhaps what I find most fascinating is seeing how ancient Rome continues to influence Western civilisation even now, hundreds of years later, and it's also possible to gain an understanding of how Rome managed to dominate much of Western Europe for so many centuries.

While a deep dive is beyond the scope of the work, Martin does examine the political, religious, and military structures that created this important chapter of Western European history. What I found of particular interest was seeing especially how religion was a shaped as a way to control society, and how the emphasis shifted from the original pagan gods to the Christian religion so intrinsically linked to authoritarianism. What's particularly fascinating is also seeing how Roman military discipline most certainly contributed to the conquering of so much territory. Of course, holding onto that territory afterwards is where the difficulties came in – and it's no surprise that the empire split in its latter years. 

Overall the quality of the audiobook was not uniform – not so much to detract from my enjoyment, but there were clear sections where the sound shifted ever so slightly, possibly where parts were dropped in. That being said, I'd still recommend this to anyone who's yet to explore Roman history – this has certainly offered me the bigger picture I need in order to delve into other, more focused works.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

A General History of the Pyrates by Daniel Defoe

I can't quite pinpoint what I find so fascinating about the history of piracy, but listening to the audiobook of A General History of the Pyrates by Daniel Defoe was certainly easier than slogging through the actual reading – so kudos to the narrator, John Lee, for the overall slick execution of the production. That being said, this book is very much a product of its time, and reflects the casual racism and cultural jingoism so inherent to the era and in the author's general outlook. But if you're prepared to look past this, there's a treasure trove of details about the history of piracy during the late 1700s, much of it allegedly drawn from interviews with primary sources.

If you're an author, like me, on the hunt for story seeds, there are certainly plenty to be found among the tales of awful people doing awful things. Which in my mind is pretty much a summary of what this book is about. Forget the golden glow of historical romances – the lives of pirates and indeed any sailors press-ganged into service during the 18th century – were often brutal, bloody, and short. If disease didn't carry you away, a storm might. Or a violent encounter with pirates or an enemy fleet. You'll meet cunning men and women among these pages, as well as wicked, greedy, and violent ones. The fact that the penalty for piracy was death did not deter those who sought opportunity on the high seas – no matter the cost of this dearly bought freedom.

I really don't have much more to say other than the fact that my continued research has offered me a clearer idea of the cultural mores of the era, the challenges faced in sea travel, and how far we've come as a global community compared to what things were like during the 1700s. While much of this book can be quite dry, a patient reader can glean fascinating insights about a time so vastly different from our own.

Monday, May 24, 2021

When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara Cooney

Anyone who knows me will understand how deeply fascinated I am by Egypt's ancient history, and I'm particularly interested in digging up stories about the women who ruled this ancient nation during times when the rest of the world was largely patriarchal. When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara Cooney most certainly scratched that itch for me, with Cooney taking a deep dive into the lives of six female rulers, and touching on the lives of Merneith, Sobekneferu, Tausret, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and of course the inimitable Cleopatra VII. 

While on one hand, I really enjoyed these profiles of amazing women who took the reins and wielded the power they seized, to varying degrees of success, I did feel as if Cooney's writing erred on the side of being too ideologically possessed at times. She frames the stories of these rulers in modern, feminist terms and ideas of feminine power – through a modern lens – rather than seeing their lives for what they were: products of their time. The sour cherry for me were comparisons to Hillary Clinton's political machinations – a little on the rich side for me, too, with a US-centric flavour that mars the overall impact of the work.

This being said, there was still much to ponder, if you can look past Cooney wearing her feminism on her sleeve. While I don't agree with the author's assessments on why certain events played out the way they did, it was still great to see a book that focused on the history of female rulership. As an author myself, this offered a plethora of story seeds to turn over and consider. If anything, When Women Ruled the World has offered me a jumping-off point for further research, and Cooney has done an excellent job of humanising historical figures that up until this point were merely names and perhaps photos of statutes or cartouches for me up until now.

A mention of the Audible download, as this was the audiobook that I listened to – good overall quality in terms of the production. So no complaints there. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Every once in a while I'll read a book that afterwards I'll find difficult to quantify in one sentence. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi is one such book, and I have absolutely no regrets for having immersed myself in her words. As a reader, I am a firm believer in stepping outside of the narratives that I prefer and that I am accustomed to. Transcendent Kingdom proved to be a delight.

In a nutshell, this is the story of a woman dealing with the long-term effects of her brother's tragic opiate overdose, and the crippling depression that drives her mother to her bed. Gifty stands between these two extremes, constantly searching for answers, trying to make sense of the world around her. 

To compound matters, her father's continued absence gnaws – he returned to Ghana and abandoned his family after they moved to the United States – and Gifty inhabits a liminal space. She was born in America but her roots lie in Africa, so in a way she is neither fish nor fowl. She examines her Self and her world minutely, as if she can somehow pick apart the reasons why things are as they are. While she looks towards her religion for comfort, she's nonetheless aware of the innate hypocrisy of the congregation itself. Yet the cognitive dissonance doesn't quite rob her of her faith – just that she seeks the divine on her own terms.

This story is not spun in linear terms and writing as Gyasi does is difficult, so I am in awe at her telling that seamlessly blends past and present in a tapestry that constantly shifts focus in and out, between past and present in a way that nevertheless hangs together beautifully. I can well imagine that I am sitting in a room, listening to her musings as she tries to figure things out. Her observations of people are frank yet sympathetic, and we see two sides of Gifty – the daughter and sister, as well as the scientist who hopes for her research to offer the answers that her religion never gave her. Her empathy for her subjects, the mice that she must harm in order to complete her research, lessens the horror of the experiments that she conducts.

In the end, Gifty seeks synthesis, for a deeper understanding of the events over which she had no control. About finally being able to reach out and be part of something greater than herself. Transcendent Kingdom offers a textured telling, filled with empathy, bittersweetness, and hope.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Fleet of Knives: An Embers of War novel (Embers of War #2) by Gareth L Powell

We finish book 1 of Gareth L Powell's Embers of War trilogy with the discovery of an ancient fleet of ships, unmanned and linked together by an alien intelligence – the ominous Marble Armada. The sentient ship Trouble Dog and her captain, Sal, and the rest of their mismatched crew, are called from their holiday to answer a distress signal just as an almighty clusterf*** breaks out. Nope, not going to spoil it, but Powell drops us straight into turmoil then turns up the heat. Fleet of Knives is an aptly named title for book 2 in this trilogy.

New faces are the crew from the salvager Lucy's Ghost, who run into a spot of bother while looking for scraps in an ancient generation ship. Nope, not going to say what the spot of bother is, either, but I've watched Alien and the Event Horizon enough times to get the same kind of claustrophobic thrills with what Powell is doing here.

He ramps up the tension in such a way that I cannot conceive of how he's going to get his characters out of their pickle. And don't ever get too comfortable. If you think the characters get a breather, think again. It's only the quiet before the storm. I particularly loved the alien tech and the mystery behind how it works, which I'm sure will come into play again at a later stage – and yes, I've just bought book 3, because I need to know what happens next.

I'm so excited to see that Embers of War is coming to life onscreen – this one's going to be a cracker, and I'm glad to read it before I watch the series. One last word – I love the interplay between the human and non-human characters. Powell writes non-humans in a way that makes me smile. Anyhow, it's difficult to review this novel without spoilers, except to leave these words as encouragement for anyone who's a fan of space opera to go out and lay hands on this trilogy. It's worth every dollar.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Lords of the North (The Last Kingdom #3) by Bernard Cornwell

I admit that the books and the TV series are blurring considerably for me, especially since I've let some time elapse since I read Lords of the North (The Last Kingdom #3) by Bernard Cornwell, and the actual writing of the review – so here goes. 

As always, I love the fact that Cornwell makes history leap off the pages, and I particularly enjoy Uhtred's outlook on life. He's pragmatic and proud, and often impulsive, and has a habit of ending up in situations where he is a linchpin for the positioning of others to take power – so in a way he's a kingmaker rather than anyone who might become a king himself. Though I'd hazard to say he'd do a better job than some of these kings. 

In book three, we see Uhtred, thoroughly over King Alfred, going north to follow his destiny of facing his adoptive father's killer and perhaps also taking a stab at regaining his ancestral home. Only things rarely go as planned when it comes to Uhtred. This is also where we see the nun Hild coming into her own. While in the TV series, their relationship is platonic, in the novels, this is not the case. But he respects her decision in the end when she returns to the service of her god.

We also see how the early obsession with the relics of saints is somewhat absurd and slightly macabre, and how religion itself was used to bludgeon people into blind obedience. Definite track-laying for the church's power in future years. 

Uhtred himself has a harrowing journey that sees him enduring betrayal and slavery, only to return stronger than ever to reclaim his power and to come up against enemies from his distant past. Yet his ultimate goal, retaking Bebbanburg, still lies outside of his grasp. We do also see the arrival of such wonderful characters such as Finan and Sihtric, who are both firm favourites of mine from the TV series.

All in all, this is an enjoyable read. I'm glad I'm stretching out my reading of Cornwell's books, because they are something to be savoured. As always, I suspect it's tricky writing historical fiction around major events – so there may be some bending of the facts, but these stories have done so much to bring this historical period to life for me, warts and all.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Travel: Klein Karoo breakaway

I'm mixing up the usual bookish stuff with one of my first loves: travel writing. I think with the whole pandemic many of us have been suffering severe cabin fever. All through 2019, one of my greatest wishes was to see the Karoo again, where my dad was born and grew up. I can't help but feel a bit misty-eyed when I listen to my mom's stories about when they lived in De Aar, and also remember my dad's stories about what it was like to grow up in sleepy little dorpies like Hanover and Aberdeen. Damn, I miss the old guy.

Me? Well, I grew up on the Atlantic seaboard in a sleepy little seaside village called Hout Bay. My grandfather was a fisherman and a farmer, and my mom eventually met my father in the Overberg town of Caledon, where they were both teaching during the late 1950s. 

So for me to revisit these places it's often with a strong dose of bittersweet nostalgia – I was what we affectionately call a laatlammetjie (late lamb) – more an afterthought when my parents were already in their 40s. So they'd lived a whole life before me. As much as I have the Atlantic Ocean in my blood, I have an equal yearning for the big sky country of the Karoo, for this ancient sea bed now raised high above sea level, where during the past the therapsids roamed (our ancestors who were the bridge between dinosaur and mammal).

I'm in my happy place

In particular, I've had an itch to revisit the old volstruispaleis (ostrich palace) Wolverfontein (wolf fountain?), situated just next to the abandoned railway siding Plathuis (flat house). Currently under the ownership of Andre Hagan and Ashley Brownlee, there's accommodation available in the converted Waenhuis (wagon house) and Zara Cottage (where the old headmaster used to live). The former is perfect for couples, while the latter sleeps six and is ideal for families or close-knit friends who want to have a long weekend of kuier (visiting/chilling). 

Since we live in the far south peninsula, our route takes us along the coastal R310, past Strandfontein and Khayelitsha, then onto the N2 via Somerset West and over the breathtaking Sir Louwry's pass, which gives you the last glimpse of the sleeping giant of Table Mountain across the Cape Flats.

Then you enter apple country, of Elgin/Grabouw, and it's as if you've slipped into the Shire, where it wouldn't be inconceivable to encounter hobbits living in their holes. (Nice holes, mind you.) We sometimes stop at The Orchard farm stall (they have excellent pies) but this time we shot through to Swellendam in one fell swoop as we needed to collect my mum. 

Then, to one of my favourite mountain passes – we could take the road to Ashton and thence on to Montagu, but we prefer to take the picturesque Tradouwpas (Women's Pass in the old Khoisan language) that winds its way over the Langeberge and spits you right out by Barrydale. The contrast between Barrydale and Swellendam couldn't be more stark. Swellendam receives a remarkable amount of orographic rain thanks to its mountain range with its deep, folded kloofs where patches of Afromontane forest persist between the endemic fynbos. But by Barrydale, the fynbos of the mountain peaks gives over to Karoo scrub and succulents, where Aloe mitroformis create occasional flame-like inflorescences. A canny plant spotter can spend hours identifying all manner of succulents, including mesembryanthemums, asclepiads, euphorbia, and crassulacea. I've forgotten so much of what used to roll off the tip of my tongue.

This is a land of mesas, and folded sandstone heights. Keep your eye open and you might see graceful springbok pronking alongside the road. Steppe buzzards, pale chanting and gabar goshawk, white-necked ravens, and other corvids, and not to forget the countless LBJs (little brown jobs) flitting away. I did have a glimpse of a Karoo robin and many mossies (sparrows). Occasionally I even spotted majestic Verreaux's eagles soaring on the thermals. There is so much life here, if you know where to look.

The rivers here in the Klein Karoo rarely run, and stock farming has largely been replaced with game farms and private game reserves – which is good. It gives the veld a chance to recover from the unnatural disaster inflicted by domestic livestock.

Me and mum

After lunch at the deliciously eclectic Diesel and Crème on the R62 in Barrydale (where at every occasion my husband tries to induce a diabetic coma with their insanely decadent milkshakes) we hit the last stretch, blew past the infamous Ronnie's Sex Shop / Pompstasie (hurr-hurr), and took the Plathuis turnoff to the left just across the Touwrivier bridge. It's easy to miss, so don't be in too much of a rush. Here the tarmac gives way to a well-graded gravel road, and you drive for about 10 or so minutes until you pass Touwberg Private Game Reserve on your right and almost immediately after on your left you'll see the sign for Wolverfontein. The first thing you'll see is the signature orange gables of the old farm house, and you enter by typical aluminium plaashekke (farm gates) which you must asseblief close behind you.

The property is tucked behind a koppie, just beneath the remains of the largely abandoned Plathuis community (there are a few residents, but most of the properties are clearly holiday homes, if that).

Wolverfontein offers a typical Karoo view across the alluvial plain of the Touw River, and nature's colour palette here is a combination of rust, blond grass, blue skies and olive greenery. During the height of summer, it's almost a wasteland, and yet the stark beauty has a way of crawling into your soul. This time, the area had seen a bit of rain, and the difference in appearance couldn't be more different. So green – for the Karoo, that is.

The accommodation is wonderfully kitsch and colourful, with a Tretchikoff in almost every room, with vintage clocks, furnishings and a to-die-for braai area out back with a raised fire pit. Perfect for klippies en coke (or in our case, homemade ginger beer and Jim Beam for those who still drink booze). I must add a disclaimer, that the only time my poor husband ever braais is when we're on holiday. He's not half bad at it. 

The first night we slept like the dead. Literally. Because we only woke at nine-thirty the next morning. Which is understandable considering how stressed out of our brackets we are currently with work. But we got our slow start, had a slow breakie, then headed out to Ladismith for the day so we could go have lunch. I suspect most of this weekend was spent eating. But that's what breakaways are about, aren't they?

There is no cellphone reception in the dip where we stayed, but our hosts, helpfully provided their WiFi passwords which we could then access the web if we wander up to the volstruispaleis – an activity we embarked upon several times a day so we could post pictures and check up on our housesitter (dogs were fine, thank goodness). 

Mom and I did the typical thing to see who was buried in the small cemetery, and predictably there was at least one or two there who might be distant relations (small gene pool of our ancestors spread out in this area). What was particularly heartbreaking was seeing all the children's graves, and even one where the woman (age 30) clearly died in childbirth, with her unnamed 'en baba' (and baby) buried with her. There's a sorrowful tale there. The small headstones with the tiny piles of rocks, unmarked, and now decades later unremembered. Cue my usual existential angst, but hey, that's what I thrive on. I don't want to be buried. I'd rather have my ashes scattered to the wind somewhere in the Karoo.

Before our trip, I went and downloaded the Sasol eBirds 5th edition app and probably drove everyone crazy playing bird calls. It's a rad app, especially considering that I didn't feel like lugging my old Robert's Bird Book from the late 1980s along. It's horribly out of date and not half as user friendly as the app. I positively identified a resident pair of (almost as noisy as Egyptian geese) shelduck.

A word on the water – the water from the taps is so brak (salty) that it's like brushing your teeth with seawater. It's fine for doing the dishes and showering, but our hosts provide a big covered container for our drinking water, which is sweeter than rain.

The kitchen has everything you need and a super sized fridge. Just bring your food – they even have a coffee plunger. Beds are super comfortable, and though there was a nip in the air already, with it being May, we weren't absolutely freezing. (I'm sure that's still coming with winter.) Wood is provided, though we eschewed the firelighters to rather use fynhoutjies (fine wood) collected in the veld. A bit more of a challenge to start a fire, but it feels more authentic.

We weren't visiting long enough to borrow the spare mountain bikes, but for MTB enthusiasts, there are numerous amazeballs trails in the neighbouring Touwsberg reserve. You may even luck out and see the eight resident giraffe, or gemsbok and kudu, if you're lucky. We just saw lots of LBJs, and although the dirt roads were well graded, my husband was still a bit wary about driving our Ford Fiesta so far into the wilderness without us having access to cellphone signal in case of emergency. We saw not a soul. Absolute splendid isolation. 

What I like about Wolverfontein is that it's far enough away from Cape Town to make you feel like you're in the veld. We didn't have the stamina to do the picturesque Seweweekspoort drive, but that is well worth the adventure. Ladismith is a good place to buy your groceries and scratch that itch if you want to go out for lunch, and you can use Wolverfontein as a base of operations for the many activities and routes available in the area. 

A word on our hosts – Ashley and Andre are wonderful, attentive, and make sure you have everything you need. And they also give you your space, which is fantastic. This is seriously one of those places where you can determine what you want to do and when, with minimal fuss – so reminiscent of the kinds of holidays I had as a child when we regularly visited the Cederberg. Although I daresay the Plathuis area is a bit more isolated now than what the Cederberg used to be. You'll also get to meet the resident Ridgeback dogs who come to visit and find out if you've left any treats lying around (don't feed them). 

This has been our second visit, and it won't be our last. I'm determined to experience part of a Karoo winter here later this year. The rates are so super reasonable I'm tempted to say it's a steal, but for the best rates, book through Wolverfontein's website and ask for a discount. You'll want to stay a minimum of two nights, but if you can take an entire week off, I promise you, you will not regret it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz

If you're looking for an absolute treat in terms of ancient Egyptian history, then look no further than Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz. I got my version off Audible and it's narrated by the absolutely delightful Lorna Raver, who conveys Mertz's almost puckish humour so brilliantly.

Mertz takes us on a journey from Egypt's ancient past, looking at everything from the people and their customs, to the mythology and the land's rulers. You'd think that so much history packed into one volume might end up dry and tiresome, but Mertz has a way with words to make old bones spring to life.

She's quite clear that much of what she shares is her interpretation of events – and she does bring in discussion of where her points of view differ from others, which I appreciated. But there is a liveliness to her account that I've so far found lacking in other tomes, so if you're not all that academically minded yet have an interest, then this is a good place to start. And I think even if you are an academic, you may well enjoy Mertz's writing for the sheer exuberance that she brings into her words.

There's a little bit of everything here, and although my general knowledge of ancient Egyptian history is pretty solid, I still discovered new stories and insights that further emphasised why I love this particular civilisation so much. Granted, the downside of the audiobook is that there's no access to the graphics that one would encounter in a physical book, but overall, the narration more than makes up for this lack. And if I do ever come across a copy in a bookshop, I know for a fact it will be an insta-buy for me.

I'm so glad that I've had my introduction to Barbara Mertz's writing, and I will most certainly be hunting down more copies of her work.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Soleri (The Amber Throne #1) by Michael Johnston

It's no secret I love ancient Egypt, so when a fantasy novel heavily inspired by this fascinating culture drops in my lap, I'm all over it. Soleri by Michael Johnston has a lot of depth and breadth, and he offers us a fascinating chunk of world building. And I enjoy seeing how he subverts ideas I know so very well.

I'm going to do the awful thing that I am loath to do, by comparing this novel, at a glance, to GRRM's ASoIaF, because it follows a similar theme – a family torn asunder by political intrigue and war. And there were certain predictions I made while reading which had touchstones of familiarity in terms of theme. 

It's going to be difficult for me to give an overview without spoilers, but I'll do my best. We meet Ren, who is the heir to the Harkan throne. Like all heirs, he's sent to the capital of the empire, to be held as a hostage in the Priory, along with the heirs of the other vassal kingdoms.

We get to know the Harkan king, Arko, who finds himself called to the heart of the empire, where he learns the secret behind the throne of the emperor no one has seen for centuries. 

Priestess Sarra, Arko's estranged wife, schemes and plots – she desires power, and she's not afraid of walking all over Arko to get it.

But then we have Kepi and Merit – Arko's daughters. And they couldn't be more different. Merit is the queen regent in Ren's absence, while Kepi is a free spirit, more keen to brawl than take on the responsibility of her bloodline.

This is no loving family – you have been warned. 

Overall, the Johnston's writing is fast-paced and filled with action, and I really enjoyed the setting, and the fact that we get glimpses into the history of an ancient city and empire. There were moments where the editing slipped up a bit – a scene where Kepi discards a blade only for it to show up in her hands a few paragraphs later. And at times I did feel that the writing was a smidge on the fast side, where some filling in of characters' motivations would have helped pad things out. But these were not deal-breakers for me.

I have to make mention of the one serious issue that did make me grumble. One of the viewpoint characters has a secret. A pretty big one, too, that they conveniently neglect to think about but then toss in at the end of the story as a big reveal. Firstly, I don't think there was enough foreshadowing, and secondly, I feel that this was a bit of a cheap shot to build suspense – almost as big as a viewpoint character being a murderer and conveniently neglecting to think about what they've done until right at the end. But I'm going on to book two. Even if I'm grumbling a bit about this one thing that was tossed out at the conclusion of book one.

Soleri is part mystery, part military conflict, and court intrigue. The amount of back-stabbing and reversals that occur is quite dizzying at times, and not wholly unexpected given the characters. And the story is set up in such a way that  I'm sure every reader will have a particular character that they'll root for. I'm really curious to find out more about who these mysterious gods – the Soleri – really are. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and JD Barker

With the slew of vampires cropping up in fiction over the past while, it's a pleasant change to return to a story that has all the hallmarks of the classic that helped spawn the genre. Even better that it's Bram Stoker's great-grandnephew, Dacre Stoker, who, informed with access to primary source materials, has guided the direction that Dracul has taken. 

The novel starts with a twenty-one-year-old Bram Stoker who's in a spot of bother in a tower of a ruined abbey, and to a degree it might seem somewhat contrived for someone who's in a tight spot having the wherewithal to scribble down the events that have led up to his current predicament, the story is quite cleverly put together. Much like Dracula, it's made up of letters and journal entries, jumping between past and present to delve deeper into the story that has been a staple of horror for more than a century.

Blending elements of mystery with horror, our protagonists – Bram and his siblings, along with a handful of accomplices – find themselves on an unexpected quest that sees them make some unlikely allies. I can't say any more for fear of spoilers, but I was soon invested in how the story plays out.

In tone and styling, Dracul is very much the epitome of a Gothic novel, bursting at the seams with ruinous abbeys and bloodthirsty monsters. The supernatural elements creep in gradually, and while very little terrifies me these days, I appreciated the twists and loops this story follows before it hurtles towards its conclusion. If you're familiar with the original text of Bram Stoker's Dracula, then Dracul will offer a worthy deeper dive into the legend that is sure to please fans.