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.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Dead Acre by Rhett C Bruno and Jaime Castle

Every once in a while I like to mix things up a little and read something that's pulpy and fun. Or, in this case, should I rather say listen to. Dead Acre cropped up in my recommended titles courtesy of my Audible subscription, and because it was a quick read (and included), I gave it a spin.

I see in the blurb that they peg this story as a Witcher-meets-Dresden-Files and while I haven't read the latter, I do admit to being somewhat of a Geralt of Rivia kinda gal. So yep, if you're into a weird west setting chock full of monsters, then James Crowley's dry wit and wry outlook on his unlife as an immortal monster hunter – or Hand of God – may well scratch that itch.

Dead Acre doesn't offer me anything new that I haven't already seen in countless horror RPGs, films, and urban fantasy settings. Hells, it even has a bit of a noir edge to it, which I felt added some good flavour. There's even a sweet little reversal in terms of expectations relating to the Big Bad at the end. I'll admit, I didn't *quite* see that one coming. And while I didn't get my socks knocked off completely, I'll quite happily say that I was entertained, and that's what counts. 

A word on Roger Clark, who does the narration for Dead Acre. He has A VOICE on him. That alone makes this title a welcome addition to my collection.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Five Senses Set: Mirror of Destiny, The Scent of Magic, and Wind in the Stone (Five Senses #2-4) by Andre Norton

Andre Norton is one of those authors I've been meaning to dip into again for years, so when the Five Senses Set of three novellas was on sale on Amazon, I decided to give it a try. Certainly, the list of titles to her name is formidable, and from a perspective of giving love to the older works of SFF out there, I felt it was valuable to revisit. But...

There's going to be a but here.

I need to relook some of her more popular works for comparison, because this collection was so far off the mark for me in terms of the quality of the writing.

Overall, there's a theme in each story – of a young woman who inherits or possesses a rare magical skill related to the senses, who sets out to right an imbalance along strongly expressed lines of good and evil. Norton also brings across inventive world building, but it's not enough for me – across the board I felt there was something off with each story, be it the pacing or the lack of attention to characterisation. Not to mention the clumsy sentence construction. Whether the latter is a product of its time or simply that these stories were never subjected to the tender mercies of both a structural and copy editor's talents, I don't know.

In Mirror of Destiny Twilla inherits a magical mirror from her teacher, but before she can establish herself as more than a trainee wise woman, she is whisked off as a prearranged bride for people in a nearby land. By some luck, she ends up in the duke's household, destined for his son, but the marriage is not to either of their taste, so she makes her escape that leads her to the forest, and the breaking of an ancient curse that binds the fair folk of this world. The biggest issue I had with this story was that the pacing dragged, and I didn't once feel as if the characters were ever in any real danger that they had to overcome.

The Scent of Magic sees Willadene escape a life of drudgery as a scullery maid to apprentice her to a herbwoman – as Willa has the ability to sniff out magic, which is apparently a rare talent indeed. We also see the point of view of the baron's daughter, who upon gaining her majority, starts working on gaining power – so that was at least interesting, seeing a woman working on feminine power in a patriarchal society. There's a larger plot afoot too, once again tied into an ancient evil, and the story heads off into a completely different direction near the end. Of the three novellas, this was the one that I felt was structurally stronger. But it was still a slog.

Wind in the Stone absolutely starts in the wrong place, with its first part essentially just back story that sets up the events that take place in the second half. Other reviewers despised this story (from what I can pick up) due to the fact that there is a scene that involves the rape of a young woman. I just found this story unutterably dull, to be quite honest. Stuff happens, and there's an antagonist who appears to be power hungry for the sake of being power hungry. Oh, and the Sasquatch. Which are an interesting addition to the plot if they served any real purpose other than writing a story that features Sasquatch. I suppose it makes a difference from elves and dwarves, I guess.

Look, I'm sure there are some of Norton's other books that are good. I recall reading one of her Witch World books when I was much, much younger, and finding it a fair read, but none of these three in this collection are what I would call sterling examples of the genre. Stilted dialogue, great need for structural edits, and peculiar diction all combine to make these uncomfortable reads that were a relief to finish and make me doubt whether I am brave or foolish enough to pick up any of Norton's other writing. As a peculiarity of the genre, this was interesting to read, and there were moments when some of the leaps of imagination hinted at greater depths (like the malevolent forest ruins in The Scent of Magic). Mostly, I just felt like there wasn't enough depth in the writing to convince me of the characters' motivations. And yes, all my aforementioned issues. 

So read this one at your own peril. Obviously, if you're a huge fan of Norton, and she can do no wrong for you, then kindly disregard this review. I was mostly disappointed with this collection. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman by Lucy May Lennox

Very little rivals the sheer listening pleasure of a well-produced audiobook, and The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman, by Lucy May Lennox surpassed all my expectations. It's not often that I'll kick off a review with a pile of gushing, but in this case, it's entirely warranted.

Narrated by Duke DeFoix, Duchess DeFoix, Olivia Featherton, and Earl Tyrone, this audiobook is a delight from start to finish – each character shining against a well-researched, well-written historical narrative. 

At its heart, this tale follows the doings of one Tom Finch, a composer, conductor and musician operating out of London in the mid-1700s. Tall, handsome and a shameless flirt, Tom is also blind – yet he navigates the theatres and streets of London in fine style. The natural son of a nobleman, Tom doesn't have many prospects – he can't serve in the navy or the army due to his disability, but he's carved a good life for himself conducting operas and writing broadsides with the assistance of his friend. And in fact, his disability perhaps stands him in good stead, for his ability to listen far surpasses that of the sighted.

Tom may be a libertine, but his heart belongs to the free-spirited, gamine Sal, a sometimes bawd and highway robber. But the singer Tess also creeps into his heart, and their friendship has its ups and downs. In fact, by the time I was done with the story, I felt as if the enormous support cast had become the kind of friends I'd expect to meet on the street – and it's a rare thing indeed for a story to grip me like this.

A word also on Lennox's musical knowledge – this novel is incredibly well researched in terms of giving the technical aspects of late-baroque music a ring of authenticity. And while the plot is a rambling journey, it all nonetheless hangs together in a glorious intermeshing of narratives. Each chapter is episodic and almost self-contained, yet contributes beautifully to the overall development of the story – and let me tell you there are not that many authors I've encountered who can pull this off so well. 

I also particularly enjoyed the fluidity of characters' sexuality in a way that felt effortless – many of the characters are bisexual, and no big deal is made of this, which I appreciated. It felt natural and appropriate for the mood of the particular scenes.

I was almost heartbroken by the time I reached the end of this tale and can heartily recommend this well-tuned romp through London, with visits to the English countryside, a troubled crossing of the English Channel and also a flirtation with Paris.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Quick ID Guide: Wild Flowers of the Cape Peninsula by Hugh Clarke and Corinne Merry

The Cape Floral Kingdom is considered a hotspot in terms of biodiversity, and many truly special species can be found in the Cape Peninsula. The City of Cape Town is unusual, in that it has a National Park running right through its heart, and for many Capetonians it's as simple as a ten- to fifteen-minute drive to get close to nature. Observant nature-lovers are bound to see any number of floral beauties, no matter the time of year, and in this Quick ID Guide: Wild Flowers of the Cape Peninsula, authors Hugh Clarke and Corinne Merry sketch out an introduction to the most commonly encountered blooms.

Wild Flowers of the Cape Peninsula
 not only serves as a guide to the different species, but also provides simple maps that assist with the planning of your hiking trip and offers an introduction to the floral beauties of the region that is useful to those who are new to putting a name to a flower and more seasoned nature-lovers alike.

I've found the way the book is laid out to be quite useful too – flowers are not arranged by the season, as I would have expected, but rather by their colours, with photos that display their defining characteristics. Further information includes the flowering season, height, descriptions, leaves, distribution and habitat. Pointers on how to find particular flowers is also offered, along with helpfully colour-coded walking routes and advice on how to explore safely and sensibly – especially if you are considering an ascent of Table Mountain.

This slim volume will easily slip into your backpack, and it's most certainly a book I'll be referring to the next time I head out into the veld. As a Capetonian who's done a fair bit of hiking, it's been wonderful to be reminded how much beauty exists right on my doorstep.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Orca by Richard Peirce

Anyone who's local to the False Bay coastline will no doubt have a passing familiarity with our local shark cage diving industry that's a huge tourist attraction. In Orca, Richard Peirce, takes a deep dive into the shark cage diving community of Gansbaai in particular, and gives us a glimpse into the complex, interlocking of community and nature, and the difficulties a community faces when they rely heavily on a natural resource that is increasingly under environmental pressure.

The great white sharks of False Bay are known for their population density and also their habit of breaching, when hunting their prey of Cape fur seals. This understandably has resulted in many exciting photographic opportunities in addition to the chance for visitors to get up close and personal in the cages that are submerged at the spots sharks often frequent. 

Sleepy little seaside towns like Gansbaai have, over the years, been transformed into mini tourist meccas, with many local operators launching several shark-viewing trips a day. At least that was until the majestic great white sharks vanished. Even more disquieting were the carcasses of mature sharks washing up on beaches in the region. What could be killing the sharks? 

Peirce pieces together the mystery, relating how a pair of roving orcas, named Port and Starboard for how their dorsal fins have flopped over, have developed a somewhat grisly taste for great white sharks – particularly their livers – and how they periodically return to prey on a supposedly apex predator.

Naturally, when the great whites vanish, this has a catastrophic effect on the community, which has consequently adapted to these 'droughts'. Fortunately, there are species of shark that have saved the day, for instance the smaller bronze whaler sharks, and tour operators have looked at diversifying the activities that they offer to make up for the times when the great whites are MIA.

What Peirce highlights is the fragility of our ecosystems, and especially our oceans, which are under so much pressure. Is this new behaviour from the orcas? How have humans had an impact on our environment? While there is no convenient closure to this book, it does serve as a cautionary tale for those of us who live close to the ocean and those who rely on it for a livelihood. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Entreat Me by Grace Draven

I can never get quite enough of Grace Draven's writing when I'm in the mood for a gothic romance, which is very much her forte, offering crumbling edifices, doom-laden loves and clever dialogue. Her writing feels as though it harks back to the Brontë sisters, which makes me entirely happy (and yes, I'm a huge Wuthering Heights fangrrrl, so bite me). In Entreat Me, Draven riffs off the old classic Beauty and the Beast, but done in her signature style, which means you'll recognise elements of the template, but the story takes quite a number of surprising twists and turns.

In short, the widow Louvaen is fiercely protective over her younger half-sister Cinnia, and when the latter pulls a runner to abscond with a dashing son of a mysterious warlord in his remote demesne, Louvaen thinks nothing of it to play chaperone while the young lord courts her sister. Except Louvaen has run straight into the snarled thorns of a centuries-old curse, and her presence may well prove the linch pin to end it even as she finds her own love in the most unexpected place. 

Firstly, Louvaen is my kind of heroine. She's an older woman, she is brimful with courage and attitude, and she is not afraid to speak her mind ... or act. Which in a man's world can and does make her a powerful enemy (but I won't spoil). Draven has outshone herself with this book, delving deep in to the daily life surrounding a castle, and I absolutely adore the ring of authenticity she imbues in her writing, even to the details of spinning flax (yes, this is something I've actually recently researched). 

Entreat Me unravels slowly until it tangles into a cataclysmic end, filled with magic and danger and yes, true love. Her characters' interchanges are an absolute treat too, and she manages to bring across an archaic feel that is lively with humour. (Louvaen really has a sharp tongue that is a wonder to behold.) Yes, this is a kissing (and more) kinda book, but the erotic elements never overshadow the plot, which makes it my kind of romance.

Now excuse me, while I go track down the next book by Grace Draven that I haven't read yet...

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Fire Within by Morten W Simonsen

Fire Within by Morten W Simonsen is a fantasy novel that at the start, I felt, had a lot going for it. We kick off with a prison break then immerses readers in a world on the brink of war with a non-human race. The story centres around two brothers who, through circumstances, are placed at odds with each other by a father who requires nothing but exact compliance – and it's brother Ivan who's drawn the shortest straw, cast out of his family, outlawed and reviled, who now seeks to tear it all down from the bottom up with his outlaw gang. We have Thedric, who lives in the shadows of his elder brothers, who feels he can never quite measure up, to the detriment of his own selfhood as he tries and fails to impress his father, the Lord Styles.

Then we also have Ani, who is in possession of the kind of secret that will see her a valuable pawn in the hands of men who desire power. Out of all the characters, I feel she was the most poorly developed – either the author purposefully drew her out to be hopelessly naïve on purpose, or he doesn't know the first thing about writing a female character in the first place. I know I'm coming out a bit harsh here, but honestly, as a woman who's an avid fantasy reader, this has got to be one of the most frustratingly annoying characters I've encountered in years. Either way, she was the one reason why I wanted to hurl my iPhone across the room out of sheer annoyance. Then, the Thing (I think you can figure out what I mean without me saying it) that happens to her near the end was, in my opinion, so hopelessly unnecessary and as a plot device felt wedged in and something along the lines of 'let's do a terrible thing to a woman for the sake of being grim.' I get that her character is 'special' but the way she is developed as a character in this first book is the reason why I'm downgrading the review to three stars and will in all likelihood not bother reading the rest of the books. 

This is clearly the first book of a series, and as such there's a lot of set-up with a bunch of threads left up in the air at its close. Simonsen's writing is adequate, but I do feel this work could have used a bit of spit and polish not only from structural edits, but a bit more of a thorough copy edit overall. I saw quirks that only a copy editor would notice, which jerked me out of the reading (and I do try to separate my reader brain from my editor brain, but in this case I was not as successful, evidently). If you're looking for action-packed, grimdark, then this story will most likely hit the right buttons, but its execution was in my not-so-humble opinion a bit rough around the edges and in need of deeper development.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Field Guide to Mushrooms & other Fungi of South Africa by Gary B Goldman & Marieka Gryzenhout

Mushrooms have fascinated me from a young age, and always with my mother's admonishment of certain death should I even think of touching them unless they were prepackaged from the local store. Yet in recent years we've also seen growth in interest for foragers taking advantage of South Africa's great diversity of fungi, many of which are not just edible, but downright delicious, be it a pine ring or Kalahari truffle. In their Field Guide to Mushrooms & other Fungi of South Africa by Gary B Goldman & Marieka Gryzenhout have created a functional and informative guide that, I hope will, not only serve as a clear guide to steer foragers to delicious edible boletes but help them identify the poisonous copper trumpets, salmon coral, aptly named death caps and more.

But this book is more than that – in my mind it serves as an enticement to look closer at nature, for there are so many fantastic types of fungi – a whole wonder world of them worth exploring. By the time I was done flipping through these pages, I was on the verge of buying a macro lens for my iPhone. My sense is that we spend so much time exploring South Africa's macro-fauna, we completely overlook these subtle, ephemeral beauties.

As with any field guide, there is only so much information that can be given. The introduction offers the usual of the instructions on how to use the book, what mushrooms are, their growth and reproduction, their identification, the fungal kingdom as a whole, the role of mushrooms in nature, edible and poisonous kinds, foraging, and also photographing mushrooms.

The species accounts offer many clear photos and concise descriptions that most certainly make IDing mushrooms far easier, and not only that, but there's even a bunch of recipes at the back – so I'd hazard to say, this book offers just about everything you need to get started for your mushroom hunting, whether you're framing photos, taking spore prints or collecting for your next meal.

The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

When you mention the word 'pirate' these days, folks generally either point to the well-known Pirates of the Caribbean films or to the TV series Black Sails. The subject of piracy is far less glamorous than either will paint it out to be, and is far more complex than just a bunch of roving sea dogs out to steal treasure. According to Colin Woodard, the so-called roots of the Golden Age of Piracy lay much deeper, and he explores as much in The Republic of Pirates – Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down.

I downloaded the audiobook as part of my monthly Audible subscription, and found it to be both meticulously researched and well presented, with Woodard going into not only the history of the forerunners of piracy, as with Captain Avery, but also examining the complex political intrigues in Europe, slavery, and how these contributed to the phenomenon of piracy during the early 18th century. We follow the doings of the notorious Blackbeard, 'Black Sam' Bellamy and Charles Vane, among others. 

What I found particularly interesting was the notion of piracy as a small counter-revolution (and to a degree a proto-democracy) to the authoritarian nature of government prevalent in the UK and the Americas at the time. Life at sea then was incredibly harsh, with many men being press-ganged into service aboard naval vessels where chances of surviving storm, disease and other misfortune were often slim indeed. And not just that, but these seamen were often merely a step above slaves themselves. Woodard explains how piracy and privateering were natural responses to an oppressive system, and also examines the complicity and insubordination of the communities that supported them.

While Spanish treasure galleons often made the greatest prizes, these sailing fortresses were often challenging prey, so pirates and privateers often turned their sights to easier targets, gradually building themselves up to the point where they could take larger prizes. Woodard also relates the hazards of maritime warfare in great detail, and examines the context in which a number of illustrious and notorious figures rose and fell, until piracy was eventually stamped out. 

This is a well-produced, well-narrated audiobook that I heartily recommend to anyone who is fascinated by the topic and wishes for a starting point in their research. At some point, if I do encounter a print version of this rather hefty tome, I'm certainly adding it to my permanent collection.