Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Errors of Dr Browne by Mark Winkler

This was a difficult one for me to fully quantify, and I hazard to say that The Errors of Dr Browne by Mark Winkler is one of those books that may well repay one well for a reread in a few years' time. I went into this knowing very little about the story – other than the barest of blurbs – and I had no idea that it was indeed based on real people and happenings. I don't have much to compare it to, but I did read The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley a good number of years ago, so I'd say that this would comfortably fall under the same banner.

We meet Dr Browne in the seventeenth century when he gets called to act as an inquisitor in a witch trial. Although he is deeply religious, Dr Browne also considers himself a man of science and reason, which leads to him experiencing bucket loads of cognitive dissonance when he embarks on his investigation. From the outset, we are faced with the inexplicable behaviour of the possessed girls, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that there is no way in hell that the two accused could have had any strange, magical powers to affect the girls. Yet you can't exactly point that out to your average, deeply superstitious and religious citizen of that time and place.

But Dr Browne, although he's aware that the villagers are persecuting the women for the sake of simply having an answer for their problems (and just because they simply don't like them) he also cannot explain the strange events that result in all manner of peculiar phenomena. He does come to the conclusion that the 'evidence' being offered against the two unfortunates really isn't ironclad. Nor do the authorities even seem to care that anyone gets to the truth behind all the strange goings on. 

We get to see humanity, warts and all, gleefully ganging up on those who are unable to defend themselves, and we realise that even though centuries have passed since Dr Browne was called to deliver testimony, at heart, people really haven't changed much over the years.

The Errors of Dr Browne is both quirky and darkly humorous, but also a disquieting dive into the less savoury aspects of human interaction, where bigotry and lack of empathy rule the day, and good people are often carried along helplessly in the wake of awful situations. Winkler captures the essence of this time with all its dirt and drudgery, and while this is not an easy book to read, it's nonetheless one that will leave its fingerprints all over your brain afterwards.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Wicked Magic (The Vampires of Oxford #1) by Margot de Klerk

I've lost count of the number of requests I receive from authors of slayer-vampire type stories, but from the get go, Wicked Magic by Margot de Klerk won me over. Perhaps it is because I've got a soft spot for Oxford or the fact that she has the same surname as my grandmother, but yeah, sometimes I say yay to reviews based purely on a whim. This was one that I do not regret.

Look, this is stock-standard urban fantasy, so if you're a fan of Supernatural, Buffy, et al, you'll be on familiar turf with our dear Nathan Delacroix, a generational vampire hunter. Just shy of his 18th birthday, he has so many expectations to live up to, and balancing his school work with his nascent career as a hereditary vampire hunter is anything but easy.

Added to this is the wee complication that he's friends with the very creatures he's being trained to hunt – namely his uncle, who was turned into a vampire during a botched hunt. Not only that, but Nathan is having second thoughts about this whole vampire hunter thing, and with both his parents so heavily involved in the family business, it's tricky for Nathan to communicate his complicated feelings surrounding the matter.

While he navigates the typical issues young men his age face, he also finds himself embroiled in a bigger problem that threatens the fragile equilibrium of the supernatural community. In a society where extremists lurk in the shadows, Nathan must navigate a difficult middle path, often facing dangers that would make ordinary folks run for the hills.

If you're looking for a YA urban fantasy read that will effortlessly take you on a trip to an atmospheric UK university town, then I recommend Wicked Magic. The plot is well thought out, the characters are engaging, and the often snarky dialogue between characters a delight. I'll happily read more of De Klerk's writing. This one gets five black bats from me.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Alexander the Great – Journey to the End of the Earth by Norman F. Cantor

Perhaps if you're new to the topic, this book will be a good starting point. Norman F Cantor has a fairly chatty style in Alexander the Great – Journey to the End of the Earth, but I found him annoying at times in his poking, ahem, at the nature of Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion and Alexander's (and the men at the time's) sexuality in general. Who cares? They weren't haunted by the ghosts of Victorian prudery back then.

This isn't an expansive volume, so if you're looking for a read/listen with more meat on its bones, then rather go elsewhere. I had this as part of my Audible subscription and wasn't too wild about the overall (lack of) production value. Things got a bit patchy, which is kinda sad considering this is such a short read.

I did gain an idea of the brutality of the lives of the Macedonians of this age, however. There was a whole lot of drinking, boinking, and killing, and the picture that Cantor paints is of a emperor who, as his conquests mount up, and he gets further and further away from home in both physical and metaphorical sense, grows more and more paranoid and delusional. I'm reminded of that little quip from Highlander where the Kurgan tells Connor, "It's better to burn out than to fade away" – which in this case most certainly applies to Alexander.

Other reviewers with a little more historical smarts than me have also pointed out that Cantor makes a bunch of errors that were not caught by any editor, but considering that I have the attention span of a goldfish, I didn't pick up these incorrect historical details. So my caution is to keep this in mind, should you pick up a copy. And if in doubt, cross reference.

Did I enjoy this book? Yeah, it was pretty good. I'm currently indulging in a pile of research about ancient times for my own work, so it's good to immerse. This was a fair to middling read/listen, but I've been reliably told that there are better works out there that go into far more detail.

JRR Tolkien – A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter

As a lifelong fan of JRR Tolkien, an author to whom I owe an immense debt for inspiration, it's kinda scandalous that I've not delved into his history up until quite recently. The 2019 biopic can, in my opinion, only loosely nod at Tolkien's earlier years and does not in the least do any justice to the man and his immense literary output. When I encountered JRR Tolkien – A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter on Audible, I popped it onto my wishlist and eventually got around to giving it a listen.

Narrator Roger May does a sterling job bringing the words to life, and I was surprised by how quickly I ate my way through the book. It of course helps that I find the subject matter absolutely fascinating, but the production quality is excellent, which most certainly adds value to the overall experience.

Put simply, Tolkien had an incredibly intense, focused intellect – words really were his jam, if we excuse my dreadful abuse of idiom. He was also very much a product of his time, something that we who live in a more liberal society should keep in mind. Tolkien's milieu was mostly divided along strict gender roles – and he was very much a man's man in terms of where he sought his friendships. Yet by equal measure, he adored his wife Edith – in a way I feel that saw her placed upon a pedestal. Humphrey does touch upon the tensions that occasionally arose between Tolkien and Edith – the man really did inhabit two worlds.

It's my opinion this gender-based segregation was a product of the then educational institutions in a largely patriarchal society, which was further reinforced by Tolkien's experiences fighting in the trenches during WW1. This life-and-death camaraderie between men is echoed quite clearly in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is what it is – cultural artefact of an era.

What Humphrey further unpacks is Tolkien's fascination with languages, which infuses everything from his academic work all the way to his ambitious fiction writing. Whether it's digging into the old Germanic languages upon which English has its foundations laid to the creation of imaginary languages in Middle-Earth, it's clear that this was a topic that engaged his imagination – and mine, too! I've often heard complaints that Tolkien's writing is too slow, too detailed, too boring, but for those with the patience and the love of the sound of words, each paragraph is a carefully crafted work of literary art. And this is a hill I'm prepared to die on.

In short, if you're looking for an introduction into the Prof's life and writing, and are curious about how works like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings went from hand-written manuscript to final product, that went on to spawn a popular multi-media fandom, then this is a good place to start. We even get to see the kindling and cooling of his friendship with another literary luminary – CS Lewis.

I can't help but wonder how things would have been different for the fantasy genre if Tolkien had more time (or the wherewithal) to expand on the other stories that exist as mere synopses in The Silmarillion. Although he is not the first to write fantasy, he most certainly ushered the genre into popularity, and many authors who followed in his wake were most certainly heavily inspired by his Middle-Earth.

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Ancient Greece by Thomas R Martin

I've always been deeply fascinated by history, so I was full of high hopes when I downloaded Ancient Greece by Thomas R Martin as an audiobook as part of my Audible subscription. I'd say that this is most certainly more geared towards an academic overview of the different Grecian eras, from the prehistoric all the way through to Alexander's conquests, and gives a solid overview of Greece's political structures, the civilisation's social organisation, as well as arts and culture.


There was going to be a but.

I am no great fan of the narrator, and the audio quality leaves much to be desired. Firstly, John Lescault's reading is dull and lifeless, and renders what might be quite fascinating text into a dull, monotonous drone. Not only that, but it's obvious where content has been spliced in – there are clear shifts in clarity/volume that jolted me out of the listening experience. I mean, it was not a complete deal breaker, but considering that I listen to many audiobooks, I've gained an ear for this sort of thing enough so that it annoys me. Not a fan of this narrator, and I'll probably think twice before picking up anything else he reads.

But onto what makes this work good – if you're looking for a refresher or introduction into Greek history, then this will give you a great bird's eye view, especially in terms of getting a handle on the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures that played such a large part in the establishment of the Classical and Hellenistic periods. One thing that I do carry away from this is how Greek culture as a whole played such an important part in shaping even modern Western civilisation in how its philosophy, art, architecture, and literature had such a influence handed down through the years.

Overall, this is a solid read and it's definitely kindled more curiosity on my part to try to find works that are more specialised and perhaps somewhat more detailed.

Monday, December 12, 2022

The Ancient Ones by Cassandra L Thompson

At face value, The Ancient Ones by Cassandra L Thompson blends all the elements that I love about the vampire genre – broad-sweeping historical ages, interesting characters, and intrigue, seasoned with a heavy dose of mythology. But alas, while the writing is generally engaging, this one failed to quite get off the ground for me.

We meet David, or Davius, depending on which era we see him in, who starts his life as the son of a Celtic druid who ends up sold into slavery by Roman conquerors. There, he loses both his life and his love, but also discovers his innate connection to the gods, which gift him with unimaginable powers. The story jumps between past and Victorian-era London, with a little detour to Romania, as David recounts his life to a lady of dubious repute he takes home with him, and who avidly listens to what he has to tell.

Thompson has certainly bitten off quite a lot with this book, and it's impossible to read it without drawing parallels with Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles – and perhaps Thompson's threading together of so many different myths is the story's downfall. There's just too much going on so that the story ends up disjointed and somewhat all over the place.

My main feeling was that the writing is often too fast, too shallow in places, with David not being grounded within any of the contexts of the eras in which he lives. A tale of this scope would be better served if the narrative was slower, measured, and with focus on characterisation, slowly unfolding intrigue, and a higher degree of historical accuracy, not to mention the moments where I struggled to suspend disbelief (yeah, yeah, I know, I can deal with suspending disbelief to have a story with blood-drinking immortals). There were, however, moments where I had to grit my teeth a little.

Thompson writes well, and does so from the heart, and her writing often delivers some beautifully descriptive lines, but I do feel that more attention could have been given to editing this novel at the developmental stage – especially where the writing is too fast to the point where it's slippery trying to unpick what's going on. It's not a bad little book, if historical fantasy featuring vampires, gods, and assorted supernatural entities is your jam, just that this could have been executed with a bit more finesse.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Red Land, Black Land – Daily Life in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Mertz

Ever since I first encountered Barbara Mertz's writing, I've fallen in love with her voice and style, and her Red Land, Black Land – Daily Life in Ancient Egypt really hit the mark for me considering that I'm currently doing an absolute ton of research for a novel I'm working on. But first a word on the narrator, Lorna Raver, who really captures the author's somewhat cheeky, often humorous tone. She most certainly adds a whole extra dimension to the listening experience.

As the book's title suggests, this is an overview of daily life in Egypt, from the royal pinnacle of ancient Egyptian civilisation, the pharaoh and his pyramids, all the way down to the Black Land's peasants. In it, we gain an almost tactile idea of what life during the ancient times must have been like – what people wore, how they built their homes, what pets they kept, what they ate. For a subject that can, excuse my choice of words, be as dry as dust, Barbara injects wit and verve into the text in a way that makes for an engaging journey of discovery.

Some of you might have encountered Barbara Mertz's Amelia Peabody mysteries (which I recently started reading, and let me tell you the writing is a treasure), so to have this book filled with such a comprehensive overview of what life during the ancient times was possibly like is marvellous. It's difficult to parse that the book first came out more than fifty years ago! The prose still feels fresh, and while I'm sure there are plenty more discoveries we can discuss, if you're new to ancient Egypt (or like me, even if you're not) Red Land, Black Land will still take you on a vastly entertaining and informative journey of discovery.

I could probably be an endless Barbara Mertz fangrrrl so I'm going to leave off here by saying that if you're looking for an introduction into ancient Egypt, then you cannot go wrong with the two non-fiction books she wrote on the topic. I've finally tracked down a hard copy of Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs, and I'll continue trawling second-hand bookshops until I find Red Land, Black Land.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

No Man Can Tame (Dark-Elves of Nightbloom #1) by Miranda Honfleur

This was a book recommendation from another of my favourite fantasy romance authors Grace Draven, and I can see why I was right in picking it up. No Man Can Tame by Miranda Honfleur riffs on the time-honoured odd couple trope in a way that is utterly delightful if you are in the mood for some heart-warming, feel-good fluff as a palate cleanser. I will admit it straight up for you, my gentle readers, I make no apologies about occasionally indulging in this genre. Life is already absurdly GrimDark as it is, and sometimes a gal just has to enjoy dashing dark elf princes sweeping somewhat reluctant human princesses off their slippered feet.

That's not to say that No Man Can Tame doesn't have a meta plot that touches on topical issues such as intolerance – because we see lands ravaged by conflict, some of it caused by humans and some by magical beasts that have settled in human lands. Referred to as Immortali, these creatures include unicorns and other creatures, and also, of course, our immortal dark elves who live in their subterranean kingdoms. 

Princess Alessandra has been promised to the dark-elf Prince Veron. Somehow, these two, need to help heal the breach between their people and help foster lasting peace – a tall order, considering that there is a group of humans hellbent on destroying all Immortali. Aless is at first resentful of the fact that her father has essentially used her as a political bargaining chip, thereby scuppering the dreams she's had of establishing a library in her mother's memory. Now she has to journey to the realm of her soon-to-be-husband's people, who are also not wholly on board with this union. Veron himself has his doubts, but it's clear quite soon that these two complement each other perfectly: headstrong, intelligent Aless, and brave and loyal Veron.

Honfleur strikes just the right balance in her writing so that the romance elements don't overshadow actual plot, which is why I enjoyed this story so much and immediately downloaded book 2 so that it's queued up on my Kindle. If you're looking for an Italian-flavoured setting filled with magic, true love, and intrigue, with a side order of adventure, then this will hit the mark.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Field Guide to the Amaryllis Family of Southern Africa & Surrounding Territories

Before we kick off with this review, I'll have you know that my mom named me after a bleeding flower. So before you ask, yes, I know. Though I prefer to tell people I was named after one of the god Poseidon's daughters.

The Amaryllis family of southern Africa has many, many more species in it than I expected. Actually, I wasn't sure what to expect when the Field Guide for the Amaryllis Family of Southern Africa & Surrounding Territories by Graham Duncan, Barbara Jeppe, and Leigh Voigt landed on my review pile. 

For a smallish, compact field guide, this is a huge book, and there's a part of me that wishes I could own a coffee table version of it because its size means that the absolutely amazing illustrations and photographs are so small. But then again, most of us aren't about to go hiking into the veld armed with a coffee table book big enough to fell a charging bull elephant, so here we are.

Barbara Jeppe, I must add, is a legend. I first encountered her lovely botanical illustrations in her South African Aloes, so to see so many of her illustrations of amaryllids here is an absolute treat. And it is fitting that this book is dedicated to her and her staggering contribution to botany.

Something I hadn't realised when I picked up this book was that there were so many species of Amaryllis in the drier parts of the country. In fact, in my not-so-humble opinion, Namibia and the Northern Cape totally lucked out when it comes to the sheer beauty and diversity of its species.

The field guide is divided into several sections, primarily looking at the different vegetative biomes, from desert, Nama Karoo, Fynbos, forest, and Albany thicket, to savanna, grassland, Zambezian grassland/dry forest, and widespread distribution. Each species will, where possible, have its locations pinpointed on a map, have a photo or two, and perhaps even an illustration. Due to the nature of this book, we can't expect a deep dive, but we will have a brief description, names, flowering period, a brief history, similar species, distribution, habitat, and life cycle, pollination, conservation status, and possible notes on cultivation. So all in all, really useful information for those who, like me, are of a habit to wander into the veld to see what strange plants might be hiding in plain sight, so to speak.

Whether you have a love of the showy Brunsvigia or Haemanthus, or, ahem, are a fan of the graceful Nerines or Clivias, you are bound to have a thorough introduction to the sheer variety of species found in our region. Perhaps sobering for me, however, was realising how many of these beautiful plants are threatened by agriculture, mining, or any other human-driven actions. Some species we simply don't know the full extent of their status, and many are threatened or critically endangered – highlighting the need for us to take better care of our environment.

All in all, this book is a stunning keeper, and if you don't already love southern Africa's abundant flora, then this will most certainly make you pay more attention to the often delicate blooms that are so easy to overlook.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Dragon Blood: Omnibus by Lindsay Buroker

This was another one of those 'included in your subscription' books I decided to give a spin on Audible. Dragon Blood: Omnibus by Lindsay Buroker contains the first three books in her series, and I'll say straight up that I was hooked from the get go. If gunpowder fantasy and aircraft with a side order of romance is your jam, then these novels will no doubt hit the mark. And I admit freely that I am quite fond of well-written fantasy romance. Actually, scratch that, it's my not-so-guilty pleasure.

Book 1 is Balanced on the Blade's Edge and introduces us to the rather roguish Iskandian Colonel Ridge Zirkander, the devil-may-care pilot who has annoyed his superiors one time too many – he essentially gets his wings clipped when he's put in charge of a prison in an isolated mountain fastness. Which sets him up to cross paths with the sorceress Sardelle Terushan and her somewhat snarky talking soulblade (!!!) after she's spent 300 years in stasis. The only complication is that magic is a wee bit infra dig. Nah, scratch that, if anyone with even a scrap of magical ability crops up, they're as good as dead. But the two need to work together, because an evil empire (of course) wants to lay its grubby mitts on Iskandia.

Book 2 is Death Maker, in which we encounter Lieutenant Caslin Ahn, who's been captured by the Cofah Empire and is facing a wee bit of a tight spot in a prison. But her fortunes change when she runs into the notorious pirate Tolemek "Deathmaker" Targoson, who also has beef with the empire. Not only must this unlikely pair escape prison, but they need to figure out what to do about a rather nefarious plot. More than this, I won't say for fear of spoilers.

Book 3 is Blood Charged, and it brings us full circle back to Ridge and Sardelle, and other familiar faces, as they embark on a quest to find out how the Cofah empire's scientists have laid hands on a secret ingredient that might give them the upper hand in an ever-escalating war.

I don't want to spoil anything so I'll steer clear of particulars when it comes to plot points. Overall, this is a fun, pulpy offering of fantasy that often made me think of the dynamics I encountered in the Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean movies – these are not books to take too seriously. They're fun, filled with adventure and action, and the romance elements don't overpower the narrative, which in my mind is a perfect blend. I've seen SomeDude™ kvetch in the reviews that 'no adult male would want to read this'. Well, that comment says more about him than it does the stories. 

Okay, so maybe I *am* the demographic (adult female), and I thoroughly enjoyed these stories for what they are: good, escapist fun. Also, I'm carrying on because DRAGONS! Yes, I am not ashamed to say that I love stories that have dragons in them. And I have my Suspicions and Many Thoughts about where this series is going, and if the author intended books 1-3 as loss leaders on Audible, she definitely has me invested enough to sink my fangs into the rest of them when they pop up on my TBR list.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Egyptologist's Notebooks by Chris Naunton

The moment I laid eyes on Egyptologists' Notebooks by Chris Naunton, I knew I absolutely had to have it. This country's past has held a fascination for countless generations of Europeans, so to have an introduction to this deep, abiding love for Egypt's ancient history has been been an absolute treat. Not only are we introduced to many of the movers and shakers at the dawn of modern archaeology, but we also gain a glimpse into how these minds set about their work.

Chris Naunton himself is not only an eminent Egyptologist, writer, and broadcaster, he also has a very conversational, engaging style that takes what can easily be a rather dry topic (talking about the lives of long-dead archaeologists) and turning it into an adventure. Chronologically, we start with the likes of Athanasius Kircher, and work our way to Jean-François Champollion, Karl Richard Lepsius, Amelia Edwards, Howard Carter, and an entire passel of luminaries ... or tomb robbers, depending on how you view the manner in which the Western Europe carted off entire piles of priceless artefacts. We also gain a glimpse into how attitudes towards antiquities have changed over the years, and I totally understand why Egypt now wants her stuff back (!!!).

This wonderful book is filled with gorgeous colour prints scanned in from the original watercolours and artwork created before the domination of photography, that often provides us with a somewhat fanciful yet valuable glimpse into the past. Considering that the damming of the Nile put so much under water, some of these images are the only remaining records of an all but forgotten, distant past. Not only does it serve as a reminder of all that has sadly been lost, but it underscores the importance of treating what remains with sensitivity and respect, as a legacy of the cultural history of our species.

This rather hefty tome (I scored myself a hardcover, first edition) is a lush addition to any serious collector's library, and I consider it a valuable starting point for further research.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Foreigner (Foreigner #1) by CJ Cherryh

Gosh, I must have been in my early- to mid-teens when I first picked up Foreigner by CJ Cherryh, and over the years I've kept meaning to read the entire series from start to finish again, now that it's easier for me to lay my grubby mitts on the books. Back then I relied extensively on the library for my reading, and it was generally impossible to find all the books that are part of a series. Well, it's still difficult as all heck – the ebooks simply aren't available here in South Africa for whatever obscure reason IDK. So, I'm relying on second-hand books when and where I can find them, and thankfully I'm slowly able to cobble together my collection.

It's always interesting to see what I take away from a book years later, upon a reread, and Foreigner is a prime example. Most of the subtexts went whoosh! over my head when I was younger. There's so much more that I've picked up now. The theme that is central to Foreigner is that of colonisation, and in this case, it's humans who've broken away from their orbital station to make landfall on a planet – this is after something went catastrophically wrong with their generation ship that's toddled off elsewhere while they try to survive in a solar system that was not their intended target.

Setting up a colony planet side would not have been so much of a bother if it weren't for the fact that a humanoid race with a complex socio-political structure already exists. The atevi are physically formidable and utterly alien in terms of their interpersonal relations. While humans might have the more advanced technology, that gives them an advantage when they first arrive, the atevi have numbers and an innate talent for violence that rivals our own. The inevitable conflict is brutal, and we join the bulk of the story a few years after peace has been negotiated – the atevi have ceded an island where the human settlers may live peacefully – in exchange for knowledge of their technology. Naturally, the humans are reluctant to hand over all the goods – after all, their position might become even more tenuous once they no longer hold any bargaining chips.

We see this entire situation through the eyes of Bren Cameron, the paidhi (diplomat, interpreter, perhaps spy) who has to walk the knife edge of human-atevi relations, and here Cherryh's masterful grip on the subtleties of characterisation come into play. Bren is isolated. He no longer relates to humans, and he's been among the atevi so long that he struggles with his own essence. He's neither fish nor fowl, and he has to constantly remind himself that the atevi are simply not hardwired like humans. His errors place him in one dangerous situation after the other, after a botched assassination attempt.

This is a slow boiler of a novel, as Cherryh not only explores Bren's increasing paranoia and sense of helplessness, but also brings readers into a deeper understanding of a culture that is vastly different from ours, not to mention inter-factional struggles that constantly knocked me out of my comfort zone. Patient readers will be amply rewarded with this rich, nuanced thriller chock-full of intrigue and detail. I've already laid hands on a rather noice hardcover version of book 2...

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark is Rising Sequence #1) by Susan Cooper

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, was prescribed reading when I was in primary school, and come to think of it, it was one of my first forays into fantasy literature. I don't really remember much about the story, except that it was quite terrifying in places, and many of my fellow classmates absolutely loathed the book and found it terribly dull. I didn't mind it so much, and I think I still finished reading it in its entirety and recall quite enjoying it. Back then it was difficult to find complete series, and I didn't even know until much later that The Dark is Rising is, in fact, book two of a five-book series. Hello, pre-internet days...

So, after a discussion with one of my author friends, I made it my mission to revisit this classic, this time in its entirety, from book one to five. Thankfully, the entire lot is available on Kindle (another minor miracle, IMO) – especially that it's accessible in my region, and I didn't have to trawl second-hand bookstores or import to South Africa at great expense.

Over Sea, Under Stone charmingly starts with three siblings, Simon, Jane, and Barney, who go on summer vacation with their parents to visit their great-uncle Merry in Cornwall. They're renting an old sea captain's house that's full of strange rooms and artefacts, and it's not long before they discover a mysterious parchment that draws the interest of nefarious, inquisitive seekers who are on the trail of an artefact.

One thing that struck me is that this book is very much a product of its time – there is a game the children play that made me cringe somewhat and would never fly if the book were to be published these days. But getting past the somewhat old-fashioned style of the setting and the writing, this is still an amazing book. The dialogue between the siblings feels authentic, like I've heard young people talk. Their concerns also feel exactly like I recall from when I was their age.

At its heart, this tale is a treasure hunt, with the children and their uncle solving puzzles to find an extremely important item that many people – some of whom are rather unscrupulous – will stop at nothing to lay their grubby mitts on. Coupled with this are Cooper's wonderful descriptions of a Cornish seaside town, its people, and the landscape. I really could feel a sense of place. Unlike many contemporary YA books that feel as if the kids exist in a reality bubble completely separate from their adults, Cooper's world gives a strong sense of context. These aren't kids who're going to singlehandedly save the world from a great evil on their own. It's through teamwork and the support of their grand-uncle that they complete their quest, though they do have a fair amount of agency, which I liked.

While this would be considered youth literature, I'd happily recommend this for all ages, from eight and up, if the younger end of this spectrum is already a voracious reader. While supernatural elements are implied, there is nothing outright what can be considered pure fantasy, yet. But I do recall things getting pretty wild in book two, so we'll see when we get there. I'm looking forward to what follows.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

The Demon's Apprentice (The Demon's Apprentice series) by Ben Reeder

First off, I did not expect to enjoy The Demon's Apprentice by Ben Reeder as much as I did. I admit I was enticed as book one was included (no doubt a loss leader for the rest of the series) in my Audible subscription, but there you have it, folks. Hooked. I immediately went and downloaded book two the moment I was done with book one.

Maybe it's because Chance Fortunato, our plucky main character, reminds me so much of Jamie, the protagonist in my Books of Khepera, that I took an instant shine to him. But I'll come out this much and say, that if you're a fan of series like Supernatural, chances are, ahem, high that you'll enjoy The Demon's Apprentice. I know, I did, and I haven't even managed to watch all the seasons of Supernatural. My bad, I know.

Look, contemporary fantasy has many stock-standard hallmarks if you're adding fantasy creatures to the mix, so it's difficult to make the world building shine in terms of originality. Let's face it, we've seen enough vampires, demons, werewolves, gremlins – a veritable bestiary of critters – a gazillion times. And even though the who's who of traditional publishing will sing the song that paranormal goings-on are so yesterday, there's a reason why this sort of world building remains popular. Ben Reader is proof that the genre very much lives and breathes.

Chance isn't your everyday fifteen-year-old. When he was young, his dad sold him into bondage to a demon, and for the past few years he's been serving the Count Dulka, helping him gather souls for whichever nefarious purposes he intends to use them for. Essentially, Chance is a dealer in curses and charms. As a warlock (not of his own choosing, mind you) he's also in a bind, because the black in his aura mean that others who see themselves on the side of goodness and light, will hunt him down and end him, given half a chance.

Not just that, but Chance is so over serving Dulka, and the opening scenes start with a real cracker – how he's working to free himself from slavery. All he wants is to have a normal life, in freedom, but all those years of serving darkness have left their mark on him, which means he's going to have to work three times as hard as anyone else to find his place in the world.

And yet, despite the bad start he's had in life, Chance is a good bloke with a surprising amount of common sense for someone so young. He's *trying* to do the right thing. Except trouble has a way of finding him, as well as the unlikely band of comrades he picks up along the way. What I like about Chance is his decency. This counterbalances all the bad stuff that happens around him as he works hard to redeem himself and solve a gruesome murder. 

This book, wonderfully narrated by Charlie Thurston, hits all the right notes and sweeps you along. Yeah, I'd say it's most certainly not the paragon of high-brow literature, but if you're in the mood for fun, action-packed, and somewhat crunchy occultnik hijinks, then this book will scratch the itch. 

Monday, September 26, 2022

Phreaks by Matthew Derby

Occasionally, I'll pick up a title on Audible that I wouldn't ordinarily listen to or care about, and the radio play Phreaks by Matthew Derby is one such. Granted, it didn't take much to twist my rubber arm because one of my favourite actors lends his vocal talents to the production. If you ever watched Gotham, you'll know and love Ben McKenzie as much as I do. Of course the added tease (and here I'm wearing my 1990s on my sleeve) is that Christian Slater also has a decent part.

This full-cast radio play that is set in 1970 grabbed my attention from the get go. We meet teen Emma Gable, who is obsessed with making random phone calls so she can chat with whoever picks up. Despite her disability (or perhaps because of it) she is plucky and possesses a sharp tongue. These phone calls are her idea of entertainment and a link to a world beyond her current life, and honestly, I don't blame her. If you're blind, your parents are troubled, and you've got little else to keep you occupied after school, then why the hell not. Except it's all fun and games until she stumbles onto a bunch of people who use the phone systems to run what was then (very) basic hacks.

We also meet Bell security agent Bill Connolly (McKenzie – he's such a typical detective type down to his voice) who's chafing at how his career is going nowhere. That he's stuck working for Bell when he has greater aspirations ... and it looks like he's going to spend most of the play grumbling until he gets a whiff of this group of hackers, and figures that Emma is the key he needs to unlock the problem.

While there're no high-octane car chases, this is still a thrilling listen, and the characters you encounter are fascinating and flawed. I love how Emma, ever the misfit, garners a degree of social clout thanks to her skill with gaming the phone system. Emma's father (voiced by Slater), is his own worst enemy, and I'd cheerfully like to slap him upside the head for the way he treats Emma's mum, who is clearly quite ill thanks to the hazards of her job.

Beneath the slow burn of the gradually evolving plot, we are faced with the small-town tragedies that everyday people face, drawing to a bitter-sweet conclusion. I admit that I know very little about hacking and how the phone systems worked back then, so it was fascinating having a glimpse into an era that was the reality for so many people less than a decade before I popped out of my mum's womb. Our world is very different now, and Phreaks feels like a little bit of a time capsule for those who might be curious.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok by Ben Waggoner

Staying with my dive into the old Northern myths and legends, I gave The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, as translated by Ben Waggoner, a spin as it was included in my Audible subscription. Narrated by Ray Chase, whom I admit I needed a little time to grow accustomed to after my binging on similar content narrated by Jackson Crawford, this proved to be an equally fascinating listen.

Although, if pressed, I'll admit that I struggle with particulars of names and exact events, this was nonetheless an engaging offering that cast light on my ancestors' pre-Christian cultural heritage. And if I'm ever looking for story seeds, there're more than enough here for me to live up to my Viking ancestors doings and pillage to my heart's content. 

Ragnar Lodbrok with his hairy pants and serpent-slaying prowess is certainly a fascinating figure, especially in terms of him portrayed as a trickster and warrior. I've watched most of Vikings on Netflix, which I'd say is only *roughly* based on the doings of this legendary figure. And when I say roughly, I really do mean roughly. Though I can see how the screenwriters' heavy-handed foreshadowing about a snake pit came about. Admittedly, I've stalled on watching the fourth season because, frankly, I've grown bored. The actual source material is far more exciting – or at least how I picture things in my head while I listened. And I admit I have a rather vivid imagination. It takes quite a lot for a show or movie to live up to my expectations. At least while reading or listening to the audiobook, I am free to create my own visuals.

Fatalism, treachery, violence, the inescapability of one's wyrd – these are all recurring themes in any of the old Norse sagas, and The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok are no exception. Ragnar is, at the end, a victim of his own hubris, and watching his inevitable downfall as well as the epic doings of his many children is great entertainment. But I've got to wonder about heroes who act in ways that would class them as TSTL* in a modern-day work of fiction. I guess knowing that a tragedy is unfolding is what makes this all worth the journey. Not to mention the occasional pearls of wisdom one uncovers.

*Too stupid to live.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt by Bob Brier

I'm a huge fan of The Great Courses offerings, possibly because I'm a frustrated academic at heart. I've also been following some of Bob Brier's videos on YouTube, so I was on familiar turf when I downloaded Great Pharaohs of Egypt, which forms part of The Great Courses: Ancient History series.

First off, Brier is eminently listenable. He was a wonderful, conversational style that really brings his subject matter to life – especially when we consider personalities who existed so far back in the mists of time that it's almost impossible for us to even imagine what their lives must have been like. Brier's boundless, breathless enthusiasm for his subject matter is a joy to behold. And his sly humour certainly adds an extra dimension to a subject that could otherwise be as dull as dishwater.

As the name of the course suggests, we're deal with the lives of some of ancient Egypt's greatest pharaohs in a period that spans three thousand years. Merely thinking about that amount of time for an entire culture to exist and flourish breaks my head a little – especially if I think of how *recent* some of our contemporary nations are – a mere drop in the bucket compared to ancient Egypt. 

Something that struck me as quite profound was Brier's statement that ancient Egypt's people is what made the ancient nation great. He draws the focus away from the tombs and monuments, to the individuals who ruled, crafted, built, and cultivated. And there certainly were some remarkable rulers – he examines the likes of Hatshepsut (my favourite pharaoh), Cleopatra, Narmer, Tutankhamen, and a whole host of others over 12 lectures.

Even as a seasoned veteran of armchair Egyptology, I found myself enthralled by how Brier spoke about these rulers, imbuing them with life in a way that didn't feel as if he was making too many assumptions with pet theories (a real danger for any historian, according to another of my favourite Egyptologists, Barbara Mertz). Whether this is your introduction into this amazing culture or if you've steeped your spare time in ancient Egypt, this course is both entertaining and informative, and very much falls under the banner of 'not to be missed'.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

The Republic of Thieves (Gentleman Bastard #3) by Scott Lynch

Admittedly, when I first read The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, I did so knowing that this was very much a Marmite book that elicited strong reactions in readers that sliced either way. It also took me a few chapters to get into Lynch's style, which veers away from the present convention for writing a tight first- or third-person to dwelling in a kind of limited-to-verging-on-omniscient style. But. Of course there's a but. Lynch does this so very well. And he won me over to the fate of Locke and Jean from the get go. 

You'll not find a slippier pair than these two friends who have a nasty habit of getting themselves caught up in cons that often go way over their heads. To the point where, with every instalment, I keep wondering how the heck Lynch's imagination gets so twisty. And not only that, but Lynch's style is right up there on the top shelf. The Republic of Thieves, which is book three in the Gentleman Bastard series, is an absolute cracker that I savoured over the space of a few months.

What I absolutely adored out of book three was that only only do we pick up on the basic cliff hanger left over from book two, which I won't spoil, but we see Locke and Jean given an 'out' from their predicament that may well cost them much more than they're prepared to pay. And Lynch's clever mind not only tells this story, of how Jean and Locke find themselves in the midst of helping throw a political election, pitted against someone who's rather a blast from the past (once again, no spoilers), but Lynch also nests an entire other novel within these pages, going back in time to how Locke, Jean, Sabetha, and all their fellow Bastards are sent off to strut the stage in a very Shakespearian manner in another city. What I enjoyed about this segueing into the past was that it offers a glimpse into Locke and Jean's formative years and their interactions with their old gang, which are an absolute joy to behold. 

Let me please just gush again about the exquisite poise, sly humour, and detailed world building in Lynch's prose. This is a book to be savoured. 

And I absolutely must quote my favourite line ever:
He had no chin to speak of, and long hair so ill-kept it looked as though a brown hawk had perched on the back of his head and clung there until it died.

This legit had me laughing so much I frightened the cat right off my lap.

Suffice to say, going into the depths of the story will spoil it for you, my gentle readers. If you've yet to encounter the misadventures of Locke and Jean, hie your bones to your nearest copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora, and take it from there. You're welcome. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

I'm almost immediately wary whenever a novel is touted as a 'must-read TikTok sensation with over 11 million views'. It's a clear indication that a hype machine in some shape or form has been working in overdrive. But, I was curious about The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake, and the subject matter itself appealed to me enough for me to make grabby fingers a while back when the opportunity to read the novel presented itself.

The premise is as follows: Six magicians are invited to compete for a place within a secret organisation known as The Alexandrian Society, where they will have access to centuries of hoarded knowledge. The only catch is that one of them will have to die.

I wanted to like this book, I really did, but as the story progressed, I felt as if the author was more concerned with the characters' cleverness than progressing a plot that feels as if it has enough momentum to carry me forward. We also see the story told from different points of view, which in itself is not such a bad thing, save that I felt that there was a lot of sameness to the characters' voices, so that for the first half of the book, while I was trying to get to know them, I struggled to tell them apart.

Small details, like the one character being South African, but none of his inner landscape even suggesting to me that he *was* actually South African, kinda annoyed me. In fact, I found most of the characters all quite bland and somewhat entitled. 

Sure, there was some interesting moral and philosophical talk that happened here and there, but for the most I felt that there was an awful lot of navel gazing, and I kept waiting for the exciting stuff to happen. Because, I mean, hello, magic. One sequence involving Parisa was quite thrilling and somewhat cleverly written, but for the most, not so much.

It's clear that Blake is a gifted writer, and there are moments where the prose shines, but I suspect the fault lies with me, the reader, for not glomping onto the text wholeheartedly. Evidently, The Atlas Six was thrilling for those thousands of other readers who are lauding this novel as a paragon of literary greatness. I'm not one of them.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

King of the Hollow Dark by Cat Hellisen

Cat Hellisen does something in King of the Hollow Dark that I feel we don't see often enough in the fantasy genre – a recognisably modern secondary world setting. No princess in need of rescuing, jousting, or castles here. Okay, so there is a mysterious city that at some point crumbles into so much sand... And many other strange sights and occurrences besides. As any veteran who's read many of Cat's books will attest to. 

We meet Georgina, or George, as she prefers to be called, who lives with her dad in an apartment and is desperately trying to live an ordinary life. The reason for this arrangement is that her mum was responsible for a ghost uprising a few years before, and was hauled off and executed by the Empress, who is not exactly the kind of person you want to cross. 

George is anything but normal, as she soon learns, and despite her reluctance to get involved with any of the necromancy that was the grist to her mum's mill, she finds that things change after she's separated from her body and winds up in the afterlife with a slight case of being dead. Except things there are not quite what she expected, and she gets tangled up in a plot to overthrow the Empress, whose actions are slowly eroding the barriers between the world of the living and the dead so that the Hollow Dark is doing a The Neverending Story-esque Nothing. And nope, we can't have that.

King of the Hollow Dark reminds me a lot in tone and theme to Neil Gaiman's The Sandman – it has the same eerie, dream-like quality as the characters journey across one surreal landscape after the other, and often find themselves in precarious situations. George and her friends fight against great odds to return the worlds to their balance, but to do so will also require a great sacrifice – and despite her great reluctance, George finds herself in the position of linchpin for the entire debacle. Because if she doesn't do anything to stop it, the Hollow Dark will devour everything. 

At times surreal and mysterious, this story is, much like Cat's other writing, incredibly lush and populated with delightfully awkward characters who somehow manage to band together to deal with their bigger problems. And their problems are of the rather large, world-ending kind.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

A while ago I was able to finish the rather ambitious (and hefty) The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George, which left me wondering about possible historical novels about her children. Hence me picking up Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran. Told solely from the point of view of Selene, Cleopatra's daughter, we travel with her and her brothers from Egypt to Rome, after their parents' suicides.

Rome, with all its intrigues and complex familial structures, is a totally different world for Selene – one that she initially struggles to navigate. Then again, anyone who grew up with the assumption that they are destined to rule, only to find themselves at the mercy of a merciless emperor in a foreign city, will most likely face challenges adapting to a new way of life.

With any re-envisioning of ancient times into a work of fiction, come the inherent issues of turning reality (or at least how much of it we can glean from historical sources) into a compelling tale. Moran has taken some liberties by creating a fictional organisation known as the Red Feather that seeks to overthrow existing power structures, which I felt was a little tacked on but not too annoyingly so. I did feel that the conclusion peters off without a satisfying punch, though there were a few memorable scenes throughout – I can't quite put my finger on what bothered me, except that I felt that Selene didn't quite evolve as a character, buffeted along by events instead of being active, with a twist of a realisation right at the end that felt somewhat too sudden for my liking.

Despite some of the heavy content (a focus on the issue of slavery, which was inherent to this era, as well as the trouble with arranged marriages, as well as some deaths and violence) this is still a sweet story that kept me engaged. If you're in the mood for a slow-burn historical romance without any overtly erotic scenes, then Cleopatra's Daughter may well hit the mark.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

The Book of the Dead by Charles Rivers Editors

If you're looking for an actual translation of the ancient Egyptian funerary texts, then this little audiobook brought out by Charles Rivers Editors is not going to be for you. The Book of the Dead: The History and Legacy of Ancient Egypt’s Famous Funerary Texts is exactly what it says it is – and it's a (very) brief, somewhat shallow glance at the complex funerary texts and their applications in ancient Egypt over the ages. 

Narrator Jim D Johnston does a fair job narrating this short audiobook that, if you're anything like me – an armchair Egyptologist who's read widely and deeply over the years – you're bound to be slightly let down by the content. I learnt nothing new here, so I would recommend this more for people who are going to use this as a starting point for their own studies.

We can tell much about a culture based on the objects found in tombs, and the sheer attention to detail the ancient Egyptians invested in their art has provided a veritable treasure trove for archaeologists, despite the plundering of the final resting places of all their material wealth, in most cases. The gist of the whole deal with the ancient Egyptian books of the dead is that we're not dealing with *a* book of the dead, but rather an ever-changing selection of spells inscribed at first on the walls of tombs, and on coffins, and eventually on papyri buried with the deceased. These spells assured a safe journey into the Amduat (netherworld) and offered protection from many ills, among other things.

If you're new to the study of ancient Egypt, then this rather 'slim' volume might be right for you. But if this is not your first rodeo in terms of researching history, rather seek elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Beyond the North Wind by Christopher McIntosh

This is another one for me shamelessly digging up content narrated by Simon Vance – this time Beyond the North Wind by Christopher McIntosh. Honestly, this book would have been on my radar due to my interest in matters related to the Northern mysteries, and I've had it recommended to me by a few folks whose opinions I trust. Beyond the North Wind is a work of what I'd term as speculative history, examining the existence of a mystical North that predates modern times in much the same way that we often cast our gazes towards the mythical Atlantis by way of Graham Hancock.

While I have precious little love for Hancock, and I'm not the sort to entertain the possibility of an advanced civilisation that predates ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, I was nevertheless entertained by McIntosh's observations, speculative as they may be. He engages with the Northern mysteries in a way that shows how we, as Westerners, crave a mythical past that is not grounded in a Middle Eastern, Abrahamic religion. 

McIntosh looks at how the interest in the Northern mysteries has resurged in recent years, which in itself is a fascinating topic, especially when one considers the huge growth in Heathenry and associated practices. The topic itself is complex and not without its problematic elements, when we consider how nationalism is often inextricably connected to certain neopagan and Heathen movements. Whether we choose to view this mythical "Hyperborea" – as the Greeks named the "land beyond the North Wind" – as real or merely story we tell ourselves about our complex European cultural history, it's really up to the individual. 

What I appreciated about Beyond the North Wind was McIntosh's engaging, informative writing style, and of course my dearly beloved Simon Vance, whom I appear to be stalking across Audible because I can't get enough of his voice. This is a deeply fascinating audiobook, and I'll most certainly snap up a hard copy of the book should I cross paths with it in the wilds.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Godless Lands by Sean Crow

I was intrigued when author Sean Crow approached me to review Godless Lands, which boasts a premise that piqued my interest enough – a post-zombiepocalypse, secondary world fantasy novel. Which makes a change from contemporary zombie tales that draw heavily on the rather sprawling The Walking Dead franchise. So kudos to the author for pulling off something a little different.

At its heart, this is a story about hope rather than epic stuffed with derring-do and high-octane adventuring, as we follow the movements of a bunch of survivors: including a woman who's run away from a secure settlement to protect her young daughter; a scarred, blighted veteran who hasn't gone full zombie (much to everyone's consternation); and an equally scarred warrior who's trying to make a life for himself in a community that's eking out an existence in a world turned hostile to living things.

In this setting, the zombies are known as withers, and they're really the kind of thing you'd like to avoid on any day. The conflict is primarily between three human groups, who all have vastly different approaches on how to deal with their half-dead world. The community of Brightridge has high walls, and keeps the Godless Lands without; the Farm is made up of survivors who dream of reclaiming the Godless Lands while staying out of everyone else's clutches; and the Riven are a bloodthirsty pack of cannibals who worship the aptly named Hungry God. These are all different solutions to dealing with the awful reality in which humanity finds itself, and it's inevitable that some sort of showdown will take place – as the conflict in this book is presented.

Our heroes do their best to cling to decency in a decayed world, and the price they pay for their sovereignty is often the highest anyone would be willing to offer, in order to make their world a better place. Because when awful people turn even rotten, they become like the Butcher and his Hungry God – monsters any sane person would want to steer clear of.

Overall, this was a solid read. I did feel that the editing was a wee bit wonky in places, but the little gremlins weren't deal-breakers for what turned out to be an enjoyable, tension-filled survival tale. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee

In my continued quest to track down old stories that made an impact on me when I was younger, I tracked down Under the Mountain by Maurice Gee on Open Library. When I was really young, possibly five or six, the TV series (1981) screened here in South Africa, possibly two or three years after its initial run in New Zealand. I don't recall all the details, except that the Wilberforces (the main villains) scared the ever-loving bejeezus out of me, and ever since then I don't swim in water where I can't see the bottom. It's a really silly phobia to have even as an adult, but there you have it. I blame Under the Mountain.

This is a story about a set of twins, Rachel and Theo, who go stay with relatives in Auckland during their summer holiday. What is supposed to be an idyllic time involving fun in the sun instead turns into a terrifying quest when the twins discover the ominous and seriously creepy Wilberforces who live across the lake. And then, in turn, are contacted by the mysterious Mr Jones, who reveals a galaxy-spanning conflict in which the twins' special relationship makes them central to defeating a great evil.

So, this takes the usual 'chosen one' trope and splits the role equally between brother and sister, which is a nice touch. Rachel and Theo share a special bond, and I enjoyed their interactions with each other. Since this is an older book, stylistically it's quite different from the youth literature I'm accustomed to reading these days; it's written in a loose, third-person omniscient viewpoint, and the author shifts between the two viewpoints of the children fluidly. This wasn't as jarring as I'd ordinarily find it, because in terms of the world building, it's made pretty clear that the kids share a far deeper bond than others, in addition to the fact that they also learn to communicate telepathically.

Things get rather fraught in the story, and Gee does not shy away from awful things that happen, and the stakes are made quite clear (and they're high). His monstrous 'slugs' are as terrifying in the book as they were in the miniseries. I know that there was a recent remake (2009) starring Sam Neill, but I've not heard anything positive about the production, so I've not followed up on it. What I will say is that Gee's writing hit the mark for me – he doesn't dumb down his prose; his young protagonists talk in a way that feels like their dialogue has a ring of authenticity; and the kids quickly find themselves over their heads while facing a cosmic evil that smells strongly of Lovecraft. Gee's descriptions are vivid, and you really gain a sense of place, even when faced with the unreal.

In the spirit of reminding the rest of the world that this book exists (first published in 1979), do consider picking it up if you'd like to get a taste of a middle grade fantasy adventure that doesn't coddle its readers. 

Monday, August 22, 2022

Firefly: Big Damn Hero Firefly, Book 1 by James Lovegrove

Firefly was one of those series on telly that I watched during the dawn of time, and I can't even really remember when and where, except that I enjoyed it for its rather unusual concept of mixing wild west with space opera. Naturally, I was sad that they discontinued the series, and I felt that the feature-length film that was intended to tie up the loose ends didn't quite work for me. So, I'm quite happy to see that there are a bunch of Firefly audiobooks available via Audible, and I'll be working my way through them as I get on.

Big Damn Hero
by James Lovegrove, read by James Anderson Foster, brings us back to our beloved friends, Captain Mal, Inara, Zoë, Hoban, Kaylee, River, Jayne, Simon, and Shepherd Book, as they take on a fragile and rather volatile cargo that no one else will, 'cos that's how they roll. And, if you labour under the impression that their trip will go smoothly, think again. These things never quite turn out the way our brave heroes expect.

With Mal kidnapped by his erstwhile comrades-in-arms and put on trial for apparent crimes against the Browncoats, and his crew are sent running from pillar to post to a) find out what the heck happened to Mal, and b) figure out how in all the heck they're going to deal with an explosive cargo that could blow them into kingdom come if they're not careful. The clock is ticking...

So this was very much an 'edge of your seat' kinda ride, which I enjoyed. The pacing is fast, and it has all the expected feel I recall enjoying while watching Firefly on telly. I had a few quibbles, like the old 'punching someone's lights out to knock them out' routine which has become such a staple in most pulpy writing. Okay, so this pretty much is guaranteed to set my teeth on edge. Yes, I know it's SF. It's not real. But if you knock someone on the head hard enough for them to pass out longer than for a few seconds, they kinda need to get to the ER ASAP. Blunt force trauma and all.

What I did love was seeing some of Mal's prehistory in flashbacks – this gave his character far more depth than I'd expected. As far as farmboys-turned-intergalactic heroes, he's more Han Solo than Luke Skywalker – a very loveable rogue, but a rogue nonetheless.

Then, I have to offer Mal kudos for having the strongest bladder in the galaxy. He was tied up, needed to take a slash, couldn't, and somehow held it in despite a long, bumpy ride in a shuttle with a little roughing up along the way. That should be his super power. If you hold in your pee for longer than 10 hours... you start running into problems. Just saying... Mal has an iron bladder. Maybe even titanium. 

I also enjoyed seeing Zoë doing her tough-as-nails thing, stepping up to the plate with Mal otherwise occupied. And Shepherd Book also shows a surprisingly clandestine side you don't ordinarily see. There's way more to the man than his spirituality, is all I'm saying.

Firefly, as I recall, has always been a vehicle for biting social commentary, and Big Damn Hero is no exception. I guess because it's been such a long time since I watched the show, that it took me a while to grow accustomed to the "a western, but in space" theme, but it's fun and pulpy once you, ahem, swing back into the saddle. I'll recommend this one for the fans, since having a background understanding of the characters' interactions will most certainly enrich the audiobook experience. James Anderson Foster has a lovely voice, and he was a real treat to listen to. Come get your Firefly fix.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Children (The Ten Worlds #1) by Bjørn Larssen

I'm one of those readers who, the moment a book's cover catches her eye, and the content is vaguely aligned with her interests, she'll snap the book up. And I really, really wanted to like Children by Bjørn Larssen. His writing style is strong and unrestrained, and perhaps it's the latter part of this description where things fell a little flat for me. I can liken this novel best to a vine that's been allowed to grow beyond the trellis, so that the structure of the book felt somewhat all over the place.

The story is told from the alternating points of view of the human magic-wielder Maya, exiled from the home of her foster-mother Freya (yes, THE Freya), she's left serving a king whom she doesn't like one bit. For Reasons that are many and varied. Enter Magni, the natural son of the god Thor, who has, ahem, an axe to grind with his father. Because, Reasons. I'm not going to go into the depth and breadth of this sprawling story, but as the Norns will have it, the tricksy, shapeshifting Maya's and soft-hearted Magni's paths do cross, and their individual tales weave fluidly with a retelling of some of the classic Norse myths.

Children is an ambitious read, and for the most Larrsen executes things well. Maya is desperate for freedom, but her desire for this comes at a great cost – one that she's perhaps not quite prepared to pay. Magni's life is anything but easy, and in his naïveté, he jumps from one cringe-worthy situation to another. And perhaps that was one of my main reasons why I wasn't as enamoured with this story as many other readers were – I felt that at times Magni's lack of guile made him fall almost squarely into the TSTL* category. Neither character, in my not-so-humble opinion, did much growing so much suffering one terrible denouement after the other.

The pacing for the novel also felt uneven, to me, at least, and at times confusing. There were moments when the writing became too fast, too unstructured, but then again, YMMV – this is most certainly an ambitious telling, but I'm pretty certain it's also not going to be everyone's cup of tea, as there are scenes of emotional, physical, and substance abuse, in addition to manipulation and oodles of violence. Then again, I wouldn't expect anything less from the Norse pantheon. They can be a tricksy lot who don't particularly care for those they see as being less than them. My thoughts are that this novel could have used a more rigorous structural edit right at the get-go, but on the whole this is still a worthy read. If you're looking for a 'lower-deck' type story featuring minor personages from the old sagas, then this might well be right for you. In this case, I suspect, that the fault for not liking this book as much as others did falls squarely with the reader.

* Too Stupid To Live

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Artist Vanishes by Terry Westby-Nunn

When the opportunity came up to read and review The Artist Vanishes by Terry Westby-Nunn, I snatched up the book with both hands. A goodly many years ago I read The Sea of Wise Insects, and while most of the novel's details have grown foggy for me due to the vagaries of time, I recalled that I resonated with Terry's writing style. Not only that, she writes about the Cape Town I know all too well – its quirky denizens who often inhabit liminal spaces.

The Artist Vanishes
is chock full of thoroughly unlikeable characters doing thoroughly awful things, but the hallmark of a good author is someone who makes you care about these dreadful people despite their questionable antics. And this novel is so cleverly written. Actually, it's two novels, following two loosely interlinked timelines. On one, we follow the story of the quintessential starveling artist Sophie, who occasionally makes ends meet by working in the film industry (hey, I relate to that particular brand of suffering) until she wins a grant for her incredibly controversial art project that catapults her into notoriety. Needless to say, her sudden, meteoric success nearly destroys her as she spirals into coke-fuelled paranoia, surrounded by people who are not good for her. At some point, she's going to need to find her pole star, but doing so puts her in great danger.

Years later, failed filmmaker James washes up in Sophie's old apartment. He's lost it all, including his marriage, and he's looking at the world through the bottom of a whiskey bottle. That is, until he discovers that his ratty home was where Sophie used to stay – the notorious artist who is vanished, and presumed dead. James finds his groove again, investigating Sophie's disappearance, and his fumbling efforts to unpick the mystery serves to show us the other side of the awful people who were Sophie's 'friends'.

At its heart, this is a slowly unfolding tale where we see the world through the eyes of two very troubled, unreliable narrators. I must warn sensitive readers that there is an Awful Thing that happens to a pet, so if this sort of thing bothers you, perhaps don't read this book. Terry's writing, however, is an absolute joy. Armed with a keen perception of people and Cape Town's many (often contrasting) layers, she takes readers on a deep dive, slowly unspooling her secrets. The only thing about her writing that nearly drove me dilly was her one-word dialogue tags that feel like stage directions from a script. These happened often enough that I started gritting my teeth, but I also suspect that it's my pernickety editor side who was so dearly troubled. Normal readers probably won't even notice.

The Artist Vanishes is a cleverly told mystery that underpins why Terry Westby-Nunn remains on my 'grabby fingers' list of South African authors.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok by Jackson Crawford

Recently I gave the Poetic Edda, as translated and narrated by Jackson Crawford a spin, and this time it was his translation of The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. As always, Crawford's narration is enchanting, and I'm struck by how easy the story was to follow (for the most). This is a short listen, of about four hours, but it packs in much. The Saga of the Volsungs dates back to the 13th century, and relates the ill-starred legend of Sigurd and Brynhild. As is common in much of the Northern sagas, there is much violence, betrayal, cursed treasure, and players who are incapable of slipping their fates, despite being aware of their inevitable grisly demises. I was keen, also, to listen to Ragnar Lothbrok's tale fully, since I've been watching Vikings on and off, though admit to having stalled on the series. 

Overall, what works for me is Crawford's delivery of the poems – he takes great pains with his research and his pronunciation, which makes hearing this audiobook an absolute treat. 

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Dragon's Code by Gigi McCaffrey

Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern (DRoP) books were a huge part of my teen and young adult years, and have been a massive influence on my writing (to the point where I've been told that my fanfiction is almost indistinguishable from the source material in style – a fact that made me purr). I've lost count of how many times I've read the books, and each time I am transported in vivid detail to Pern. And I can understand the appeal. I mean, who wouldn't want to feel special enough to have a dragon bond with you? The DRoP books, in my opinion, blur the lines between fantasy and science fiction somewhat, and to sum up for those who've not read any of the books: colonists arrive on a planet and end up genetically modifying the native fauna (fire lizards) into large 'dragons' that can be ridden and used to burn a nasty 'thread' (alien spore that eats all organic material) that falls at certain times when a red star is visible in the sky. The riders share a telepathic bond with their highly intelligent dragons, and Anne wrote an entire series of books for this setting that have been perennially popular. In fact, it would not surprise me in the least if we eventually see them being produced for film. There certainly is more than enough fodder to mine.

But alas, Anne passed away in 2011, and her children have since stepped up to the plate to add to her body of work. Gigi, Anne's daughter, penned Dragon's Code, which is a sort of 'lower deck' story surrounding the events that occur in Anne's The White Dragon. We follow the doings of Piemur, the 'failed' harper as he's sent around the southern continent to do mapping. What Piemur is a tad bit too dim to understand is that he's really the eyes and ears of the famed Masterharper Robinton, who has placed him in a perfect position to keep an eye on a rogue band of dragonriders known as the "Oldtimers" who had been brought forward in time (yes, the dragons can time travel, in addition to teleport). Piemur uncovers a plot to steal a queen dragon egg, and although he's not pivotal in its return, he does play a part in the events that unfold. 

One of the criticisms that is levelled at this work is that it doesn't cover any new ground. Gigi plays it safe by writing the connective tissue that plays out in the background of another work. My other criticism is that the writing itself could have used more rigorous editing – in terms of development and general technical considerations. The dialogue alone was enough to make me weep, with many 'as you know, Bob' type situations, where characters were clearly only talking about certain topics for readers' benefit. Not just that, but there was so much exposition, I wanted to tear out my eyes. I still need to go back to Anne's original writing to see how I feel about it after all the intervening years, but I don't recall her indulging in so. Much. Exposition.

There were instances of voices 'raised several octaves' which made me giggle uncontrollably, because clearly she meant the voices must've raised in volume and not pitch, and this is a common error non-musicians make that the editor *should* have caught.

Gigi also plays rather loose and fast with official canon. In my understanding of Anne's setting, her 'runner beasts' were horses that had been originally imported from Earth by the colonists. Gigi turns them into native, six-legged species with horse-like attributes, which made me want to crawl up the walls. In terms of characterisation, she totally misrepresented Masterharper Robinton. In Anne's works, he's shrewd and observant, but Gigi portrays him as being aloof, authoritarian and bumbling, especially in how he treats Piemur in such a patronising manner. This. Is. Not. Robinton. Nope. Nope. Nope. Also, Journeyman Sebell gets a whole new title when in Anne's books he's clearly a journeyman and not the fancy title Gigi gifts him.

Then Gigi commits one of the cardinal sins: that of writing an entire scene from the viewpoint from a third-person character while deliberately and oh-so-mysteriously not telling us who this person is, despite us having a perfectly good idea of what they're thinking, feeling. Gah! If you're writing a viewpoint character, DON'T DO THIS. This is a rookie move. This should never have flown in a traditionally published book. It's lazy, ham-fisted writing in a vague attempt to build tension. (Kinda like a murderer as  viewpoint character in a whodunnit who conveniently doesn't mention that they're the darned bleeding murderer.)

Anyhow, that's my take on the matter, based on years of editing, being edited, and writing book reviews. Yeah, yeah, argument from authority and all that, but I'll stand by my opinion about viewpoint glitches such as the aforementioned because they truly grind my gears.

I'm glad that I listened to the audiobook capably narrated by Ryan Burke rather than read this book. I maintain that audio is a far more forgiving and engaging medium if the text is subpar, with many of the gremlins becoming somewhat less 'visible', so to speak. If anything, Dragon's Code has made me want to revisit Anne's work again, and perhaps even start writing a new fic in the setting, because the DRoP books occupy a special place in my heart. And if you do decide to give Dragon's Code a spin, perhaps if you view it as officially accepted fanfiction rather than canon, it's probably going to be perfectly all right to read (if you can get past the dialogue, characterisation, and viewpoint issues).

While it's perfectly possible to enjoy Dragon's Code without having read any of the other books set on Pern, I do suspect that much of what happens may go over your head. It's a big, sprawling world, with a lot of history, so I suspect Dragon's Code is very much aimed at the hardcore lore enthusiasts. Although those who are serious about lore and characterisation, will most likely be as disappointed as I was in the execution of what could have been a really good story. What I did enjoy was the glimpse into Piemur's past and upbringing before he studied in the Harper Hall. So there was that. Make of it what you will.