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.