Thursday, December 7, 2023

Sisters of the Circus by Laila Manack

What drew me to Sisters of the Circus by Laila Manack is that I'm a huge fan of stories about performers that are set in liminal spaces such as theatres and circuses. This story introduces as to twins Kahina and Noor, who together perform a trapeze act in a circus. This life is all they know, although they are aware that they were sold to the circus owner, Garret, when they were very young – so in essence, they are slaves.

Although the setting is nominally European, and it's suggested that the story takes place during the interwar period, the focus is very much on the microcosm of the circus and the small dramas that play out beyond the eyes and ears of the audience. Theirs is a tight-knit, often toxic community, and Noor and Kahina endure much cruelty. 

It's a kind of love-hate situation, because undeniably performance offers one heck of a kick to the sisters, and this is the only life that these two young women know. Although they can conceive of a life beyond that which is familiar, it is understandably difficult for them to break from the routine – until events conspire that see Kahina training a mysterious young man to be part of her act. Central to the plot is almost a coming of age, as the sisters struggle with notions of identity and a claiming of agency out of an oppressive space.

All this plays out against the somewhat exotic background (for those of us not in the business, of course) of circus life and the often harsh realities the performers face when they're not in the ring. Kahina and Noor soon discover that there is a bigger, more dangerous game at play, and while they navigate and negotiate the terms of their potential freedom, they face many risks while bigger players revel in their machinations. 

This was, largely, an enjoyable read. I did feel that the editing for this book could have been a bit sharper – I picked up quite a few obvious typos and grammatical errors. And not just copy editing, but I felt that the story itself, while it has a strong start, becomes a little muddled towards the end, as if Manack wasn't quite sure where to end it and the developmental editor either didn't leave strong hints or these edits were rushed and not implemented. It could be a combination of all these, which I've seen played out with otherwise awesome books over the years. Some pretty exciting stuff happens plot wise, but I often feel as if Noor and Kahina are carried along by events rather than having a firmer hand in steering them. I also would have liked to have seen more attention paid to differentiating their voices, as I often struggled to tell the two apart.

All things considered, this is still a great little story, left open ended enough for continuation. Manack's voice is fresh, and she weaves a compelling tale in the kind of setting that should appeal to those of us still sore about the fact that a series like Carnivale was canned after only two seasons.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher, narrated by Carrie Fisher and Billie Lourd

I've had this one marked on my wishlist for quite some time, so dropped my Audible credit on The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher, which is narrated by her, as well as her daughter, Billie Lourd. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I'll admit to a long-standing admiration for Fisher, for her role of Princess Leia, but I've known precious little else about her other than maintaining an appreciation her outspokenness in the media. What I got with this was a short dip into the behind-the-scenes activities for the first Star Wars film way back in the day, as well as a warts-and-all glimpse into Fisher's personal life.

I met a young woman, adorably insecure, navigating an industry known for eating people alive. Her involvement with Harrison Ford at the tender age of 19 was, let's be honest, questionable, and yet I don't gain the impression that Fisher feels ill-disposed to him or even that she was taken advantage of. She discusses the affair quite frankly and with great empathy for her younger self.

Fisher reveals herself as an astute somewhat introspective observer of people, and boy she can write. I will admit that it's difficult for me to give a free pass to people who indulge with other people's spouses, but as Fisher states, the event happened so many years ago, she has no qualms now about discussing the distant past. And indeed she does so, in a way that doesn't at any time make you feel as if the tale is sordid.

Stars are revealed as being merely people, whose paths run parallel for a while before they shoot off in different directions. As a time capsule, The Princess Diarist is a somewhat sweetly wistful memoir that encapsulates a period in a young woman's life where she is establishing her identity. I think we can safely say that we've all had that one intense love affair in our younger years that did not last but made a lasting impression. Carrie Fisher was and in many ways still is, a delight, and our princess is sorely missed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien (read by Andy Serkis)

I think by now it's pretty pointless to give a blow-by-blow account of JRR Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings (LotR) considering that it has become so firmly entrenched in popular culture. But I do feel I need to share a few of my thoughts and feelings about the Andy Serkis reading of all three books, which total approximately whopping 65 hours of listening pleasure combined.

I've been threatening for years to revisit the trilogy. I first read it around the tender age of 12, one heady summer holiday that had my mom complaining I spent too much time indoors when other kids my age were working on future basal cell carcinoma on Cape Town's beaches. I knew from the moment that I first read these books (I own the hardcover centenary edition, now sadly sans dust cover, with Alan Lee's illustrations) that I wanted to be an author who wrote about elves and dragons, and created worlds I could get lost in. The Peter Jackson films remain among my firm favourites.

So, yeah, LotR inhabits a very special place in my heart. It was my gateway to becoming a SFF author, and it's one of the few epics that has left me in tears at the end. Every time those elves go West. Sam's almost anticlimactic "Well, I'm back" at the end always slays me – that we can embark on these earth-shattering adventures and still return to merely being ourselves. We are forever changed on the inside, even if we present a face to our friends and family that appears the same as always. I can peel back so many layers.

The problem with LotR, is I simply don't have the time to sit down and read the entire thing, but I do have time when I'm doing mindless menial things like washing dishes and driving, to listen to audiobooks. Audible has been a lifesaver, and The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, as narrated by Andy Serkis, are absolute gems.

It's one thing to read Tolkien, and have an appreciation for his exquisite style, but it's quite another to hear a gifted actor such as Serkis breathe life into the story so that it feels as if my earballs are giving me a full-cast production. Of course, as always, Gollum steals the show. 

I feel as if I've reconnected with the work in a different way through having listened to this rendition of one of the greatest works of fantasy literature in my personal library, and if you find the idea of sitting down with a dead-tree version daunting, you can't go wrong with these three chaps. Granted, it took me about three months to work through all of them consecutively, but they served to remind me why I keep returning to Tolkien's writing. His wordplay remains exceptional, and very few authors come close to how he describes the beauty of nature. (I realise I'm one of those individuals who won't tire of endless descriptions of bloody trees, okay?)

Friday, November 10, 2023

God of Broken Things (Age of Tyranny #2) by Cameron Johnston

I am so late to the party on this one it's not even funny. This book has been sitting on my TBR pile for YEARS. God of Broken Things is the sequel to Cameron Johnston's Traitor God, in which we encounter the Tyrant magus Edrin Walker, who although much maligned by his fellow magic wielders, at the end of the day is the only one who possesses the power and the fortitude to scrape their collective posteriors out of the flaming frying pan. The reason why everyone hates a Tyrant is because their magical powers allow them to get inside others' heads, and no one is a fan of mind control, especially when the person with that power isn't a particularly nice individual. Which Edrin isn't. He's entirely self-serving and often snarky, with no regard whatsoever for social hierarchy, and this is magic combination that's never going to win him friends.

But for all his irreverence, he's not a bad sort, and all told is quite fun to hang around precisely because he doesn't give a toss about the things that matter in high society. His understated, often darkly absurd observations of the goings on around him are what made me keep on reading – if Edrin took himself too seriously, these novels wouldn't be half as entertaining. 

In God of Broken Things, we see our hero mucking about in the aftermath of the Big Bad that pretty much wrecked the city of Setharis in book one. Except he and the rest of the Arcanum (the mages who rule the city) face an even bigger bad that makes Edrin and his powers look like a minnow. And he's packed off back to the region where he grew up – to face not only the Even Bigger Bad, but also the things in his past he's been doing his darndest to avoid dealing with. I'm not going to spoil, but all I'll say is he has a really creepy gran. Oh, and did I mention that there was something that was even worse than the Even Bigger Bad? 

Of course he doesn't have to go it all alone – he has a few of his fellow magi from the Arcanum, including my favourite, Eva – a knight who in many ways is the perfect opposite of Edrin – and the interaction between the two is rather special. 

Now, Cameron doesn't do anything by half-measures. This is the second of his novels that I've read, and if epic, world-destroying cataclysms*, with a side order of demons, ravening hordes, and inter-dimensional beings blows your hair back, then you'll be in the right hands. The Age of Tyranny duology packs a whopper of a punch, with piles of action, cinematic battles, a rich, varied cast of characters, and some deeply fascinating world building while Cameron's at it. This is a fire cracker in the fine old tradition of GrimDark fantasy and well worth the read if you're looking for a story that will dance with all your favourite tropes but then pull a few sly ones when you're not looking. 

*If the old ultra-violence isn't quite your thing, then maybe skip this round, okay?

Monday, October 30, 2023

The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr

Okay, so The Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr was a bit of a side quest for me. This is ordinarily not the type of novel that I'd read, but a copy showed up at my local book swap, and I was intrigued because I'd heard so much about The Alienist. And, while this is clearly book two in a series, I didn't feel too out of my depth, and I'm sufficiently intrigued to go pick up book one should I cross paths with it.

Set in New York during the late 1800s, this story is told from the perspective of the delightfully disreputable Stevie Taggart, a chain-smoking kid saved from a life of crime by Dr Laszlo Kreizler, a psychiatrist known for his (at the time) unconventional methods of understanding how people's minds work. Accompanied by friends such as journalist John Schuyler Moore, private investigator Sara Howard, and police detectives Marcus and Lucius Isaacson, and the enigmatic Cyrus Montrose, Kreizler is off on an adventure to find a missing child. But nothing is as simple as that, when they realise their work is far more dangerous and darker than initially expected.

Look, I really don't want to spoil the plot by giving too much away, so I'm going to focus on what I loved – which was the teamwork and the camaraderie between characters. Everyone brings something special to the table, and we have moments of humour interspersed with the serious business of solving a mystery. What becomes immediately apparent is that Carr knows his stuff in terms the setting, and he really makes New York City come alive for me in vivid Technicolor. So I really did feel authentically immersed in the period. (A huge plus point for anyone who wants a bit of a field trip into the past.)

That being said, I did feel that the novel plodded on a bit too long – part mystery, part court-room drama, but even though it felt like a slog at times, I was so invested in the characters, that I was genuinely sad to let them go when I reached the end. Carr's writing style is engaging, and he treats often problematic subject matter with great sensitivity. And yeah, there's some stuff here that shows the not-so-nice side of a big city that I've never seen so frankly examined.

I did feel as if the plot wrapped in a way that I could almost see coming, but it was still fun, and there were elements that were truly tragic. I really do need to go pick up The Alienist now, but if you like me, haven't read it either, although there will be stuff referenced in The Angel of Darkness that you won't have context for, it won't be a dealbreaker for following what's happening in book two.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Sometimes Nature isn't red in tooth and claw

Some of you who follow me on social media will know that I'm the resident bird lady here in my area. And, while I'm not a licensed rehabber, and there are certain species that I will leave to the professionals (seabirds, raptors, for instance), I've had a fair amount of success with ducks, pigeons, doves cuckoo, flycatchers ... and Cape white-eyes.  Some of my cherished memories involve caring for African penguins during the 2000 Treasure oil spill disaster here in the Western Cape. 

Over the years, I've been slowly transforming my garden into a haven for birds, and at any given moment, you can step outside and see everything from red-eyed doves, speckled pigeons, Cape sparrow, Cape white-eye, hadeda, and Cape bulbul, to even the occasional rufous-breasted and black sparrowhawks to African harrier-hawks (which of course visit because of the free lunch of slow, fat pigeons).

On Sunday, I had one of Those Phone Calls from an unknown number. "Hi, I've found some baby birds..." It's the kind of call that makes me despair. Because those words are usually followed by "I've got cats" or "I've got a dog". And for whatever reason the babies cannot be reunited with the parents or returned to the nest.

Also, with it being spring, many baby birds are fledging. Which means they're going to have a day or  three where they're still figuring out how to fly. The parents are in attendance, but the littlies are also very vulnerable to predation. The best thing you can do is keep your cats and dogs indoors, and leave them alone to get on with things. They don't need rescuing. This is how they learn to fly. Leave them the heck alone.

But sometimes, as with the call on Sunday, there was no other recourse than for me to step in. The tree in which the nest had been had been chopped down, and there was nowhere else in the garden for it to be placed. And the babies' eyes were barely open. I took them on, figuring I'd give them a slight chance of survival as opposed to none at all.

Miracle upon miracle, they survived. And thrived. I'm not going to go into all the details of hand rearing tiny birds, except that they require feeding from dawn to dusk, every half hour. And if you don't bring the food, they let you know. In no uncertain terms. This is not something for the squeamish, because it involves decapitating live mealworms and feeding them in bits. And there's poop. Lots of it. On you. All over.

Midweek, I received another call. This time, from people in Newlands who'd brought me the trio of flycatchers back in 2021 that were a successful rehab and release (they are apparently still in the garden, but happy adults now). Now they had an adult white-eye that had survived a close encounter with a cat and couldn't fly. Could I take it. So I did, figuring that if it survived, it could be a good older sibling for the two littlies, and I could eventually release them together as they are highly social birds.

Little did I know what awaited me this morning. Tweedledum and Tweedledumber as I've called the two, decided it would be a good idea to start flying just before bedtime at 11pm last night. Which meant I had to put them in the big cage with Lucky the adult white-eye (the people who rescued him insisted that was his name). This morning, everyone went out on our balcony in the cage, and not even half an hour later, an entire flock of wild Cape white-eyes rocked up.

It was madness. Countless adults arrived with bugs in their beaks, trying to feed T&T through the bars of the cage. I thought, what the heck, and took them out. And there, off they went, after the adults. Last I saw of them, they were in the thickets surrounding our garden, being fed and fussed over by an entire flock. Lucky went out, too, overjoyed to regain his freedom. 

Never in my life have I ever imagined to see such a spectacle. The best place for wild birds is in the wild, cared for by their own. My heart is singing today. Needless to say, my cats are not amewsed as they are under house arrest for the next three or so days...

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Star by Anthony Azekwoh

One of my favourite pastimes is finding novels that wouldn't necessarily cross my path in my regular haunts, and Star by Anthony Azekwoh is one of those. A while back I put out a call for African speculative fiction, so that I could give a signal boost, and this is one of those stories that landed on my desk.

A little rough around the edges, Star could have used a bit more of a developmental edit followed by some spit and polish with a sharp-eyed copy editor, but rough edges aside, this story still drew me in. We learn of a girl named Star who loses her mother. A dysfunctional relationship with the remaining parent sees her adrift, until she discovers that there is a way to bring her mother back from the dead. And then she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, no matter the cost. Or so she thinks.

Except this is not a path to be trodden lightly, and the consequences of certain actions might be far more devious than a young girl would want to consider. This little novel is a dip into Lagos's magical underbelly, filled with wicked witches and other creatures that may not have the best of intentions when it comes to Star's eventual fate. I get the idea that this short tale is part of a larger piece of world building – the assorted threads are most certainly there. There's definitely room to grow.

If you're in the mood for a little contemporary fantasy quest in an African setting by an African author, then Azekwoh weaves a tale filled with dark magic, mystery, and a whole lot of heart.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

It's starting to get real

Recently, I had a long, hard chat with myself about priorities. I'm one of these unfortunate authors who suffers a severe case of what I affectionately term, "Oh, look! Squirrel!" And this is usually related to me getting Yet Another Fabulous Idea for a Novel. Not like I need any more than I already have (you really don't want to know; even my agent doesn't need to know). 

So I've made priorities. Or, rather, one BIG five-part priority – namely The Splintered Fool series that I've been co-writing with Toby Bennett since that fateful evening in 2019, before the Panini hit the reset button on my writing career, he and I struck on the idea that writing a trilogy (hahahhahahaha) might be a good idea.

While we're not quite GRRM in terms of wordage (A Game of Thrones weighs in at a hefty 292k words, A Clash of Kings at 318k ... you get the picture), the five novels we've written together all number between 130k to 150k words, or thereabouts. It's all a blur. I try not to think about it too hard. There's a lot of work. Also, no self-respecting publisher in this day and age of soaring paper and fuel prices is going to touch this epic sword-and-sandals series with the soggy end of a barge pole. George RR Martin or Robin Hobb we are not (yet). 

So, we've joined the ranks of countless thousands of authors out there who've decided to go the self-publishing route. And, to do that properly, takes time. And money. Because one thing I've been investing in is cover art. Which brings me to the whole point of today's post – to talk a little about the cover for book one, The Serpent's Quest, which you'll no doubt be hearing a fair bit about going forward. 

If you've been following my authorly doings for a while, you'll know that I have collaborated with South African artist Daniël Hugo on numerous projects where he's done my cover art. We've even done a rather racy fantasy comic together, called The Salamander Lord, which has only ever seen a limited print run, and you can only purchase by reaching out to either me or Daniël. (It's THAT racy.)

What I love about working with Daniël is that I'm convinced he has an advanced degree in mind-reading. He's one of the very few people who seems to know exactly what I'm thinking when I brief in a job. And he's absolutely nailed it for The Serpent's Quest. I'm really looking forward to seeing what we'll come up with for the next four books in the series. Very little rivals the excitement of seeing your world come vividly to life. 

Where I'm at now with the series is that Toby has just finished proofing book 1. I will still need to go over it with my red pen, and then start inputting the changes. I was hoping for a Christmas release this year, but a lot can happen between this blog post and the end of the year. So best just follow me on my assorted social media to see what's happening.

I did illustrate a map for the world, as well as a chapter header, and there's still some more art I'll be doing for the interiors, when I have a moment. It's been so much fun drawing on all my skills sets with this project.

What I love about having the cover and interior layouts done is that this sucker is FINALLY STARTING TO FEEL LIKE IT'S REAL. It's going to happen, folks!


Every once in a while, I'll end up hand-rearing orphaned birds. I'm currently sitting with two baby Cape White-eyes who were orphaned when the property owner chopped down the tree where their nest was. There was no sign of the parents, so I agreed to take them on. I am now feeding live meal worms every half hour to the hour, every day. It's a time-consuming, often heart-breaking labour of love. I had success with a trio of dusky flycatchers a few years back, so I'm *praying* that these two little tykes can make it. So far, so good.

If you've come this far, thank you for reading. Do consider dropping by at my Amazon author page and picking up a copy of one of my novels – this will help vindicate my obsessive need to check my KDP every five minutes week.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Maliventures to Elsie's Peak

To my utter shame, while I've done a pile of hikes in and around the Cape Peninsula ever since I could walk, the Elsie's Peak trail between Fish Hoek and Glencairn is one that I've not done before. It's not a long hike, and what makes it convenient is that it's on our doorstep – so it's possible to do in an hour if you have moderate fitness. 

The whole point of us getting more active at present is that we've got our "Maligator" Maia, a Belgian Malinois, who is very active – which is good for us as it gets us out of the house regularly. Elsie's Peak is, additionally, also dog-friendly. We do follow the standard etiquette of keeping our pooch on lead in the veld and brought poop bags along. 

We parked on the Glencairn Heights side of the mountain, right up at the top of Golconda Road – since it was closer to home and according to the map would get us on the mountain a lot sooner. Standard protocols apply – don't go do this hike on your lonesome, wear a hat, put on sunblock, and make sure that you've got sturdy shoes. 

The paths are well marked but there are plenty little branches that segue off, so it helped that I've downloaded the very useful All Trails app, that I'll be using henceforth. Kudos to SANParks for maintaining this piece of land so well. I did not see a single invasive alien the entire walk. (Our area really has an infestation of Acacia saligna, hakea, and Australian myrtle that compete with the indigenous fynbos.)

I had a few great sights of local plants in spectacular bloom, especially the delicious sour fig (Carpobrotus deliciosus) and tree pincushion (Leucospermum conocarpodendron). Of course the highlight of this hike is the elevation – you get an astonishing view of False Bay and surrounds, and although the last bit of uphill coming around the peak had me huffing and puffing a little (I'm not quite fit as I should be) this was well worth the effort. Just be aware that if the southeaster is pumping, that you hold onto your hat. The wind was something else in places once we had reached the top. 

What I particularly love about the mountains is that it often feels like you arrive in a whole self-contained world once you hit the summit, surrounded by craggy grey sandstone tors and rippling expanses of conebushes, proteas, and pincushions. And when you spend time looking between, there are so many dazzling smaller flowers with brightly coloured faces.

If you're new to hiking or have small children, this is, I reckon, a suitable introductory walk. There is a bit of climbing and descending, so obviously take care of your knees and ankles, but for a morning or late afternoon excursion that's not going to eat up a pile of time, this is a good one. We're definitely going to add this to our list of regular hikes. 

Monday, October 2, 2023

The Sylvan Horn (#1 The Sylvan Chord) by Robert Redinger

I will kick off by saying that any fantasy novel that features elves is essentially going to have me make grabby fingers, so when The Sylvan Horn by Robert Redinger arrived on my pile of review books, I was naturally optimistic that this one would work for me. If you're a long-time Tolkien fan, you'll be on familiar turf – there's a foul sorcery afoot, in the east... And instead of rings, we're dealing with magical runes. Our chosen one is not a hobbit, nor is there a Fellowship à la Tolkien, but it's clear we're in familiar territory here. 

Perhaps too familiar.

I desperately, wanted to like this novel. Really. The idea, while not overly original, (and let's not kid ourselves, many of our favourite fantasy classics are tropey AF) could nonetheless have worked, had Redinger's execution been up to par. (A hint: don't try to wield words like the Prof if you're not certain you've got an excellent ear for figurative writing.)

The first problem for me was the editing. Or, rather, the lack thereof. A good developmental editor would have been able to gently steer the author towards a cohesive, coherent structure, with attention paid to world building, tension, character development – all the hallmarks of excellent storytelling. And after that, this novel was desperately in need of a stringent round of copy editing. And proofreading. I am being as diplomatic as possible in this matter when I say that this novel, as it stands, was not ready for publication, because I am cognisant that I'd have to be able to say this to the author's face.

Redinger is clearly a HUGE fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He wears it on his sleeve and he pillages Tolkien's pockets without any shame for small change and whatever else he might find there. Like magical swords. I have read Middle-earth fanfiction that displays better narrative structure, style, and character development. We can all learn from good fanfiction. 

Events take place in The Sylvan Horn, but because there is not enough depth in the point of view nor even a helpful author voice, it's simply impossible to fully grasp why things are happening and what characters' motivations are. What we are left with is a series of random, loosely interconnected events, with characters doing stuff without much rhyme or reason. 

I wish I could say something good about this book. It's clear that this author really loves what he does, but this one shouldn't have gone to print in its current state. It's a clear example for indie authors to heed: don't rush to publication before you're absolutely certain you've revised your novel to within an inch of its existence.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Mirage by David Ralph Viviers

I love a good mystery that flirts with magical realism, and Mirage by David Ralph Viviers blends so much of what I love. Part Karoo-gothic, part mystery that teases at time-travelling, this is a book that is difficult to fully quantify. And maybe it should not be picked apart, because in its lyrical prose it presents us with lush narrative ambiguity that plays out against the backdrop of the South African hinterlands and all the mysteries that abound there.

We have two threads interwoven in the mythical Karoo town of Sterfontein. On the brink of the South African War, writer Elizabeth Tennant stays here in a hotel frequented by those wishing to convalesce in the Karoo's fresh air. She grapples with her own, deep sense of loss while trying to claim meaning for herself. We also meet Michael, a university student whose deep fascination with the life and work of Elizabeth sees him delving into her journal and the mystery surrounding her death. He, too, carries a great burden of loss, which he subconsciously tries to work through by uncovering the secrets presented in Elizabeth's work.

I really don't want to delve into particulars, because that would ruin the journey for you. And this is a journey, liberally flavoured with the aesthetic of the Karoo's history. Threaded through this tale that blooms like the enigmatic Boophone disticha, are the light of distant stars and delicate strands of past and present woven together in the discrete threads of a surprisingly interlinked narrative. 

Grief and disappointment are hallmarks of the human condition, and Viviers takes these aspects of his characters' lives and examines them closely, then puts them together again in a way that made me sit back and say, "Oh." He effortlessly evokes the magic and mystery of this region in a way that only those who've fallen under the Karoo's spell will fully understand. This is an old landscape. It has drunk many tears. In it, you may examine your own life set against an ancient backdrop where you truly understand how insignificant one human life is. And yet each brief flowering is precious.

Much like Elizabeth steps into a liminal space, you do, too, following Michael as he embarks on a road trip that will allow him to confront aspects of self and his past that he has not dealt with, along with gaining a better understanding of the woman whose words have moved him to journey to Sterfontein. Everything is connected; everything is significant. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Hunt on Dark Waters (Crimson Sails #1) by Katee Robert

I'll admit what made me snatch up this title off my regular reviews list from a big-name publisher was the cover – and this is a bloody lush cover, probably one of the best I've seen in a long, long time. Then I glanced at the blurb, and I was sold onto giving Hunt on Dark Waters by Katee Robert a spin on my Netgalley app. The short of it is that I feel conflicted about this book. I think with the fact that tales on the high seas will no doubt be having a golden age currently thanks to the (at the time of writing) success of the One Piece live action series on Netflix, this book will hit the mark with readers who enjoy romantasy with a twist of piratical flair. At any rate, the parallels with Pirates of the Caribbean are rather evident (and most likely a dominant reason why I picked up this title), if that's your cuppa, and you've got all manner of non-human sentients to contend with. And loads of magic.

But ... And yes, there is a but. 

While I enjoyed Hunt on Dark Waters, to a degree...mostly, I did feel as if the pacing was somewhat off. We have a cracking start, with our plucky, long-fingered witch Evelyn pulling a runner on her vampire ex-girlfriend when she realises that continuing the relationship is not going to create conditions ideal to long-term survival. In her madcap escape, Evelyn accidentally falls through a portal into a world ruled by a bunch of monster hunters known as the Cwn Annwn (the pirates) who press gang her into service aboard a vessel. It's either that, or get tossed back into the ocean where she was found. And she's rather not keen on being unalived, thank you kindly.

And this is where things come unglued, so to speak. Or the wind gets knocked out of the sails, if we're going to stick with nautical themes. Evelyn and Captain Bowen immediately develop an instant obsession with each other that is, well, rather instant in a way that doesn't strike me as plausible. While the bones of the story are there, I don't feel as if the plot is fleshed out well enough to carry through. I got about halfway through the book and felt like things hadn't even gotten off the ground yet. Sure, there's lots of zing and sizzle for the ones who want their hot steamy scenes, but I'd kinda gone into this one wanting a bit more adventure with the romance on the side (the cover hadn't screamed romance at me, which was why I'd made grabby fingers in the first place). So this didn't quite hit the mark for me the way, say, authors like Grace Draven manage to pull off the fantasy romance thing. I'm more for the slow burn, in any case, before the characters start with the heavy petting and shoving tongues down each other's throats.

I can't quite figure out where exactly the wheels came off. All the ingredients are here, and this is a compelling world with oodles of potential and piles of queer representation, but there's a part of me that feels almost as if the book was dashed off without giving it a solid bout of structural editing to fix the pacing issues. It's fun and crunchy, however, and if you're more interested in the heat, then you'll most likely overlook the undercooked plot.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

I'm always of the opinion that there are not enough stories that are told from non-human protagonists, and The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander gave me a dip into something quite different from my usual fare. It's alternative history, with a little magical realism thrown in that re-envisions the horrors of the Radium Girls by way of pachyderm lore. This shortish tale shakes its fists at the injustices of this world perpetrated by capitalism, the patriarchy, and our species' love for cruel spectacle.

This is not an easy read, and Bolander's style is simultaneously dream-like and poetic, while offering some hard hitting themes as she slip-slides between a human narrative and elephants' meanderings and myth. I honestly don't have much more I can say about this story except that it left me scratchy behind the eyes – which can be both a good and bad thing.

I suspect this is one of those titles that's not going to work for those who take issue with strong feminist themes in literature. All the viewpoint characters have some form of issue with males, for their own reasons. I'm able to separate myself from the characters, so I didn't ave any issues with this. Additionally, Bolander does not spoonfeed readers as she shifts between different points of view without overtly identifying the viewpoint character – so you're going to have to read for contextual cues quickly to figure out which of the protagonists is at the helm. Honestly, this didn't bother me either, as those cues are pretty obvious to attentive readers. If she was intending for this to be a jarring experience for readers, it does work.

Bolander revels in narrative ambiguity, with many questions unanswered – I like stories that challenge me. And maybe, because this is a shorter read, it's easier to digest in small bites, and it's memorable. 

Friday, August 11, 2023

Spring doing what it usually does...

I debated whether I would do my usual newsletter, but if I'm absolutely honest, I find setting up newsletters fairly stressful, and it's a toss-up between doing what I love (which is writing) and spending an hour agonising over layout for a newsletter that goes into people's inboxes to die. At least the blog is searchable, and, I guess, no doubt scrape-able by AI. But this is not the post where I'm going to froth about AI. I've frothed enough online that I wound up on a Comic Con panel with a bunch of other creatives, a few months ago, where I frothed some more. I'm sure some fresh atrocity in the future will set me off again, but jawellnofine... enough controversy. 

It's so often as both editor and coach, that I write what I term as 'dear author' letters, where I employ such wonderful language as "as this novel stands, it's not ready for publication". My dearly beloved authors reading this now, you may enjoy your schadenfreude because I recently received exactly the same feedback on a submission. 

How did I respond?

Exactly as I tell my writers to. First read the letter. If someone has been arsed to write more than a paragraph (in my cases it was four, highly detailed and specific pages of suggestions and concerns) THANK them for their feedback. If you're smarting, DO NOT rant at them. Suck in your hubris and self-righteous indignation. Be graceful.

Then sleep on it. Come back to the letter the next day. Sometimes you'll agree, sometimes you won't agree with what has been given. Here's the rub, if a particular publisher has a style of titles (for instance a feminist or grimdark slant) then if you're not communicating what they'd like to attach their name to, my dears, the onus lies on you to revise so that you can communicate things clearly.

With my novel, I've got a pile of revisions awaiting me. I need to add two more points of view, reframe imagery that is not aligned with the publisher's ethos, and debug a magical system. It's going to require work. I'll be printing out this puppy, going at it with coloured markers and Post-it notes, and basically gutting it.

Will it be a better novel? Almost certainly. The old draft is still there. I can always go back to it if I'm not happy with the work that's been done. That's something I've told myself a gazillion times. I've never gone back to earlier drafts. But it's nice to have the safety blanket there.

So, you'll probably hear a lot from me in coming months about my revisions process. Stay tuned...

I've just finished writing a chapter for a book about Afrofuturism. It's an exciting opportunity where I could talk about these elements in my own writing. I am still waiting to hear from the editor if she thinks that I've done good. If not, no harm done. That's just how the industry is. I've had situations where my work wasn't a right fit. I've picked myself up, dusted myself off, and soldiered on. That's all we can do.

Other than that, I'm writing the last scenes for a YA magical academy novel that my agent wants by the end of August. So you'll excuse me if I'm not very chatty online. My other work has also kicked into high gear, so there's that to contend with, too.

And The Splintered Fool five-book series Toby Bennett and I wrote is chugging along nicely. I have cover art for book 1, The Serpent's Quest, which I'm currently laying out. I can't say more than this right now.


We don't get out and about much, but the husband creature and I took our fur-torpedo, Maia (a Malinois) with us when we went up the Garden Route to visit family. It was a bit of a whirlwind visit, but we're always on the lookout for pet-friendly spots. We overnighted in Sedgefield, at the Swartvlei Equestrian Estate, which is a lovely out-of-the-way spot on the knees of the Outeniqua mountains. We didn't stay long, but there are forest walks. Our cottage was super comfy, and the free Wi-Fi was a bonus. The kitchenette was a bit bare but if we'd stayed longer we most likely would have made use of the communal self-catering kitchen area. We also did a drive-by through Barrydale on the R62 and stopped by Diesel and Creme for coffee. Maia really wanted Thomas's milkshake.

Now Novel group coaching is an excellent way to gain the kind of constructive criticism you need to improve your writing, with weekly critiques from yours truly as well as other programme participants. Sign up here with promo code NERINE. 

It's nose down, fingers to the keyboard for the present. Do reach out to me and let me know if there are any writerly-related topics you'd like me to cover. Email me at

Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Quality of Mercy by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu

 Gosh. I'm not even sure where to begin with summing up The Quality of Mercy by Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, because there is so much to unpack, but I'll give it a good shot. Even though this is the third book in a trilogy, and I read it without reading the previous two, I didn't suffer for not having the back story – it works well as a standalone. And although this is not a long book, it is a big book – in terms of the may threads, the characters, and the subjects covered. 

Events play out in a fictitious country that many southern Africans will relate to and recognise aspects of, and we encounter a large cast of characters who are connected by a common thread, more often than not in some way the enigmatic Emil Coetzee, whom we learn at the start has walked into the bush without his gun and his hat. So many lives in this story are defined by their interactions with this man, and almost all of them have been unsatisfying, offering us many flawed views of a man who remains a mystery. Who is the real Emil Coetzee? Ndlovu allows us to make up our own minds, based on how others frame him.

We chiefly follow the story of the police officer Spokes Moloi, who although he would like nothing more than to retire and live out his remaining years with his wonderful wife Loveness, he is haunted by an unsolved case – the murder of a young woman many years ago. Moloi is a man of great integrity, which he soon learns that it may not be enough to see things through to the end, when he encounters people who most certainly lack this virtue. (Thereby illustrating an age-old problem we face within southern Africa.)

All throughout, Ndlovu paints out seemingly random encounters, she magically weaves these back into the main narrative, with lives connecting in often surprising ways (and with great depth for all characters, good, grey, and not so good). Ndlovu shows that she understands the enormous complexity of a multicultural society grown out of the ashes of post-colonial times into something new, something deeply complex. 

Her prose is lush and compelling, and she proves herself to be a keen observer of human nature, all blended together in a way that is almost cinematic in its approach to scenes and interactions. Touches of magical realism add a surreal edge to the narrative, that at times reminded me somewhat of Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and the Margarita – maybe because like Bulgakov's work, The Quality of Mercy is also incredibly difficult to define. There are, I feel, some elements of satire and occasional sly humour, but these are tempered with a fresh authenticity of voice and great compassion for the characters and subject matter treated.

If I have to say that there is one novel I've read this year that stands head and shoulders above all the others, then this is it. And if you're yet to read any fiction by an African author, you can most certainly start here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Joust (Dragon Jousters #1) by Mercedes Lackey

On my continued mission to pick up books by authors whose works helped shaped me as writer, I'm so glad I've made the time to read Joust by Mercedes Lackey. For those of you familiar with Jane Yolen's and Anne McCaffrey's worlds, you'll be on familiar turf with this one, which I feel will appeal directly to people who enjoy the minutiae of caring and training dragons. If you're looking for a high-romping adventure with flashy swords and fire-breathing beasties, this is not your book.  

We start the story with Vetch, an Altan serf tied to the land that has been conquered by the Tian people. A twist of fate sees him serving as a dragon boy for a well-respected Tian dragon rider, or jouster, as they are called, and he quickly immerses himself in this new, fascinating world. Vetch realises that the dragons might be key to his freedom, and when certain events played out (I won't spoil), I could already see where the story was headed. And oh, was it satisfying.

Now apart from the dragons, the other reason why Lackey's world scratched my itch was that she based her Tian culture on the ancient Egyptians, which was a bold choice that I enjoyed very much, even if some of the naming conventions were a little too close to the original. Then again, I am an armchair Egyptologist, so I know perhaps a little bit more about the culture than the average Joe Public. As always, Lackey paints a vivid picture that makes her writing easy to immerse into in Technicolor detail. 

The other thing is that Lackey knows her stuff when it comes to falconry, and she's based her dragons' behaviour and physiology on raptors, which helps to lend a veneer of plausibility to the overall premise. (My introduction to her writing was with her Mage Wars books that featured her gryphons...)

The question I keep asking myself is why have I not made a concerted effort to read more of her books. She's an absolute joy, and her stories have thus far never failed to hit the mark with me. 

Joust is an easy-to-read, comfortable fantasy novel that offers a slow build that's clearly an origin story setting up for the three books that follow. I'm immediately rushing off to get the next one...

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Where do I even begin with Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay? I'll start by saying that this is the sort of fantasy that is set firmly on the shelf of masterworks, as a template that shows how fantasy as a genre can also most certainly be considered a great, nuanced work of literature. Tigana is more than just a tale of political conflict, but it is also a story of people and memory. This is the second work of Kay's that I've read, so my opinion will be based on what I know of his writing – in that he grounds his setting very much on real-world spaces and cultures. In this case, Renaissance Italy in terms of theme and setting. 

Our space is known as the Palm – a peninsula of often warring provinces that has been divided between two sorcerers who have set themselves up as tyrants. Each maintains his connection to his home but lords it over the territory that he has claimed. One province – Tigana – has been obliterated in an act of magic in revenge for the death of a beloved son. No one who has not lived there, can hear its name spoken or speak it. All knowledge of Tigana is erased, its towers of their capital city torn down, and its people scattered. Soon, a generation will be born who have no memory of the Tigana that was. Their very identity has been severed from the past in one cataclysmic stroke.

It is in this world that we meet our players – a large-ish cast of complex, morally grey individuals. And what Kay does well, is to subvert your loyalties throughout, so that you begin to realise quickly that there is no black or white 'truth' to any given situation, but rather multiple layers. You see heroes in villains and vice versa, and overarching all this is the notion of power and memory. Most importantly, I think, is the notion of the stories that people tell themselves to justify their actions, how holding onto the past can be a two-edged sword. When does one let a tragedy slide? What if grief consumes you so that you can't find a new course?

There is so much to unpick with Tigana. The characters themselves almost become placeholders for the questions that Kay asks. His world is full of mysteries, and much like life, we aren't given neat, tidy answers to encapsulate them when the story is done. He tantalises you with a resolution that might be, that would be satisfying, and rips it away in a manner that hurts profoundly, that makes you question whether the ending (or rather the new beginning) you are given is equally satisfying. Or right. Gosh, this book has hurt my heart and my head. This book deserves a permanent place on my bookshelf.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Invader by CJ Cherryh (Foreigner, #2)

I know I'm ambitious. This is book two of more than 20 books in a series, but I've decided that I'm committing to reading CJ Cherryh's entire Foreigner series because the first book made such a big impact on me when I was in my mid-teens. And as suspected, many of the nuances went way over teen Nerine's head. Invader, picks up hard on the heels of Foreigner, and we see poor old paidhi (diplomat) Bren Cameron hurried directly from his hospital bed in human-governed Mospheira back to the continent to serve Taibini, the aiji (ruler). 

And Bren has much on his plate. While he was MIA, the human government sent his rival and successor, Deana Hanks, to serve in his stead. But while Deanna is technically brilliant, she lacks the aptitude for languages and nuance that Bren has. Not only that, but the political faction that backs her is incredibly conservative and human-centric – a stance the humans can ill afford. The problem is, they're too thick-skulled to see it. And Taibini wants nothing to do with her, which is a Very Big Problem. And now that a third power has arrived – the human space ship that went AWOL for nearly two centuries is back, and the entire planet is scrambling. Alliances are strained and the cracks are showing. How is the arrival of the technologically advanced by under-resourced ship going to affect the planet's socio-economic balance?

I really felt for Bren in book two. He spends most of his time going from one awkward situation to the next. Actions that he takes in good faith backfire on him, and his attempts to repair bridges with Deana – which is crucial to the overall peace on this world – are rebuffed. His work is incredibly trying, which is not helped at all that his health is not what it should be – what with a broken collarbone and all that. Dancing on eggshells doesn't even begin to describe what he does every day.

In typical Cherryh fashion, the novel goes from slightly pedestrian to nerve-wrangling tense at a moment's notice, and you never really get an opportunity to relax. There's a not-so-subtle discussion going on here about differences in conservative and liberal thinking, with the pitfalls in both potentially causing much strife. And who knows what the local atevi population think. Every time Bren believes he has them figured out – it's his job, as paidhi to do so – something happens to pull that figurative rug from beneath his feet.

I don't think this sort of SF novel is for everyone, but I'm sure as heck loving the gradually unfolding, Machiavellian tensions. Plus Cherryh's world-building is, as always, simply primo. She is deservedly one of the stalwarts of contemporary SF, and I know that whenever I crack open one of her books, I'm going to be in for one heck of a ride.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Shadowblade by Anna Kashina

Shadowblade by Anna Kashina starts off with all the elements that I know I'll love. We meet Naia, a young orphan with astounding martial skills, who is trained up in an order of assassins. We have shadowy puppet masters who are angling to topple an imperial despot. We have a mystery surrounding Naia's birth that is absolutely delicious when she is tasked with taking on a role in a conspiracy to challenge the succession. Machiavellian skullduggery meets fast-paced action. I should have been in my happy place.

I'd say that this book *almost* nails it, but the pacing is just that little bit off. I was deeply invested in seeing Naia as she undergoes her training, yet part of this feels glossed over to where we get her embarking on her first, important mission. A too-obvious, too-easy romance liaison gets tossed in, with repercussions I called the moment we first hit the bedroom, but perhaps the thing that kinda made the entire novel fall a little flat for me was when the antagonist's identity was revealed far too early. And that, for me, made me feel as if we missed out on much of the tension. Not once did I fear that my protagonists would succeed – and I would have liked to have had more of a sense of impending doom.

The setting, in the second half of the novel, that takes place in an imperial palace, is a stage set that is ripe for a more complex treatment – especially if we could see the introduction of more opposing factions, but I feel that this last part of the story gets rushed. I feel with a little careful planning, this could easily have been a very satisfying duology or trilogy, as there is so much material to mine in the setting. Is this still an entertaining read? I'd say yes. This is not the first of Kashina's novels that I've enjoyed, but this one's just not quite the five-star read I was hoping for. But it's still good. It has its moments, and what Kashina does well is write excellent fight scenes involving characters who are likeable and relatable.

Monday, June 12, 2023

A New History of Life by Stuart Sutherland, The Great Courses

If you ever want to come to grips with a true understanding of exactly how puny the existence of the human race is, A New History of Life – a series of lectures given by Professor Stuart Sutherland (Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia) will set you right. Brought out by The Great Courses, this series takes you on a journey right from the theoretical origin of our solar system all the way to our current rather catastrophic Anthropocene Age – a subset of the Holocene. 

Understandably, any attempt to frame Earth's history in easy-to-digest chunks is, ahem, a mammoth task. But Sutherland is lovely. Not only does he break down the super-technical terms in plain language for mere mortals like you and me to understand, but he does so in an often funny, very informative manner as he takes us on a journey through the ages. Actually, he's not just lovely, he's frigging adorable, because he often stumbles over his own words in his enthusiasm, which just makes his talks all the more delightful. 

I walked away from this series feeling like I've gained an even greater perspective of and better appreciation for the centuries of work scientists have put into figuring out how it all fits together. This knowledge has also hammered home how incredibly fragile life is, and how exceptional it is that life as we know it has even come into being on this ball of water and dirt with its molten core in the first place. If you possess even an ounce of interest in our origins as Earthlings, then dig into this series.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, Wraeththu #1 by Storm Constantine

I won't lie. I miss Storm Constantine something fierce. She was an incredible and largely underrated force as an author, editor, and publisher, and it was an incredible experience for me to have been able to work with her on many stories for her Wraeththu mythos. (The only thing that would top this for me is if I could embark on a spot of necromancy and raise JRR Tolkien from the dead, or if I ever had the chance to work with Neil Gaiman.) I miss talking to Storm about writing, about her worlds, and miss the insights she had in my own, and I guess that's why I've picked up the Wraeththu books again, specifically because I've yet to reread the ones that she revised since she initially published them after their rights reverted to her. I wish I could talk to her again, so revisiting her writing is the only way I'll be able to have any form of dialogue with her again.

The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit
is the first book in her Wraeththu mythos, and for those who are new to the setting, I'll give the *very* brief introduction: Humanity has failed and a new species is rising out of its demise – the androgynous Wraeththu, who combine both male and female traits in one body, are completely gender-fluid, and who unlike humans, can wield magic. In that regards, the story, when it first came out in 1987, was ahead of its time if we consider some of the fantasy that we see today.

We start book one with Pell, who is a very human young man, working on his family's farm somewhere on the American continent. His world is narrow and sheltered, and while he's aware that things are not so great beyond the fields where he works, and that the Wraeththu stalking the ruined cities are something to fear, he is much loved. 

And perhaps, if Cal – one of the fabled Wraeththu – had not stumbled upon Pell's home when he did, it would have been another Wraeththu. Perhaps one not quite as kind as Cal. Though calling Cal kind is a bit of a stretch – he has ulterior motives and can be rather self-centred. So, in a tale as old as time, Pell runs away with the fey creature, and discovers what it is like to be incepted into the Wraeththu, who divide themselves into tribes, and whose development as individuals is arranged along a caste system as they become more magically adept.

We discover a world made anew out of the bones of the old, and the Wraeththu are still trying to figure things out – some more successfully than others, who appear to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes humankind made. With an edgy, almost punk-ish, post-apocalyptic and trans-human flavour, this tale is divided into two sections. I won't go into too much detail to spare you the spoilers, suffice to say that the first half is more travelogue and origin story for Pell's coming into being, while the second is a somewhat bitter acceptance of an inescapable fate caught up in another's machinations. So very much a bildungsroman for Pell and a suitable introduction to the setting for those with the stamina to tackle further books. 

I'll be honest. The Wraeththu mythos is not for everyone. I've always maintained that Storm is more an author concerned with painting mood, texture, and atmosphere rather than meticulously plotting and executing a perfect story. If you are looking for stock-standard romances, rather look elsewhere. Yes, there is sensuality at times, and love often fierce, but sentimentality has no place here. This story is about Storm exploring her world and the characters who populate it – so in that regard her work does bear a passing similarity to JRR Tolkien's in terms of motivation for writing. But knowing her as I do, she'd probably be a bit annoyed by the comparison to Tolkien's Middle-Earth.

I love Storm's writing for the moods she evokes, the often otherworldly, ethereal landscapes she paints, and the lush, often narcotic descriptions that add substance to her tales that underpin a keen understanding of magic and the mythologies that often underpin it.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham

My mom tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to read W Somerset Maugham in all the years that I was a teenager living under her roof. Teenagers are stubborn dears. That being said, I don't think teenaged Nerine would have gotten half as much out of reading Of Human Bondage as middle-aged Nerine has. The audiobook was part of my Audible subscription, but when it timed out, I absolutely had to know how the story panned out, and I have zero regrets purchasing it with one of my credits. 

While the novel kicks off with the very young Philip Carey, newly orphaned, who goes to live with his uncle and aunt, who don't have children themselves. It's pretty clear from the get go that they have zero idea how to handle a little one in the house. But if we consider that the novel (by my estimation) takes place before World War I in England, I would hazard to say that this was an era where raising children meant putting them in situations were they were rarely seen and heard even less.

So poor little Philip, with his club foot (he really hasn't lucked out) really has a rough time of things growing up.

As the title suggests, this is a story about the bonds between people – bonds of love and hate, of obligation and responsibility. We watch Philip grow from being a sarcastic yet timid child to a deeply insecure adult, who is struggling to find his place in the world. As a youth, he rebels against the notions of what is expected of him, and yet in his attempts to establish himself – first completing his studies in Germany, then while trying a range of rather diverse careers – he still isn't satisfied with what the world offers and becomes the author of his own downfall. (Which savvy readers could have predicted early on.)

Added to the mix is one incredibly awful complication of unrequited love, that is so full of cringe that I found myself muttering along with the narrator, with an "Oh god, Philip. No, Philip. Don't do it, Philip. Choose life, Philip."

Throughout this, Maugham's observations of the people around Philip are sharp and biting. We see the best juxtaposed against the worst, expressed with incredible pathos. Everyone is morally grey, with both good and bad, and Maugham discusses many philosophies framed within Philip's journey, as he starts from a position of childlike faith until he hits a profound passive nihilistic nadir before he manages to attain ecstatic existential release, and in a way freedom through acceptance of the basic absurdity of the human condition. Watching Philip navigate many of the admittedly self-imposed obstacles he places in his own path is a thing of beauty that I don't often see, and when I do, I relish.

This novel also exists as a sort of time capsule, capturing the essence of a particular era of European culture and history, that reflects the tragedies of being human as well as those sweet moments of pure joy. Read by Steven Crossley, this Audible edition is well worth the investment, and I'm definitely adding Steven Crossley to my list of narrators worth stalking.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Notes on Falling by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen

Every once in a while, I encounter a literary work that is best described in terms of imagery, tones, and textures, and Notes on Falling by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen is one such work. We start the story with photographer Thalia, who has grown up motherless and raised by her father, who has done his best for her, but who has also never shared anything about her absent mother until quite late in her life. We learn that Thalia's mother left the country, left the baby Thalia in the father's arms, and that's about all we know – and this nagging absence perhaps does manifest itself in Thalia's life by her hunger to capture and quantify the world around her. If she can describe her world, lend it some form of permanence as a still image, perhaps she can control it in some way. Or at least these are my thoughts on the matter.

Thalia herself is a photographer, her entire life framed by how she works with light, objectifies and tries to understand her surroundings – and in that degree, Law-Viljoen paints with words in the same way a good photographer will paint with light, shadow, and subject matter. The reality that we are given is often naked, unforgiving, made up of sharp planes and angles that slice. A great photo will foreground details, open them up for analysis and understanding.

In this layered tale, we deal not only with the discomfort of the present, but we sift through memories encapsulated in stark imagery, be it 1990s South Africa and New York, and then also take a step even further back, to a New York of the 1970s, to catch a glimpse of a creative zeitgeist as ephemeral as its participants and instigators. Somehow, all these snapshots are tied together in Thalia's search for a mother who was willing to abandon her for a dream. 

Through Thalia, we encounter Robert, whose own search during New York of the 1970s, is intrinsically linked to Thalia's journey – though for fear of spoilers, I won't say how. What Law-Viljoen does well, is show how an individual can frame their lives in a search for meaning, not only of their innermost selves, but also in how they fit into the larger picture – even when the world is like an unstoppable train that continues hurtling through space and time with or without your presence. This is very much an existential novel, that does not have the neat, tidy hallmarks of a happy tale – much like real life, in that regards – that will leave readers with much to ponder on these seemingly isolated yet intrinsically linked themes expressed within the story. 

And as someone who majored in photography at university, it was a real treat for me to read a novel that spoke a language that I understand well. This is a beautiful, if disquieting and uncomfortable book.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Egypt and the Owl House – What is the Connection?

 Ever since I was young, I’ve had a deep, abiding fascination with the Owl House, the creation of Outsider Artist Helen Martins who lived in the tiny Karoo town of Nieu Bethesda in South Africa until she tragically ended her own life in 1976. If you’ve never heard the term “Outsider Art” before, in a nutshell, according to the Tate Gallery: “Outsider art is used to describe art that has a naïve quality, often produced by people who have not trained as artists or worked within the conventions of traditional art production”. (1)

This places Helen’s work under the umbrella shared by the likes of the Palais Idéal by Ferdinand Cheval (Hauterives, France, 1836-1924), Nek Chand Saini’s Rock Garden (Chandigarh, India, 1924-2015), and Veijo Rönkkönen Sculpture Garden by Veijo Rönkkönen (Parikkala, Finland, 1944-2010), among many others – these are all well worth a Google if you wish for a wonderful way to explore paths that are quite extraordinary. Outsider Art can therefore be considered a lively global phenomenon that transcends cultures and often crops up in unexpected locations. In addition to regular art materials, it can incorporate found materials in unconventional ways. Outsider Art never fails to elicit strong responses from people who encounter it for the first time. Like it or hate it, there’s no denying that in all its diverse forms, Outsider Art is certainly memorable.

Helen Martins’ Owl House is unforgettable.

From the outside, her home appears as a typical, unassuming Karoo dwelling, but a second glance will draw your gaze to the cement owl sculptures on the stoep enclosed in a wire mesh ‘cage’. If you then peek over the stone wall, you’ll catch your first glimpse of the fantastic Camel Yard – the property’s entire garden has been transformed with hundreds of cement-and-glass statues of camels, pilgrims, mermaids, bottle-skirted hostesses, and other, assorted figures that feed into the rich imagination of their creator.

The interior of the home has also been transformed – its walls painted bright colours and encrusted with crushed glass. Strategically placed mirrors, cut into suns and moons, and other shapes, reflect light, and while Helen was still alive, she would light a multitude of candles and lamps after sunset. If you consider that Nieu Bethesda was only connected to the national electricity grid in the early 1990s, you’ll understand exactly how dark the interior of a home could be back then. And, for those of us currently dealing with load shedding, who have not had the wherewithal to go solar or purchase an inverter, you’ll have an all-too-intimate understanding of exactly how suffocating and tangible the darkness becomes once the sun sets.

But what, I’m sure you’re asking now, does any of this have to do with Egypt?

Some of the themes prevalent in Helen’s work resulted in a synthesis of her own personal cosmology involving light and darkness, with strong solar and lunar themes, but also drew upon Western, Near Eastern, and biblical themes, blending them all in an unrestrained expression of creativity made concrete with cement, wire, glass, and found objects.

And, once you wander past the throngs of pilgrims, camels, bottle-skirted hostesses, owls, and mermaids, you will find a spot of ‘Egypt’ in the Camel Yard, complete with sphinxes and 15 pyramids constructed out of cement over wire armatures. Now Helen herself never visited Egypt, so most of her image sources would have included the humble Lion matchbox with its iconic red lion and other found items, such as postcards. 

Art historian Susan Imrie Ross further elucidates:

In Helen’s house is a well-worn, beautifully tooled leather writing case containing old family photographs and letters. Among the many Egyptians scenes depicted on it are lions, ibises, camels, the sun, Egyptian gods, and birds which appear to have the body of an owl and the face of a human. It is interesting to see the variety of objects on the writing case which could have inspired her, but which she did not choose to use. Subjects such as bulls, the Egyptian half-man half-animal gods, boats to the underworld, chariots, and bowmen obviously did not strike chords with her. (2)

Of course, those who know Egypt’s monuments well, need not have it explained that a sphinx is traditionally depicted as a lion with a human head. (If you’re a mythology buff, you’ll know that variations do exist in Egypt and other cultures.) The sphinx itself, if you run with the ancient Egyptian iteration of this mythological beastie, would be associated with the lion – a solar symbol. We can debate that it possibly further ties in with the lion as it appears in Helen’s cosmology, where it is associated with her father, with whom she had a troubled relationship. To further support this theory, another lion encountered in the Camel Yard has motorcar headlights for eyes (perhaps suggestive of its ability to see in the dark). It is located near the outside room where Helen’s father was banished in his later years. The room was painted black and named ‘The Lion’s Den’.

As for the pyramids, they add to the monumental nature of the Camel Yard in general. Of course, we can only surmise what Helen truly intended them to represent – as symbols, they are powerful reminders of the belief in transcending death, of being able to attain a good afterlife, if one takes into consideration the intentions of the original tomb builders of ancient Egypt.

Perhaps, in a way, it can be conjectured that these creations were Helen’s own attempt at having her name spoken long after her passing, so that in a way, too, she might attain a sort of immortality.

Even if in life, she was somewhat of a social pariah – through her own actions and/or through the regard of her fellow villagers – her creation has in recent years provided a vital lifeline of tourism for this sleepy little Eastern Cape village that it might ordinarily not have experienced. Every year, thousands of tourists take that turnoff from the N9 to visit Helen Martins’ legacy. Whether they stay for a few hours, have a meal, and buy a few curios or linger for days to soak in the sedate ambience, Nieu Betheda arguably casts a magnificent spell on visitors.

If you do find your route winding along near Graaff-Reinet, do consider making a detour to Nieu Bethesda and reckon on spending at least half a day, if not more. It’s also a great place to overnight if you’re breaking up your road trip. Not only will you encounter a community filled with warmth and creativity, but you will have a chance to experience the magical legacy of Helen Martins that will no doubt be spoken of for many more years.


1. “Tate.” Art Term: Outside Art. Website accessed 18 Jan. 2023

2. Imrie Ross. (1997). This is my world: The life of Helen Martins, Creator of the Owl House (1st ed.). Oxford University Press Southern Africa.