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.