Sunday, June 25, 2017

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker – a review

Flame in the Snow: The Love Letters of André Brink & Ingrid Jonker was on my must-read list the moment I heard about the book. But a bit of back-story. Ingrid Jonker was always a semi-mythic figure to me. I first heard about her when we studied her writing during high school. It was a short story of hers – "Die Bok" (The Goat) which haunted me even back then. Yet her poetry always struck me as vivid, somehow more vibrant than many of the other poets we studied. My mom and I always disagree about our love of Jonker's writing, but then again, my mom also takes a dim view of Jonker's affair with Brink, so it could be a personal issues that cloud her appreciation of her writing.

I later encountered Jonker's work again when I was studying a languages module through Unisa, which only made me realise even more what an important contribution Jonker made to South African literature. There is little doubt in my mind that she was a perceptive, highly sensitive individual with the talent of shaping words in such a way that she can encapsulate an entire scene in a few brush strokes. 

Brink himself is justifiably one of the great lights of South African literature who has contributed much over the years, and it is to my eternal regret that I never did get round to meeting him before his passing, so it was with great curiosity that I approached this collection of their letters.

Looking at how communication has changed, it's doubtful that we'll have such a legacy to fall back on in the future (unless someone is willing to trawl authors' social media posts and private emails to try reconstitute coherent communication). But even then, what we have collected offers us an almost voyeuristic glimpse into the private world of two highly creative, expressive individuals, who saw and felt their existences in exquisite, painful detail at times. 

Part of me became quite frustrated while I read. I wanted to yell at them that if their lives were so unbearable, why didn't they just take the plunge and move mountains to be with each other. But I guess hindsight is 20/20. I don't think either of them could have predicted the outcome, and I fear that when you have two passionate people as Jonker and Brink were, you're bound to get fire in its destructive aspect. Both were ... complicated ... and their relationship was wracked with intense highs and awful nadirs. 

It galled Brink that Jonker still maintained her previous relationship yet by equal measure, he was incapable of leaving his wife, despite his assurances to Jonker that he was no longer intimate with the mother of his child.

Yet what this collection of letters also does it it demystifies Jonker and Brink. We see them as humans, in their unguarded, often tender moments for each other, as they ponder their existence, as they share their hopes and dreams, and also their great fears. The last letter, from Brink, also pierces deeply – a cold, hard statement. I won't spoil it, but it dashed cold water in my face.

I can't help but imagine what Jonker's last hours were like, the moments that led up to her walk into the wintry Atlantic in Cape Town's Three Anchor Bay. It was a death foreshadowed in her poem "Ontvlugting":

My lyk lê uitgespoel in wier en gras
op al die plekke waar ons eenmaal was.

(My body is washed up in seaweed and grass
at all the places where we once were) – please excuse my rough, rough translation. 

To have read Jonker and Brink's intimacies has, to a degree, tumbled them off their pedestal for me. They were just people, with their faults. Their words in this book are a time capsule, that takes readers back to the past, to get a glimpse into what it was like for writers back then. I had to have a quiet smile to myself, because so much of the politics among South African writers that I've seen first hand was very much a thing back then too – some things don't change, apparently. This was a lovely read, and at some point I think I'd like to pick up the Afrikaans version of the book, as I wonder how much of the communication was lost in the translation. Either way, I still feel as if I've grown in my understanding of the two, which will most certainly inform my further reading of their work.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda – final verdict

Okay, so this is a follow-up from my review for Mass Effect: Andromeda that I wrote here when I had a fit of pique about aspects of the game that annoyed the ever-living crap out of me.

I haven't really changed my opinion of the game, though granted my first play-through was for the story rather than gameplay. If you're looking for the impact that BioWare stories have that every raves about the earlier games, you're not going to feel it here. I ran with the Jaal romance on this play-through and though there'd been much anticipation about this before the game's release, I was underwhelmed to say the least. And I'm not sufficiently invested in the game to immediately play it afresh but with different romance options like I was with Dragon Age: Inquisition. That says something.

As friends of mine noted, the primary quest for ME:A doesn't take all that long, and it was mostly go to this location, take out a few consoles here, free these peeps, kill that dude, and then GTFO. I think because I was playing the game on casual setting, I missed out on pushing the combat system to its full capabilities, and should I have the time and motivation in the future, I'll most certainly take longer and focus on combat, crafting and technique, and play the game on a harder level ... and take my sweet time with it. Which means I'll probably not play through the entire game again by the time I get bored. Because, let's face it, there's a kind of monotony to every quest in ME:A. I heard folks bitching that Dragon Age: Inquisition was already bloated with fetch quests, but oddly enough they didn't bother me as much as they did in ME:A.

There was a huge lot of frothing about bugs and glitches about the game, and unfortunately my play-through had its fair share. Perhaps the most annoying was the times when saved games bombed the game upon a return between gaming sessions, and if it weren't for the earlier autosaves, I'd have lost entire chunks of gameplay. And yes, there was that bloody annoying permabroke issue with the Nomad. Okay, it's not totally a permabroke thing but for the love of fuck, get all your forwarding stations set up before you spend more time on Elaaden. Don't be like Nerine who needed that forwarding station and ended up trashing three hours of game play because there was no way for her to fix her fucking Nomad. Yes, that made me boiling mad.

What did I enjoy? Okay, once I got used to driving the Nomad vehicle, it was loads of fun. And I really, really enjoyed my Remnant-tech sniper rifle. In fact, should I decide to play this game again, I'm going to focus on building up Rem-tech research points and spend time crafting a sick armour and weapons set-up. There was something seriously satisfying in being out of visible distance and taking out all my enemies before they saw me. [Says she who'll most likely either play mage or archer in RPGs]

What's nice also is that you're not locked down to a character concept. Although I started out as a biotic but then upskilled with more sniping skills. My secondary weapon ended up being an Asari sword. My tactic ended up being sniping as many kills from a safe distance, then going in blasting with biotics and my sword, so that I ended up almost like some crazy-ass Jedi. That was loads of fun.

Team members I opted for eventually were Cora, because of her sick shield boosting, and Jaal because he ended up being real bad-ass back-up for my sniper Ryder. Vetra wasn't bad either, and Drack was perfect for when I needed a serious tank.

The lack of any real consequences to choices was the main issue for me with the story. What Dragon Age got *so* right was the emotional wringer they put me through. When I finished Trespasser I moped for weeks after, cursing a certain bald apostate hobo elf roundly. (I honestly felt as if I'd just been dumped.) And there was That Thing with A Certain Party Member that was a real consequence of action taken during the main game that hit me in the feels so hard I felt really, really horrid.

The only thing that made me feel horrid in ME:A was a decision I made that impacted Drack. Yet even that wasn't as heavy as Varric asking me "Where is Hawke?" during one of my DA:I play-throughs. (And the reason why I never ever leave Hawke in the Fade ever again because fuck I love Varric so much and I don't ever, ever want to do anything to make him cry.)

Can you see what the issue is here? There is none of that passionate "oh my god I love these characters so much I'magonna puke" I get with Dragon Age. I was fond of Drack. Jaal's voice reduced me to a slight quivering in my ladybits, and Cora was like a reboot of Cassandra, which is why I took her with me. Everywhere.

Yes, the terrains are lovely, but the wildlife, such as it was, was much of a muchness. The same fucking little bird critters flying around Elaaden are right there in Havarl. It's like BioWare didn't take much time to create enough variance in the eco-systems to give each planet enough of a stamp of individuality. Yes, they're still fun to roar through, and the fact that the environments start out toxic, makes some of the travel quite challenging, but it all started to feel the same but slightly different flavour. Oh, this planet is freezing, this one's radioactive, this one's got poisonous water...

The theme of a twin Ryder was kinda neat, but I feel from a story-telling side they could have done more with it. Though things did go pretty dire for my Scott Ryder, I never really felt that he was in any true danger, and was a bit disappointed that he couldn't play a more active role in the story. His involvement halfway through felt more like an afterthought than anything else.

Anyhoo, I didn't totally hate ME:A, and it's really not a bad game (and the environments are lush). The multiplayer was pretty fun too, but I am honestly not invested enough in the game to spend any more time on it than I already have. It has replay value but its repetitive nature and fetch quests can become stale quickly.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

I knew there would be ugly tears at the end of Assassin's Fate. Robin Hobb excels at causing me to break down in ugly tears. There are very few authors who can punch me in the feels the way that she does. It's going to be difficult to write this review without spoilers, but I'm going to give it a stab though at time of writing I'm still feeling quite raw.

Anyone who's been in for the long haul with Robin Hobb will know that the FitzChivalry Farseer books (three trilogies) are part of her larger universe that includes the Liveship books and her related dragon books. It's taken me years, but I've finally caught up with Fitz, the Fool and Nighteyes, whose intertwined fates are complex and often take remarkable turns.

Objectively, this is not the strongest book of the series; at heart it is an extended epilogue. And I understand. Ending a saga with such a perennially popular character like Fitz is *difficult*. There is always the temptation to leave open "happy for now" threads but anyone who knows Hobb's writing will be well aware of the fact that she foreshadows *everything*. And while there are a few red herrings in Assassin's Fate, I was not surprised by the decision she made for the conclusion. It was *right*. I could see it coming a mile off yet I cried so much I had to give my glasses a good wipe afterwards and go wash my face.

I'll say this much: Not many authors can make a novel that is basically an extended sea voyage and rescue exciting, but Robin Hobb succeeds, and it's because of her attention to detail, the examination of the lives of others and their interactions and the smaller conflicts within the greater picture. The story is in its subtleties, and Assassin's Fate is the novel that ties everything together for all the stories that have come before. If Hobb wishes to leave this setting here, that would also be fine and right for me. In fact, it would be a perfect place in all its bittersweetness.

The story itself has a dual nature, part laying to rest of ghosts, part coming of age. Fitz is a man outside of time, who lives with his regrets. And he is tired, and this shows in his interactions with others. Bee represents a fresh current, heir to the incredible stories that have happened before her time, and burdened with being the one who is at the heart of the drama that takes place in the present. This is, as can be understood, a heavy burden to bear yet her trials also serve as a crucible.

I'm not going to go into any further detail, because it's difficult to discuss deeper without spoiling the story. If you've yet to read any of Robin Hobb's books, start with Assassin's Apprentice, book one of the Farseer Trilogy. Then read the Liveship Traders and the Rainwild Chronicles. The Tawny Man trilogy slots in somewhere there too, then finish with the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. You will meet an unforgettable cast of characters, and since I've now read many of the early Fitz books for the second time, I can state with authority as a long-time fan of SFF, that Robin Hobb's stories deserve their place among the classics in the genre, right up there with luminaries like George RR Martin, Mark Lawrence and others who write the kind of fantasy that doesn't shy away from treading on difficult topics with nuance.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda (update)

Right. I'm now 50% through Mass Effect Andromeda, and I've come to the sudden realisation that I've stopped caring about the game. None of the characters truly hit me in the feels – I honestly don't have that squishy, emotional mushiness I had with games like Brothers or Dragon Age. The much-vaunted romance frustrating. The gameplay is repetitive. I know I'm OCD, but there are only so many fetch quests I can stomach.

Sure, the maps are lovely, but after last night I feel as if the game is a chore. What nearly did my head in yesterday was the perma-broke glitch with the Nomad on Elaaden. Apparently there is a way to fix it, but then you need to have activated the northern-most forwarding station (which I hadn't). So, guess what? I lost 2 hours of gameplay going back to an earlier save where I still had a functioning Nomad. Fast travel didn't fix the fuck-up either. Nice one, BioWare. Nice one. [grumbles]

My overall conclusion about the game, after reading this article and having a good ponder about my own experiences thus far, is that it was doomed from the start due to multiple reasons, and the fact that it was rushed through to shipping with so may glitches, I just can't even. I'm going to give myself another weekend or two to finish the main quest, and then I'm done here.

I'm really disappointed, as ME:A has so much going for it, but it's cumbersome, badly put together (I mean, haring halfway around the galaxy on Yet Another Fetch Quest and then another ... and then another). BioWare bit off too much with this game, and it's a Frankenstruct of some really schwaai ideas that kinda lumber around making groaning noises while knocking over furniture.

Things going for it include the neat combat system, which was fun (and challenging). And I must thank ME:A for teaching me how to play a shooter, because I was horribly resistant to the idea of playing a shooter up until this point.

Next up on my plate will be Horizon Zero Dawn, however, sooner rather than later. I've been told that even though I still refuse to play Witcher 3, I MUST MUST MUST give Horizon Zero Dawn a chance. (And yes, I have a soft spot for archers, so this is likely.)

A thought on open-world gaming: There is a reason why Skyrim is such a timeless classic, despite there being a skeletal story (and it justifiably being called the "golf" of RPGs). It feels like a second world you can live in, where you can customise the kind of experience you want. As a world it feels cohesive. ME:A just feels ... sparse, hastily populated, where you never really feel as if the choices you make have any real impact on the final outcome. I know that a good RPG plays with the idea that you have the illusion of choice, but I felt with Dragon Age this illusion carried through a lot better, and the game just felt tighter. I'll happily play all the Dragon Age games again (and again). I'm just not sure whether I'll be returning to Mass Effect, even if it's to play the older games.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

I will admit fully that I was horribly afraid that Wonder Woman would be a wee bit overhyped. I mean the cess pit that is media already gave me severe misgivings about whether I wanted to see the film. No, I don't care that she shaves her armpits nor that her thighs jiggle. I mean, FFS, if tooting some sort of identity politics horn is the only reason why you're going to give this film love then well, fuck that.

This is a good film, though. Thankfully. From a pacing perspective and considering character development, this is possibly one of the best blockbuster new cinema I've seen recently (except perhaps for The Arrival).

While I wasn't absolutely floored when I left the cinema, (I've a little issue with super hero films in general and the Curse of Too Much Awesome that seems to bedevil them), I had to recant a little once the husband creature and I had an opportunity to trade our thoughts.

This *could* have been that awful movie that was just put out there to tick feminist boxes. It isn't that movie. Instead we have a very refreshing female hero whose naïveté when faced with a world radically different from her own results in her having reevaluate her stance on the way forward. She goes into battle, amped to take on the Big Bad she's been prepared her entire life to fight, only to discover that the evil she's supposed to root out is a little more complex than that. Now, that's some writing that I like.

The support cast (a Scotsman, a Middle Eastern guy, a Native American ... stop me if you've heard this one) were a little thin on the ground for plausibility, but from a storytelling perspective they served the purpose of reminding Diana of shared humanity is worth fighting for, blah-di-blah ... that sort of thing. That being said, I kinda wanted them to have more than a support cast role and get to know the characters better than just being cardboard cut-outs with a little backstory. But then I'm equally cognisant that you can only do so much in a film, and I've been spoilt horribly by TV series.

Gal Gadot as Diana, however, is as the title of this film suggests, just wonderful, bringing to the screen the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength. Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is your typical bland blond boy who makes me think of a generic Matt Damon type. He was thoroughly unremarkable. Frankly, I found the brief interactions Diana had with Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) to be far more refreshing, and I needed to see more of this. But ja, time. There's only so much you can do without bloating a movie.

Out of all the superhero films I've seen (and I must warn you, I can't tell my DC from my Marvel on the best of days except to say that I fucking HATE all Superman movies) Wonder Woman is most certainly one of the best written and executed where I felt that they didn't just gloss over poor screenplay with piles of CGI. And fuck it, I'm a woman. I dig seeing ladies kicking ass. If I was a little girl... ag, who'm I kidding, I'm still a little girl at heart, it was frigging awesome to have Amazons fuck shit up. It's nice to have films that break from the same tired old stories. And this is about as much whooooo girl power you'll get out of me tonight. Now go watch the film, eat some popcorn and have a good time. Wonder Woman won't disappoint.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A few words with Elaine Dodge, SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment finalist (2014)

A big welcome to Elaine Dodge, one of the finalists of the 2014 SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition, who's here for a quick Q&A. If you've yet to pick up your copy of Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow, you have no excuse – go feed your Kindle app

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

Our actions have consequences and those consequences can open the door to events, people, or darkness which can result in our very souls being enslaved to an evil far greater than any we have ever imagined could possibly exist. And if you don’t know how to fight back, you’re lost.
         
What do you love the most about writing?

I love reading – moving into an alternative reality, fading into a time warp, coming face-to-face with people I’d never meet anywhere else, having adventures which I’d never be able to have any other way. Writing takes that one step further and instead of hoping someone else can provide that magic carpet for me, that door in the cupboard, I can create them myself.

Why does reading matter? 

They say that people who read are more empathetic. I think this is true. But I also believe it goes deeper than that. People who read are often more able to see behind the façade of the words people say, they can read between the lines and are sceptical about takings things at face value. Readers are often more open to new experiences, more ready to take risks, more able to see possibilities where others only see problems. And this is good. The world needs more people who can peel back the canvas, go through the wardrobe, fall through the mirror and come back out with new ideas, new solutions, new dreams and new insights.

An excerpt from "The Man with a House on his Back"

The fog has arrived. Silently, like the breath of the Scythe Man, it has surrounded the cabin and muffled the dogs. The evening meal finished, we sit silently in a half circle, like subjugated felons around the hearth. Even the fire is sullen. The meagre amount of warmth from the pale blue flames is hardly enough to keep the shadows in the corners of the cabin where they belong. My grandfather, Old Jack, sits, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. It’s a night for stories, for dreams of the past. He stirs.
“When I was a child,” he begins...
The forest was thicker. You could walk for days, weeks, without seeing its end. The trees were older and darker. You stayed on the path or you lost your way. And no one would search for you. There were tales of wild beasts, evil spirits and the heads of the dead. It rained. Not like now, but nearly all the time. Even on those strange, dry days the mist hung low in the air, coiled and sliding around the roots of the trees, masking the trails. Hiding the way out.

What other things have you written? 

I have written a variety of short stories of varying genres. Sticking to one genre seems so dull. All my short stories, some of which are my entries to the Writers Write 12 Short Stories in 12 Months Challenge and some are first chapters for future novels can all be read here.

My first novel, a historical romance adventure, Harcourt’s Mountain is set in 1867, in the mountainous wilderness of British Columbia. There’s Indians, bears, wolves, heroes, heroines, baddies, white water, kidnappings, gold, ships, caves and romance. The synopsis, reviews and a variety of buy-links can all be found here.

My second novel, The Device Hunter is my current WIP (work in progress) and I’m nearing the end. This is a steampunk novel and I’m having a lot of fun not just with the writing but with designing ingenious devices! It’s a good thing I have two friends who went to MIT who can advise me when my creations get too convoluted! You can find a ‘wishful thinking cover’ here.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Kamphoer deur Francois Smith

Kamphoer deur Francois Smith was vir my nogal 'n moelike boek om te lees. Die storie self is nie lineêr nie, en skuif tussen die hede en die verlede, soos dit aangaan. Daar is distansie in die hede, terwyl die herinneringe meer persoonlik, onmiddelik is.

Dit is gebaseer op 'n ware verhaal van Susan Nell, wie se familie bywoners was op 'n Vrystaatse plaas gedurende die Anglo-Boereoolog. Toe sy in Winburg se konsentrasiekamp beland het, was sy verkrag deur twee Engelse soldate en 'n joiner, en toe so wreed aangerand is dat hulle haar byna doodgemaak het. Haar liggaam het van die lykswa afgerol en 'n Sotho man, Tiisetso, het haar ontdek. Al was se erg beseer, het hy en sy vrou Mamello, vir haar gesond gemaak en toe vir haar Kaap toe gestuur, waar die fotograaf Jack Perry vir homself oor haar ontverm het.

Ek gaan nie die hele verhaal oorvertel nie, maar gaan maar net uitskets hoe Susan se belang in psigoterapie vir haar gely het om te werk met die wat deur drie oorloë van bombskok gely het. Sy het ook twee van haar verkragters weer ontmoet, maar dié roman handel meestal net met haar tyd by die psigiatriese hospitaal in Engeland.

Kamphoer is 'n ongemaklike storie, en omdat dit op die waarheid gebaseer is, is daar nie 'n bevredigende einde nie. Die tema is die van die stories wat 'n mens vir jouself vertel, en hoe die lewe eintlik maar niks beteken nie – net 'n leë, oorgroeide graf iewers in die veld.