Monday, May 8, 2017

Blood, The Phoenix and a Rose by Storm Constantine

Blood, the Phoenix and a Rose: An Alchymical Triptych by Storm Constantine is, as the name suggests, a collection of three loosely interwoven stories that are set in her Wraeththu mythos. And yes, there is an alchemical theme. For those who're not in the know, this setting is one of her enduring (and endearing) worlds that offer us the tales of the Wraeththu – androgynous beings who are mankind's heirs after humanity is pretty much wiped out by its own efforts. In this setting, fantasy and science fiction blend to offer us an alternate future, where those who would name themselves hara have a second chance to do better.

"The Song of the Cannibals" begins at the mansion of Sallow Gandaloi, where the arrival of a stranger upsets the careful balance of the household. One of the hallmarks of Storm's writing is her love of architecture and how those who reside within the walls interact. This is a story about a har who hides a heart of darkness within, and those hara who do not tread carefully around he who is known as Gavensel.

"Half Sick of Shadows" continues with Gavensel's attempts to delve into his mysterious past, but this time it's told from his point of view as he strives to peel pack the shroud. He is mired in darkness, which is a danger to those who don't handle him with care.

"A Pyramid of Lions" provides us with a window into the world of Vashti, a har who grew up on the breeding farms of the infamous Varr tribe familiar to those who've read the primary books in the mythos. He is pragmatic in approach, and while at first it's not entirely clear how far his story tangles with Gavensel's, this will become clearer later.

I can't truly look at the stories as separate entities, and I'm going to be straight here – if you've not already read the other books in the series, it's probably best to wait with this one until you've done so, as there is a lot of backstory that is referenced that will make no sense to you otherwise.

To those, who like me are lore junkies, this triptych will fill in a lot of blanks, and especially offer insights into the world of the Varr tribe under the rule of Ponclast. The revelations are uncomfortable and deeply frightening as well, because they show how close the Wraeththu as a whole came to falling into darkness, stagnation and destruction as the human race.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Para Animalia: Creatures of Wraeththu

Right, so this is not a review, but I still feel like I should talk about the anthology even though I have two stories in it. Those who know me have an idea how much I love Storm Constantine's Wraeththu mythos. The premise is simple: Mankind bollocksed up one last time and through a genetic mutation the hermaphrodite Wraeththu race came into being – heirs to a ravaged earth. They are magical beings who have the power to both great good and ill, and it's clear that they are near and dear to Storm's heart.

However Storm's done what few other creators of worlds have done: She's opened her mythos to other writers to explore, and this anthology, Para Animalia: Creatures of Wraeththu is but one of a number of existing collections of short fiction that involve other authors. The theme here is self-evident – exploring the relationship between har and creature (har/hara being the term Wraeththu refer to themselves).

Storm's fans will be glad to know that she has two stories here, as well as two offerings from her long-time editor Wendy Darling. Other regulars, such as Martina Bellovicova, Maria J Leel, and ES Wynn are also present (and whose stories I adore). This time I had the wherewithal to write not one but two tales, which gave me such joy.

Fabulous beasts that feature include snakes, dragons, dogs, wolves and owls, among others. I explored my love for owls by writing an owl companion (that I admit I tend to do often in my writing, and I blame Jareth the Goblin King for that), as well as a tale exploring the bond between a har and his pack of African wild dogs. I'm grateful that Storm has given me free rein to play in my conception of Africa, but the other stories take place all over.

As always, the quality of writing is of a high standard, with some stories standing out more for me than others. A particular favourite for me was "Medium Brown Dog", mainly because of the dog's pragmatic and (unintentionally) humorous observations of hara. You don't necessarily need to have read previous Wraeththu mythos novels to understand what goes on in the setting and, if you still have to, then this is a wonderful opportunity for you to dip your toes into mythos as there is a broad range to give you little slices. This collection will especially appeal to fantasy readers who love animals.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Snitch by Edyth Bulbring, a review

The first thing you notice about this edition of Snitch by Edyth Bulbring, is the cover, which reminds me of some of the vintage Adrian Mole diaries (with some of the absurd humour). But all resemblance ends there because while our protagonist is awkward, he's no Adrian (and for that I'm grateful). And, while this is a YA book, typically of Edyth's writing, it goes much, much deeper. 

Ben Smith is what we can consider your everyday troubled teen. He lives with his mom, Sarah, and his sister Helen (who has blue dreads), as well as their aptly named dog Terror. His dad passed away when he was little, but his "uncle" Charlie visits often.

Without spoiling the story for you, I'll say this much, that we follow the heartaches and trials of Ben's school career when he is the subject of terrible bulling for Reasons [redacted due to spoilers]. The bonds of friendship and family are severely tested as Ben endures his ordeals ... and experiences that very first teenage love.

If I have to look at an underlying theme that runs through this book, it's about overcoming the labels that others apply to you. Bulbring's writing is at times humorous and poignant. She remains, as always, a keen observer of interpersonal relationships and how we often damage each other without meaning to. Snitch is accessible and highly enjoyable, and I'll add, not just for younger readers. And she's very much in touch with the issues that affect those who are coming of age.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Dark Alchemy, edited by Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois – a review

This is one of those books that I bought ages and ages ago that just lurked on my TBR pile, making me feel awfully guilty for years. I'd thought, at the time of purchase, that this collection was for adults, and indeed there was no indication on the cover that this is a YA read, but there you have it. This is YA fantasy. Not that I'm complaining, because the stories were of a consistently high quality.

I admit there is only one reason that I purchased the anthology, and that was because of Neil Gaiman – my reckoning being that any anthology he appears in will be of a sufficiently high standard, and overall, I wasn't wrong in this assumption. His story, "The Witch's Headstone" is part of the same setting as The Graveyard Book and really is as charming and dark as any typical Gaiman tale.

Garth Nix's "Holy and Iron" goes back to the ancient conflict in the British Isles, stock standard fantasy fare and a tale underpinned by the bonds of blood ... and resolving ancient conflict.

Kage Baker's "The Ruby Incomparable" gave me joy, as it harks back to classic-style storytelling that is conscious of itself within the framework of a god-like storyteller. A very well developed voice.

It was lovely also to see a Peter S Beagle story here – "Barrens Dance" had all the wonderful mythic qualities that are hallmarks of his writing, even if I'll never be certain what exactly a shukri looks like, and maybe that's all right too...

"The Manticore Spell" by Jeffrey Ford also struck me as a stand-out piece, with much sorrow and beauty attached to it.

Of course Tanith Lee's inclusion with the story "Zinder" is a treat. She deserves far more mainstream recognition for her contribution to the genre over the years. The story itself is surprising, and takes twists and turns that I could not predict.

Oh man, and the Gene Wolfe story, "The Magic Animal", was lovely. I can see why the editors left that one till almost last. I stopped reading there as Orson Scott Card is on my DNR list due to his attitude towards LGBTI people. I know folks say that one should separate the art from the artist, but I cannot in good conscience read his work.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Introducing Existentialism by Richard Appignanesi, Oscar Zárate – a review

Existentialism is one of those topics that the more you try to pin it down, the more it refuses; at least that is my experience of it. There is no "quick" way to explain the philosophy, but Richard Appignanesi has provided an oft-tongue-in-cheek volume here that, I feel, acts as a suitable introduction. Granted, most of the concepts he doesn't go into any real great depth, but it should be enough of a taster to provide groundwork for further reading.

Central to what I can gather is that by applying meaning to life, we are in a sense boxing it in, restricting it, when all the different meanings that people might apply to one thing would differ. How I perceive a the colour red, will shift slightly from how someone else does, based on their own life experiences and innate subjectivity. Existentialism attempts to see things "as things in themselves". As we are, we are never aware of existence in its entirety.

The book also examines how it is possible for one to have "bad faith", and engage in self-deception, especially when considering the absurdity of life. And there is quite a bit of discussion on how essentially awful our existence is, because it is limited, and because we are aware of our own incipient mortality.

So, we live life without hope of appeal, in what can be described as a series of "present" moments. Are we a ghost in the machine, an illusion of self? Existentialism may also be about the destruction of boundaries between this illusion and the world around it. Being is that which happens to us, a stream of flowing "nows", and it is limited by time. So how is it that we do not plunge into nihilism? Are we condemned to mean something, not be it?

What I gather is that one should return to a living experience as opposed to trying to structure existence by imposing meaning. Of course I could also be horribly wrong, and need to spend more time reading on the subject.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Shortlist for the 2017 Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature

Okay, so generally I don't just copy/paste press releases to my blog unless it's super awesome, and trust me, my precious dah-lings, this one's bloody super awesome. Yes, I'm a finalist for this prestigious award and I can't even begin to tell you how much the announcement has rocked my world. Those of you who're close to me know the many years' blood, sweat and toil that I've put into my writing, so to have gotten this far tickles me pink.

The story I wrote is about adventuring dwarven lasses who save their village from a rampaging dragon. And there's a witch. And a really cute baby dragon. And loads of action. And girls who don't want to be pigeonholed, and who want to be heroes... on their own terms. And, and, and ... You're going to have to read it when it's eventually ready.

A huge-ass congratulations to the other finalists! Now, to survive until October.

Oh, and have a celebratory sparkler.
















SHORTLIST FOR THE 2017 SANLAM PRIZE FOR YOUTH LITERATURE ANNOUNCED

Sanlam and Tafelberg are proud to announce the finalists for this year’s Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature. Six finalists are included in each category: English, Afrikaans and African languages. The total prize money amounts to R54 000: R12 000 for the winner (gold) and R6 000 for the runner-up (silver) in each category.

The finalists in the English category are:
Nick Wood from London;
Nerine Dorman from Welcome Glen, Cape Town;
Lesley Beake from Stanford;
Joanne Hichens from Muizenberg;
Erna Müller from Windhoek; and
Jayne Bauling from White River.

The finalists in the Afrikaans category are:
Nellie Alberts from Calvinia;
Annerle Barnard from Bloemfontein;
Jan Vermeulen from Despatch;
Carin Krahtz from Centurion;
Riana Scheepers from Wilderness; and
Jelleke Wierenga from Napier.

African languages contenders are:
Nguni languages
Dumisani Hlatswayo from Cosmo City, Johannesburg;
Siphatheleni Kula from Butterworth (Eastern Cape); and
Thabi Nancy Mahamba from KwaNdebele (Mpumalanga).

Sotho languages
Mathete Piet Molope from The Tramshed, Pretoria;
Thabo Kheswa from Bophelong, Vanderbijlpark; and
Lebohang Jeanet Pheko from Meloding, Virginia.

Tshivenda languages
Lazarus Mamafha from Kutama, Zimbabwe; and
Thilivhali Thomas Mudau from Rosslyn, Pretoria.

Xitsonga languages
Musa Given Sithole from Kempton Park.

The winners will be announced in October 2017 and the prize-winning books will be available in bookshops and in e-book format shortly thereafter.

The Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature was launched in 1980 and is awarded every second year. This year Sanlam introduced the “250 Words a Day” campaign to make the competition more accessible to young and upcoming writers. By joining the “250 Words a Day” group on Facebook, entrants had access to a panel of renowned authors who acted as writing mentors. To motivate would-be authors to complete their manuscripts before the closing date of 7 October 2016, they were encouraged to write 250 words every day. Author and mentor Page Nick says she loved being part of the project. “The thought of writing a whole book all at once is overwhelming, but breaking it down into chunks makes it much more doable. Congratulations to every writer who finished a piece and submitted it to the competition, it's a huge achievement.”

Apart from making the competition more interactive and reaching a broader audience, the total amount of entries grew by 60 from the previous round.

Number of entries per language:
English: 55
Afrikaans: 33
Zulu: 14
Venda: 7
Xhosa: 7
Xitsonga: 5
Ndebele: 4
Sesotho: 4
Setswana: 3
Sepedi: 2

"As Wealthsmiths, we have a deep understanding of and respect for what it takes to turn the twenty-six letters of the alphabet into something of great value.  The Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature celebrates writers’ ability to make the most of what they have. Their books create enriching experiences for our youth and have the ability to take readers on journeys that will make them cry, or scare them, and to places that will stay with them forever," says Elena Meyer (Senior Manager:  Sponsorships for Sanlam).

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Scarred by Joanne Macgregor – review

What Joanne Macgregor does well is get inside the heads of young adults, and she does so admirably in Scarred. Some people carry their scars on the outside, and for others, though they may appear perfect from the outside, they carry their wounds deep within.

Sloane Munster (and here I was nearly groaning at her surname) was in a horrible car accident in which her mother died. And since then she's been struggling to come to terms with not only the loss (and their relationship had been far from perfect) but also dealing with the disfiguring scars that mar her body. Knowing how important outward appearance can be for young people, this is especially tragic.

Yet Sloane gets by. But there's more guilt to heap on top of things. She has the hots for Luke Naughton, the somewhat arrogant swimming star. But, as we discover, there are Reasons (with a capital R) why Sloane can't be completely honest with Luke about her past. And Luke himself, has Reasons (yes, I'm being deliberately vague because SPOILER ALERT) why he might not accept Sloane for who she really is.

So it's a dance between these two lovely, damaged souls and the push-pull of their attraction for each other in what is a very deftly handled teen romance with a side order of drama. But it's more than just a romance; it's also about how we discover ways in which we continue with life after tragedy, scarred but still alive, still trying to assimilate the fragments that remain.

But Macgregor also treats other issues, such as school bullying, and how different people either fracture or become more resilient in the face of others' cruelty. So yes, there was a bit more going on in this book than your stock-standard YA read, and I commend the author for that (and it's also the reason why I award her a full five stars).

We are never whole again (if we ever were to begin with) but we have no choice but to continue, because life isn't fair.

Okay, so far as reviews goes, I'm getting meta here, which is a bit more than I should be.

The setting is generic USA-ville, though there is a part of me that would have wanted to see a more regional, local flavour to add a bit more dimension to the story (but I understand why the author made the choice). Yet this is a solid read, and the characters have authentic voices, even if I wanted to shout at them to stop being so pig-headed. If you're looking for your next contemporary teen read, this is a goodie. Pick it up; it won't disappoint.