Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin is one of those books I had all the good intentions to read over the years but never quite got round to it. Le Guin was one of my early introductions into SFF, so it was wonderful to return to her writing, and I think as an adult I'm getting a lot more out of her works than I did when I was in my early teens. I do suspect I did have one botched attempt at this book in my younger years, and I'm glad I picked it up now.

As with all her writing, there's a lot going on. This isn't merely an exploration of a new world, though that does offer the template upon which Le Guin builds the story. We discover the world of Winter through the eyes of the human envoy Genly Ai, but it's more than that – Le Guin digs a little deeper beneath the skin, beneath the differences, to discuss what it means to be human.

Then on top of that, there is some discussion about how society orders itself – we learn about two different nations that exist upon Winter: one ruled by a monarchy, the other a communist state. Some of Le Guin's observations, I feel, might even be pertinent today, cautionary tales, even.

While the political intrigues at the start of the story were a bit difficult for me to follow, and the environment itself was hostile (not an easy setting in which to immerse), the process of the novel's unfolding was in itself the reward, and much like life, it took unexpected turns. Le Guin's description for the last part of the story, of the journey, and the challenges faced, reminded me once again of her absolute mastery of language. She is one of those authors who, with a few, deft brush strokes, can paint a detailed, rich image.

The notion of the Gethenians all being one sex wasn't too difficult for me to deal with (here I'm thinking of Storm Constantine's Wraeththu mythos in comparison), and it certainly added to the defamiliarisation Genly experienced.

Central to her story, I feel is the notion of truth, of one's own personal truth, and how one's perceptions of it may change, along with notions of identity. Political intrigue, check. Deep introspection with a smattering of Taoist leanings, check. Part travelogue, check. The Left Hand of Darkness is all this and more, and I suspect it's the kind of book that will keep on giving every time I read it.

I must add that while I was sad to learn of Le Guin's passing this year, I found it easier to accept because of the incredible legacy she's gifted us after a full life.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien

I honestly have no idea who put me onto Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of JRR Tolkien (edited by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A Donovan) but it's proved to be one of my reading highlights for the year so far. If you're reading this review right now, thank you.

Those who know me well, will know that JRR Tolkien has always been my first love in fantasy, so to delve into this selection of essays that re-examines the role of women in the works was an absolute treat.

Everyone who's read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings will know that there aren't that many female characters central to the story. We have Arwen, Eowyn, the lady Galadriel... And unless you've read the Silmarillion, you most likely won't pull up that many more names for female characters in Middle-earth.

I believe the selection of essays in Perilous and Fair, however, redeems Tolkien to a large extent. While the three primary characters I've mentioned are not front and centre in terms of the narrative in the novels, they are, however, not without agency, and each is examined, along with others, such as LĂșthien TinĂșviel, in terms of their power, and especially how male and female power differ and complement each other in Tolkien's Middle-earth.

Through this collection of essays, I've also come to see Tolkien himself in a different light – as a man who though a product of his time and environment, was nonetheless quite progressive in terms of his attitudes towards women (and their education) when compared to peers such as CS Lewis.

A nice touch was also the acknowledgement of the transformative aspects of fanfiction, and its contribution to the fandom as a whole – and a re-envisioning of the world from the perspectives of a woman's experiences within the setting.

Lost Gods by Micah Yongo

I'll start by saying that Lost Gods by Micah Yongo is an ambitious novel, and Micah most certainly bites off a lot of content for readers to chew on as this adventure kicks off. And this is most certainly a book one in a series, with some narrative threads left undone by the end and some fascinating characters who will most likely still go on to uncovering further mysteries.

Firstly, the world building is something that's right up my alley – a wonderful departure from the standard Euro-centric fantasy – that takes on a decidedly African flavour to the setting that is well realised. So, that's a huge thumbs up from me. That being said, Micah has a bit of a tendency towards exposition that could possibly have been reined in a wee smidge. Not that it bothered me too much, because the story does move along at a cracking pace, but there are moments when I feel that the flow has a few hitches. Then again, I'm a bit of a history buff, and while all the names and places did get a bit overwhelming at times, I reckon I remained afloat.

And there were some lovely characters. While we primarily deal with Neythan, and his quest to find his peer Arianna and figure out what on earth went wrong with his first mission as a newly fledged assassin, we do have some of the story from secondary characters who also have important narrative arcs. Perhaps here is a little bit of my wish that we could have seen a little more of them? Then again, some of what they discover I suspect will be important for readers to know later. There were a few moments where I felt that point of view could have been a bit deeper, with a bit more digging in terms of understanding characters' motivations to keep the overarching plot on track, but on the whole the characters are distinct and I cared about what happened to them. So there is that.

There is a lot going on in the story – not only courtly intrigue, but also conspiracies to uncover within an order of assassins, and Neythan (and by default readers) won't have any clue what's really happening, as Neythan is kept off balance the entire time – which I quite enjoyed. I did feel at times that the divine prophecy aspect to the story felt a bit tacked on, and could have had a bit more development, but it added an intriguing dimension to the novel that I'm certain will be developed later on.

While at times I wasn't entirely certain of what the characters' actual goals were (this was a bit muddy, especially near the end), I did enjoy Lost Gods, primarily because it's a breath of fresh air in an incredibly detailed world. There's a lot of lore here, beneath the skin, and for lore junkies like me, that's pretty much irresistible. So a big thumbs up from me, and I'm going to keep an eye on Micah's career.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Garden Birds in Southern Africa by Duncan Butchart

There are dozens and dozens of awesome bird books out there, but Garden Birds in Southern Africa by Duncan Butchart is going to have a special spot on my shelves since it's such a handy little volume. Southern Africa is blessed with rich birdlife, with many species' range in fact having increased over the years since our urban environments provide new opportunities (um, hello, hadeda ibises, Egyptian geese, and guinea fowl, among many). Even more so with savvy gardeners who create environments that provide not only feeding, but nesting for birds.

Garden Birds is a wonderful introduction to this very concept of not only identifying the species that might be common to your particular area, but also how to go about turning your garden into the kind of place birds will, ahem, dare I say it...flock to?

Butchart discusses how folks can make their garden more bird-friendly, not only by investing in the kinds of plants and trees that provide food, shelter and nesting spots, but also how to set up different habitats (such as ponds, thickets or feeding tables) that will satisfy different ecological niches. He also looks at bird behaviour in general before launching into a list of 101 of the most common garden birds in southern Africa. This obviously not an exhaustive list, but he's taken care to select a range that will cover most bases – giving a photograph with a basic description, range and behaviour.

Lastly, he also gives a small list of trees that avid gardeners can plant that will provide either nesting, food opportunities or attract the kinds of prey birds might take. He finishes with a list of national botanical gardens that are worth a visit.

This is the kind of book that will also make an ideal gift for friends or family you know who might be interested in getting into birding or who are already into gardening (or getting into it, and what to be more environmentally conscious). With so much pressure put on our natural spaces thanks to pollution and encroachment, our own gardens provide such important environments for other species – so this book is filled with plenty of useful information to get nature-lovers bringing a little more wilderness closer to home.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker

Some folks learn all the wonderful things about grammar within the hallowed halls of a tertiary institution: I learnt about grammar in the trenches, dug in deep and dirty in newspaper publishing as well as editing piles of books for small presses. Every battle-hardened and weary wordsmith out there will tell you there is more than one way to learn your craft and sharpen your pen, and it's a seemingly never-ending battle against bad grammar and just plain old awful writing.

It's quite possible to ask, do we even need another style manual when there are so many out there, filled with rules and regulations about how you should or should not write? Steven Pinker doesn't think so, and The Sense of Style has been on my radar for a while now.

The problem I have with most style guides is that my eyes glaze over after a few pages and then the book ends up forgotten on a shelf somewhere, making a breeding place for silverfish and dust mites. Not so with The Sense of Style. While Pinker certainly tackles the eye-glazing topic of grammar, he does so in a way that with careful reading (and using his examples) he illustrates how the structure of a sentence works, and also why it's important to understand this. He then goes into how to improve coherence in your writing, and once again, the examples are gold.

He touches also on the tone of our writing – how we must decide whether to use a more relaxed style or remain quite formal, depending on the message and its recipients, whether we're writing a status update on social media or a more formal application for a position at a company. How we use language matters, and often says a lot about us.

In addition, Pinker discusses how language is fluid, how even the greats from the past have broken apparent "rules" (and even where these rules originate). While he is not dogmatic, as some wordsmiths I've encountered are, he will justify any stances he makes. What I take away from this is to be aware of not only the rules but the conventions, and yes, the conventions do shift (like my unfavourite, "literally" as not quite having its literal meaning). He explains why in some cases you should be less of a grammar Nazi, or in the case of "literally", while it still is a good idea to rather not use the word figuratively (due to unintended, somewhat hilarious results).

I found the list of common errors at the end, with their explanations, useful, as well as the glossary. (Can you use affect/effect or lay/lie correctly?) Particularly, his closing line struck me as being profound: "And we can remind ourselves of the reasons to strive for good style: to enhance the spread of ideas, to exemplify attention to detail, and to add to the beauty of the world."

I'm totally down with that. :-) This book has a place in my permanent collection.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Impossible Five by Justin Fox

If I had a Gerald Durrell award on hand to give to Justin Fox for his book The Impossible Five, I'd hand him one for every species he investigates during the course of his research. Justin is one of those rare beasts who can handle fairly serious subject matter (conservation) in a way that is not only highly engaging and sensitively handled, but also filled with touches of humour (I don't think I'll forget his Bugs Bunny asides related to the riverine rabbit in a hurry).

The premise of The Impossible Five is simple: Everyone who goes looking for wildlife sightings in southern Africa seems awfully hung up about the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant) that Justin felt driven to explore what he'd term his "Impossible Five" of species that are next to impossible to see in the wild. After some thought, he decided that these, for him, are the Cape mountain leopard, the pangolin, the aardvark, white lion and the riverine rabbit.

Not only are these critters elusive, but their continued existence remains in the balance thanks to our own species' continued activity on this planet. 

Justin spent weeks in the field, getting to know folks whose passion it is to track and research these animals – from Quinton the leopard man, who walks the length and breadth of the Cederberg, to Linda, for whom the white lions of Timbavati represent something altogether spiritual and magical.

At the heart of this book lies one word: empathy – something that we as a species have collectively lost when it comes to how we interact with our environment. We forget that our ongoing survival is intimately tied into the ultimate fate of the wild things and remaining wilderness. 

This is the kind of book that makes me want to pack my bag and go visit some of the locations that had such an impact on me as a child – and I'm sorely overdue a visit to the Cederberg, where my own brush with a leopard was limited to finding a massive paw print superimposed on my own tracks once I'd turned around along a track I'd been hiking.

Justin motivates us to become patrons and keepers of our wild places, to forge a deeper connection to the world around us and gain an intrinsic understanding of the interconnectedness of all things. This really is a wonderful book, and its author is a keen observer of people and animals, as well as being a gifted storyteller. If you enjoyed Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine's Last Chance to See then most certainly add this one to your collection. Or, if you're like me, and you grew up on a steady diet of 50/50, Gerald Durrell and James Herriot ... then don't miss this one.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Firebird and Empty Monsters joint release day

My fellow Skolion author Cat Hellisen and I decided to celebrate our book birthdays on the same day – February 27. Today I celebrate the release of my new fantasy novella The Firebird, while Cat is releasing her next, long-awaited Hobverse book, Empty Monsters, which tells a piece of the story that happens before events in her novel When the Sea is Rising Red.

So, we’ve shared a little Q&A, and you can read the first bit here… And I’ll provide a link below for Cat’s half of our discussion.

Nerine: Ade fascinates me – he’s a liminal creature who doesn’t quite fit in the role that he has been cast and he exists in an uneasy state that is not wholly of his world. Can you shed a little light about his role as a midwife within his community?  (And he’s not quite an ordinary midwife either.)

Cat: The Onnerys are a family of Hob midwives and they perform the usual midwifery services in their community, but they have one significant difference. The eldest Onnery has an ability to sense magic in others and remove it. They do this because their people are under threat of the colonial powers who would use any trace of Hob magic as an excuse to commit genocide. Ade is interesting in that he was never meant to be the Onnery with power - it’s always the first-born female. He has never actually had to perform the magic-removing, and doesn’t know if he could do it and sentence that child to grow up in need of lifelong care. He’s a strange thing, kept controlled both by his mother and by his own sense of insecurity, but under all that is a person who will find out just how powerful they can be.

You have a fondness for liminal characters yourself, and the conflict that creates as they try find their place. Unia is in a constant struggle to prove her worth - as a member of the order of the Fennar, as a woman in a world where men hold power, as the sister to a traitor, and as a magic user. Even her tribal roots are held against her. What is about Unia that you found most relatable when writing?

Nerine: I think with Unia, what spoke to me the most was that she was absolutely determined to succeed, no matter what the cost – as we discover. With her I draw upon that early certainty I had as a young teenager about truth and, yes, religion – and how that can blind you to a more nuanced way of examining the world. Adversity and her deep-rooted sense of dissatisfaction with life causes her to double down – not always a good thing – and yet that same determination also gives her the bravery to take action when it’s called for. We are sometimes our own worst enemies, if that makes any sense?

But back to Ade – he really does dig himself a deep hole with the choices that he makes, and he has quite a few fetters to overcome. He goes from being quite passive to taking action, which is a joy to behold. What are some of the greatest obstacles that he faces?

Cat: At first glance, his biggest obstacle probably looks like the way he looks and how he has been brought up, but that lack of confidence is something that he overcomes throughout the story. Yes, he’s an anxious figure, but how much of that is something innate and how much is down to the things that were done to him without his understanding or knowledge. So I think for me, the biggest obstacle he faces is his own upbringing. His family and what they have taught him. At the same time, it is his family that provide him support, and his love of family that provides the catalyst for the story. Hard to fight your roots - when what gives you support also cages you.

Family - and the complicated ties that bind us to them - is also prevalent theme in The Firebird. When Unia must watch her brother tortured as an enemy, that stirs up all kinds of warring memories and forces Unia to make some tough choices. Again, I think like Ade, Unia’s biggest obstacles are ones within her.

But let’s talk worldbuilding and symbolism. We’ve both lived many years in the same area in South Africa. I can recognise it in your writing, but can you explain a little more about how where you live influences your worldbuilding in you (gorgeous!) setting for The Firebird.

Now, go visit Cat's site to read the rest of this discussion here.

Buy Empty Monsters here.
Aden Onnery is the eldest son of a family of midwives who use their power to eradicate magic. As a boy, he was never meant to take on the Onnery mantle, but an accident of birth has left him marked and strange. His whole life he has believed that the Onnerys destroy the monsters that will bring the end of his people, until he is forced to enter into a bargain with a magical survivor.

In order to save his sister from the harsh law of the colonial powers, Aden chooses to enter the world outside his experience and go against everything he has been taught to believe. He must help save the very thing his family are meant to exterminate—a magical lineage in his people. In doing so, Aden will confront the truth that the monsters are his own family.

EMPTY MONSTERS weaves magic, family, and love into a bitter tonic about growing up and accepting that even the best intentions can exact a terrible price, and love is never simple.

Buy The Firebird here.
What is true evil? How do you fight it? 

Since she was little, Lada wanted to be part of the Order of Fennarin, one of the warrior-monks who are the last bastion in a war against the demons and insurgents that threaten her island home. Yet to achieve her dream, Lada turned blood traitor, her decision leading to the death and exile of her family.

Her betrayal comes to haunt her now, ten years later, when her elders demand that she oversees her brother Ailas’s trial. Lada feared him lost forever, thanks to his covenant with demons, which makes him anathema to her and her order.

Will she deny her blood and uphold the order that’s become her family? Or will she listen to the whispers of the demons? After all, they might just be telling the truth – though a truth that may make her question everything, even the organisation to which she’s entrusted her very soul.