Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why the reader isn't always right

The other day, someone threw back at me the idea that a reader can use whatever criteria they like when evaluating a work of fiction. They're right, of course, but I'm also going to call bollocks on this statement.

I can take any written work, be it the Bible or Fifty Shades of Grey, and I can read the book any way I want to. I can choose to see either of those titles as the product of a raving lunatic or an expression of pure genius. I might be wrong. I might be right. It all depends on who I am and what my values are.

The Dark Tower movie might fail the Bechdel Test miserably, in my opinion, but I can't use that as the sole criteria to evaluate whether I think it's a good film (or not). (Or even whether it's a half-decent adaption of a Stephen King novel.)

But you see what the problem is here. We're not coming to any objective conclusion as to whether a work has any literary merit whatsoever. How are we evaluating a work?

Welcome to cultural relativism, where everyone's opinion is equally valid and we are incapable of gauging whether a cultural object is ... well ... good.

Before we go haring off into the hinterlands, let's just look at communication. Books are communication. You've got the author, the cultural environment in which the book happens to be published, and you've got the reader.

We'll never know what's really going on in an author's head when they write their masterpiece, but sometimes they'll be interviewed or we'll have access to their journal, or there will be some indication as to what the author's intention was when they were creating a particular work. So, I guess what I'm saying, is keep it in mind that the author may have had particular intentions when they wrote their story, be it to purely entertain or perhaps function as a way to convey opinions. A romance author might intend her story to evoke the feelings of falling in love while a literary author might wish to challenge her readers' opinions about something or the other.

Now a book doesn't just float around in a vacuum. It often relates to other media, is perhaps created in response to or borrows from other texts. (This is called intertextuality, a kind of interplay and understanding of the relationships that happen between works.) Look at Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comics – they discuss and comment upon the huge body of works in comic book culture and, by default, human culture at large. [You can read The Sandman without knowing much about comics, but the experience is going to be so much richer if you do have that background.] So you'd also look at when a book was published, and who published it. You will look at its content in context with other examples of media. You will try to understand a work's relation to all these. So, in essence, you'll look at the bigger picture to give you an idea of where the work fits.

Ask yourself this: Would a novel like Lolita by Viktor Nabokov be published today? Why not?

Now, let's get to the reader. That's you. You don't know what the hell the author was thinking when he wrote the bloody book. Your cultural milieu might be vastly different from that of old Mr Nabokov. Or you might simply never have read enough in a particular genre to gain an understanding of its intertextuality. And now you're reviewing a book. Let's make it a romance novel. A nice, bodice-ripping, breeches-busting rompetty-pompetty. You've never read this sort of novel before. You've only ever read literary novels that are completely embedded with nuance and metaphor, where there're rich, profound cultural references and ideas that make you gaze off into the middle distance pondering the nature of reality.

What's your first reaction?

To be honest, I wouldn't blame you if you tossed that high-octane romance novel across the room so fast it broke the sound barrier. Here's the deal, and it's going to save you a lot of heartache in the future. Evaluate a novel without putting yourself into it, without using your likes/dislikes as the sole barometer as to whether a work is good.

In literary criticism terms, this is when you judge a book based on your own emotions (they call it the affective fallacy and that's all fancy-like). So, you think a character is junk and therefore because you don't like the character, the entire novel is now rubbish. You don't like talking rabbits? Well, that's not the only reason why Watership Down sucks*, is it? What if the author had never intended for a character to be likeable in the first place? Can you see what I'm getting at here? You didn't like the book because there was just sex in it? In fact, more sex than plot? And we all know that only stupid people read sex books, amiright? [That was sarcasm, BTW] Well, how does it compare to other erotica out there? Is it a pulpy small press novel meant to be devoured in one sitting by readers who want to get their panties all squishy and stuck up their butt cracks? You cannot compare this novel to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. For the love of fuck, please don't. They're not even remotely the same beasts. You do yourself a disservice if you do.

So, what can you, as a reader do?

Firstly, read widely and read outside of your chosen genres. Read novels that are considered classics. Maybe take time to read according to theme – like 19th-century Irish authors or the beat poets. Find out what makes the cut-up technique rock. [Fuck it, go read William Burroughs.] Then go read a proper Gothic novel, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Try to paint a broader picture of literature. How does JRR Tolkien compare to Michael Moorcock? Don't just stay in your comfort zone because you're scared of big words. Hell, peaches, there's an entire interwebz out there. Improve your Google-fu if there're ideas or terminology that challenge you. Also, go read reviews for some of these novels. Ask yourself why you agree or disagree with what some of the reviewers say. Try to figure out why someone would come to a particular conclusion.

That's not to say you shouldn't read the books you love. Hell, I always have at least one epic fantasy novel's spine cracked at any given moment. But I do try to read stuff I wouldn't ordinarily dip into, like children's novels, dubcon erotica, military SF, classics, Afrikaans literature, historical...

Understand, mostly, that you have personal likes/dislikes that mean you'll never like a particular type of book. Hell, I'm not advocating that you suddenly develop a passion for political thrillers, but at least understand why a particular political thriller works as a piece of literature (good pacing, strong characterisation) as opposed to another book within the same genre that is poorly written and filled with cliché-ridden characters. Understand why a romance novel may be excellent within its genre even though you're not going to hold it up next to an intense literary masterwork.

I may loathe JM Coetzee's Disgrace with the fury of a thousand rabid camels, but I cannot deny that it's an excellent work of literature, for various reasons that I'm not going to go into now because they'll probably bore us both to tears. I'd sooner get my jollies reading the next Mark Lawrence, in any case. (However I have an idea what books Mr Lawrence has been reading, based on educated guesses related to intertextuality, which makes me quietly smile as I turn those pages.)

So, get to know all sorts of genres. Gain an understanding of what the objective values are that make good literature and how that varies between genres. When you evaluate, keep that bigger picture in mind. Look at the technical and aesthetic reasons why a particular work may be successful (or not), and go from there.

A book isn't just rubbish or a paragon of literary greatness. There are reasons why, and they're often way beyond your own personal likes and dislikes. Granted, you can use your own criteria as a guide, but try to dig a little deeper than, "I think Mr Joe is a horrible person and this book is sucks great big hairy bollocks."

In fact, what you hate about a novel often says a lot more about you than it does about the stupid sod who wrote the blighted thing. Just keep that at the back of mind when you start putting on the hate.

* Okay, I don't think Watership Down sucks, but some people might. In fact, I've cried every time I watched the fucking movie, okay? I just have to hear the song "Bright Eyes" and the waterworks begins.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Guide to Sieges of South Africa by Nicki von der Heyde

I've been interested in the forces that shaped South Africa's history for a long while now, particularly the Anglo-Boer war, so when I had the opportunity to read Guide to Sieges of South Africa (Struik Travel & Heritage, Penguin Random House South Africa 2017) by Nicki von der Heyde, I grabbed the book with both hands.

By no means an exhaustive account, Guide to Sieges of South Africa nevertheless gives a good introduction to some of the conflict that occurred in South Africa, including the frontier wars between the British and the Xhosa, the Zulu, and of course the two Anglo-Boer wars. Nicki's style is engaging and conversational, and brings each siege to life. In addition to a run-down of the individual conflicts, she also sketches an overview of the events that took place that led up to the siege. Each section not only has a wealth of photographic images supporting it, but also information boxes with facts and anecdotes, maps and information for those wishing to use the book as a travel guide. So there's a lot going on here, and it's well put together for such a slim volume.

If anything (and as someone who didn't get the opportunity to study history while at school) I came away with a far better appreciation of my country's tumultuous past and the disastrous effects that European colonisation had on the indigenous people. War is an ugly thing, for sure, but I do believe it's important that we have an understanding of the past so that we don't repeat the same mistakes.

That being said, I found the smaller details, of the day-to-day endurance of defenders and attackers fascinating, how people overcame challenges despite all the horrors around them. All too often I've driven past some of these locations without an understanding of the history attached and the conflict that occurred, and Nicki has done an excellent job bringing this all to life. This is a lovely book that is very much useful to include in a reference library or to enrich your next road trip.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

I'm a horrible, horrible person because I've taken *months* to finish Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1) by Mark Lawrence (Goodreads tells me I started during December last year and it's quite inexcusable, really, that I've tarried so long). But that's what Mark's writing is to me – something to savour. The Red Queen's War is the next trilogy to get into if you've discovered and loved The Broken Empire trilogy.

But let's talk about Jorg Ancrath first, our bad-boy, maverick prince from The Broken Empire. Here we were faced with a delightfully psychopathic adventurer who had absolutely no regard for his own personal safety or long-term survival. Jorg would heedlessly fling himself from one untenable situation to the next, offering astute commentary along the way that signals a lively mind and a somewhat absurd sense of humour.

The howling of readers by the time book three drew to a close, that Mark was *finished* with Jorg... Well, it was adorable. [She says with a smile, gives Mark a high five for stopping when the going is good.]

Sensibly, Mark went on to create an entirely different tone in The Red Queen's War with our new friend Jalan Kendeth, 10th in line to the Red Queen's throne and unashamedly a lying, gambling womaniser, whose healthy sense of cowardice has kept him alive all this time. While Jalan is no Jorg, he's certainly still a smart-mouthed chap, so his explanation of events as they unfurl is half the fun.

Jalan is a reluctant hero. Haring off to the frozen north to face a great evil is the last thing on his mind, but there are larger forces at play in this cracked world where magic is bleeding back in to cause untold chaos. Jalan, and his equally reluctant counterpart Snorri ver Snagason, find themselves bound together as pawns in a game where they don't have all the rules. True to Mark's writing, there is plenty of bloodshed, death, violence, wenching and all the things that soft-hearted, gentle readers may want to avoid.

Evidently I'm not a soft-hearted, gentle reader, so I quite happily followed our two lads from one misadventure to the next. Knowing what I do about Mark's writing, and how he puts his stories together, I'm suitably entertained and looking forward to the other two instalments in the trilogy.

I must add here that I particularly adore Snorri. Part of me feels as if *he* is the actual hero of the story; Jalan is merely the storyteller spinning a saga about a mythic warrior and father on a quest to save his family. On the outside, Snorri appears to be *just* a hulking brute, but slowly the layers are peeled back and you discover a character of great complexity and subtle intelligence. I like it when that happens.

In essence, Prince of Fools is a dudebro quest, so it's probably not going to appeal to those wanting a story that passes the Bechdel test. That being said, there were some cameo appearances that amused me greatly (you'll understand why when you read the book – it does take place during the same time that Jorg has his adventures). And seriously, this was just a huge load of fun to read, gore and all, especially with Jalan's witty observations along the way and some of the unexpected twists that had me shaking my head.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Brigadier and the Spirit Pony by Marga Jonker

Okay, sometimes the books I receive to review end up being a bit of a lucky dip in that I get titles I wouldn't ordinarily read, and Brigadier and the Spirit Pony, by Marga Jonker is most certainly one of those titles. That being said, in the spirit of fairness, I will offer a review as free as possible from my usual biases.

Firstly, I'm not a horse-mad preteen – the age group Jonker's book is most likely aimed at. It's quite clear from the get-go that Jonker knows a lot about the correct care of horses, down to the minute details, (as much as I know about horses, having grown up around a horse-besotted family member). So if you've got a young girl (or boy) in your family of around 10 to 12, who's nuts about horses, then this may well be the book they're going to read in one sitting.

We meet Gabi and Alex, sisters who are dealing with the fact that their estranged father Ben has just come sailing back into their lives. He couldn't be more different from their mom (who has custody), and after years of not seeing them regularly, Ben's understandably awkward – though to give him credit, he tries really hard.

In fact, to give daddy kudos, he's willing to schlep a horsebox containing Gabi's prized horse Brigadier along with them when they go for a stay in a holiday house on an estate situated in the Harkerville forest. But what Ben doesn't at first admit is that his new girlfriend Val will be there too. Awkward. Alex is a bit of a brat, but she does have some redeeming qualities (and reminds me awfully of what I was like at her age).

I'm not going to give exhaustive plot details for fear of spoiling, but we do have some adventure time involving an outride in the forest. We meet a kooky landlady who believes she communes with the forest spirits, and the crazy ex-wife overreacts to The Thing that happens. There's a whiff of a love interest and suggestion of supernatural elements... and there is the solving of a mystery. Not all quite on Nancy Drew level, but still mildly entertaining. Not enough spirit pony, if you ask me.

Granted, I did feel near the end that there was too much chaos with the addition of a prayer group (it felt a bit contrived), so the ending was a bit more complicated than it should have been with the addition of those extra characters and actions, thereby robbing the story of some of its impact, and my feelings are also that mother dearest overreacted a bit too much (there was a scene involving a camera which seemed an odd plot twist – I mean why care so much about what's on Ben's camera when there are bigger issues at stake?) So yeah, those were the two things I didn't buy so much.

I feel if some of this near the ending could have been streamlined, and maybe if the author had dug a little deeper with the development of the Big Adventure We Won't Go Into Depth About, the tension could have been a bit more twisty and stronger, which is what I felt this story needed.

Overall, this is a light, horsey read, and I'd quite happily pass this on to the age group I've mentioned. Gabi's a great character in that she is so level-headed when in a stressful situation, and I think she's a great lead character – a resourceful young woman who pretty much handle herself when she's in trouble.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Fanfiction round-up for August (better late than never)

I suppose I shouldn’t brag that I’m getting to beta read bits of the *next* Schattenriss novel before it drops, and let me tell you, it’s absolutely fabulous. But enough teasing. And yes, for those of you who’re absolutely devastated that my Scions of the Inquisition is now complete, never fear. I am busy writing my next epic, which will be a crossover with Labyrinth involving everyone’s favourite necromancer when he comes up against Jareth the Goblin King. (To be honest, I’ve had quite a few people beg me to write this, so I’m glad I finally have the opportunity.)

Some folks have asked whether I’ll be writing a sequel for Scions, and the answer is a “not for the present”. Sometimes it’s best to end a story at a “happy for now” and leave it up to readers’ imagination lest I invoke the curse of Too Much Awesome that seems to bedevil series. Besides, there are thousands of stories out there still to be told, and I will only have the time for a fraction of them before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

This month, however, I’m going to point you in the direction of another of the Schattenriss misadventures for Kai, Dorian and co. when a pub crawl in Orlais goes horribly south Scenes From an Inquisition – A Night on the Town. I won’t spoil, but will add that I’m desperate to try my hand at drawing Ira. I guess you’ll have to wait and see who or what Ira is. But, be warned, this story does hint at a little Lovecraftian horror, so expect … Stuff. The party banter alone makes this well worth the read.

Another author I’ve added to my subscription list is ThirdPretender. While I’m busy with one of their longer works (which I’ll go on about once it's done, I’m going to point you in the direction of their story The Consequences of Crying Wolf. It’s a wangsty Solavellan piece, but what makes it so fabulous is that it’s the result of a story prompt (you’ll see the prompt at the bottom). I promise you the piece will kick you in all the feelz. Real quality writing too.

That's all for now. If some of you have a Dragon Age fic you'd like to recommend for me to review on my blog, let me know. Put "Dragon Age Fic" in the subject line and motivate me in the body of the email. I like narrative-driven stories, so perhaps lay off the fluff, but if there is an overriding reason why you think I should read a story that may not be my usual fare, I'm willing to listen. Also, if you're an artist who'd like to be featured, I'm always happy to share the link to your chosen website if your art works for me. Let me know.

Friday, September 1, 2017

RiftHealer by AC Smyth

Okay, so I'm done with the Changers of Chandris trilogy by AC Smyth, and my feelings remain mixed. What I loved about this was the setting, which was so radically different from the usual euro-centric fantasy fare. We have an island ravaged by the effects of colonisation. We have people whose cultures are being slowly eroded. We have intrigue. We have disasters related to a magical volcano that offers powers to certain people who can link to their spirit kye and shift into bird forms. Some of these "changers" also have further talents. All this blends quite nicely into a complex world with some interesting developments all round.



While books 1 and 2 maintained a decent pace, I felt as if Rifthealer (book 3) was essentially just an extended epilogue. Even though there was conflict related to the primary antagonist in the previous two books, it didn't have the same tension. In fact, I felt the dealing with the antagonist in the previous two books felt too easily resolved.

I *did* enjoy reading because I was invested in the characters themselves, but I felt as if the stakes weren't quite high enough. We have quite a few threads happening, and a large cast of characters, but I felt as if there should have been a bit more punch to the ending. Not that it was bad, and I must add that the resolutions were satisfying because I wanted to see where the characters ended up.

The Changers of Chandris is an accessible fantasy trilogy with an m/m theme (which is refreshing in itself). It has a lot going for it overall, however misses the mark just ever so slightly with its (figuratively) moustache-twirling antagonists who revel in revealing their evil plots and the slacking off of the narrative tension by book three. All that considered, I still enjoyed it, and the story does have a lot going for it, even if some of the plot arcs could have been better executed.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Toby Bennett, Bloody Parchment 2014 Finalist

I think Toby Bennett has probably been one of the most regular Bloody Parchment finalists; in fact I think there have only been two issues where he *didn't* appear. His writing is a particular brand of ... dare I say it ... whimsical, playful horror. But he writes pretty darn awesome range of fiction too (go check out his Amazon page). 

His story in Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow is a retelling of an old favourite fairy tale ... but not quite how you'd imagine it. But here we have a short Q&A with the man. Come on in... Draw up a chair and sit closer to the fire.

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

The loss of innocence.

When I first thought of the idea I was remembering those fairy tales they told about frog princes and it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if the princess turned into something slimy…

What do you love the most about writing?

Love? You mean I have a choice?! The fact is I have a relentless need to express myself and tell stories. There is no sensation that I find as worthwhile as when a story comes together just so and I realise I’ve said exactly what I wanted to at the outset… of course that doesn’t happen every time and as with any meaningful relationship … it can get complicated.

Why does reading matter? 

I think what really matters is stories – the stories we know and tell ourselves define us and how we see the world around us.

If I had a budget of millions and a thousand elephants I might be making movies right now, but writing has one huge advantage and that is that it is probably the most immediate way for an individual to share their story…

Oh and there’s also an immense amount of satisfaction to be had from slinging words… that is a dragon that every writer has to chase.

An excerpt:
“How long had I waited in this place?
A dragonfly lumbered past me, his abdomen heavy and swollen. I shifted my gaze to follow the iridescent insect. A strange fascination began to grow in me. My fingers twitched, would I be fast enough to catch it?
“Here.” The voice startled me and I looked down. The frog held the ball out to me with a hand only slightly smaller than my own. I took it gingerly. Green slime oozed away and the metal beneath glistened in the grey light of the garden.
“Kisss?” It raised itself out of the water. Waiting.
I wanted to be sick just looking at it, but I had given my word.
I lowered myself to its level until I was looking directly into those bulging eyes. I set down the ball and it tipped slightly, forcing it down in the mud to stop it rolling.
I crawled closer.
The thick mud squelched up between my fingers and clung to my knees. I had neglected to keep my dress from falling into it, so the fabric was soon filthy and drenched.

What other things have you written?

My most recent release is Umbra, the story of a young boy’s struggle to reunite a shadow with her body in a city where shadows are treated as a commodity.

I have also written Viral with Benjamin Knox

I have several older novels available on Amazon Kindle including:
Heaven’s Gate, The Silent Song and The Endless Ocean
… the list goes on…

As far as horror and short fiction goes I had my Co-written story DreamShock in the Lovecraft  eZine, and I was very happy to have “Sacrament of Tears” published in African Monsters. I regularly release a collection of holiday themed horror stories in the annual Creepy Christmas collection.

I’m also finishing up work on the audiobook of my novel Cave Canem.

I keep threatening to revamp my website – check that out for more.