Thursday, December 14, 2017

What About Meera by ZP Dala

What About Meera by ZP Dala is one of those books I chose to read because I knew it would take me way out of my comfort zone, and not only that, but show me a slice of life I'm not privy to. Also, please just take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the cover. Just a little bit. It's even prettier when admiring the book in real life.

The blurb on the back goes on about the book being "full of black humour" and goes on about a "woman's attempts to shape her own destiny" but that makes it sound somewhat uplifting. This is, as the title, a story about Meera, an Indian South African woman who grew up on a sugar cane farm in Tongaat, but if I had to think of a subheading for the book, it would be more along the lines of "awful people being awful". And there are many awful people in this book who cross paths with Meera.

Dala digs deep beneath the skin of the South African Indian culture, examining the relationships between parents and children, wives and husbands, and the power structures that exist in communities. This is not an easy read, and truth be told, I found nothing at all humorous. Not even darkly humorous. Just crushingly dark and unrelenting – the way I like my books.

ZP's storytelling flows between past and present, sometimes digressing to show us more about the people in Meera's life and giving you an idea of what motivates them to be ... well ... the awful people doing the awful things.

I'll also have you know that I find this kind of digging under the skin absolutely lush, and some of the imagery is just perfect (like the wedding where the marigolds and human ordure accidentally met) so don't for one moment think I don't like it – I do. Even if the story is heartrending, even if you find yourself shaking your fists impotently at the situations Meera finds herself in.

At first she is passive, accepting an arranged marriage, accepting others' decisions for her, but there comes a time when the cumulative cruelty others mete out becomes too much, and Meera cracks. At first she runs back to her parents, but here she is a woman who doesn't know her place. "Go back to your husband," they keep telling her, but instead she flees to Dublin, of all places, in a desperate attempt to find something for herself.

And for a while it seems that she's doing all right, that is until she has a passionate affair with an Irishman ... which drives her to The Awful Thing. And it is awful. Truly godawful. And I find it difficult to forgive her. But I do have empathy for her. Meera is broken. Her responses are as a result of the brokenness of her upbringing and her desperate attempts to gain direction in her life (and her eventual failure to do just that).

ZP doesn't flinch from ugliness. In fact, she purposefully holds up that cracked, dirty mirror so that we may examine ourselves and how we relate to others. This is not an easy book to read, but I savoured every chapter and the fluidity of the telling that went at exactly the pace it needed to go, even when it digressed to nearly surreal moments that, I feel, did well to express Meera's desperate situation.

If you're looking for hope, for some sort of reassurance of something better, this is not your book. What About Meera is an evocative, dark existentialist fugue that revels in the brittle, broken parts of human nature; it's about the realisation that we are all, in a sense, victims of circumstances and there is no escape. It's about not getting the words to the song right, and being okay with that. And then revelling in the absurdity of life, in its short, nasty and brutish nature.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Kingdom of Daylight: Memories of a Birdwatcher by Peter Steyn

A little back story here: When I was in primary school, Standard 4, or thereabouts, I won a book prize for my academic activities and my class teacher gave me the Robert's Bird Guide for the southern African region. Little did that teacher know that they would be sparking a life-long interest in our avian friends (not that I needed much nudging, since I had grown up on a steady diet of nature documentaries and was still hell bent on going into nature conservation*).

So, imagine my frabjous joy when Peter Steyn's Kingdom of Daylight: Memories of a Birdwatcher landed on my desk. [Serious bird geek here, all right?]

Anyhow, here's the low-down for those who don't know about Steyn. Though he started out as a teacher, his all-consuming passion for the study and photography of birds led him to eventually go full time with his interest, and this man has written piles of books. Piles. And his photos are just bloody marvellous. His patience for sitting in a hide to snap that one perfect shot makes me realise exactly how much work goes into those wonderful bird books I took for granted when I was younger (yes, I own a hardcover, first edition of The Complete Book of South African Birds that my parents couldn't really afford to buy for me at the time but did anyway.)

Kingdom of Daylight is, in a nutshell, Steyn's summary of his adventures throughout his life, from his boyhood in Cape Town, to the years he spent in Zimbabwe before moving back to Cape Town. Each chapter deals with a location or a specific trip, and discusses not only the many birds he saw there, but also offers glimpses into the lives of the people who're movers and shakers in ornithological circles, as well as some background in his experiences while travelling. And this man has travelled...

There are times when I wish there'd been more space for more photos, because really, the many smaller images in the side panels are a little on the tiny side, so the layout really doesn't do them justice – even though they do give a better idea of the overall scope of Steyn's experiences. At times I did feel that the writing was a wee smidge on the dry side, but overall I realise that he has so much information that he needs to impart in only so much space.

Also, I'm really inspired now myself to sort out my stuff so that I can travel to some of the destinations Steyn has – especially locations like Madagascar and other parts of the African continent. He most certainly has lived a remarkable life. If anything, Steyn reminds me to slow down and really appreciate my own environment because it's not just those exotic birds on any birdwatcher's life list, but most certainly also in the joy of observing the birds I see in my garden every day. Five bats out of Auntie's hat for Peter Steyn.

* Fortunately I did something sensible, and studied graphic design, because in hindsight, as much as I love nature, I don't fancy being chased by elephants or acting as a glorified nanny for foreign tourists at some larny private game reserve.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Thousand Steps (Elevation #1) by Helen Brain

First off, I must add, that Helen Brain's The Thousand Steps (the first of her Elevation trilogy) has scored what I think is quite possibly the best-looking cover for South African youth literature that I've seen in a long, long time. Wow. It's the kind of book that just begs to be picked up and admired.


The story itself stood out for me because while it plays on the usual "chosen one" riff that is so common in SFF, it does so with originality and nuance that I find is so often lacking in the genre. There's a lot going on under the skin.

Ebba den Eeden, our protagonist, starts out life in an underground bunker, where she and two thousand other young people are set to work shifts producing food for their community. Or so they think. She's led to believe that the world outside their bunker has been destroyed during a great cataclysm. That is, until she is miraculously "Elevated" at the eleventh hour before her execution, that is. (A rescue in the nick of time that seems awfully convenient, if you ask me.)

Ebba's Cape Peninsula is vastly different to the one we know today, and I loved seeing an environment I know defamiliarised. The higher sea level means that the mountain chain of the region has become a string of islands, and the communities living there have a hard life: food is scarce and the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is tremendous.

Coping with this sudden turnaround in her world, from being but a lowly drudge to one of the elite, is not easy, and while on one hand I felt that Ebba herself lacked agency in book one, this was, I believe, in keeping with her character development – she is way out of her depth and struggling to know her place and understand the power that she can wield.

Yet her intentions are good, even if her naïveté is painful, and though I cringed often as I saw her trying to navigate this society in which she found herself, her words and deeds come from a good place. It cannot be easy for a girl who's followed orders her entire life to kick against an authoritarian regime has infiltrated nearly every facet of the people's lives. Ebba is very much in a gawky phase in this story, where she hasn't fully grasped her power – so expect her to make mistakes and flounder a bit, and for others to take the initiative.

There are some lovely secondary characters, like Isi the dog and, of course, Aunty Figgy, whose special brand of magic happens in the kitchen. The world Helen conjures up feels tactile, as if it could possibly just exist in a slightly left-of-parallel universe. Yes, yes, in case you're asking, there is a kinda love triangle. Well not quite. But you'll have to see. I did feel as if the love interest was a bit quick on the draw, but then again there's a lot happening, and we get to the end of book one at a rapid rate.

I must add that much of book one does come across like an extended introduction to the setting, giving us all the main players and an indication of conflict – so don't expect any closure. There are loads of threads left hanging, and I'm looking forward to seeing how Helen will weave them together.

Where Helen shines is that she has a keen eye for understanding how people interact, especially in the subtexts of non-verbal communication, and indirect characterisation, which she brings across often so poignantly. There's a part of me that wishes the story could have been expanded, so that we could've dug deeper. (Though this may also be due to the fact that I'm used to reading doorstoppers, so don't mind me too much.) My biggest criticism was that the action sequences felt a bit rushed, glossed over and cause-and-effect not quite established, but the the sheer depth and breadth of her well thought-out world building, and an entire mythology to unpick, more than makes up for this.

My verdict: This is a super awesome story. It reads quickly, and there's much to unpack, and I'm looking forward to seeing where Helen takes this. Five bats squeaking out of auntie Nerine's hat for The Thousand Steps.

Monday, October 23, 2017

City of Masks by Ashley Capes

City of Masks (Bone Mask Trilogy #1) by Ashley Capes is one of those review books that has been languishing in my Kindle app for far too long, so I pressed on and finished it. I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand I really, really wanted to like it because the world that Capes introduces us to is rich in lore. We have Anaskar, a port city, that is guided by those who wear the Greatmasks – objects of power that imbue the wearer with certain powers. We have the Mascare – an elite secret police, masked of course, who police the city. The society itself is almost Venetian in its Machiavellian power struggles as people attempt to work their way to literally living in the top tier of the city.

Characters are certainly diverse as they are fascinating – we meet Sofia, who's caught in the middle of an awful betrayal. We have Notch, an erstwhile city guard now reduced to Mercenary. We have the mysterious innkeeper Seto, who is most certainly more than he appears to be. Flir is an exceptionally strong woman. As in supernaturally strong. I won't spoil where she gets her powers. Throw all these misfits together, and you've certainly got an interesting dynamic going. Add in a few mysterious dangerous beasties too, as well as a pair of tribesmen on a holy mission ... and things become downright chaotic.

Look, the story was interesting. I never once wanted to throw the book across the room (besides breaking my iPad) but I felt that many of the important plot threads didn't *quite* hang together as nicely as they could have. I can see there were touches were a little foreshadowing happened, but this seemed slightly tacked on and by the by, and nearly coincidental. I wanted more. This book could have been about a third longer just so that the threads could have been a lot more strongly woven more thoroughly enhanced, deeper. Characters sometimes behave in ways that lack sufficient motivation as well. There are odd little bits thrown in that don't quite go anywhere. Or events that are not quite fully explained, though I hope they are developed in the books that follow.

Is this a worthy read? Yes. I'll add that some of the stuff that bothered me was the kind of stuff that I'd have caught while doing an assessment. I couldn't quite take off my editor hat while reading, which suggests that this novel could have been pushed a bit harder during editing. But it's not a deal breaker. I was still engaged. I still cared about the characters, and to be quite honest, this will most likely not even bother most readers.

There is a rich world here, full of interest, and City of Masks has moments where it shines, which makes it a solid read for those who love fantasy with a sense of immense lore and layers of mystery.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Not-Quite September fanfiction round-up

This was totally meant to be the September fanfiction round-up but then I wanted to finish this massive AU Solavellan fic called Schooling Pride by AnaChromystic. I’ll give a big-ass disclaimer and say that I normally *don’t* do AUs, but this one tickled me. The writing’s not perfect. My inner editor wanted to slice and dice because the pacing is a bit uneven in places, but considering that I stuck it through to the end, the payoff was great. There’s no magic in this modern Thedas, and Solas is the adopted scion of a messy, horrible wealthy family. The story is all about how an initial hate-fuck with a rebellious Ellana Lavellan turns into something deeper, and how together they help him break away from his abusive family. The ending gives all the feels. I’d hazard to say that this deviates so far from lore nearly all the serial numbers have been filed off, but I still found something oddly compelling about this piece, and the writer gives a lot of emotional depth.

PridetotheFall is a writer I’ve been following for a while on AO3 and I was super happy when I saw that they’ve got a new piece up. Ashes and Embers is a one-chapter piece that takes us right to the beginning of the events transpiring in Inquisition. Major plot spoilers: If you’ve not finished Trespasser, then for the love of dog don’t read this story. It’s told from Solas’s point of view. Enough said. For those of us who’re madly and passionately still in Solavellan hell, this story is *just* right. Everything about this story is perfect. The nuances, the layering, the descriptions. Hell, this writer can (and probably should) think about writing original fiction and trying to put themselves out on the market. Enough gushing. Go read it if you think this will be your thing. It’s part of their Beautiful Chains series, which I’m now going to go finish.

It was Cullen Appreciation Week recently, so my friends Sulahn and withah collaborated on a piece called Strange Behaviour – which I then beta-read. I’m a huge Cullen fan (you wouldn’t think so, but jawellnofine, I won’t lie) and this piece nails our favourite Commander’s tone perfectly. It’s a sweet bit of LavellanXCullen warm fluff.

And of course I’m totally enjoying part two of withah’s Warded Heart series – especially wonderful for all the Cullenites out there. This story picks up with Cullen and the Hero’s happy-for-now as they navigate their new marriage and the little one on its way in the midst of the events that transpire during the battle with Corypheus. Not the best time to be raising littlies… But what I love about this story is the way the two characters are often at cross purposes because of their outlooks on the mage/templar conflict.

That’s it for now. If you have any pieces to suggest, mail me at nerinedorman@gmail.com



Monday, September 25, 2017

The Gloaming

A little experiment of mine, in design and illustration.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Riven Kingdom (The Godspeaker Trilogy #2) by Karen Miller

The Riven Kingdom (The Godspeaker Trilogy #2) by Karen Miller is part of my catching up of all the fantasy novels I've been meaning to read over the years, and it's one of the titles so far that's led me to believe that Miller is possibly one of the most underrated voices in the genre I've encountered in a while. I tucked into book #1, Empress, a while back, and was a bit concerned that I'd lose the thread, but there was sufficient recap in book #2 that I wasn't at a complete loss; Miller touches on the pertinent bits without going overboard.

The Riven Kingdom introduces us to Princess Rhian, whose father the king is dying. During more enlightened times, she would have been heir to the throne, but unfortunately for her, the island kingdom of Ethrea still favours a male heir. With her two older brothers being deceased, her fate is to marry the man chosen for her to be her king, and to then produce future kings. So, basically, she's a prize brood mare and all the dukes and the church are gasping to place the future king of their choice on the throne. Absolutely lovely. You can well imagine that Rhian is less than pleased by this state of affairs.

Indulged from a young age with an education and some instruction in less gentle pursuits, like fencing, Rhian is not your typical princess, and she's absolutely not going to allow a bunch of stodgy old men tell her who she's going to marry. Add a grasping, power-hungry religious leader to the mix, who seeks to control Rhian after her father's passing, and we're set up for the essential theme that runs through this book – the battle for the separation of church and state.

In fact, the theme of religion runs heavy throughout the trilogy, from the looks of things. In book #1, we meet Hekat, who justifies her grab for power through her faith in a hungry, violent god that demands bloodshed. She is ruthless in her actions, and though not a likeable character by any means, is fascinating to observe how she constantly does mental gymnastics to maintain her power and her stance.

Rhian also has to balance power and religion. She's from a deeply religious nation, and often her behaviour is very much that of an indulged, untried girl who's used to getting her own way. [I realise this might make people hate her as well.] Yet her intentions, compared to Hekat, are that of being a just, fair ruler. Much like Hekat, she has a great conviction that she is meant to rule, and will do what she must to attain her aims.

Not everyone in Ethrea is religious. We compare Marlan, the antagonist – the prolate who wishes to rule through a puppet monarch. He doesn't believe in a god but he will use religion as a way to control people. There is most certainly a strong nod towards the Catholic Church's machinations in this story. On the other hand, we have the formerly agnostic toymaker Dexterity, who gets dragged into the saga rather unwillingly – he has liminal experiences thrust upon him and he is granted god-given power to perform miracles. What he does with his powers is vastly different than what Marlan would.

The character I'm sure most loved to hate was Rhian's chaplain Helfred. At first he comes across as a thoroughly despicable, weak individual whose faith makes him annoying as all hell. Yet his redemption arc from a toadying sycophant to a man of true faith is perhaps the most satisfying.

The way characters deal with power – the gaining thereof and the loss, makes for a fascinating dynamic. We have former warlord Zandakar, reduced to a slave and rescued by Dexterity, whom I suspect will still play a pivotal role in book #3, and there is the way Rhian realises that she literally holds the power of life and death, and how she is then faced with the choice of what sort of ruler she will become.

I realise I've gone on a lot more with this review than I normally do, but that's because this is a book that made me think quite a bit. I will say this much: I didn't like any of the characters, except perhaps for Ursa the healer. Yet there is a lot going on here which makes it a worthy novel to read. There were moments when I felt there was literally a bit too much of a deus ex machina happening, yet I do have to admit that this very issue is central to the plot. Which makes me wonder about the rules applying to deities in this setting (which I'm sure Miller will go into eventually, or at least I hope so).

Miller doesn't shrink from graphic depictions of violence, and her characters (who occasionally verge on twee) are very much painted in shades of grey (which then redeems them), so I have to give her this much – she gives a few unexpected twists and turns but all in all delivers a solid and compelling read that has given me much to consider.