Friday, February 16, 2018

To query or not to query...

At some point of an author's life, they might decide to query a literary agent. For those of you who're currently asking, "Pray tell, what is this literary agent thing, and why do I need it?" I'm going to go through the basics of the querying process that I've been following for the past ... well. A while. I had a literary agent once, but we weren't a right fit, and to be honest, a literary agent is only really going to be useful to you if you're writing fiction that has commercial value. To be honest, no agent is better than a bad agent, so here I am...

So, why am I still querying literary agents? Essentially, literary agents are your friends when it comes to getting your manuscript in front of the editors at the big publishing houses. Also, if you're currently an indie author who's been approached by one of the bigger publishing houses, it's a good idea to get yourself a literary agent. These rare beasts will be able to help you negotiate better terms on your contract. Also, they Know People. And hopefully the Right People.

If you're content to carve out a career as an indie author, chances are good you'll probably not need an agent, but for those of us who're aiming at a hybrid career,  having an agent when you eventually reach the stage of needing one, is a good thing.

So the next question: When do I know that I'm ready to query? Most importantly, you'll have a complete manuscript. Finish your novel. Aim for a sweet spot of around 75k to 100k for adult fiction. Please, for the love of dog, don't be the kind of author who dashes off a first draft and starts querying immediately. Especially if you're still new in this game. No novel is perfect. Take time to edit your manuscript. Get your betas to go through it. Revise it again. Revise, revise, revise, until you are so sick of the thing and want to burn it with fire. 

I've heard horror stories of authors who started querying their manuscript when it was not finished, only to have an agent request a full submission when only the first 10k words had been written. You really don't need to do that to yourself. Make sure that your novel is the best it can be before you start querying. And don't rush it.

What next? Write a query letter. It's as simple as that. To break a query letter down to its basics, you're going to say three things: what your project is, a (brief) summary (about 2 paragraphs) and then your writing credits. An agent (or their assistant) will scan through the queries. Remember they get hundreds of queries a day sometimes. You have, probably literally) about 15 to 30 seconds (if that) to tell them exactly who you are, what you want, and what you have to offer. You need to make that query letter count. My advice: keep it simple. Don't be cute. Don't try to make out that you're the next Stephen King or JK Rowling. Agents and their assistants have seen *everything*. Trust me on this. They're sick of authors who think they're trying to be witty or clever. They see it Every. Day.

I always send folks scurrying off to Query Shark. Hell, whenever I'm about to write a query letter, I still go get ideas there.

Now, what the hell do I send a literary agent? Once I'm done writing my query letter, I save it as a .txt file. This is so that when I copy/paste it into my email, it doesn't have any weird formatting. (Just something I find useful over the years.) I also prepare a longer synopsis of about 2 pages that I save as a .doc, and then the first three chapters and/or first 50 pages as a .doc. Most of the time agents won't ask that you send attachments, and that you paste your query letter, synopsis and sample text in the body of the email. Increasingly, of late, I've seen them use online forms (which is also super convenient, but then they do request that you attach the .doc files as required). Lastly, I also create a one-sentence description or, as they call it, an elevator pitch, for the novel.  I also try to keep in the back of my mind which existing novels are similar to mine and who the targeted readership is. Some agents request this sort of information.

I can sense the next question. Where the hell do I find a literary agent? My two go-to sites are Publisher's Marketplace and Query Tracker. Both sites are super easy to use, and convenient because you can tailor make your searches according to your chosen genre.

How do I choose an agent? This should be a no-brainer since it makes sense that you choose an agent who already sells in your chosen market. What I do is once I've narrowed down which agencies handle SFF, I take a gander at their recent sales and releases. If I see their tendency is more towards literary or children's fiction, then I think twice about submitting. If I see that they sell mostly to only one or two digital publishers that accept unsolicited queries, I smell a rat. And I most certainly don't submit. Mostly, I pick agents who have sales with the big publishers I usually can't query unless they have an open submissions period. If, by any chance, an agent gets back to me with an offer, I go do my homework, usually by searching the Absolute Write forums. Believe it or not, writers talk, and if they have shitty experiences with agents, they'll be quite vocal about it. So, do your homework. Take time to evaluate each agent. Read their profile info on their personal sites to make sure that you're as good a match as you can imagine.

Which brings me to the submission guidelines.  Each agent will have a preferred method for you to query. Some only want a query letter. Some want your first 5, 10 or even 50 pages of the manuscript. Some accept attachments. Others don't. Which means you DON'T send out an impersonal, blanket bcc email to a hundred agents simultaneously. Don't be that special douchenozzle.

It goes without saying too that you need to keep track of your queries. Some folks use Query Tracker. I just make a spreadsheet that I colour code as I go along. It's generally not a done thing to blanket query all the agents at one agency. So make sure that you pick the best fit and only the right fight for you, so that you don't accidentally query simultaneously. I do a query a day for the duration of my querying process. That's 5-10 minutes out of my day where I check out the agents' website, craft my individualised email and then send. And I fill out my spreadsheet as I go along (and that has helped me in the past when I nearly did send queries to two agents at the same agency). Most agents know that you're going to be querying more than one agency at a time, but the common courtesy is that as soon as you've had a request for a partial or full submission, to let anyone else know who may have a full or partial submission. 

Also, I tend to make about 50-100 queries per project. Yes. That many. About half of these will be polite form rejections. I might get three or four requests for partial submissions (agents wanting to see the first 50 pages). I may even have one or two requests for a full submission. Many agents simply don't respond.

Loads of agents say "if you haven't heard back from us in a month, then consider it a no". It's nothing personal. Move on. Ditto for those wonderful form rejections that go along the lines of "this project isn't right for me" or "this project isn't the right fit" or whatever. IT'S NOTHING PERSONAL. Move on. Grow rhino skin. Don't phone them. Don't pester them. 

Granted, if you have a request for a full, and the agent has been sitting for six months, and circumstances have changed (you may wish to self-publish or have had an offer from a publisher) then of course, do the agent the courtesy of following up. But if your manuscript vanishes into a long, sticky silence, don't let it get to you. This entire industry is all about hurry up and wait.

And lastly, keep writing, revising, querying, submitting. Realise that these stories about "JK Rowling got rejected seven times" are fairytales. Authors who make it big are the exception, not the rule. For most of us, it's a long, hard (and unglamorous) slog. You need to channel your inner rhino, and weather the sting of rejections with a super thick skin. I promise you, if you work hard, develop your talent, improve your writing, and persevere, you will see a steady growth. Don't measure yourself according to other writers. They're not you, and their career path is vastly different from yours. Concentrate on being the best you can be.

And good luck! 

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Goodbye, Chocolate Charlie by Marga Jonker

This is the second Marga Jonker book I've reviewed – from the pile of titles that occasionally arrive unannounced at my front gate. Goodbye, Chocolate Charlie tells the story of Nicky, who is recovering from a terrible riding accident where her horse, Charlie, plunged to his death down a mountain.

While Nicky's physical scars have healed, her mental scars haven't – much to the despair of her horsey family who live on their big farm in the Cederberg.

But the first steps of Nicky's healing being when her grandfather buys a mysterious palomino pony at an auction, and she slowly comes to terms with the events that happened that fateful day.

Firstly, I'd say this is a book that will chiefly appeal to younger middle grade readers who're completely horsey. As before, Jonker shows that she's a keen observer of everything equine, so from that perspective, this is a lovely little book.

I did find the subplot with the girls coming to stay on the farm to finish their training for a big sporting event a bit tacked on, but the banter between the kids was mildly entertaining. Jonker touches on the work being done by the Cape Leopard Trust, which brings in a nice environmental angle, and also gives a nod to the TV documentary series 50/50.

The invariable big climax happens, but I kinda saw that one coming a mile away, and felt almost as if it was a bit too conveniently set up. There was a bit of misdirection in terms of the plot with regard to the way Nicky overcomes her fear of riding, which I felt was a nice touch.

There isn't much depth to this story, and its parts felt a bit too loosely stranded together for me to be doing backflips in frabjous delight. I'd peg this as *very* light reading, and happily pass this book on to younger readers who might feel differently.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

City of God by Cecelia Holland

Okay, City of God by Cecelia Holland is a book I'd meant to read ages and ages ago, but have only just managed to finish. I do have a soft spot for historical fiction, and to be quite honest, I went into this one expecting more than what I got out of it.

I must mention here that I had a Kindle version that was a bit oddly laid out. There were no chapter or scene breaks, so the text really just flowed in one clump, which I found both annoying and somewhat disconcerting, because I had to catch myself figuring out when scenes shifted.

The setting's great – Rome during the reign of the Borgias, and Holland does a passable job showing us the day-to-day workings of the ancient city. Our viewpoint character is one Nicholas Dawson, an Englishman whose ex-pat parents died in Spain, where he was raised in a monastery. Somehow, he attached himself to the Florentine ambassador, where he has a nose for intrigue.

And intrigue there is aplenty in Rome, when Nicholas gets tangled in the schemes of Valentino, who has a mad scheme to unite the Italian city states under one crown. Plus we have the meddlesome Spanish and French.

Nicholas as a character is incredibly bland, and I struggled to even like him. I don't know whether Holland has merely written him as someone who suffers great disconnect with his own emotions on purpose, or if she didn't do a good job to dig a little deeper with character development. Either way, I guess it doesn't really matter. Nicholas comes across a bit like a limp fish, a man of little power and great ambition, who overreaches himself amid the power struggles of his betters ... Or rather I wouldn't even say they're his betters, because everyone in this novel is awful in one way or another, and they all do awful things.

Dear Nicholas's attempts at stringing a web of his own are rather dismal too, and while he struggles along, it's clear things are going to get worse before they're going to get better.


I wanted to like this story, and it had its moments when it held my interest, because I really do love the time period, but I need to have my emotions engaged. The prose all felt very workmanlike, with Nicholas carried along as more of an observer rather than an active participant. In addition, I'm not quite sure whether the proofreader was asleep, but there were quite a few obvious typos – the kind someone would make if they were typing out this entire document from a physical copy ... or using type recognition software but then they just didn't quite get round to employing a human proofreader afterwards. Considering that this novel was first published in 1979, this may very well be the case, which is a pity. And hells, I'll say it again: chapters and scene breaks WOULD BE LOVELY.

I've seen Holland compared to the likes of Mary Renault ... but I feel with this novel in particular that there just isn't the spark or the lushness and regal poise that Renault's writing has. Or perhaps it's just Nicholas, and therein lies the rub. The Englishman isn't exactly the most effervescent individual, and the character does the story no favours.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Writers' Life: Six Things I Need to Tell You Today

A post I saw on a writers' group this week sparked off a bit of a fat Facebook rant yesterday. I may have upset some people. I'm not apologising either, because these things need to be said. There's a lot of pressure on writers to make a living these days, to work the algorithms with Amazon, Google, whatever. I lurk about a number of writers' groups online, and I hear wonderful stories about some authors who're absolutely creaming it self-publishing. Bully for them. By equal measure, I see many more authors (the vast majority, in fact) who simply cannot fathom why their books aren't moving. Many become heartsick about their careers. Some even give up.

I don't have a silver bullet for you, sorry. But after more than a decade in this business, I am going to offer you some advice that will give you a little perspective, and perhaps even a glimmer of hope.

Burnout is a thing
There is so much pressure to succeed, that I've seen people push themselves to the point where they have nervous breakdowns. Darlin', I was there. I ended up pushing myself to the point where I had a grand mal seizure. Scrambled brains FTW, along with a drinking problem. I ended up in hospital with liver failure due to an adverse reaction I had to anti-convulsants. I used to work a day job in newspaper publishing, then follow up at night as a freelance fiction editor while still trying to write a book a month. I nearly died. Like ferealzies. For many months after my recovery, I could barely write, and this is after I pushed myself to put out 100k words a month. It's not sustainable. You can damage yourself. You can rob yourself of the love of writing. Repeat after me: YOU ARE NOT A MACHINE.

This is not a horse race
So, you see Bob Penworthy gloating over the 7k words he writes every day. Wow. That means he can write a novel in two weeks. AMAZING. But. BUT. You are not Bob. You are not in a race to see who can poop out X amount of words that are somehow going to make you this absolutely brillo writer who's going to be the next Stephen King. Something I say often to writers: It's quality, not quantity. You are not trying to "beat" someone else's career. Let's be realistic here (and yes, I'm going to say something that's going to sound super depressing). Thousands of books are published DAILY. Yours is but a drop in the bucket. Also, with all the books that are remaining in circulation thanks to digital publishing and print-on-demand, titles are not going out of print. That means the bucket is getting bigger and bigger EVERY DAY. Chances of your discoverability grow slimmer EVERY DAY. You're only going to make yourself sick with despair trying to stay ahead of the tide. ENJOY THE PROCESS OF WRITING.

And repeat after me: THIS IS NOT A HORSE RACE.

Pace yourself with achievable goals
Staying along the lines of burnout, and the fact that this is not a race, find daily writing goals that are achievable. Stop worrying about Bob and his 7k words. What can you write that won't make you feel as if you don't have a life. Because, guess what, if you're like most of us who have primary careers that bring in the bread and butter, plus children and other responsibilities, you don't have a helluva lot of time for writing. So set yourself goals that you can keep up in the long term.

Yes, there will be times when you have a deadline – I recently had three months in which to outline, write and revise a 100k-word novel for an open-door submissions period. Guess what? I managed to do so without killing myself by *planning* ahead. I found a rhythm that worked for me, and I also had time to watch films, TV series, hang out with friends, walk the dogs. And do my day job.

Set yourself targets. For some, it may be writing three or four 15-minute writing sprints a day. You'd be amazed by how many words you can manage in 15 unbroken minutes where you're ignoring social media and other distractions. For others, it's that golden hour before work. Or a lunch hour. Or an hour after dinner. Something I found worked for me while I was writing my big novel last year was the Pomodoro Technique. But sometimes also just setting myself a target of writing three, 1k-word sprints throughout the day. But mix and match. Some days you might be absolutely exhausted. Then write a minimum of three pages. And go to fucking bed. Get some rest. This is not a horse race. You might find that you'll catch up the day after. Currently, if I'm up to it, I only write two pages a day. This is because I'm busy with the production of a novella that's releasing at the end of the month. I'm going easy on myself because I want to enjoy the process of writing.

Every writer is different
Stop paying attention to Bob Penworthy. Perhaps he's vomiting out fast-paced thrillers, and he's in his zone. And hells, it might even be working for him. But maybe you want to write a novel set during WWII, and you need time to research, take time to develop your characters and setting. Or you fancy you're the next GRRM. I don't know. Every writer is different. (I was going to say something about precious snowflakes but that term's been so tainted over the years that it doesn't even have the meaning I'd have intended for it.) Your career is YOURS. Your books are YOURS. Sure, so Betty Whiplash writes super BDSM erotica involving werespiders. Bully for her. She brings out a book every three months. But maybe she's got a husband who supports her, so she has time to do so. Or Joe Coffeepot is retired, and he's writing his military adventures. He has the resources to do so, so when he brings out his books, his entire situation has been different, and maybe he's had money to throw at an editor that you didn't have. Every book is different, will have a readership uniquely its own. Find your tribe. Build your own support network, and stop worrying about what Bob Penworthy is doing. It might work for him, but it might not necessarily be right for your career. This is not a zero sum game. Just because Bob's earning a triple-digit figure each month from Amazon doesn't mean he's robbing you. So be happy for him if his pooped-out novels are selling, but don't break your neck trying to emulate him if it's going to lead to you ending up in hospital.

Set aside dedicated time
Don't quit your day job just yet. And don't allow your writing to jeopardise your day job either. (Been there, done that, and had the disciplinary hearing to prove it.) I hear all sorts of stories about writers who take their writing to the office, and some even write those 7k words a day AT WORK. Sure, if you've got absolutely no other work, that's fine. But if you're finding creative ways to hide that Word or Scrivener files behind Excel spreadsheets every time your boss walks past, honey you have a problem. Ask yourself this: How focused are you on your actual writing if you're trying to divide your attention between working out a budget or doing a report ... and getting into a writing zone? This goes back to my earlier pointer of setting yourself achievable goals, and being focused on your writing. I can write fast, like the best of them. Hells, I can poop out 2k words in an hour if I'm in the zone. So if you're pooping out 7k words a day at the office, let's be realistic ... you're spending maybe half your work day on your own personal writing ... and either you're neglecting your day job or, even worse, you're being unfair to colleagues (and employers) who have to pick up your slack. Don't be a douchebag.

For sure, maybe write during lunch. Or if you *honestly* don't have other work. But don't put your ability to keep a roof over your head (and by default have a space for your writing) by taking the piss at the office.

Good books take time
This should be a no-brainer. Digital publishing has made it SUPER easy to put out books. Hells, it's ridiculously simple these days to publish a book. But ... NO book is ready to be published after you've typed 'the end' on the first draft. Allow your book to lie fallow for a while in your hard drive. Give it one or two editing passes BEFORE you send it on to your beta readers. Maybe even give it a three-month break before you start serious structural edits. If you can afford an editor, that's absolutely brilliant. Don't be afraid to take all the time you need to unpick the threads and revise. A savvy writer will have more than one manuscript at various stages of development, so that they perhaps have one first draft they're crafting, a book mellowing on a hard drive, a book with betas... a book they're outlining... One that's out on the query mill if you're busy looking for literary agents.  Some books take years before they're ready. It's easy to poop out a book, but to truly craft a story, where you've been able to take a step back to look at it with fresh eyes, to be unafraid to make necessary changes ... now that takes time. And sometimes time means all the difference between a hastily cobbled-together document riddled with sub-par syntax and typos, vs a polished masterwork you can be proud of for years to come.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Frogs of Southern Africa: A Complete Guide by Louis du Preez & Vincent Carruthers

If this Frogs of Southern Africa by Louis du Preez and Vincent Carruthers had fallen into my hands when I was a preteen, chances are good I might've spent even more time poking about rivers, vleis and any other places where frogs are to be found. As it is, I was that weird girl child who was constantly bringing home tadpoles so she could watch them become frogs. (Alas, my mom's poor jelly bowl that was press-ganged into serving as an aquarium.)

And I loved visiting my grandparents during autumn and winter, as it meant there was a chance that I could find tadpoles. Catching frogs was another matter entirely, but I was pretty quick. And whenever I went hiking or travelling, my mom would always tell me to stop and listen to the froggy choruses. Going to sleep at night, even here at home, when there's been rain, and hearing the frogs – that is without price.

Thing is, I've never been able to match up the frogs' calls with their names. Until now. This book is gold, and I suspect it's the kind of guide that will appeal to not only your average nature lover, but also be useful to those who're a bit more serious about their studies.

Okay, now the best thing about the book (for me, that is) is the QR codes that link to the frogs' calls. I spent a long, long time identifying all those frogs that I'd heard over the years, discovering yes, that the frogs in my grandparents' back garden were Cape moss frogs, and that yes, I've heard the call of micro frogs. Obviously the downside is that you're not always going to be in an area with internet when you're out and about, but hey ... you can always record the frog call with your phone for later identification (yes, I've done that before). Or you can download the calls to your phone, if you've got the capacity.

Next thing: While this isn't going to be the book that you tuck into your backpack while hiking, its size does mean that the many photographs are big and clear enough for you to make good identifications. Not only that, but morphological differences have, where possible, also been included, along with handy size guides for the smaller beasties.

The clear distribution maps are useful too, so depending on whether you're only hearing a frog or you've spotted it, you've got two potential methods for identification. More often than not, frogs are heard and not seen, so by having a basic idea of what a particular family sounds like, it's quite easy to go by distribution to figure out which frog you're looking at.

The front matter is pretty thorough, giving not only a list of the species in southern Africa, but basic morphology and physiology, reproduction and vocalisation, their environments, their relationships with humans, and field keys and descriptions.

I always knew that we had loads of frogs in southern Africa, but I had absolutely no idea of their diversity, and the broad range of habitats in which they live. But something I've come to realise too, looking at this book, is that frogs are an important indicator of our environment's state. Because they are dependent on water, they are often among the most vulnerable species when it comes to habitat degradation and pollution. If the frogs fall silent, then I fear we're in deep, deep trouble. They truly are marvellous creatures that play an integral part in any ecosystem, and are totally deserving of our protection.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Master of Crows by Grace Draven

I'm a hopeless romantic at heart; I admit it freely. The moment I read Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights at age 13, I had a thing for brooding, tormented heroes. I first encountered Grace Draven's writing when I ran across Radiance, so despite my horrendous reading piles, I still aim to read her older writing: Case in point – Master of Crows, which is book one (yay!) featuring the sorcerer Silhara, who is the ahem, archetype of Heathcliffian well ... attractiveness.

We encounter the slave Martise, who's the property of the bishop of Cumbria. He promises her her freedom if she can dig up enough dirt to condemn Silhara, who's pretty much been banished to a crumbling mansion. Silhara has had a bit of a rough start in life, and as we discover, he has a reason to have a fair amount of beef with the bishop.

Yet Martise finds herself irrevocably fascinated by Silhara as they try to discover how the ancient god Corruption (who's pretty much gasping to possess Silhara as his new avatar) may be defeated.

What I love about Grace's writing is that it's easy on the eye, and the story drags you in. If I have to compare, she's got the sweet sincerity of Anne McCaffrey's writing style but the gothic setting so beloved of Tanith Lee, with a hint of Storm Constantine for flavour. Some may find this a wee bit too sentimental, but there are times when I just need a slow burn romance in a dark fantasy setting that slowly unpeels with sensual delights. And Grace has a lovely way of describing her surroundings, the tastes, the colours, that appeals to me.

I'm not a huge romance fan, but aesthetically Grace does it for me, and does it well, with more than enough plot to support the erotic elements (which are just right, and not overdone at all). The dialogue between characters also sparkles, and she pays attention to her secondary characters too, so that they're well rounded.

So anyhow, these gothic fantasy romances just work for me, even if I'll make a big deal about reading heavier literature, and I thoroughly enjoyed Master of Crows, which I admit sat in my Kobo app for far too long before I pulled it up onto the screen. The fact that I have to rein myself in from immediately rushing off to purchase the next book says something (I'm still desperately trying to read more of the books that have been lurking in my apps for goodness know how long).

If Grace does by any small chance end up reading this review, do realise you have a serious fangrrrrl sitting right here fanning herself.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

SSOTBME by Ramsey Dukes

The first time I met Ramsey Dukes, it was over breakfast at the now-defunct Tibetan Tea Shop in Simon's Town. A friend had put me onto him, as someone I should meet and talk to, and as they say, the rest is history. He is a thinker of rare wit and deep insight, and it is through this slim little volume SSOTBME: Revised, an Essay on Magic, that I've rediscovered my delight in the Western magical system.

Dukes outlines a system of approaching our experience of our world into four directions: Scientific, Religious, Magical and Artistic. Each is a valid way of evaluating and making decisions. Each has their own purpose, and in fact, he goes on to show how each individual will at different times employ that sort of thinking.

Chiefly, he deals with magic, explaining it as an approach that is unafraid to be selective in which criteria one adopts when it comes to problem solving – IOW, the stories that we tell ourselves to explain a set of circumstances. According to Dukes, magic embraces both truth and falsehood, as well as illusion, knowingly. He suggests that it's not so much how one arrives at a solution, but the point that one's actions produces tangible results, even though they might not be considered logical.

A magician, according to Dukes, is aware of his surroundings, of the patterns, and is adept in manipulating them according to a particular expression of his will. [My explanation, using the Parking Fairies is – if asking the Parking Fairies to help you find a spot near the mall entrance on a busy Saturday appears to help you chill the fuck out and find that parking spot, while giving you the illusion that the task was attained easier, then why the hell not]

Mostly, Dukes explains how magic is a way to engender wholeness. There's a certain degree of playfulness to it as well, if you ask me. And there's the fact that as a magician you become more aware of the interconnectedness of things around you, and better able to manipulate outcome because of the changes you have wrought to your own responses.

Imagination is a powerful tool, and we're apt to be dismissive of it, but often this "set dressing" as it were, adds meaning to how we approach our daily challenges. Also, what Dukes points out is that you cannot use the same criteria to evaluate magic as you would for, say, religion or science. To do so is absurd (and a waste of time). And similar to art, magic is about creating and manipulating meaning around you. And to be unafraid to play with subjective viewpoints – and to do so fluidly and not locked down by dogma.

He underscores that Magic, Art, Science and Religion should not be at war with each other, but that those forms of approaching our daily lives are often intertwined and various expressions thereof have prominence at different situations. Magic is merely a way to maintain a perception that is different from the norm, it is about creating powerful metaphors that you can use to solve problems or create change, and embraces both light and dark aspects of Self, so is therefore beyond morality. (Which is probably why religious folks hate it so much.) Magic is what it is, it's how we approach our personal wholeness that matters to us, as individuals, and exploring the unknown. (So no dogma, as such.)

SSOTBME came at a good time for me, when I'd hit a stage in my life where I was wondering what the point of it all is in terms of maintaining an interest in esoteric matters. Needless to say, Dukes has offered a rather valuable way of looking at my own work. If you've yet to discover his writings, and this seems like the sort of thing that interests you, I can't recommend him enough. He also maintains a YouTube channel that might be worthwhile checking out.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Jim Henson's Labyrinth by ACH Smith

I go into reading novelisations of films rather warily, and unfortunately I was not exactly blown out of the water by ACH Smith's novelisation of the Jim Henson film Labyrinth. To give a little background, this film was hugely influential on me when I was younger – it ranked among productions such as The Neverending Story, Willow, and their ilk, that occupied a large part of my imagination.

I revisited the film Labyrinth quite recently, but because I'm the special kind of fantasy fan who wants to eke out the full experience over multiple media platforms, I had to get the book too.

I wish I could say that Smith's writing does the film justice, but it doesn't. At least not for me. I've always felt there's something a little deeper, grittier in Labyrinth, that the book kinda skates past. On the surface, it may appear a bog-standard quest, and with a strong female protagonist as well (which for its time was quite unusual). But Henson goes a lot deeper, especially pitting a young teen girl, Sarah, against the plotting Goblin King Jareth.

There is something uncomfortable in this May-December pairing, verging on the forbidden. Jareth is both creepy and sensual at the same time, and I could go all Freudian and Jungian at the same time, and spend reams and reams of pages unpicking the archetype and frothing about a young woman's awakening sexuality expressed in her opposition to her animus. But I'm not going to, and it's beyond the scope of this review, which is supposed to focus on Smith's writing.

Even if the novelisation of the movie was aimed at a middle grade readership, the writing itself feels simplistic even compared to some of the other books in this age group that I've encountered. Smith himself also takes liberties with the script that I feel are unnecessary deviations that don't progress or enhance the plot in any way. Language usage itself is somewhat twee (hence my thinking it might be aimed at much-younger readers ... but then That Scene in the ballroom between Sarah and Jareth is ... well ... not age appropriate and downright creepy.)

Smith aims for a near-limited third-person point of view, but he skips between characters randomly, which just annoyed me, along with clunky monologues without developing a strong enough voice for the author-narrator. Perhaps the story might work better if read out loud... I don't know. Just that I've enjoyed better YA literature that doesn't feel as if the author is being somewhat patronising to his readers.

(All right, it's my opinion that good YA fiction will appeal to both young and older people.)

Despite my misgivings, this is still a decent read. I'm glad I bought this particular edition because, well, duh, I'm a huge fan of the film, even if it's completely cringe-worthy whenever Bowie breaks into song. And those tights...that leave very little to the imagination.

I digress...

What I like about the book is that they've included some of Brian Froud's concept art as an appendix, along with some of Henson's notes, so for those who're interested in the behind-the-scenes details, these little additions are sweet. Also, it's a pretty hardcover, so will look great on my bookshelf right next to my first-edition English translation of Michael Ende's The Neverending Story... Because that's the sort of fantasy geek I am.

Chain Reaction by Adeline Radloff

Chain Reaction by Adeline Radloff was a book that landed on my desk unasked for, but in the spirit of reading outside of my chosen genre, I'll give this one a fair assessment. I must mention that this was awarded silver in the 2013 Sanlam Youth Literature Prize but from what I can see on Goodreads and Amazon, hasn't seemed to have met with much of a response from readers.

And [sigh] I think I know why.

At a glance, the concept behind the story is quite fun. Radloff has essentially written two short stories about the same characters, but employs the butterfly effect in that one seemingly random action in the first chapter has massive consequences later on in the story.

But here's where the wheels fall off, in my opinion. The first version of events has a negative outcome due to one character's inaction, while the second has an overwhelmingly positive knock-on effect for all the characters, and while I read, I felt that chain reaction was almost too simplistic in its dualistic expression of the right or wrong way for characters to respond to circumstances.

Young readers aren't stupid. If they feel as if they're being preached at, and if the writing is set up to primarily focus on moralistic outcomes, they're going to balk. I know I balked, and often found myself saying, "I can't see teens responding like this, this seems implausible".

Look, the writing isn't irredeemable, and the concept of starting the book and reading through halfway to finish the first part, and then turning the book upside down and around to get to the other half ... that's kinda cute in a way. Perhaps the one character I felt that had the most spunk and personality was Alexis. She came across authentic, perhaps because a diary format had been used and her tone came across well. What Radloff then did was jump between different ways of writing for the various characters – first person, second person, cellphone chat, social media. It's an easy way to show that we're dealing with different characters. It also means that it's not that easy to develop an attachment with the multiple characters.

This isn't a bad book, but I can't help but feel it's the type of story a guidance councillor might prescribe for their class to read, and if your kid already likes their Harry Potters and The Hunger Games, or whatever else is currently popular for younger readers, they're probably not going to be the reader for this book.

Friday, January 26, 2018

On water security, and attitude

I had a long conversation with my mom yesterday, and of course the topic of water came up with Cape Town's current water crisis. My mom grew up during WWII. Her father was a farmer in Hout Bay on the farm Kronendal. They grew veggies, like carrots, tomatoes, cabbages and such. It wasn't an easy life, and from a young age, she was expected to work the same as the adults – both during harvest time and domestic chores. As the daughter of the household, it was expected of her to do her share of the housework, which included doing laundry, and as she grew older, and her mom went back to work as a nurse, my mom took on even more of the work.

Her father didn't want her to finish school. He didn't see the point of a woman getting an education. After all, he didn't get a matric and he was doing just fine. But my mom fought to get her matric. On top of her household work, she worked in the store that my grand-aunt ran. And then she still had to make time to study, and she eventually obtained her teaching certificate. This is her attitude, which I understand today has greatly influenced how I approach my life.

My mom had to fetch water from a tap outside. This water came from a spring high up on the mountain (so it was untreated). The Hout Bay farming community was very strict about how they maintained that catchment area, as this precious water served several households in the valley. No one was allowed to build or farm in the catchment area. They only got municipal water when my mom was 12. Water that was treated and piped in from Cape Town. So, my mom knows all about how to make do without piped water.

I think of all my fellow South Africans who, in this day and age, STILL don't have access to basic water and sanitation, and I understand implicitly that I, as a member of a privileged middle class, have had it easy. And as they say, 'n boer maak 'n plan (a farmer makes a plan). I am fortunate in that I do have the resources available to make this time a little easier, and where I can, I will reach out to others in my community who are not so fortunate (be it that they might need someone to fetch water for them, or find ways in which I, as an able-bodied adult, may assist them).

I'm not saying it's right that our government has failed us in terms of water security. You are allowed to be angry and afraid, because we're entering a time of great uncertainty. But use those emotions as fuel to affect change around you. We need to change our attitudes to water. It is a scarce resource in a drought-stricken country. We need to cherish our natural water resources – respect them for they are fragile and precious. We need to look around us for opportunities, such as rainwater harvesting. We need to examine our use of waste water, and where we ourselves may be wasting water unnecessarily.

Whether you believe in a god or not, is not the point. It's easy to sink to our knees and pray, but it takes hard work and courage to get to our feet and help each other. I'd like to think that if there is some sort of god, it would prefer to see its children taking responsibility for their own welfare. That is why we have free will, no? Blaming idiot politicians is easy. We have all the proof that they fucked up, and that some of them are blaming us for wasting water, as if that will absolve them of the fact that they didn't take action sooner. But what can *we* do in the meantime?

I am my mother's daughter, and I don't kneel.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Overkill by James Clarke

How many South Africans of my generation remember visiting a lion park or reserve where one had the opportunity of bottle feeding lion cubs? I do. Like many visitors, we were fed the lie that South Africa was breeding lions for "conservation purposes". Sadly, this was far from the truth. Oh, South Africa had thousands of lions, but what these lion parks or farms were not telling us, was that these hand-reared lions were not being sent to go live out their lives in some glorious bushveld. No, they were being shot by wealthy foreigners supporting our country's barbaric canned lion hunting industry.

This is just one of the topics James Clarke touches on in his book Overkill, which makes for some pretty gripping (and horrifying) reading for anyone who's interested in finding out more about how the African continent's megafauna is faring. If you're wondering who Clarke is, he's one of the founders of the wildlife NGO the Endangered Wildlife Trust, whom I'm sure you'd have heard about if you're conservation minded.

Clarke takes you on a journey of understanding the complexities of mankind's relationship with wildlife, and how its colonial past has also contributed greatly to the way the continent's natural resources are exploited today. Whether it's the lion, elephant, rhino or whale, or just generally humankind's attitude to the wild, it's something that needs to be discussed.

He lays a large portion of the blame for the current extermination of species at the feet of the Chinese government, and the continued trade in goods such as ivory as well as the misconceptions that rhino horn and yes, even crushed lion bones, serve some sort of medicinal purpose. Clarke doesn't shy away from pointing out that broad-sweeping corruption all the way up to government is responsible for the continued pillaging of natural resources.

Perhaps what he doesn't state overtly (and I don't know if this is intentional) is that mankind's increasing population – with its resultant pressure placed on the environment – is perhaps also a factor that needs to be taken into account. We simply cannot continue reproducing at the rate we are. (All right, but that's basically my take on it.)

While Clarke doesn't come out against responsible hunting – he acknowledges that proper management of natural resources does have benefits in the long run – I do echo his sentiment that it would be better if mankind could eventually curb this lust to hunt game. The overall picture he paints about the state of conservation in Africa in general, is quite grim, but it's not without its glimmers of hope. For Africa's wildlife to survive, we need to bring together international communities to recognise the importance of the continent's wildlife for all.

Clarke writes clearly, and with great passion, and I heartily recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the environment and its conservation. He touches on a broad range of issues in a manner that is handled sensitively, and it is my belief that this is an important work that attempts to examine the complexities of issues in a nuanced fashion.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Louis Botha's War by Adam Cruise

The moment I saw Louis Botha's War by Adam Cruise, I knew it was a book I needed to read. I'm fascinated by South Africa's complex history, and I was looking for a book that would not only be accessible for someone like me who's not au fait with politics, while also filling in the blanks in terms of history.

Louis Botha is not a figure who's lauded much, yet I know of him because of the statue that is situated outside of the parliament buildings in Cape Town. In terms of South African history, it's still curious (to me) why we'd have a statue of an old Boer general up. Well, now I know.

When Louis Botha was prime minister of the South African union, the Anglo Boer War was still front of mind for many South Africans. Botha had the unenviable task of putting a unified army in the field when the UK requested that South Africa invade what was then German South West Africa. How I read the book, it's my opinion that the South West African campaign (1914-1915) was primarily a European war fought on African soil, the bastard offspring of colonial powers' weakening grip on the continent.

Cruise focuses on the military tactics Botha and his opponents employed. He discusses the incredible difficulties the armies faced; knowing Namibia, it's not exactly a landscape you go waltzing into. The extremes in temperature and lack of water make it daunting to travel by land across the country now even. Back then, when warfare in Africa was still largely fought by infantry, cavalry and artillery, with minimal support courtesy of motorised vehicles ... I garner fresh respect for what Botha achieved. Aircraft were only starting to be used in warfare, though the railway proved to be absolutely vital too.

Yet this is not just a dry book about military tactics. Cruise also looks into the socio-political reverberations caused by this war, such as the rebellion that occurred in the union, as well as the later effects that bloomed into full-scale Afrikaner nationalism. Our history is incredibly complex.

Namibia itself is a land that holds special fascination for me, and I admit this is partially due to the fact that I'm married to a Namibian, and we've visited the country a few times. I've fallen irrevocably in love with the wide-open spaces and the incredible diversity of the landscape that can be at times barren and desolate (and eerily beautiful) or the alien qualities of locations like the oasis Goanikontes. What Cruise does exceptionally well is combine a narrative of the conflict with little tastes of the history of the land, so that places I've visited (like the grassy plains just beyond Aus) come to life for me in terms of the past.

Louis Botha is revealed as a remarkable individual – not just a statesman (and the devil knows we have few enough of those these days) but also a shrewd warrior. It's doubtful that we have people like this as decision makers in these days of celebrity presidents and career politicians. Granted, Cruise doesn't shy away from the fact that Botha himself was less than perfect (his attitude towards non-Europeans are typical of his time) but he does come across as a reasonable man who was considerably less extreme in his views than Herzog, Verwoerd and his ilk.

Cruise gives Botha his due in this slim volume that is easy to read, both informative and fascinating, with well balanced content. I certainly feel as if I have a firmer grip on southern African history of a time period that I was fuzzy about, and in such a way that I engaged with the book from cover to cover.