Thursday, November 19, 2015

Allegiance (River of Souls 3) by Beth Bernobich #fantasy

Title: Allegiance (River of Souls #3)
Author: Beth Bernobich
Publisher: Tor Books, 2013

My only regret with this trilogy is that I allowed far too much time to elapse between books while reading it; consequently, I feel that I missed out on a fair amount of the nuances, and had to play a spot of catch-up to figure out who was who, and who did what to whom. Yet it’s a sweet thing to encounter an author of Beth Bernobich’s calibre, whose ability to render tactile, authentic fantasy worlds leaves me breathless.

Not only am I drawn to her writing because of her solid worldbuilding, but also because she has created a society where there is less division between the roles played by men and women, and also a fluidity of sexuality. Women are soldiers, they can take on positions of power, and it doesn’t matter who you love. What else I adored was the fact that Bernobich breaks away from the Eurocentricism still prevalent in contemporary fantasy, to gift us with a saga that is distinctly Eastern in flavour without being heavy handed.

Allegiance is chockfull of political intrigue; it is, after all, a story that involves the derring do of masters in spycraft. There is a constant press of urgency, of being hunted down, which keeps up a relentless pace, and yet there are moments of tenderness, of subtle magic. Bernobich feeds in small details so that one can gain a vivid picture of the environment in but a few brushstrokes.

Central to the trilogy is the love between Ilse and Raul, as they fight hard to save their nation from impending war – and theirs is a particularly poignant romance, because their love is threatened at every turn. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried a little for them at the end. Each has an important role to play in the winding down of events that were set up in books one and two, and Ilse proves herself to be a canny heroine, constantly one step ahead of her enemies as she fights to save the man she loves.

For those who are looking for fantasy trilogy that features strong women, who know their minds, and aren’t afraid to go to the ends of the earth to save their world, this may well be the story for you. Bernobich’s writing is lush and textured, harking back to the measured pace of classic fantasy that begs you to hold onto the books so you can read them again to see what you missed the first time round.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Keeper by Marguerite Poland #review

Title: The Keeper
Author: Marguerite Poland
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2014

Every once in a while there’s a South African author whose name should be on everyone’s lips – and Marguerite Poland deserves a spot in that sphere. Where to begin … Her writing is pure magic, pure and simple, and in The Keeper, she nests story within story, drawing readers into the claustrophobic, wind- and wave-swept world that is the island where the bulk of the tale plays out.

We begin with Hannes Harker, the lighthouse keeper, who has fallen and is severely injured while automating the last lighthouse on the South African coast that requires this. The era of lighthouse keepers is over, and Hannes has his own painful memories with regard to this ending.

While recovering in hospital, he begins to unburden himself to nursing sister Rika, who takes on the role of focaliser trying to make sense of the mystery. We plunge deep into the past, to the tragedy of why Hannes’s mother drowned herself in a well, and also into the near-past where we meet Aletta, Hannes’s estranged wife. The lighthouse presides over everything, both lightgiver and beacon, and brooding mistress.

People cope with the isolated existence on the island in different ways. Their motivations for living there differ wildly. For some it’s an all-consuming vocation, as it is for Hannes and his father before him. For others it’s a prison sentence, to be endured. Others make the best of it, and find their coping mechanisms. All are twisted in some way by this encapsulated environment, trapped even.

Symbols abound, from the macabre badge of office represented by the great rusty shark hook to the delicate lighthouse sculpture made from shells painstakingly collected by gentle hands. Make of these images what you will – they are enduring.

But it’s not so much the setting and the tragedies of the players strutting the dismal stage Poland has set up, but also her exquisite use of language. Birds abound, and for those of you who’ve read Taken Captive By Birds, you’ll understand those moments when she adds this typical signature throughout The Keeper. But then there’s also her understanding of environment, of the ocean’s mercurial moods, that paint in broad brush strokes the essence of the setting. I was instantly transported and enthralled.

Poland paints a story told not so much by what is shared, but also that which is left unsaid. The ending, much like real life, leaves pieces unfinished, conclusions untold, that hurt, give hope and also leave a delicious ambiguity.

The fact that The Keeper won the 2015 Nielsen Booksellers’ Choice award comes as no surprise. The tale haunts me, and has made its way to my Top Reads for 2015 shelf.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Guns & Romances author Ackley Lewis #interview

If you're yet to pick up a copy of Guns & Romances, an anthology featuring an eclectic selection of stories fuelled by gunpowder and lust, don't delay. You can pick up a copy at Amazon, Kobo or Smashwords, but for now, I welcome Guns & Romances author Ackley Lewis to my blog for a little Q&A.

Tell us more about your story and what you enjoyed about writing it.

'Gloria, A Love Story' is about a guy who is trying for 'normal' and buying into all the trappings that he thinks go with it: settling down, marriage, job, home, without really looking at the deeper reasons why he's doing it. He's so bound and determined to do the right thing and be the good guy, that he doesn't see 'wrong' when it's directly in front of him. Or rather that he does see it, and chooses to ignore it at his own peril.

I think the most enjoyable part of this story was writing the dialogue. There are only three characters in the story and two of them are pretty mouthy, so it's always fun to write a mouthy person's words. I'm fairly reserved in person so it can be quite freeing to write that way. I think it helps to balance out all those things I've personally wanted to say out loud but had to clamp down on. Repercussions are only fun to write about, not to experience.  

Why do you think short fiction is important? 

I think short fiction is a great way to 'nab' a reader. You have a relatively small window to not only map your story out, but to make it interesting as well. Novels are wonderful, of course, in that you have more time to build a story and establish characters, but short fiction is more 'wham bam', for lack of a better phrase (I'm really flexing my writing muscles here). With short fiction, you're saying 'I'm only here for a little while, but I'm going to make you listen.' It's challenging. I'm very new to all of this, but that's the first thing that struck me when writing short fiction. 

What is your favourite short story? 

So hard to narrow it down. It could be anything from Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which is a series of short stories interwoven into one story with connected characters, so I don't know if that counts), Richard Matheson's F--- (aka The Foodlegger) or 'Next of Kin' by David Sedaris, which is quite possibly one of the funniest stories I've ever read. My choices aren't all that obscure, but we love what we love, right? Anything that makes me laugh or throws a twist at me will win me over every time.  

Have you got upcoming projects you'd like to talk about?

I'm in the process of writing (and rewriting) a novella. It's tentatively titled The Monroes and it's about a family coming apart due to a supernatural occurrence from many decades before. Although if I keep reworking it, it might end up about a band of travelling aromatherapists who fight crime. The important thing is knowing when to stop.  

Follow Ackley on Twitter.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison #fantasy #review

Title: The Goblin Emperor
Author: Katherine Addison
Publisher: Tor Books, 2014

Every once in a while, a fantasy novel comes around that doesn’t follow the trends that one almost comes to expect of the genre. If you’re the type who’s looking for sword and sorcery, flaming dragons and epic quests involving objects of power, this is not your novel. If, however, you’re looking for a slow-moving, gradually unfolding tale about an uncomplicated young man who finds himself quite suddenly thrust into the predicament of becoming an emperor, Maia’s story might just well be what you’re looking for.

Maia is the unwanted result of the marriage between the the Goblin princess Chenelo and the emperor of the Elflands. What was supposed to be a political marriage was never intended to produce an heir, let alone a halfbreed, and Maia has spent most of his childhood growing up in an isolate estate with only a relative to care for him (and not very well at that). When the emperor and his heirs die in freak airship accident, Maia is thrust from anonymity onto the emperor’s throne, as he is eldest heir.

Court politics, as he soon discovers, can be deadly, and not everyone is pleased that a half-Goblin is seated on the throne. What also counts against him is his complete naïveté when it comes to intrigue and yet, this very same weakness also proves to be his greatest strength while he establishes his rule. What is clear from the outset is that Maia is a good person. His honesty, his almost-painful lack of guile, elicited a need for me to see him succeed in the snake pit of the imperial court.

There are moments when his social ineptitude made me cringe, but by equal measure watching him grow into his role was ultimately rewarding, even if most of the action – this is partly a murder mystery – takes place offscreen, so to speak. Such action, as it occurs, is brief, and focus is rather placed on the subtle, interpersonal relations between the characters.

This is not a fast-moving novel by any measure. Katherine Addison’s prose is detailed and textured, and at times the array of names for people and places is bewildering (and possibly intentionally so, to create a sense of disorientation that Maia might feel at his situation). Yet the story is compelling, down to the last chapter, to be savoured for the rich world building and the slow weave of power play. The Goblin Emperor’s awarding of the 2015 Locus Award for “Best Fantasy Novel” is well deserved.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Thoughts on Prison Hacks/Prison Sentence by Willem Boshoff #art

For what it's worth, here's what I've written for my visual literacy module at varsity with regard to South African artist Willem Boshoff's Prison Hacks/Prison Sentence...

As a conceptual artist, Willem Boshoff challenges his viewers to consider the interplay of words, textures and visual elements, and in the case of Prison Hacks/Prison Sentences (2006, installation of black Zimbabwe granite slabs; Constitutional Court, Johannesburg) it’s important to take into consideration not only the name of the work and its execution, but the materials used and the location in which the work is installed, as all have bearing on the ultimate meaning and, consequently, the choice of name. It can also be argued that the decision to change the name of the work is also part of the overall presentation of the installation and the understanding that one can gain from discussion of this discourse.

In considering Prison Hacks/Prison Sentences, attention should be paid to the materials used in the installation. Boshoff’s choice of black granite – a type of material used often for headstones in cemeteries – is not arbitrary, when he says: “I chose the black granite as it is the material of a graveyard. It is also the material used to build memorials.” (Boshoff 2012) Stone lends permanence; it is a lasting reminder that endures after brick has crumbled and wood has rotted. The use of granite and the reference to headstones draws viewers’ thoughts to other associations, such as death, and the memorialisation of lives that have passed. The location of the installation also has significance, in that it is situated on the premises of the Constitutional Court, the work therefore suggestive as memorial to the injustices of the past.

The granite slabs themselves have been polished to a high sheen and engraved with the kinds of marks used by prisoners to denote the passing of time – especially in an environment where an inmate has limited or no contact with the outside world. Boshoff states: “Each prisoner counts the days of his or her sentence already served by scoring a vertical hack through each day. After six days a diagonal is scored across the verticals to close a week of days. This is done on a wall, in a private place, perhaps in a cell or toilet.” (Boshoff 2012) This bears a direct correlation to the original title, Prison Hacks. To hack something suggests a crude movement, to cut, to carve, but connotations of the word also suggests the activity of someone who isn’t doing a particular good job of something (for instance, a bad writer is sometimes referred to as a hack). Perhaps at a stretch, the word “hack” can also relate to an activity of someone accessing information off a computer system without permission. According to Boshoff (Boshoff 2012) he preferred Prison Hacks “because a hack is a term for a person hired to do dull routine work, but also means a line that you draw through something”, with each ‘hack’ representing a day of the prisoner’s sentence.

Wordplay is an important element of Boshoff’s art, with many of his works featuring typographical elements: “Boshoff often refers to the etymological link between the words ‘text’, ‘texture’ and ‘textile’, which can all be traced to the Latin texere … textured surfaces often suggest that they can be read, with the eye or the hand.” (Vladislavic 2015, p. 28) which encourage a sense of engagement between the viewer and work that transcends a passive audience. Initially, Boshoff created three slabs covered in hacks, denoting the time served by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, however he was later commissioned to create the full complement of panels, and during that time Boshoff fell upon on a name change for the work. The wordplay associated with “sentences” can be read in two ways. The most obvious connection would be to the time periods indicated in the work, the actual prison sentence served by each of the men. The secondary meaning refers to the spirit of Boshoff’s work, that results in a dialogue between artist, work, and viewer – a dialogue, a conversation – a sentence. (Vladislavic 2015, p. 28)

This fluidity of meaning elicited by Boshoff’s work engages the senses. The work is tactile, and as the name change suggests, the work has been open to dialogue during the process of its creation. The name change can be viewed as a refinement, of taking the rough, unfinished work and completing it to initiate a conversation as opposed to the initial marks that were put down, suggestive of a finality, resignation. A sentence invites discussion, takes the “hacks” further and leads the viewer to make conclusions.


Vladislavic, I. 2015. Willem Boshoff. Johannesburg: David Krut Publishing. Pages 26-32)

Willem Boshoff Artist 2012, Prison Sentences, Boshoff, W. Available from: <>. [16 August 2015].

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Butcher Boys

Here's an idea of what I've been studying this year. This is one of the questions from my Visual Literacy module at varsity. (Also, my lecturer for some bizarre reason did NOT like me comparing these chaps to Frankenstein's monster, but I'll stand by my opinion on the matter.)

Picture: Wiki Commons
Upon first sight, the ominous figures of Jane Alexander’s The Butcher Boys (c. 1985/86. Mixed media, size unknown. Iziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town) strikes casual viewers with the vision of diabolical monsters lurking upon an ordinary wooden bench; however a closer view of the trio suggests that these so-called perpetrators of apartheid may also be considered victims of the very system they are proposed to uphold.

Alexander’s The Butcher Boys presents viewers with an undeniable, arresting focal point, especially considering where they have been placed in the Iziko Museums National Gallery – on their bench prominently positioned in the entrance hall, which makes them one of the first works that confronts visitors. A close examination of the sculpture reveals the figures’ lifelike poses and great attention to realism that has imbued the figures with physical menace. They are life sized and present an ominous blend of human and animal that immediately draws the eye and elicits a visceral response, much in the same way that bystanders feel compelled to stare at the scene of an accident. As passive bystanders, viewers are placed in a situation where they are confronted by a work that elicits a range of responses that are open to interpretation.

If anything, a viewer’s possible initial response of revulsion and macabre fascination, may lead to the sense that these entities pose a very real threat thanks to their powerful, well-defined musculature and positioning that give semblance to the potential of sudden movement made frightening by the unholy addition of horns. Their eyes, too, set them apart – dark and liquid, like that of an animal, possibly unthinking, fearful and feral. Their sickly, clay-like complexion suggests a skin tone that is neither black nor white, but is neutral and possibly diseased, even. Darker blemishes on their necks and by their damaged spines are suggestive of weeping wounds that have not healed. The figures represent an anomaly – constructs that should not be, like Frankenstein’s monster, composite beings made up of the discarded parts of others. Through a process of dehumanisation, these once well-proportioned human individuals have become perverted effigies; their physical bodies have been twisted into a parody of mankind by their taking on of bestial qualities. This is summed up by John Peffer, who writes, “Through the graphic distortion of the body and its metamorphosis into a beast, artists posed trenchant questions about the relation of corporeal experience to ideas about animality, community, and the sacred.” (Peffer 2009, p. 71) Alexander’s The Butcher Boys, through the addition of animal horns, bestial eyes, removal of ears, emasculation of the genitalia, and muting of the mouths, in addition to mutilation of the spine and throat, are a discomforting blend of human and animal that cannot simply be ignored. The choice of incorporating animal horns into the sculpture not only suggests the bestial metamorphosis akin to the Minotaur in its ancient Cretan Labyrinth – the product of a transgression against nature and the gods – but considered in a largely Western (and Christian) context, is also suggestive of the diabolical.

Context is important when viewing The Butcher Boys, especially considering the circumstances in which it was initially released. As Peffer writes, “During 1985 a state of emergency was declared in South Africa in response to renewed outbreaks of violent resistance, and was renewed yearly until 1990. The police were again given wide-ranging powers for the forceful suppression of popular protest, including the detention and interrogation of suspects without trial. Over thirty thousand people were detained between 1986 and 1987. During this period, Jane Alexander produced a sculptural group, The Butcher Boys (1985-86).” (Peffer 2009, p. 75) This climate of fear meant that South Africans could not be outspoken about or stand against conditions within the country. The Boys are mute – Alexander has created them without functioning mouths; it was not possible for South Africans to speak out against the oppressive government at the time, without fear of reprisal. With their ears removed, The Butcher Boys are incapable of hearing, suggesting that they’d be unable to hear pleas for mercy. The fact that their throats have been tampered with indicates that their vocal chords may be affected, on top of them not having functioning mouths. Exposed, damaged spines may also suggest a “spinelessness” or cowardice – further indication of either an inability or incapacity to resist, to act. Much can be read into the choice of their poses as well. The figure on the left seems relaxed, indifferent almost, as if he is waiting, resigned to his state of being. The figure in the middle, and the one on the far right, both give the appearance of paying attention to events the one on the far left hasn’t noticed (or won’t) yet. The Boy in the centre is alert, watchful, yet it is the one on the far right that suggests that he is about to move. Whether this reaction will result in a fight-or-flight response, is not made explicit, and it can be suggested that this conclusion can be left to the discretion of the viewer. The figures’ realism adds to the suggestion that each Boy is poised on the cusp of movement.

Friedrich Nietzsche's aphorism 146, from Beyond Good and Evil, resonates strongly a possible conception of Jane Alexander's The Butcher Boys: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” (Nietzsche 1990, p. 102) The process of creating a monster goes two ways; through becoming the perpetrator of a broken, repressive system, of people who are shaped into tools for a greater evil, whose worldview is narrowed to the point where the “truth” that they are fed is limited (as illustrated by the Boys’ limited senses) the Boys themselves are victims, damaged and lashing out in much the same way as the Greek Minotaur or Frankenstein’s monster – unable to feel empathy and enslaved to their bestial natures that are enforced on them by authority figures.

Primarily, the Boys evoke horror. As Bick states, “Alexander’s work activates the space of viewership with the psychic and visceral experience of horror that continues to haunt us as we turn away, but more importantly, her work is itself haunted by experiences of untold, traumatic, and often irretrievable histories, which on the one hand seem outside the ethics and even capacity of representation … and on the other, without reflective and critical attention, are in danger of becoming lost to the past.” (Bick 2010, p. 32) We confront the Boys in a public space, in a gallery, where they lurk as a visible reminder of our inconvenient, unspoken past. Now, thirty years after their creation, they “confront the public secret of apartheid head on, not only by ‘giving evidence’ which could not be admitted in public or by the (white) public to itself. (Peffer 2009, p. 77) The Butcher Boys offers viewers a solid reminder, one that is presented, and based on the perception of the manner in which they are seated, of an unhurried watchfulness; their physicality suggests that they’re not just going to go away; they’re here, waiting, immovable, implacable. They evoke a primal reaction, of fear, very human yet reduced to instinctual responses. They have come into being through the action of a repressive system, to induce terror at a primal level, not only to be scorned but to be viewed with pity, for having been damaged so that they are no longer equipped to function within society nor adapt to changing circumstances.

Cognisance must also be taken of how socio-cultural context changes through the passage of time. Over the years, the possible meanings and interpretations of The Butcher Boys may shift thanks to the cultural biases of viewers; those who were born after 1994 may perhaps not draw upon the same sense of outrage as those who were present during the 1980s, when apartheid’s stranglehold experienced its last, reflexive gasps. There are those who are adult now, for whom the realities of detention without trial and enforced national service are relegated to a few lines in reference books. We are no longer faced with a visceral sucker punch of the intense horror, and though The Butcher Boys are mute, they linger as sentinels to this past – lest we forget.

As to whether The Butcher Boys were either victims or perpetrators of the apartheid system this question cannot, therefore, be considered as an either/or kind of situation. The Butcher Boys are both. As individuals they have been stunted by the system that has used them as enforcers of violence. Therein, ultimately, lies the tragedy, that through their dehumanisation they have been turned into the very monster that one should fear. Their contorted, physical forms are a reflection of the underlying social trauma that South Africans have faced under the yoke of an oppressive regime. The Butcher Boys are a reminder of the bestial actions perpetrated against thousands of South Africans, that have turned the perpetrators into monsters; yet at the same time we cannot forget that these so-called monsters were once human too, twisted into objects to fear and pity as a result of their actions.


Bick, T. 2010. Horror histories: apartheid and the abject body in the work of Jane Alexander. African Arts. Winter: 30-41.

Nietzsche. F. 1990. Beyond Good and Evil. Penguin Group: London. Page 102

Peffer, J. C2009. Art and the end of apartheid. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Chapter 2: Becoming Animal. Pages 41-72).

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe #review #memoirs

Title: The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange
Author: Mark Barrowcliffe
Publisher: Soho Press, 2009

Warning: If you’re hoping this is a book extolling the virtues of fantasy roleplaying as a positive outlet for socially marginalised teens then WRONG. This is not the book you’re looking for. Step away while you still can and go read some fanfiction. What The Elfish Gene is, however, is Mark Barrowcliffe’s memoirs of growing up in Coventry during the 1970s, and how as a completely gauche, socially maladjusted teen he fled into the world of fantasy RPGs because he simply couldn’t cope with reality.

This is a tragic book. And it made me incredibly sad. Mark comes across as bitter about his past, possibly bitter about the fact that he was so lost in the games that he wasn’t functioning in society. These are not the types of memory I have of my own gaming days, and after finishing this book, I almost feel tainted. I ask myself, is this how I am with regard to the books, games and films I get excited about? To the exclusion of participating in the world at large?

Then again, I don’t recall the sheer, blithering nastiness of my fellow gamers that Mark does. Possibly, one can say that boys will be boys, but I’m an anomaly in that regard – a girl who likes her fantasy RPGs a little too much. Sure, I met a few like Mark at the few events that we had in Cape Town during the 1990s, but I avoided them. The rest of the folks were just incredibly fun to be around, all student types, and we had really good times.

What I got from The Elfish Gene is mostly Mark’s bitterness, suggestive of deep-rooted self-loathing, that he had to dig deep and bring up all that was ugly. And, yes, it’s easy to see how games like D&D can create festering little dick-measuring contests among folks, but FFS, there’s more it than what he states.

Yes, there are bits that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, like Mark’s Ninja escapades, but most of the time I felt I was laughing *at* him for being such a sad puppy, and I was really glad to be done with the book. Yes, also to the fact that Mark pokes sticks at valid issues with the social interaction with *some* gamers, but yikes… I needed to read something uplifting and joy-making after this. As a snapshot into a particular era, however, and the mentality of the people at the time, this book is fascinating, in the same way as one is sometimes compelled to rubberneck at the scene of a gruesome motor vehicle accident involving a drunk pedestrian, errant livestock and a lorry transporting manure.