Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Don't Be Afraid by JC Piech #review

Title: Don’t Be Afraid
Author: JC Piech, 2012

From the get go, I do need to state that I’m no great fan of reaper/blissful afterlife stories, but JC Piech engaged me from the start. I must add that I’ve had the pleasure of including one of her stories in an anthology that I edited a few years ago, so I knew more or less what to expect with regard to tone and style – so let me assure you she’s an absolute joy to read.

The premise of Don’t Be Afraid is simple. Jason Stone is a British scientist far away from home on a day that will change the fate of the world; the date is July 16, 1945, and he is part of the team that saw to the creation of the atomic bomb.

Only he never gets to live with the repercussions of his actions, as he dies on that fateful day. From there it’s a pretty standard reaper theme – some departed souls are tasked to work as guides for the newly departed, to bring them to whatever waits on the other side. And Jason is one of those guides, and what he experiences as he submerges in others’ lives, will change him. It’s not so much about bringing peace to the newly dead, but also for Jason to fully understand the peril that mankind faces in the atomic age.

Here is where the beauty and sensitivity of Piech’s telling comes into play, as she explores the horrors of the aftermath of nuclear warfare and the people whose lives are torn to shreds at the touch of a button. A series of seemingly loosely connected vignettes vividly illustrates the pain and suffering in a way that poignantly makes cold terms like “thousands dead” become tangible – as I found myself immersed in individual lives with histories, as opposed to nameless throngs.

A secondary thread was also illustrated in how Jason remained watchful over his mortal family throughout the years, and how their lives too were bound in tragedy. A strong message of peace and acceptance of the inevitability of death and the cherishing of life flows through Don’t Be Afraid, and if I had to best encapsulate the genre in which I’d place this book, I’d call it mystical fantasy.

Granted, in many ways this novel is not my chosen genre, and if it had not been offered as a review book, I’d never have read it of my own volition – I prefer GrimDark, to be quite honest – but have to admit that a bit of light, accompanied by a slightly squishy message of love and hope, was possibly not a bad thing in the midst of the parade of my usual doom and gloom.

Don’t Be Afraid is a feel-good story about not forgetting one of the most important, timeless aspects of the human self – love. No matter your culture or creed, we all have family and friends, and we must never forget that despite our disparities, that we are all woven together by complex ties. And perhaps now, more than ever before, we must all play our parts (however small) to forestall future horrors.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Wading through time by Sai Vadhan

Today I've handed over my blog to an old friend of mine, Sai Vadhan, whom I've know for simply ages. He's busy celebrating the release of the first of his Kronikles, so I reckon I'm going to let him say what needs to be said, because it's quite clear that he's got oodles of drive and passion for what he does.

India. 29 States. 1 600 languages. Each language has a culture. Each culture has a lore. I was four when my maternal great grandmother started with the most famous of them all. The story of Prince Rama and his wife Sita and the ten-headed king, Ravana, who kidnapped Sita.


Halfway through the story, she’d dose off. Her story would become slurred and her facts would be all wrong. I would correct her, much to the amusement of my mother and grandparents.
I loved my other grandparent, my paternal grandmother. I would sleep on her soft arm and she would tell me stories of my forefathers and how they were great rulers of their lands, how they hunted in the forest and chased after robbers, how fairly they treated their farmers and how everyone in the village used to eat in our castle.

I was a great conqueror in my mind. The swivel chair of my study desk was my chariot drawn by flaming horses. The old family sword with the beautiful hilt was my scimitar and my towel magically turned into a cape.

As I grew older, I started poetry. First it was love, then pathos and finally philosophy. I was all of twelve. That’s what happens when you do too much mythology. Poetry was just not enough. I started my first book. Needless to say, it was fantasy fiction. I finished it just a couple of years ago, much after Kronikles.

I forgot all of this as a young man pursuing law. Thereafter, life took me away from my fantasy world. My children’s demands for bed time stories reminded me of the stories I so loved. Memories flooded in. Stories abounded. Bed time rocked with both my children laughing away to glory or getting so scared by Raakshas and Bhoot that they’d fight over each other to snuggle up to me. I loved it.

That was when I created the character that would finally become the protagonist of my book. I did not have to worry about lab experiments going awry, getting bitten by toxic insects or wearing clothes of metal. All that was already figured out.

All I had to do was wade through the timeless waters of myth, explode through the colours of legend, freefall into thousands of years of stories which had time travel, flying machines, Demi-Gods and monsters.

So, while my children busied themselves with their academic pursuit, I figured it was time I pursued the one thing that gave me limitless bliss. Writing stories. I don’t know why I had not done it thus far. From that point onwards Kronikles took me nine years from concept to publishing.

Moral of it all: follow your passion! Without it we are mere automatons doing time to earn money. Sure, the home hearth has to be warm but…is that it?

Purpose comes to life when you pursue your passion. Doing drugs, taking selfies with celebrities, clubbing and drinking-mundane, empty, boring. Do whatever makes you tick (unless one is a mass murderer or a serial rapist or some such sicko, in which case I suggest jumping off a cliff without further delay!)

Go find a multiverse, see whether you like a curvature or non-curvature black hole (both exist), figure out what the universe is before you even attempt to find out why it’s there, stare at a blade of grass because who knows, may be its not you seeing the blade, maybe you’re helping the blade see itself!

Whatever else you don’t do, read.

Music and movies are good too! Writing books is more fun though!

Bio:

Vadhan writes novels, sometimes with poems in them and can sketch reasonably well. His first published book is Shatru, Kronikles Book-1. 

Vadhan loves cricket, tennis, shuttle badminton, table tennis…and golf. He is proficient with four of the games. There is a golf course he recently visited which is now officially a crater! They had to call in the fire service to pull him out. The golf ball is still in there, somewhere. He is a movie buff. He loves fantasy, comedy, action and adventure movies and maybe prefers one of those funny love stories once in a while. 

Transactional law practice, advising Indian MNCs on compliance frameworks for their business in India and ten other countries in North America, China, Asia Pacific and Europe takes up a chunk of Vadhan’s time. 

His company, Sand Legal Services Private Limited, is ranked amongst the top 20 compliance service providers in India and has won the best corporate governance and administrative law practice awards in 2014 as titled as the company of the year award in 2014 for best legal compliance services by the international magazine, CIO review.

Vadhan is busy these days researching on the third instalment of Kronikles and for a legal thriller he is writing. A question often asked, how does he manage between practice of a niche segment of law and writing books? 

When there is passion, anything is possible. Things will fall into place. Always. 

Important: do it because you love it. Nothing else matters.  

Warning: Golf is the exception to this rule!

ABOUT SHATRU
Shatru was half Asura. 

That was not the reason why he was the best Hunter for the most powerful peace keeping force in all fourteen worlds. If he did not do their bidding, they would kill the one person he loved. That was just the way it was. 

The Devas and Asuras, the most powerful of the Primordial Tribes shadow-controlled the financial, political and cultural lives of all of humanity just for one reason, domination over each other through control of terrestrials. 

When the brittle line between adversity and aggression was broken they were set on a collision course. Shatru was the only one standing between them. 

To stop the Primordials from destroying each other, Shatru had to go after an ancient sentinel of Chaos ready to do what it takes just to destroy.

Vengeance will rise. 

Worlds will fall.

Evil will ascend.

Shatru is in the way.

If he doesn’t stop the war, ours will be the first world to wear away!

Kronikles Book-1



Thursday, January 22, 2015

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey #review

Title: The 5th Wave
Author: Rick Yancey
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2013

Having read a fair amount of YA post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels, I can say with authority that The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey comes out on top of the pile. This post-apocalyptic thriller is tight, and I’m seriously hoping the upcoming movie adaption will do it justice.

Cassie was the girl no one really noticed, and if the alien invaders never made their attempt to knock out the human race, she’d most likely have gone on to lead a very ordinary life. And then there wouldn’t have been much of a story. This is not that book.

When the first wave hit, all the lights went out, but humanity was not to concerned because the powers that be would look out for them. Yet the alien mothership continued to loom ominously. Subsequent waves of attack saw the destruction of coastal cities and the release of a virulent disease that came close to wiping out nearly all the survivors.

Yet humanity endured. Those who survived were the strongest, the most wily.

Now Cassie is alone, and she has no idea who she can trust, because humanity has been infiltrated – and it’s almost impossible to tell friend from foe. All she has left to live for is her little brother Sam – but he’s been taken to a secure military base.

During the course of the story, we also encounter Ben’s ordeal, as he and a whole bunch of youngsters are put through basic military training with the aim of eradicating the alien threat.
Author Rick Yancey paints a frightening world that hints at the horrors of the World Wars and the complexities of warcraft. Throughout everything, he asks the age-old question: “What makes us human?”

If there is one YA post-apocalyptic read that you want to give a shot, make it this one. Everything is spot on, from the pacing through to the world building. Though there is a hint of the almost-ubiquitous love triangle experienced YA readers expect from the genre, Yancey handles this in a way that doesn’t result in too much eye-rolling. And another thing, Yancey spins out this epic with an authentic voice. Not once did I feel the adult author’s perspective creeping through.

Though Cassie begins as your average, slightly boy-obsessed teen, her heroic qualities, as she struggles against unbelievable odds, quickly shine through as she and her companions face challenge after challenge.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom #review

Title: The Time Keeper
Author: Mitch Albom
Publisher: Sphere, 2012

So far as basic premises go, The Time Keeper is exactly as it states – we are introduced to three primary characters who are fixated on time. Dor lives during an earlier age, before time keeping is invented, and from his childhood he is engaged in activities in involving the measuring of the passage of time. It is through his scientific, rational approach that he is able to predict events, and his quest for knowledge also bizarrely sees him punished. God assigns him the role of Father Time, locked away in a cave for 6 000 years, where he has to listen to the plaintive voices of those who cry out for more or less time.

Sarah Lemon has never been popular – and now that she’s discovered a lad who may be interested in her, she feels that time is passing too fast. Yet as we reach the conclusion of her unhappy story arc, we see that she does not, in fact, value time at all. She is the stereotypical plump, nerdy girl.

Our third viewpoint character is Victor Delamonte, a wealthy businessman who has just been informed that his cancer is terminal. Deep in his eighties, he has a gnawing sense of too much left undone. His problem is that his time is running out. He simply does not have enough time to still do all the things he wants.

With three characters’ lives to follow, and the constant jumping between the viewpoints, The Time Keeper offers readers a choppy narrative that makes it difficult to connect with Dor, Sarah and Victor. If the book had, perhaps, been longer, it might have been easier for me to invest emotionally and care more what happened to the three.

As for why Dor was punished for measuring time, when his actions were never implicitly stated as being sinful, also puzzles me. And, as such, his reasoning for selecting Sarah and Victor as his two subjects to help at the end of his incarceration also mystifies me. Neither are very likeable, and so far as characterisation goes, they are rather two-dimensional, to the point of coming across as clichés.

Overall, this is not a bad little book, if you’re the sort who enjoys inspirational fables, but unfortunately I am not that reader. All throughout I found myself wanting the story to get to some sort of profound realisation. Which it did not. Instead I felt annoyed and preached at, because the author’s intentions were so glaringly obvious from the get go until the novel reached its Dickensian conclusion. That being said, each reader unto his or her own. If you don’t mind a saccharine story that aims to teach you about not taking time for granted, then this one may possibly give you the warm fuzzies.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Alien and Aliens #film

For me this story starts when I was in primary school, back in the mid- to late-1980s in South Africa. We were at the arse end of the world thanks to apartheid, so my gentle readers, you must understand that we were always a little slow to get the good stuff. A movie would release in the US, and if it was popular, it would filter through to us a few months later. And it would take even longer for it to appear on VHS for us to hire.

Picture: Wiki Commons
It was probably when I was in Grade 3, 4 or 5, or thereabouts, that I gradually became aware of Alien and Aliens. And I vowed after listening to the boys in my class go on and on about the gory film and the simply frightening alien to NEVER EVER watch the film.

I was pretty good about my resolution too, for many years, until I met and married my husband, who by his own admission is a prime example of what happens when a young, bright mind is raised on a steady diet of horror movies (he makes short surreal horror films now in his spare time).

Somehow I still avoided Alien and most of its sequel, Aliens, but I did see and enjoy Alien Resurrection and watched bits of Alien 3 over the husband’s shoulder. But, quelle horreur! I did not see the film that spawned the whole franchise. Ever. Popular culture being what it is, I’d certainly read enough graphic novels and reviews, and had seen plenty of references to piece together the story. I didn’t think it necessary to see the first film. (Besides, remember that vow I made to myself in primary school?)

Besides, dude, those films were made way before the days of CGI. How the hell could they stand the test of time? Or so I thought.

Conversations were had with fellow creatives. The lads decided “We must have an Alien marathon”. I was dubious at first, but then thought, why the hell not. Perhaps it was time to put it all in context. Especially since we’d improved our home entertainment system profoundly from the days of peering at an old, half-blown CRT monitor we’d inherited from a friend.

I need to also add that Sigourney Weaver is one of my favourite female actors, precisely because she’s often cast in strong roles. Death and the Maiden. Hello.

Okay, so let’s do this.

We (sanely) decided to split the films down the middle, hence Alien and Aliens on one night, and at some point soon we’ll do the other two. Directors respectively are Ridley Scott and James Cameron. Weaver obviously follows through the entire series.

At this point I also need to highlight another reason why I’ve found the Alien franchise so alluring, and the reason is the Swiss Surrealist HR Giger. I’ve held a long love-hate fixation with his art over the years, and his involvement with the film started quite by the by even before he was consulted regarding the design. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon crossed paths with him while working on the failed Alejandro Jadorowsky version of Dune. So the influence was there while O’Bannon conceived of the screenplay with his mate Ronald Shusett, and they were instrumental in getting him on board by the time they got round to production.

Something else that needs to be considered regarding the success of Alien, was the context in which it came into being. Remember that Star Wars was a huge, rip-roaring success for the SF genre in 1977, so it was also a case of O’Bannon and Shusett being in the right place at the right time with their screenplay.

I’d like to think that the contrast between the two films also played a role in its success. In Star Wars we have a rollicking space opera of epic proportions. In Alien, we are faced with the stark sterility of space, where mankind becomes prey to a superior biological organism. We are stripped of the romance and are faced to face with the primal danger of the hunter and the hunted.

To find oneself toppled from one’s post at the apex of the food chain is a deeply unsettling thought. Add to that the aesthetics of the Xenomorph (as the alien organism is known), and the way violation of others lies at the heart of its very existence (its sexual reproduction results in the oral rape of its host species). All unsettling, this blend of sex and death. What makes it even more frightening is that we are not able to reason with this life, whose sole motivation is so similar to ours – the Xenomorph wants to live, and will make use of whichever resources are available to do so. Humanity is merely a means to an end. And it doesn’t rest well to be relegated to a food source and a form of reproduction, does it?

In the second film, the themes of motherhood are also explored, which becomes rather unsettling when considering the role of the Xenomorph queen and the way she cares for her babies when compared to Ellen Ripley trying to make up for the fact that she missed out on being a mother to her long-dead daughter (floating about in stasis can play havoc with your timeline).

In discussion with the husband afterward, I realised also that another big theme running throughout both movies was that of corporate greed. The Weyland company owns the commercial vessel Nostromo on which Ripley is a crew member. It’s thanks to the company requiring an alien retrieved with complete disregard to the crew’s safety that is pivotal in the catastrophe. (And the reason for Ash countermanding Ripley’s quarantine order becomes even more clear.) In Aliens, an entire colony forfeits their lives so that Weyland can have access to the Xenomorph.

Picture: Wiki Commons
The question is asked: who is the real monster? The Xenomorph whose savagery is born out of natural instinct, or humanity, which will willingly turn on its own kind in order to further its aims?

As for my initial, childhood squeamishness, I went into the film with the expectation that everyone would die except for Ripley. Which was a far more healthier attitude to have. “Will he/she survive?” became more a case of “In what grisly manner and when will this person die?”

Both Scott and Cameron are able directors, who are adept in building and maintaining tension. Despite the lack of the almost ubiquitous CGI we’ve become to know and love for our cinema, neither director gives us overlong, detailed views of the Xenomorph. Instead, use of selected focus, light, sound and framing, the supreme predator is implied rather than revealed, and becomes all the more frightening because our imaginations have to fill in the missing details. (Perhaps our contemporary filmmakers can learn a thing or two from these older films, which I feel in a way are quite superior to the bad rash of Too Much Awesome afflicting contemporary cinema).

What starts out fairly mundane, is gradually unveiled in a full, unrelenting horror, for which we are woefully inadequately prepared. These two films straddle several genres (SF/horror/thriller) at the pinnacle of their craft, and over the intervening years and despite such massive leaps in filmmaking that give us dragons and massive mechs, have lost none of their power to cause us to suspend disbelief.

Oh, and I screamed. I screamed like a little girl at all the appropriate parts. And I loved every minute of it.


Sources:
“Alien (film)” Wikipedia n.p. 2015. January 13, 2015 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_%28film%29>

“Alien (Creature in Alien Franchise) n.p. 2015. January 13, 2015 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_(creature_in_Alien_franchise)#Concept_and_creation>

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Priest of Blood by Douglas Clegg #review

Title: The Priest of Blood (The Vampyricon book one)
Author: Douglas Clegg
Publisher: Alkemara Press

Pardon the pun, but I’m a sucker for vampire fiction, and especially when it has historical elements. In that regard, The Priest of Blood worked well for me as a reader. Turned by the vampyre Pythia, while involved in the Crusades, Falconer recalls his life growing up as the bastard offspring of the village whore.

Much of the book tells of his early years in Brittany, and of the boy’s need to prove his worth considering his humble beginnings. We learn that Falconer has a gift for working with birds and eventually is employed by the local baron.

But life for Falconer is a trial. He never quite fits in, and an ill-starred passion for a woman far beyond his station results in his being sent to fight in the Holy Land, where he ultimately meets his doom.

Yet among the damned, it appears that Falconer is exalted – a chosen one and their Priest of Blood, with all that the role entails. He and his companions embark on a journey to their source in order to gain a better understanding of their kind and to find a solution to eradicate a frailty in their bloodline. As for what they find once they discover their goal – their actions will have far-reaching ramifications.

And that’s pretty much what book one is about, since it functions as a prologue for what I assume to be more to follow. Essentially, if you’re waiting for things to get off the ground, you’ll be in for a disappointment.

That being said, what I did enjoy was the last part of the story, when the companions really get going in their explorations. the many wonders they discover are fascinating, if not bizarre – and certainly off quite a nice diversion from the usual vampire origin stories. I kept thinking this was Indiana Jones meets The Queen of the Damned.

Clegg weaves a tale on epic proportions, with much depth, though at times I felt I wanted a little more input with regard to the environment – to put it bluntly, a little more “show” to counterbalance his telling. I can’t fault the latter. He does it well, though at times I also feel to detriment of characterisation. I wanted a little more in that department too.

My verdict: this story is wordy and sometimes ponderous, but if you’re a huge fan of vampires, and are a patient reader who has enjoyed Anne Rice, then this may appeal to you.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

My Year in Books 2014: The Stuff I Wrote

In hindsight, there was quite a lot happening for me in my own writing. It's clear, also, that it's been a year of mostly short stories for me. Which still makes me shake my head and laugh a little, because I've never really pegged myself as an author of short stories. For what it's worth, let's look at it...

The Guardian's Wyrd came out in ebook form via Word Smack, a small South African publisher of speculative fiction. When I have to sum up the book very briefly, I tell people it's Harry Potter meets Narnia. Although the protagonists are 15 going on 16, this is really a story for all age groups from about 12 upward. We meet Jay September, who realises his role as a Guardian to one very spoilt prince. Essentially, I asked the question, what would happen if it was the prince who needed rescuing? If you look to the sidebar on this page, you'll see the print cover, which was illustrated by Daniël Hugo, which I brought out myself.

Dawn's Bright Talons was my other big book for the year. I put a lot of heart and soul into the story, which I've been told is Anne Rice's vampires dropped into pseudo-Victorian fantasy. The novel was many years in the making, mainly because it languished on full sub with The Big Publisher We Will Not Name, who took about a year to decide that no, they couldn't make up their mind. Well, Crossroad Press snapped the story up, and I had fantastic editorial guidance from David Niall Wilson. I also had a say in the cover art, so I commissioned the rather bedazzling Nathalia Suellen to handle the cover art.

Another huge highlight for me during 2014 was getting a story published in Apex Publishing's War Stories, in which I got to work with two dynamic editors, Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates. The concept was simple: they collected stories that dealt with the far-reaching impact of war on those who participated in it, or were affected by it. My story is entitled "Only the Stars and the Void Between" and tells of a special ops soldier who returns to her home, only to discover how things have changed in her absence.

Now that I'm writing a lot more short fiction, I've found that from time to time I'll sit with stories that don't end up finding homes. Granted, this isn't happening as often as it used to, but I still thought it fitting to collect a retrospective. Some stories in to Lost Children were initially published on my blog, and a few others were floating about at odd ends. The image on the front cover was taken by my good friend HJ Lombard, and the design was by Icy Sedgwick, another of my friends. This collection was put together purely for the sheer joy of making good art.

A good while ago, Dean M Drinkel invited me to submit to Phobophobias, which I duly did, and ended up writing a story about my Ibr (dream horses that I do hope to one day turn into a full-length story). I'm quite fond of this tale, and I hope readers like it too.

Of course a great highlight for me was getting a story published as part of Para Kindred is a lovely mixed collection of stories about the magical Wraeththu, and what possible new forms could come into being. Watch out for the upcoming Para Animalia anthology, as there's a chance I'll be appearing in that too (that's if I get a chance to finish what I'm writing). Storm Constantine's Wraeththu Mythos. Anyone who knows me well will understand how much Storm's writing has influenced my own, so this was really special for me to be part of, and to get to work with Storm too.

I do rather love werewolves, and it was lots of fun writing the story that appears in Full Moon Mayhem, in which I take my lupine friends to Africa as an envisioning of African hunting dogs as the weres, and also the possible issues surrounding their social structure, and the sorts of problems they'd encounter. And I really *do* love the cover art for this one.

This year also so my participation in Fox Spirit's beautifully illustrated anthology, European Monsters which is a coffee table book in which European monsters get given their horror elements back. I don't think there's anything cute and fuzzy in this one. I chose to write about the Valravn, which is a rather nasty bird.

Last, but not least, I did write up a bit of erotic fantasy under my pen name of Therése von Willegen. Fire: The Salamander Lord is about a witch's encounter with a fire spirit that is impossible to resist. I'll leave this one right here... It's fun and filled with, well, a lot of spice.

And that's that for now. There're already a few exciting projects lined up for this year, but considering that I'm currently busy with my BA in Creative Writing, I suppose it means I'm going to slow down a bit with my *actual* creative writing while I wrestle with such weighty topics as literary theory, literature studies and Greek mythology. But it's all for the best at the end of the day, and I will still sneak in time where I can to create stories to whisk you away to stranger places.