Book Review – Betrayal’s Shadow by Dave-Brendon de Burgh

January 27, 2016 § 1 Comment

newBScoverI’m always excited to get my hands on books that fall under my favourite genres of science-fiction and fantasy, and when they have been written by local (read: South African) authors, that excitement seems to double. So Dave-Brendon de Burgh’s Betrayal’s Shadow, book one of his upcoming Mahaelian Chronicles, was a real treat to get stuck into over the December holidays.

This one is an authentic sweeping, epic fantasy, with a large cast and the fate of the world at stake. The story follows variously: High General Brice Serholm; Blade Knight Alun; royal courtesan Seira; Khyber, a rogue Elvayn; the positively diabolical Cobinian; King Jarlath, an impossibly powerful and thus terribly intriguing figure; and the king’s dangerous first advisor, Del’Ahrid.

The events in Betrayal’s Shadow are set after a devastating war between the humans and the Elvayn, a race that is able to control magic through song. Reduced to the status of slaves, and having their tongues ritually cut out before reaching maturity, the Elvayn seem to have become a non-existent threat, and all is ostensibly well in the kingdom. However, we are quickly presented with an unsilenced Elvayn – Khyber — on the loose, the High General Brice missing in action under mysterious circumstances, and Blade Knight Alun experiencing disturbing new physical and mental traits after being badly wounded in a strange battle. Thus Betrayal’s Shadow roars into action, with a thundering pace that never seems to drag.

De Burgh’s real strength, here, is assuredly world-building, and this is a difficult thing to get right. While he throws the reader into the thick of things from the very first page and wastes little time on exposition, the internal logic of his world’s history and contemporary political structure comes together beautifully as the story progresses. The Betrayal’s Shadow universe has clearly been given much careful thought and development, and the effort has resulted in a wonderfully convincing fantasy world.

I also found the characters fascinating, especially Seira, the royal courtesan – I loved the chapters following her and found myself earnestly wishing for more time to be spent on Seira’s story. As another reviewer, Suzanne Rooyen, has noted, women do not really feature in roles outside of the patriarchal tradition, and the real movers and shakers are overwhelmingly male. The Mahaelian Chronicles will continue, however, and so I am hopeful that female characters will feature more prominently as the story progresses.

Finally, Nerine Dorman has already noted that the novel could have benefitted from more stringent editing to catch a number of typos, and I will add that another round of edits focusing on style could really fill out and polish the prose – but perhaps that’s the literature student in me!

On the whole, this is fun, competent epic fantasy which should appeal to most lovers of the genre, and the fact that the story doesn’t end here means that all of my little niggles may well be addressed in the next instalments – colour me interested!


Book Review: The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

September 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

the-fifth-gospel-9781451694147_hrIan Caldwell’s second novel, after co-authoring the 2004 Sunday Times bestseller The Rule of Four, is The Fifth Gospel. He acknowledges that this novel took just about a decade to research and write, and his patience and meticulous observational skills are evident in each line.

The protagonist, Father Alex Andreou, is a priest from a historical Vatican family – his father was a priest, his brother is a priest, and his uncle holds an elevated role in the hierarchical structure of Catholic priesthood. As a Greek Catholic priest, Alex is allowed to marry, and this has left him with the care of a five-year-old son and a missing wife, who abandoned her family after a bout of post-partum depression.

When his brother Simon is accused of the murder of Ugo Nogara, the curator of an important upcoming exhibition about the Shroud of Turin, Alex finds himself reconstructing the dead curator’s work in order to prove his brother’s innocence.

Caldwell’s characters are memorable and complex, their personalities shaped by the lives they have lead inside and outside the Vatican, and their interactions and relationships feel poignant and organic.

Caldwell weaves his intriguing story through careful slipping between past and present, setting a measured pace that allows the plot to unfold naturally rather than flashily. This novel is about more than just chase scenes and dramatic revelations; it explores the tensions between ancient religious traditions and modern, pragmatic spirituality. It engages with love and responsibility – familial, romantic, friendly and human.

While the novel bursts with fascinating details about everyday life in the Vatican and the Catholic faith, Caldwell does not belabour any religious points, so you won’t need to gird your loins for a devout treatise. He has developed a style of writing that is undeniably elegant and often frankly beautiful, and I found myself re-reading many of the striking lines that he has crafted with both envy and awe.

If you want a novel that combines compelling characters, remarkable mysteries, fascinating facts, and – yes – thrills, then this one’s for you… and it’s delivered in an undeniably intellectual package!

(Published in the Pretoria News, and in the September 2015 issue of Cover to Cover by Exclusive Books.)

Book Review: What Will People Say? by Rehana Rossouw

September 14, 2015 § 5 Comments

2uEtkaX-198x300 Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say? is a compelling and unapologetic debut novel.

Rossouw tells the story of the Fouries, a working-class family living in Hanover Park during the turbulent 1980s South Africa. Father Neville and mother Magda are doing their best to raise their three teenaged children “decent” in a township feeling the full effects of the poverty into which the inhabitants are consigned. However, children Suzette, Nicky and Anthony Fourie have their own ideas about how to survive and thrive in Hanover Park…and in some cases, how to escape it completely.

From open to close, Rossouw succeeds in vividly evoking the sights, sounds and smells of the heart of the Cape Flats. Her language is liberally dotted with the gritty vernacular of the time and place, and no explanatory glossary is granted to the reader. This utterly unique patois was something that took a bit of getting used to, but surrendering to Rossouw’s choice of language resulted in perfect immersion in her world – a testament to her skill as a writer.

While the language and style are remarkable in themselves, the story is gripping and intense – township life feels constantly balanced on the edge of disaster, and danger looms for every member of the Fourie family. What Will People Say? presents characters who are nuanced and infinitely human, characters that compel a reader to think. Neville’s obvious love for his children is heart-warming, but his relationship with his wife seems stuck in a deadlock that is passive from his side and aggressive from hers. Suzette’s rebellion is in equal measure irresponsible and understandable, and triggers a conflicting response in the reader of simultaneously wanting her to succeed as a model and wanting her to go back to school and reconcile with her family.

Rossouw’s masterful use of language and her captivating characters make this debut novel truly difficult to put down – you may find yourself obsessively racing through the last 150 pages with both sheer fascination with the events unfolding, and anxiety about the novel actually ending…rather like I did.

(Published in the Pretoria News, and in the September 2015 issue of Cover to Cover by Exclusive Books.)

Book Review: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

July 31, 2013 § 2 Comments

11713Here it is, guys – an absolutely terrible review for you all. 😉 I picked this up at the Exclusive Books warehouse sale and finally got around to reading it over the holiday. So, here goes…

The English Patient (I think) traces the intersection of four lives at the end of World War II. I would say more about the plot if I liked the book more. As it is, this sentence is using up time that I could spend reading anything…ANYTHING…to help forget this awful book. If you want a complete plot summary, Google will help – I’m sure that some crazy person enjoyed it enough to write one. 😉

Why did I hate this book? Well, I would say mainly because although the prose is lush and lyrical and all kinds of amazing and drool-worthy and and and…I did NOT want to read 300-odd pages of Michael Ondaatje using his words for masturbation. AT SOME POINT I wanted a story that I could follow and enjoy. The prose struck me as incredibly self-aware. Trying. Too. Hard. I imagined Ondaatje sitting in his room at 3am with a plainly-typed page in front of him, translating every sentence into “OMG prose and fancy words and prizes plz” language. I skipped lines. And then I skipped paragraphs. And then, I admit, I skipped entire pages. I just couldn’t anymore.

Also, I like the fact that authors make their readers engage and actively concentrate on following the plot. I don’t like needing a PhD in literature just to know what the fuck is happening to who the fuck, and also, why the fuck? Plot? No.

A few readers on Goodreads also found the dialogue particularly unrealistic. I was too busy trying to figure out why the characters themselves seemed so unrealistic and flat. Could be a by-product of crappy dialogue – who knows. -_-

In conclusion: I recommend that you avoid this book. There are far more enjoyable and accessible classics for you to enjoy. Unless you have to actually study this book (yes, I found it on Sparknotes, which means that someone somewhere has done this for uni), don’t do it! I realize how dangerous it is for me to say this, as I’m only halfway through my English degree and there will be more set books to come, so let’s all touch wood that I don’t ever have to study this either, yes? Good. 😉

Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

July 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

the-bell-jar-by-sylvia-plath-3This is another one of my lucky secondhand bookshop finds. 🙂 I wanted to buy it for a decent price because I’ve never experienced Plath’s writing before, but after reading it, I’ll definitely buy her other work brand new.

So, The Bell Jar is basically about Esther Greenwood, a woman who is brilliant and successful in pretty much every way but still suffers a descent into a terrible depression.

That’s another one of my extremely succinct little book breakdowns, but they always happen because I want people to read the books – I don’t want to give the entire story away in one paragraph!

I read The Bell Jar while I was in the throes of some good old PMS, so that may have altered my experience a little bit, but I still feel that if you have ever wondered what it’s like to be inside a depressed person’s head…read this book. It’s like watching a car crash happen in slow, exquisite motion, and you just cannot tear your eyes away. There were definitely some aspects that I found myself identifying with (to my creeping horror) and Plath has such a knack of describing certain things. It’s no wonder that my first encounter with her work was little quotes taken from The Bell Jar, because they stand by themselves just as brilliantly as they do in context.

I loved that this book is different; vivid; realistic; and accessible. You are thrown headlong into somebody’s wild depressed mind and nothing is held back – a compelling read. I confess that it only took me a few hours in one evening, from front cover to back. *blush*

“I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.” 
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“But when it came right down to it, the skin of my wrist looked so white and defensless that I couldn’t do it. It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, and a whole lot harder to get.” 
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Book Review: The Cider House Rules by John Irving

July 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

imagesvgsdrvgdsThanks, Exclusive Books warehouse sale! I am always excited when I find critically-acclaimed fiction at ridiculously low prices, as this is the year that I am beginning to explore the world of GOOD good-old-fashioned fiction. So I picked up The Cider House Rules despite having never actually watched the movie – I just knew that it was a movie as well.

This book is about Doctor Wilbur Larch; the orphanage that he runs in St. Cloud’s in rural Maine; and the unadoptable orphan Homer Wells. Looking at that sentence, which at first seemed to sum the book up rather well, I feel that it doesn’t nearly do The Cider House Rules justice.

I have a sort of mental category for books like this; tricky to get into (but once you’re in, you’re absolutely hooked), with writing that at first glance seems simple and effortless but under greater scrutiny reveals itself to be absolutely masterful, and with subject matter that makes me really reconsider my views and opinions about the world at large. Oh, and let me not forget the characters. The word that sticks in my head is ‘real’. They are imperfect, unpredictable, sometimes beautiful and sometimes terribly ugly. They are absolutely human and they make the book worth reading.

If I had a complaint (and this is taking some serious thought) it would be that I struggled to really get into the book – readers will know what I mean by this. It starts slowly, at the beginning, and takes time to pick up momentum. Me writing a review is proof that it can be done, though, so just persevere. 😉

Of course, the positives FAR outweigh the negatives. I am definitely going to keep an eye out for more of John Irving’s work, as I feel that he is a bit of an understated genius and a wonderful study of human nature and character (both of which I find incredibly interesting to read about).

Book Review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

July 9, 2013 § Leave a comment

imagesThanks for this one, Bargain Books! I got this in one of their ‘3 for R99’ specials. Last semester I had a subject about Jane Austen and we only did three of her six published novels (Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion) so now I am on the lookout for the other three because I think her writing is fabulous. Luckily I can cross Northanger Abbey off of the list and start searching for Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park now. 😀

So, this book is about Catherine Morland, a main character much nicer than Emma (seriously, screw Emma). Austen goes to great pains to communicate that Catherine is not the stereotypical heroine – she has had an ordinary childhood, is quite average in terms of her talents and charms, and has a normal family. She does, however, love to read the novels of the time and has quite an active imagination which makes her entry to the Bath social scene and the subsequent events far more interesting than they would otherwise have been.

I really enjoyed this book, because I have always found Austen to be the original Gossip Girl (not sure if that’s the most accurate reference but it’s the best I could come up with). She writes about the kind of social intrigue and drama that women enjoy (or women like me, anyway). There are not really particularly dramatic or interesting things happening but somehow I am always still interested in what will happen next, because her characters and dialogue draw me in relentlessly.

What really struck me about Northanger Abbey is how strongly Austen’s playfulness comes through. She addresses the reader directly a few times and seems to stand back and bemusedly observe Catherine’s experiences and behaviour – that there is a separate narrator is quite clear, and it works.

Only Austen could make me love a girl so unabashedly ordinary and care about what happens in her life.

And that is why you should definitely read this book. 😉

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