About Me

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Tea-drinking introvert found either behind a book or within arm's reach of one. Book reviewer, and book sniffer. You may have seen me on W24, BooksLive, Aerodrome, Bark Magazine, CultNoise Magazine, or Expound Magazine.

25 Jan 2020

Review: Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

Christopher and his mom are starting over; just the two of them in a new town. Despite his learning difficulties and inability to keep words in place on a page, he tries to make the best of second grade. Embarrassed at his struggles to learn, and bullied regularly, there’s no doubt that Christopher’s young life is filled with challenges.

One day, everything changes. Seized by a sudden and inexplicable desire to enter the woods near his home, Christopher disappears for six days. On his return, everything is different. Christopher has no recollection of the time away other than the presence of a nice man who helped him home. In addition to this apparent amnesia, Christopher and his mother realise that after the woods, he suddenly has no problems reading or with math – he seems to have been imbued with instant academic brilliance.

As Christopher and his mom try to come to terms with these changes, she can’t but worry about him. Her son, usually such an open boy, has become secretive, sneaky, and dedicated to building a treehouse in the woods at all costs. Led by the nice man, Christopher knows things that his mother does not. It is integral that he follows the man’s instructions, or the horrors contained in the imaginary world will break though to the real one.  

There’s something incredibly sinister and disconcerting about having such a young protagonist in such a mature story, and all the more so given the enormous emotional, physical and psychological trials he experiences. In addition to the cruelty of subjecting a young child to a narrative filled with mental illness, religious fanaticism, and a horde of adult taboos, it creates somewhat of a barrier between reader and story. That a not-yet eight-year-old child can handle such immense darkness with such grace, selflessness and maturity screams unrealistic, regardless of the supernatural or preternatural cause. However, the brilliance of this risky move is that we see Chbosky’s world through eyes not yet dulled by cynicism or society – every event (no matter how unbelievable) is taken at face value – through the eyes of a child, anything is possible.  

Regardless of one’s desire to spare the protagonist from what he experiences, Imaginary Friend is completely absorbing, and completely disturbing. It is a feat of literary prowess, with a philosophical backbone that lays a foundation for exploration, reflection, and discussion of so many topics society deems unbelievable, impossible, or improbable. Imaginary Friend speaks our sense of normalcy – of what is right, what is wrong, and what is not discussed. 

Perhaps Chbosky realized that only child-sized feet could navigate the literary minefields of morality, religion, mental illness, and societal degradation. Whatever the reason, this book is powerful, dark, distressing, and brilliant, and no review could do justice to such a layered story without giving too much away, or flattening a larger than life narrative. 

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky is published by Orion Fiction, a Hachette company, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.

19 Jan 2020

Review: Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Letters from an Astrophysicist is a book containing just that – a choice collection of communication between Neil deGrasse Tyson and the world at large. From letters spanning over a decade, and encompassing everything from fan mail to hate mail, this book gives a rare glance into not just the mind, but the pen, of a famous scientist. Through his exchanges, we discover that this man of science is also one of humour, humanity, and family – he grapples with a range of concepts from parenting and race, to religion and the supernatural, all from the viewpoint of science, but with the zeal and passion of a fired-up writer or singer. (Truly, the book even includes a mic drop moment). Is Tyson a science Rockstar? Who knows, but he’s certainly in the running.

From the first sentence of this book, three things are apparent: 1. Neil deGrasse Tyson may be a scientist, but he writes like a poet. 2. This man knows his shit. 3. His enviable intellect spans far beyond just astrophysics; among others, he’s got psychology and anthropology under the belt, too.
Generally, intellects of Tyson’s stature – and specifically in his field of expertise – are stereotyped as bespectacled, socially inept number-crunchers with the emotional depth of a robotic caricature. It is therefore refreshing to read the scribblings of someone who can not only string together a series of words in a pleasing manner, but reach beyond the words to the human experiences which instigated the many letter contained within this volume.

Opening with a moving and melancholy reflection of an older America, in which achievements were limited according to race and gender, Tyson’s position as a celebrity scientist attests to hard work, determination, passion, and above all, curiosity, that cannot but make for an excellent story. With his reflections into the psyche and ethos of modern society, he comes across as a somewhat scientific Dalai Lama, but with a sparkling personality and cheekiness that also mellows any awe. Indeed, that wit takes him to new levels of sarcasm and verbal sparring with those inclined to believe in religious fanaticism or the supernatural – at which point he becomes more like Neil deSass Tyson, and who doesn’t love a bit of shade?

Overall, it’s easy to see why Tyson has such a huge fanbase and why he is so popular. He’s personable, smart, and impressive. Despite this, the nature of the majority of the letters contained within this book is perplexing; one would understand questions and commentary regarding science and its opponents, but of life advice, existentialism and melancholy reflection? That’s the part of the book I found most jarring. However, Tyson responds to these unscientific deliveries with admiration and class, so I see the appeal. In addition (and as is emphasized through several letters mentioned), Tyson has an ease of manner with regards communication – he gets his point across effectively and concisely, making him an excellent educator. Seriously; just some of the things I learned: Eyewitness testimony is not scientific evidence (I cannot emphasize this enough, and nor, apparently, can Tyson); the myriad ways in which science affects and improves our daily lives is startling and impressive; Armageddon was a scientific failure of the film industry; and mankind has so much to learn.

Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson is published by WH Allen, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, a Penguin Random House company.

Review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

For Shana, life on a small farm in Pennsylvania is a study in routine, with each day fixed in its mundane patterns. However, one morning in June, Shana’s little sister Nessie isn’t in bed – she’s outside, in her pajamas, walking determinedly down the street. Despite her best efforts, Shana cannot wake or stop her sister. In fact, Nessie is soon joined by more walkers, and when the local police attempt to halt their progression, one of the afflicted literally explodes.

As the flock of walkers slowly continues to grow, and with the horrific consequences if restrained, the local police and paramedics decide to step in. The CDC, unsure of what will happen to the ever-growing flock, decides to follow the group; hoping to be able to perform tests and understand the strange force controlling the wanderers.

Apart from mystifying scientists and doctors, the flock piques the interest of a few other groups – from white supremacists to religious fanatics, everyone seems to have an explanation for the seemingly mystical movement of this group of people. As if this phenomenon wasn’t enough, a deadly new fungal pathogen has been discovered, with a high mortality rate and exceptional speed of infection. While the White Mask disease spreads, with no apparent cure, connections begin to be drawn between the outbreak, and the presence of the walkers. This ignites pre-existing tensions, which, together with mass infections, turns the world on its head.

Traditionally, larger tomes (and especially of the science fiction and fantasy genres) tend to set out their plot – at least partly – in the introductory pages, and spend the rest of the time zooming in on the story – padding it with great quantities of detail and peppered with guest characters and tricks that make it seem as though the narrative is rocketing along at a happy pace. However, such stories become…. Boring. Stagnant. Predictable. Not so with Chuck Wendig, who has offered a mammoth book that features a unique manner of constant evolution, while simultaneously providing greater detail as it progresses. This double-feature approach makes Wanderers exciting, unpredictable, and the home of multiple clever connections that strengthen an already brilliant plotline. To read Wanderers feels like watching a series – smartly connected segments on the same timeline that make the plot flexible, mobile, and entertaining.

Chuck Wendig has really penned an epic book, of epic literal and fictional proportions. Through the slow but steady merging of multiple smaller plots into a fantastic and, frankly, almost genius grand theatre of the meeting point of science and science fiction.

This careful and delicate blurring between hard core science – from epidemiology and physics, to the borderless imaginings of science fiction make for a believable, thought-stoking adventure that’s a ride from the first page. If clever writing and a brilliant plot aren’t enough to win you over and convince you to delve into this 782-page delight, then let it be the myriad content. From topics such as religion, science, politics, ethics, biotech, romance, pop culture, fanaticism, futurism, and some good ol’ apocalyptic dystopia – this book literally has something for everyone.

Allow me to remind you that – perhaps apart from its weight – there is nothing to fault in this book. That’s a rare statement for a reviewer to make, I assure you. As such, I’d advise you read Wanderers now, both to satisfy that ever-present literary itch experienced by seekers of stories, and to get into the world before it hits the screen of some flashy Netflix series – because this book is destined for greatness, and you don’t want to miss its ascent.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig is published by Solaris, an imprint of Rebellion Publishing, and is available in South Africa by Jonathan Ball Publishers

3 Jan 2020

Review: How to Grow a Human by Philip Ball

There’s something eerie about the scientific achievements of the last few decades; these phenomenal advancements in medical science and research can put one in mind of horror tales of yore such as Frankenstein, or more recent fantasies such as The Matrix. Yeah – scary stuff. But it doesn’t have to be. Philip Ball takes us behind the sensationalist headlines of popular media – test tube babies, artificial humans, synthetic organs, and genetic modification and experimentation – and presents the facts behind the hype. Ball takes us on a journey of scientific revolution, from our humble beginnings dabbling with genes and proteins, to attempts at cloning, growing organs and babies in vitro (outside of the body), IVF, and the modification of genetic information to prevent disease. Science has come a long way, but there is still so much to explore.

My chief impression of How to Grow a Human is more than just an impressive collection of facts and feats – it’s a scientist’s attempt to allay fears of experimentation, and put science into the context of our modern lives. Ball takes care in explaining the progress, concepts, legalities, and ethics surrounding our various forays into the world of biology, clarifying that just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it will be done. Simultaneously, he emphasizes that there is no need to fear these biological achievements – we are in the infant stages of something amazing, and still have so much to learn before we can implement what we know.  

How to Grow a Human, as the title suggests, takes us through the processes of how humans are made – the amazing ways that cells divide, develop, and mature, resulting in a human being. Thereafter, things become fantastic and odd; Ball describes how it is possible to recreate this process, or the various aspects involved, outside of the body, sometimes even without the necessary components. As the saying goes; if science is limited only by the imagination, anything is possible.

There seems to be a fine line between the technicality of a subject, and the readability of a text (the more technical, the more boring or difficult to read), but Philip Ball has this immense talent to make facts (of which there are hundreds) read like fiction. How to Grow a Human is akin to reading an entire biology textbook, only it’s far more interesting, and actually enjoyable. Oh, had I had this book before writing my Microbiology and Biomedical Sciences exams, I would have found studying so much easier, and so much more pleasant. I loved this book, and I learned a great deal. In addition, I have a new-kindled interest in ‘artificial’ body parts and cloning, which will make for some interesting Google searches. If it is true that a book that gets you to think about, discuss, or research new information is worth its weight in gold, then this book is priceless.

How to Grow a Human by Philip Ball is published by William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.