Tag Archives: Not A Review

The Bastards’ Paradise – Not a Review

Again, not a review, because I am not a reviewer. More of a flailing-about-madly-squee-er.


The Bastards’ Paradise is set some time after the events of The Mercury Waltz, (which I did not-review here) and again, if you pick up this book without prior knowledge of Under the Poppy or TMW you will be utterly lost. It is the final act in a grand epic, a smash of masks and puppetry even when the deep lines must be hidden with grease paint and Kohl, the cough stifled with gin and laudanum. Where under the prayers and the Church pageantry and the stern mask of rectitude lie war and hashish and cocaine and grinning thieves. Where everything is a lie. (If you think I’m harping on a bit about this, no, it really is a theme that runs strongly through all three books)

Koja is a phenomenal writer, and my favourite kind – the one that doesn’t give a shit about Gentle Reader. The story leaps and twists back on itself like a hare chased by hounds (a lord of hares, perhaps?), and the words play tag among themselves. Gentle Reader has no place here, only us fools and dreamers.


We’re back with Istvan and Rupert—Rupert who is meant to be a dead man in hiding after the final play of the Mercury. Holed up in garrets and attic rooms and rented bedsits and under starlight coughing himself to death while Istvan of the thousand names pretends to play it alone, puppets and wit still his to swindle and entertain.

But while the Poppy books have always been about lies and artifice and plays and players, the dark swirl beneath the city’s tarnished reflection, now the rot and the ache have truly set in. Istvan and Rupert are old and injured, no longer the bright young kits who found in each other the only true things, who understood that the whole world was theirs to fuck over, because it was that or be fucked over first.

These are men on the edge of dying. These are men who put newspaper in their boots, who lie to everyone, (including, and most painfully, each other) and who see themselves echoed in their sometime proteges Frédéric and Haden. Indeed, the stories of the two couples mimic each other, the pairs shinning the tale between them, ghosting and feinting.

Istvan, the eternal wanderer, knows that Rupert needs to settle down somewhere—a safe place, where he can stop being “the dead M Bok” and can regain his health, and he sets in motion a great swindle; a piece of artistry and vice to part the pretty gems from the fat fingers of the rich.

While Rupert stays alone in his room secretly (or so he believes) penning all the tales of their time together. There are plans made, old alliances gently pinned together in the hopes of a future. Piece by piece the two and their compatriots put their respective plays in motion, each wanting to save the other.

Through this main thread twists a million more—the women who form the net of the story. And their stories are, in their own ways, just as important. They are none of them written as throwaway characters—they can be just as selfish and petty and broken and obsessed and wonderful as our main characters. Women who are sisters, enemies, friends, fortune tellers, those who want to own Istvan and Rupert as though they were puppets themselves, those who want Istvan and Rupert as lovers or fathers, and sometimes lovers and fathers. All these threads twine together to build a story that grows richer and richer, crimson and emerald and blue black, until the final thumb to the nose, the tragedy and the closing curtain.

The story hops from place to place, giving hints and scenes that the reader puts together like a huge puzzle without a cover. All three of the Poppy books are meant to be savoured, to be taken slow. They reward careful reading—little witticisms and sleights of tongue are thrown out casually, carelessly, easily missed in a fast read.

You need to indulge in these stories the way you eat a 95% cocoa Lindt, and take your time, let the bittersweetness melt. Koja’s writing style can be vexing if you’re used to authors who follow more conventional rules, and if you’re not familiar with her work it can seem like a rough-grown thicket, impenetrable with brambly italicy undergrowth. But take your time and you begin to find the hollows and curves that lead you through the darkness, the hare trails and fox’s tunnels. She leaps from character to character – often in mid line—and it’s easy, if you skim, to find yourself completely lost.

But that is also part of what makes her work stand out. That and the utter heartbreaking gorgeousness of the story, which I sadly feel I’m not doing any justice.

I loved this book. It broke my heart and gutted me and made me cry, but it also made me grin, and shake my head, and turn the pages faster.

And when I walked blinking out into the light, it stayed in my head. And that, not-so-fucking-gentle-reader, is what makes a story.

Not a Review – Devilskein & Dearlove

Devilskein & Dearlove is a whimsical and slightly dark take on the classic The Secret Garden (a book I have always loved, so this was great fun for me.) It is a book of hearts and keys and lies and sacrifices, set in the wonderfully prosaic (a block of flats in Long  Street, Cape Town) and the wonderfully metaphysical (A labyrinth of bartered souls.)

Erin Dearlove is an orphan who is blocking out the horror of her family’s death with an intricate fantasy history, and a cold and bitter demeanour. Sent to live with her Aunt Kate in an apartment in Van Riebeek Heights, she is constantly sneering at the apparent poverty and the people who live there, comparing it unflatteringly with her “previous” life in a mansion with staircases of glass, with peacocks roaming the grounds. She rebuffs the friendliness of fellow teen Kelwyn Talmakies and is isolated even from her aunt, who doesn’t know how to help her.

Miserable and antisocial and damaged, she meets a person even more so than herself – The Companyman Mr. Devilskein, who keeps a fantastical secret in apartment 6616. Devilskein has lived for hundreds of years, bartering the souls of people desperate for fame or love or genius, and making it so that they can never reclaim those souls,  trapping them in his interconnecting worlds behind a series of doors called The Indeterminate  Vault; the keys all unmarked and muddled. In Erin and Kelwyn, Devilskein sees a chance at immortality – he will take the children’s hearts to replace his own failing one.

But there are other factors at play – the cricket Zhou who guides Erin through the fantastical world, and a shadow boy called Julius Monk, trapped in the Haga; a doorless,
windowless prison. Both play Erin for their own purposes – capturing her with friendship real and false. Zhou guides Erin to a Chinese garden behind a turquoise door, and there, is where Erin begins to grow back her lost self, by caring for a garden that was salted with tears, and bringing it back to life. The book is layered with this kind of delightful metaphor, and deep readers will get a lot from the shadings that writer Alex Smith uses to deepen the narrative.

Through the story, Erin changes from the sour, lost teenager who invented a fantasy past, to one who is powerful, artistic, and brave, one who will be able to finally face the horror of her parents’ and brother’s murders, and see real magic. She is fooled by false friendships and rejects true ones, but it will take these actions for her to change her world, and be able to free lost souls, and save a city.

The story has magical charm, embroidered with sensory details, and is a lovely and strange little book. The characters are all very different, though I would say the one thing that I found jarring was that sometimes the ages of the teen characters were hard to place. I knew they were teens, but often they read younger than that, which may also be down to trying to capture a little of the spirit of the source material.

Published by Umuzi Press, so although the book is available in South Africa, overseas readers will probably have to go through Amazon to get a copy.

Book-keeping, and two quick not-reviews

I’ve sent this version of N&V off to a couple of beta readers. I’m too close to this draft to see the right shape. i know things are missing, but I’m not sure what. Hopefully, some outsider views can give me a better picture.


Working on a new book, just a fun little thing for me, and reading. So here are two small not-reviews.



City of Dreams Cover EBOOK LARGECity of Dreams is the first in a planned historical series following the life and adventures of Anna, who starts off as the young daughter of a Russian furrier, and by the end of this book has changed cities, married a scoundrel, fallen from grace, become a mistress-for-hire, and slowly rebuilt her life in Paris.

Set in the lead up to and during the Franco-Prussian war, it’s a fast-paced and enjoyable read. The writing is invisible (a type that’s surprisingly hard to master), with little in the way of metaphorical ornamentation, but it works well with the first person narrative of Anna herself, and I found that I’d finished the book within a few hours in a single sitting.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of the history, but we do see the horror of living through a war, and again through the internal unrest in Paris during the rise and defeat of the Communards.

Anna makes connections and friends in Paris (sometimes a little too easily for my taste, though) that see her through the terrible things she must endure. She might start off the story aa a naive little child-bride, with seemingly barely a thought in her head, but she is quickly thrown into unexpected circumstances that give us her true mettle, and by the end she has matured and taken on something of a grave and quiet responsibility to those who have helped her.

There is romance, but it is not the impetus and is far from cloying. The real focus is not on Anna’s romantic entanglements, but on how she develops, and on the network of people she gathers around her. It’s a novel more of friendships than love affairs.

I will be looking forward to reading more of Steel’s work.



lighthousekeepingWe are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes.

Lighthousekeeping is a story about stories. We meet the narrator Silver as a child, her story told in the framework of the improbable. Child-Silver seems like something from a fairy-tale, albeit a dark and thin one. Fatherless, then orphaned, and finally handed on to the Lighthouse Keeper of Salts, she grows up strange, her world made of dark and light. Pew is blind, and he teaches her about light. How stories are light, and how it isn’t light that saves the sailors, but stories.

Eventually the lighthouse is automated (the stories lost) and Silver must venture into another world, one she barely seems to understand. Reality is something she cannot truly grasp, though perhaps it could be said her quest for reality becomes her quest for love.

Intertwined in Silver’s story are others about light and dark, man and man-beast, love and magic – Pew tells her the story of Babel Dark and Molly O’Rourke, and there are others; Tristan and Isolde, and the two parallels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Darwin (magic and humanity intertwined with science and evolution).

Our story is so simple. I went to bring you back for someone else, and won you for myself. Magic, they all said later, and it was, but not the kind that can be brewed.

And the final story, of Adult-Silver, recounting love. because love is also a story, and she tells her lover the words that shape them.

Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.

I’m a huge fan of Winterson’s style – her descriptions, the puzzle-piece way her novels are structured. I really enjoyed this read, constantly wanting to underline phrases and lines. If you’re looking for a structured plot and a grand climax, you’re not going to get it. This is more intimate. It is overheard conversations, remembering pieces of stories while falling asleep. And it’s beautiful for it, like almost understanding the truth

The Mercury Waltz – Not a Review


I seem to be experiencing a deluge of happy reading. Let me start off this non-review by saying if you told me I had to pick my favourite book of the year, this would be it, no contest. Not because other books aren’t good, but because this is the one that hits me on every level.

TMWI read Under the Poppy – the previous book in this duology(?) – a while ago, and in all fairness I could have done with a revisit before tackling The Mercury Waltz. However, it’s been previously established that I am lazy and I just floundered about until things started clicking together in my mind and I remembered who was who and the intricate knotted web of connections that ties these stories together. Kathe Koja does not pander to her reader. Not the fuck. You keep up, or you go read something easier. And I like it. Yes yes I do. For some reason I quite enjoy it when an author credits me with a little intelligence.

Perhaps because I was expecting her particular style, I found The Mercury Waltz easier to get into than its predecessor; the writing somehow more sinewy and articulated. It is a book without a drop of magic, and yet magic waltzes through it, underlines every breath and pulls every string. It’s a book of puppetry, where the play is the thing, and everything but oh god everything is artifice and lies, even when it’s not.

It’s a book that holds up a wicked libertine mask as a reflection of the truth, and the moral and narrow face of justice as the ultimate perversity. It shows you the way with a deck of cards and spin on fortune’s wheel, and leaves you lost, even so.

But oh god I adore it; so dense and lush and grimy and slick and sexy and loveless and love-full and nnghhhh cities and dirty fumbles in the dark, and moral police and scandalised women and queer boys and actors and spies and taroc cards and games of chance and cheap wine and murder and a narrative that jumps characters in mid-sentence and says impatiently keep up or fuck off, but don’t come whining to me if you don’t know what’s going on and then maybe feels a little sorry for you and kisses you before twisting your nipple and walking away.

I have no idea if it’s a good book by whatever standards these things are held to. I often hate good books.

But this, this I fucking adore.

Living With Ghosts – Not A Review

So, I am not a reviewer; not in real life, and I certainly don’t play one on the internet.

HOWEVER *ahem* I was a reader long before I was a writer. I’m not planning on starting reviewing now, but I am going to talk about what I’ve been reading. Mainly because, you know what, I do this in real life, but that doesn’t really help the authors since I only talk to 3 people about the books I love and, well, the reach is wider here.

The other day I was having a twitter conversation, and during it Joyce Chng suggested if I was going to read Kari Sperring, I start with Living With Ghosts. I looked at the cover, read the blurb and thought mmmyes, this shall do nicely…

I admit I’m often a mite eh about reading the work of people I quite like, because there’s always that horrible feeling of ohgodwhatif…

Turns out I needn’t have worried:


As I imagine this story, sometime before 2009, writer Kari Sperring was sitting at her desk thinking, how can I make the world a better place and bring joy to these heathen readers of fantasy who like stuff that is not epic and grimdark and endless quest sagas…?

Then, CLEARLY, she thought of me, and began down to write – in a feverish outpouring of awesome – a book just for Dear Reader Cat, except, unfortunately for this story CAT IS A MORON AND ONLY FOUND THE BOOK 5 YEARS LATER DEAR GOD WTF.

So basically, everything I love ever squeezed into one book. Spies, courtly intrigue, PORT CITIES OMG PORT CITIES NNNGHHHHHHH, ghosts, shapeshifting fucking swans, magic, revenge, more revenge, queer love, NNNGHH DIALOGUE MADE OF SEX, um yes.

I was pretty happy, not gonna lie.

At first, the writing style felt a little staccato for my tastes, but within a few pages I was sucked in, and yes there’s not so much a plot thread as a plot tangle but I was invested in that tangle, dammit, and I trusted the writer to see me through and she did.


In case it’s not clear: damn, I wish I’d written this.

(I should do this more often, it’s rather fun just to gush madly.)