Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

June 18, 2012

Review – Mistification by Kaaron Warren

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 11:29 pm

This will be my fifth full review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, and in fact my third review of a Kaaron Warren novel. Mistification (published by Angry Robot) is her third published novel, following on from Slights and Walking the Tree, both of which I enjoyed. So with that in mind – and having subsequently met Kaaron and found her to be charming, insightful and encouraging to new writers [1] – you can reasonably assume I will be predisposed to like this one as well.

“You love your tricks, Marvo. You must be careful to let people believe they ARE tricks, at all times. Let them think there is an answer, an explanation. If they think your magic is true, they will hate you. This has happened to me more than once.”

Marvo is a true magician, raised by his grandmother within the walls and attic of an old house, where they have fled from a murderous if vague civil unrest. There he teaches himself magic tricks, learns about the world watching a mute television and begins his lifelong addiction to listening to the stories that people tell about themselves. Once he is old enough to go out into the world, he devotes himself to understanding the world almost exclusively through these stories – some heartbreaking and personal, some awful and transgressive, some resonant with myth. Denied the grounding of a typical family upbringing, he is particularly obsessed with birth stories, the stranger the better. He finds love, of a sort, and becomes a renowned stage magician. He begins to understand that the mist, his magical ability to alter how people see the world, conveys a great and ultimately terrible responsibility.

Mistification is a fascinating piece of storytelling about stories, from the small curiosities that people build up into important myths with themselves at the centre, to the huge lies that they spin around themselves to obscure truths they cannot bear. It’s a story obsessed with magical traditions, superstitions and mythology, as is Marvo himself.

The pace of the novel perhaps suffers from Marvo’s apparent aimlessness – much of the book is taken up with his meandering trade in stories with just about everyone he ever meets – but I felt his relentless inquisitiveness worked in the book’s favour. Marvo’s quest to understand the world through stories is his life’s work, and Warren’s primary concern is to show what Marvo has learned. She almost never lets us glimpse the world except from his odd and myopic perspective. The plot has to force its way in between the gaps in the mist and the impact of the ending is all the more stunning for it.

Mistification is a beautiful piece told in a fairytale lilt but not always accessibly so. Marvo is not overly concerned with being liked and is often more selfish and spiteful than he lets himself believe. Given the tightness of the viewpoint, it was sometimes hard to sympathise with him. But Marvo’s lesson, that the world is best understood by listening to stories, is a resonant one.

[1] I’m new to the community of writers, at any rate.

June 7, 2012

Back to the Island 2.18 – Dave

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage,wordsmithery — lexifab @ 10:54 pm

I attended my first short story critiquing circle last night, courtesy of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. It was a wonderful experience, to sit down with other writers to work through each others’ stories, talking through what worked, what didn’t and finding all the bits that don’t make any sense. To my certain discredit, I inflicted my eye-straining Twitter-inspired story on them. Much to my surprise the group took it in stride and came through with some very cogent analysis. Not to mention pointing out some blindingly obvious ideas and solutions that not once during the writing and editing of the story itself ever occurred to me. There was a consensus that the sense of creeping menace worked which i was not at all sure about) and that the jokes were funny.

It was a very rewarding and somewhat intoxicating experience. Apart from the very direct benefits of coming out of the other side with a better story (pending another rewrite, of course) there is something deeply satisfying to the process of helping someone else to make their work the best it can be. I tend to feel most at home in collaborative environments, and this was certainly that. I walked out (into a crispy sub-zero Canberra evening) feeling refreshed and invigorated and inspired to keep writing.

Many thanks to Mitch, Cat, Mik, Shauna, Ian and Donna – I’ll be back next month. I just need to write a new story before then, I guess.

Meanwhile: Here’s the next episode of Lost reviewed. I had been stalling on reviewing this one, having convinced myself that it was terrible. When I finally did watch it, I realised that I was deeply incorrect.


June 5, 2012

Books of 2012 – May

Filed under: books of 2012,books read — lexifab @ 12:13 am

May’s reading was about on par with the pace I’ve set since January – six new books read. Here’s the rundown:

The Obituarist by Patrick O’Duffy (ebook versions at Smashwords or Amazon) – For some reason I wrote a full review of Patrick O’Duffy’s deft crime novella to post to various book review websites, but I forgot to post it here as well. So here it is in full:

Patrick O’Duffy’s smart little crime novella ‘The Obituarist’ started from a cool character idea: someone who makes a living from methodically closing down the online presence of the recently deceased on behalf of their technologically-challenged bereaved, setting up memorials on their social media sites, removing their personal information and subscriptions and shutting down opportunities for the theft of their identities. O’Duffy could have gone almost anywhere with so solid a concept. He plumped for a tight yarn of a week or so in the life of Kendall Barber, the obituarist in question, whose attempts to unravel the fate of his client’s dead brother run afoul of violent bikers, slovenly cops and ambitious gangsters.

This is a wise-cracking, confident story that twists like a cracking whip and runs hot on a fuel of lies, secrets and hammer beatings. It’s not too long that the pace starts to stretch believability, and at 20K words it’s all too easy to inhale in a sitting. In a way that’s good though, because I got to the end and immediately wanted to start it again. It’s a different meal the second time through, but it tastes just as good.

Brave New World: Revolution by Matt Forbeck – This is the first novel produced out of Matt Forbeck’s ambitious plan to write 12 novels in 12 months (not counting several other projects he has going, apparently including a monthly comic, several game-related works, short stories and at least one other novel. The man’s a demon). I supported the Kickstarter awhile back, because I like mad ambition. I was, unfortunately, only kind of so-so about this particular book. Revolution (which is based on Forbeck’s RPG from the 90’s) is set in an alternate-history version of America where super-powered hijinks have resulted in a glassy crater where Chicago used to be and a repressive law requiring that supers be registered and work for the government or face imprisonment. The action – of which there is a lot – revolves around an underground movement helping Deltas (the superheroes) get out of the country. There are a lot of suitably destructive fights, plenty of shadowy government black ops shenanigans, desperate people with desperate plans that involve explosions and a couple of very effective plot twists to keep things from being a straightforward romp.

But despite all that I was not all that engaged by most of the characters. With the exception of a husband and wife team drawn back into the war they thought they’d escaped, I was unmoved by the plight of most of the cast. There was nothing particularly wrong with any of them. I just couldn’t much invest in their problems. Except for the guy who breathed poison gas, who I thought got a pretty raw deal. Despite these misgivings, I’m up for reading the sequels (which I will get in any case, as a supporter of the initial pledge drive). The big-screen action and provocative setting details revealed in  Revolution are worth a look. I just hope that in the next volume Forbeck shows me someone I’ll care about more.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton – I’ve has a copy of this floating around in my pile of shame for…um, at least three years. Maybe four or five. I finally decided I’d better pick it up and clear it out, though to be honest that decision was probably motivated more by the vague inclination to stir some non-fiction into my reading list than any real compulsion to be inspired to wisdom. At Goodreads I wrote  “Well researched and argued, but the conclusions felt a little insubstantial. “…there is more than one way…of succeeding at life” is undoubtedly true. I think that I may have been expecting something a bit more profound.” And, well…yeah, I don’t have anything to add to that.

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig – I’ve been waiting a while for this book to arrive, so it’s going to get its own full review. Long story short: it’s very good.

Dinocalypse Now by Chuck Wendig – Kickstarter has been good to me this month. I reviewed this first part in what will eventually become a rather epic Spirit of the Century fiction collection just a couple of days ago, and found it good.

Dead Harvest by Chris F. HolmI reviewed Chris F. Holm’s short story collection 8 Pounds a while back and mentioned that I was looking forward to his first novel. It doesn’t disappoint. What starts as the simple story of a possessor spirit charged with collecting damned souls for Hell blows out into a violent apocalypse. Go figure. Dead Harvest is a solid hardboiled crime thriller buried neck-deep in the supernatural. That it walks a tightrope between the two genres without compromising on either is impressive – the central mystery is compelling, the narrator is heroic but horribly flawed and the stakes are both intimately personal and cosmic at the same time. This was such a satisfying read that I don’t really want to spoil anything. I highly recommend it. (Also, I try to resist the urge to judge books by their cover, but the design of this book – old-fashioned pulp with added scuff marks – is sublime.)

The first thing I note is that in terms of the spirit of the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I have comprehensively dropped the ball. No women at all this month, and in fact only one Australian (Patrick O’Duffy). I have  a long way to go to realign my unconscious preferences, it would appear. The first step is acknowledging the bias, though – at least I have that bit covered. The next step will be to make a conscious effort in June to redirect my efforts towards reading the several eligible works (including books by Kaaron Warren, Jo Anderton, Andrea Host and Keery Greenwood) currently burning a hole in my Kindle.

Two of this month’s novels – Dinocalypse and Revolution – were rewards for fiction projects which I backed through Kickstarter. Both will deliver sequels in the future (another six novels in the case of the Spirit of the Century Kickstarter, and two more from this particular Forbeck project) so I can expect to see a steady stream of  similar material flowing through my reading list over the next year or so.

The de Botton I read out of a sense of obligation – surely no book should have to languish so long unread? I suspect I read it in the hope – forlorn, as it turns out – that I would prove an intellectually stimulating diversion from the rather pulpier fare I was otherwise devouring. In fact I found that Blackbirds and Dead Harvest were both more eye-opening and challenging reads than Status Anxiety, which may say more about me than about works of popular philosophy.

Total book count for the year so far is 29, which makes my projected target of 80 books begin to look a little out of reach. (Especially since I plan to include fat-arsed shelf-breakers by Neal Stephenson, George R. R. Martin, Peter F. Hamilton and John Birmingham amongst them).

June 3, 2012

Back to the Island 2.17 – Lockdown

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — lexifab @ 12:17 am

My last Lost episode review was yonks ago, long enough for me to forget how enjoyable Michael Emerson’s early appearances are. He’s in full flight in this episode, which is Locke-centric to boot.

Less enjoyable was the discovery last night when I sat down to resume my cruise through Season 2 that the DVD drive in my laptop is apparently now a chunk of useless slag. Huh. Well, I only have myself to blame, probably, not upgrading the laptop from Vista.


June 1, 2012

Review – Dinocalypse Now by Chuck Wendig

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage — lexifab @ 8:56 pm

Despite never having quite managed to run a successful campaign of Evil Hat Productions’ pulp-action tabletop RPG Spirit of the Century, I’m a big fan of the somewhat deranged setting that coalesces around its focal heroes of the Century Club. You know the sort of stuff – talking apes bent on conquest, Atlantean science-magic, international intrigue, heroes in jetpacks, sorcerors, ray guns, megalomaniacs monologuing all over the place and the obligatory airships which may or may not be on fire at any given time.

As the flagship of the Kickstarter-funded SotC line of novels, Chuck Wendig’s Dinocalypse Now manages to include nearly everything on the list above and throws in psychic time-travelling dinosaurs. Yes, really. If you are anything like me, you won’t even have read to the end of that list of ingredients before slapping your money down.

The action is dynamic. The pace is breathless. The heroes find themselves in ever-greater peril. But Dinocalypse Now is more than a kitchen sink of pulp clichés. It’s an ensemble piece that manages to find the time – amidst the explosions, crashes and pterodactyl attacks, all of which are basically constant – to flesh out all seven heroes and two villains. The rare pauses in the headlong action are replete with solid moments of human drama – self-doubt, unrequited love, jealousy. All good juicy stuff, though none of it is ever so overwrought that it gets in the way of the next aerial dogfight.

Dinocalypse Now leaves nothing on the table. It is jam-packed with adventure – all of it comfortably safe for teenagers and probably even younger kids, as long as they can sit through Tintin without crying or falling asleep. And yet somehow this is just the first book in the Dinocalypse trilogy. I look forward to seeing how Wendig will top the fierce pace and relentless fun of this outing.

May in review

Filed under: fitter/happier,wordsmithery — lexifab @ 12:02 pm

Winter has arrived, and with it Canberra temperatures have continued to drop and my hacking cough has returned for the second time. So, a bit of a mixed bag there.

I started May with an air of grim determination, declaring it the Month of Getting Things Finished, or some such pomposity. So how did I fare? Let’s go through the checklist and see how I did:

Finish the outline of the novel: Um, well, no, I didn’t finish that. I did write several thousand words worth of outline, which pointed to problems in structure, character development and world building, so I guess in that sense it was a success. In the past few days I abandoned that version of the outline and started again. I haven’t junked many of the ideas, I’ve just restarted the work of assembling them into the most usable order.

The only real concern I have about the novel at this stage is that while I have a very solid opening and development through to the mid-point tilt (where things start to go very wrong for the protagonists), I have no real idea yet how to get from there to my climactic ending. It points to the likelihood that the story suffers from the not-at-all uncommon “flabby middle” ailment.

In a sense that’s good, because the purpose of outlining is to highlight these sorts of problems before I waste too much time writing stuff that I will have to cut. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like I am making much progress, so a review of approach is probably in order. But first I definitely need to at least have a proper stab at finishing the outline, which is what I intend to devote the next few days to doing.

Finish the two short stories in progress: Partial success! The cyclone story is still half-done – I have all the major beats, the backstory and the ending worked out, but the words need putting on the page. I’m not too worried about that one. When I do sit down to write it, the words flow pretty steadily, so I’m confident it will come out okay. The only trick with that one will be working out how to deliver some of the necessary background information without info dumping.

The other short story in progress is now no longer in progress because it’s finished! It’s called ‘Last Drinks Before Jehoshaphat’ and thanks to some excellent input from a host of critiquing elves, it’s in pretty good shape. I finished the second full draft last night. I’ll leave it for a few days while I get to some other work, after which I’ll give it another read-through (out loud, if that’s possible given its strange tweet format). As I mentioned earlier I think it’s possible something I can sell, which will be my next step. Making an actual honest-to-Tlaloc writing sale is one of my goals for the year (ideally, more than one).

(I just lost most of the rest of this post in a crash. Grr. I am suspicious that the internet security software which supposedly protects my laptop may have been responsible).

So, one out of two for the short story goal but I am not too unhappy with that because I also wrote my 500th-blog-entry celebratory story ‘Team Evaluation’, of which I am rather proud. That one came out of a writing exercise that Kaaron Warren presented to this month’s CSFG writer’s group meeting. The gist of the exercise is to brainstorm a concept by writing down ten short ideas sparks – images, characters, dialogue or whatever – and then expand each one out to a full page using your best don’t-think-about-it automatic writing technique. The story pretty much emerged fully-formed from that exercise. You can be damned sure I’ll be using that trick again.

Rewrite ‘The Rutherford Expedition’ as a comic script: I did not do this at all. It’s still on the to-do list. This month it was gazumped by other stuff.

Book reviews: One, right at the start of the month. Not as many as I would have intended.

Lost reviews: None

Flash fiction: None

So on the whole I didn’t claw back much momentum. I am still keeping monthly stats of my writing, and May – as with February through to April – made for some pretty depressing reviewing.

Still, I have been carrying a recurring illness all month, so I should probably give myself some credit. Once I finally shake this cough I should be able to rebuild my stamina for sitting down and typing for a couple of hours a night. That does make all the difference after all.

I haven’t thought hard about my plans for June, but all the stuff from last month still applies. In addition to that I have another goal: the Canberra Spec Fic Guild produces an annual short story anthology, and submissions for this year’s collection – themed and entitled ‘Next’ – are now open. I hope I’ll come up with a few good ideas to submit.

(By the way, it’s open to anyone, so I encourage everyone reading this to check out the submission guidelines and give it a whirl!)

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