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

January 27, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – Rayessa and the Space Pirates by Donna Maree Hanson

I had a good time last year with the Australian Women Writers Challenge. More to the point, I discovered several writers whose work – especially their long-form work – I might never otherwise have come across. I see no good reason to abandon the effort to enure that I include in my reading diet a healthy dose of local content authored by women. In fact I’m going to steal an idea I read somewhere (it might have been Sean Wright’s Adventures of a Blogonaut) and attempt to read, every month, at least one novel written by a woman, one by a man, one short story collection or anthology, and one non-fiction work. Variety is important. Anyway, this is my first review for the AWWC for 2013.

Rayessa and the Space Pirates is the debut novel from Canberra author Donna Maree Hanson. I’ll state right off the bat that I’m not at all the target audience for this piece – I don’t read a lot of Young Adult-oriented science fiction, and I’m even less well-versed in the romance field. So take my comments with whatever salt dosage you think appropriate.

RatSP is a fun romantic space adventure aimed (I presume) at young adult readers. Rae Stroder is a cheerful but somewhat hapless young teenager who has been abandoned by her father to manage an asteroid-based refuelling outpost which is in rapid decline as a result of her earnest yet untrained maintenance. Her only companion is a brain-damaged engineer named Gris, who can keep the lights on and the oxygen flowing, more or less, but can’t carry his end of a conversation. Charged with holding the fort until her Dad returns, Rae is barely hanging in there. Her clothes are improvised tatters, her diet is unhealthily bland and her engagement with the wider universe appears to be disturbingly constrained to the consumption of trashy romance videos. Her fringe-dwelling existence is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a humourless auditor with a number of sternly worded enquiries about the management of the station.

Rae is a risky lead character – while she’s tenacious and loyal to her absent parent, she is also naive, gullible, cheerful to the point of Pollyannaishness, not as resourceful as she needs to be and maddeningly uninquisitive about her straitened circumstances. And yet the opening chapters of this novellette work wonderfully well as screwball farce. Rae’s improvisations, as things begin to go wrong and her routine is forever dashed, are very funny (even if the implications of living aboard a decrepit space station at the edge of collapse are unsettling and somewhat glossed over). The dialogue is witty and fun, the situation is given just enough weight to make it plausible, and once it begins the action can fairly be described as rollicking.

Without giving anything away, the ending didn’t work as well for me as the beginning. The third act wraps up some plot threads more hastily than I would have liked, and brings in several new characters with challenging relationships to Rae whose plots are then resolved almost as soon as they are introduced. And some of the interesting characters from the second act never reappear at all. I think the story could have comfortably accommodated another chapter or two of plot developments in between Rae’s encounter with the titular baddies and the dramatic climax.

Then again, there is something to be said for a story that gets in, delivers its action and gets out again fast. RatSP is on the short side at some 30K-ish words, and with filthy slavers, illegal clones, embezzlement, space battles and an awkward romance jammed into it, there’s plenty of story to be had. It wasn’t really my thing, but it was quick and quirky fun.

January 24, 2013

Summertime Blues

Filed under: fitter/happier — Tags: , — lexifab @ 11:21 am

Not to dwell overly on my state of mental health, but I’ve been a pretty grumpy arse for the past six months or so. First of all, sorry to anyone who’s been on the receiving end of my perpetually crappy mood. It wasn’t you, it was me (obviously).

I’ve been lethargic all the time, sore most of the time and more prone than usual to mood swings. And the direction of the swing was generally away from ‘stable’ and towards ‘surly, miserable jerk’. Every day I would hit a wall around lunchtime where I needed at least an hour’s sleep or I would become a blank-brained walking corpse for most of the afternoon. Guess how often I get to have a lunchtime nap? Yeah, never.

I’m sure it’s been as much fun for everyone else as it has for me.

It finally got to the point around Christmas that I went to see a doctor, just to see if there wasn’t something to the grinding tiredness. I got some blood tests done. I made sure I got them done first thing in the morning, so that the mild sense of disquiet that usually goes with blood tests – “What is this going to show up that I’m not ready to hear?” – didn’t turn into full-blown irrational dread. Which is pretty likely what would have happened if I’d waited until the middle-of-the-day brain crash set in.

It’s good news, as it turns out. Surprising, but good. First off, the tests showed that my iron counts are good (which I knew, because the Red Cross Blood Bank would not let me donate if I were anaemic) and my cholesterol counts, which were borderline-problematic a couple of years ago, are now down inside the safe range.

What was not so good is my Vitamin D count, which is about half of what it should be. Vitamin D deficiency is potentially (though not definitely) linked with a whole bunch of unpleasant conditions. I’m apparently well on my way to osteomalacia (aka “rickets for grownups”) – symptoms include chronic muscle soreness which generally presents as “chronic fatigue”. Oho.

Fortunately the treatment is pretty simple – get more sunlight. Unbelievably, it looks like the sunsafe habits psychologically ingrained by decades of living in North Queensland and listening to a cartoon pelican with a thpeech impediment exhorting me to “Slip, slop, slap” have worked a little better than intended. The fact that I spent almost all my daylight hours in an office in a business suit probably doesn’t help.

The timing of this medical discovery is kind of hilarious, because from today I am participating in a 12-month study of seasonal Vitamin D variations at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. It would be annoying if I had to drop out because I need to make a conscious effort to elevate my D levels, either through increased sun  exposure or by taking supplements. I am hanging on a call back from the research coordinator on whether I would be skewing their results if I deliberately control my D levels. I think that it probably does unless the size of the study is sufficiently large to absorb participants who behave abnormally.

Anyway, if you see me and I’m stupid-tired or stupid-cranky, remind me to get out for a walk in direct sunlight, huh?

January 13, 2013

Productive hiatus

Filed under: administraviata,wordsmithery — Tags: , , — lexifab @ 6:09 pm

Things have been quiet here this week while I divide my evenings between catching up on the household accounts – which are finicky and time-consuming because of the investment thing – and tidying up a short story for sale. It’s another failed competition entry that I couldn’t quite get right within the three thousand world limit. Having added a few hundred more has cleared up the murky situation-building, but perhaps at the expense of the pacing. I’m doing another pass tonight to try to tighten everything up.

I’m taking a break from the novel while I rework the outline. The last couple of chapters have meandered because I was winging it under the assumption that I could get away with it. Not so, it seems. The last five thousand or so words represent probably two thousand’s worth of action and relevant description. The rest of it is overt statement of characters’ thoughts and unfocused dialogue. I’m not the best judge, of course, but I suspect that I’d be repulsed as a reader.

I’ve decided to extend the break from the manuscript for another week (mainly because I still haven’t caught up on the accounts, and there are real-world ramifications for not keeping them up to date). Instead of short story writing as my backup activity, I’m going to nail down the outline at a chapter by chapter level, after which I will break down at least the next few scenes to their vital components in terms of plot, character and setting development.

Outline-first is an interesting way of working with which I am still not at all comfortable. I’m absolutely convinced that it’s necessary though, at least for this project. I find it much too easy to wander off the road and go bush-bashing when I don’t have the road map right in front of me. So, one more week of prep and planning, and then (I hope) a charge at full speed towards the finish line. I still have hopes of making my self-imposed deadline of the end of March for a finished manuscript, if for no other reason than that will give me a window to take advantage of the CSFG’s novel-critiquing group this year. Having my peers brutally tear my precious text to screeching shreds is highly desirable, apparently.

In an administrative aside: I’m finally going to start using tags, as of this post. For some reason I’ve never bothered before, but the Category list is now getting cumbersome. If I were very diligent, I would convert a bunch of Categories to tags, but that may be more effort than it’s worth I’m willing to make.

January 8, 2013

Flash fiction – Snowball’s Chance

Filed under: fictionchunk,wordsmithery — lexifab @ 12:34 am

Over the holiday break I had hoped to set aside a lot of time for writing but it turns out that that’s not as easy as I thought it would be when the kids needs all-day amusement. Instead of powering through a massive chunk of the novel draft, I frittered away at a few flabby, meandering, overwritten scenes. It’s not quite nothing, but it’s not where I’d hoped to be either.

Just as waistlines have softened and widened during the Season of Gorging, so too have the writing muscles lost some of their tension. So despite this being the middle of the worst Australian summer heatwave in years – not the worst I can remember by any stretch, but still far from negligible – it’s time to knuckle down and tone up. Exercise the body, exercise the…author-gland.

(Don’t ask me. Dammit, Jim – I’m a writer, not a physician)

In times of crisis like this, where else would I turn but to Chuck Wendig’s Friday Flash Fiction prompt? In this week’s instalment, Der Wendigster demands that his acolytes roll the bones to randomly generate three story elements from [/maths] a thousand possible combinations.

Mine are: Conspiracy fiction / On the surface of a comet / A blizzard. Enjoy this, whatever it is… (more…)

January 5, 2013

Favourites of 2012 – Novels

Filed under: books of 2012,reviewage — lexifab @ 10:08 am

I had a pretty good reading year. It was wildly unfocused, as my reading list always is, but obviously most of my reading for pleasure comes from genre fiction [1] and then mainly in the sf&f fields. I like mysteries, but I don’t think I read anything in 2012 that was exclusively a mystery story.

Picking a top ten isn’t easy, especially if you apply metrics as vague as “Do I remember really, really liking this one?”, like I do. But it’s easier because I don’t attempt to make any claims as to literary merit or significance. These are just the ten novels I liked the best last year, in reverse order of preference:

10 – Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman

In many ways Hidden Things is the common fantasy trope of a mundane woman who is drawn into the unseen supernatural world, combined with a cross-country road trip. I’ve seen it compared to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but the resemblance is superficial I think. It’s more reminiscent to me of works by Jonathan Carroll, and its themes of forgiveness within familiesand reconciliation with mistakes of the past are mature for a first novel. The floating narrative style soothed and beguiled, the dialogue was witty and fun and the author didn’t make the mistake of over-explaining the fantastic elements of the story. The ending is emotionally brutal and deeply satisfying.

9 – The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

One of the few books sneakily inserted into Lost that I had never read or even heard of, The Third Policeman is an absurd, dreamlike descent-into-hell narrative about a rather dull-witted, gullible young man who commits a murder and possibly goes mad as a consequence, meeting a host of confusing and vexatious characters who could be insane, or conspiring against him, or agents sent to punish him. It’s delightful, absurd and frequently blackly comic.

8 – Stained Glass Monsters by Andrea K. Höst

I reviewed it here. Dense and engaging, romantic and thrilling and featuring some very exciting set pieces and  coherent, plot-integrated worldbuilding. I particularly enjoyed the somewhat reluctant, dutiful heroine who would much prefer to be putting her feet up than saving the world.

7 – Debris by Jo Anderton

I reviewed it here. Wonderful magic system that completely informs the world building, a tough and pragmatic heroine who refuses to take the destruction of her reputation and life’s work lying down, and a satisfyingly weird plot.

6 – And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst

I reviewed it here. I may have quibbled about elements of it but the overall effect was wonderful. A meaty, thoughtful apocalypse-in-progress adventure with smart, engaging and compelling characters [2]. Heartbreaking at times.

5 – Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren

I reviewed it here. It was a bit of a tossup whether Kaaron Warren’s Slights also made it onto the list, but this one made it for being weird, haunting and gloriously unusual. It’s a coming of age story of sorts, but the richness is in the storytelling about the strange and sometime horrifying customs of neighbouring cultures.

4 – Silently and Very Fast by Cathrynn M. Valente

I’m cheating a bit here because this is a novella. I include it here based on the wholly subjective criterion that it felt to me more like a novel than a long short story. Silently is the story of an eclectic family’s relationship with its custom-made household AI over several generations. As far as I can recall this is the only thing by Cat Valente that I’ve ever read, but the writing in this piece is so beautiful, heartfelt and tragic that I know I’ll be hunting down some of her other work. It won the Hugo for Best Novella last year. I read some fantastic novellas in 2012 – it’s a form I have avoided like the plague in the past, for reasons that now elude me – but this one had the best writing of all of them.

3 – Bait Dog by Chuck Wendig

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m a Wendig fanboy. No surprises that he’s near the top of my list (and – spoilers! – also *at* the top). Bait Dog is the sequel to Shotgun Gravy, the first Atlanta Burns novella, about a hurt, sarcastic high school avenger with a squirrel gun and a hate-on for bullies. The sequel only exists because it was successfully funded through Kickstarter (along with another sequel due sometime this year). But all of that would be beside the point if it were not also an absolutely riveting book. Set in the squalid dog-fighting scene of back-country Pennysylvania, it is vicious, amoral and sometimes sickening (there’s at least a couple of scenes of strong animal cruelty that are much, much harder to read than any of the violence inflict on the human characters). But the writing is so good, you guys! The prose pumps, driving you from scene to scene, sometimes in spite of your likely sense of reluctant horror. And Atlanta Burns is such a fun young adult protagonist [3], smart and resourceful but also too angry to think straight most of the time. Her violent response to bullies invariably makes bad situations worse, and Wendig never shies away from hammering his heroine with the consequences of her hasty decisions. It’s hard, painful reading, but I honestly can’t recommend Bait Dog enough.[4]

2 – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

I reviewed it briefly here. A roaming wander through almost a dozen literary and genre forms, telling an absurd story about the search for an author through a series of half-finished manuscripts and an increasingly incredible conspiracy plot. It’s great fun and a sly insight into the mentality of obsessive readers. I found If on a Winter’s Night beguiling.

1 – Blackbirds/Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

Yes, I’m cheating again. Blackbirds (reviewed here) and Mockingbird (reviewed here) are complete novels in their own right, but they became instantly inseparable in my reading canon. The first and second novels about Miriam Black, a very messed-up drifter who sees the deaths of the people she touches, are compelling works of dark, violent fantasy. (Just as an aside, they also have the best covers of any fantasy novels I saw this year – just take a look at those links. Simply gorgeous). Miriam Black is a wonderful character, damaged, clever and pissed off at all the supernatural horrors making her life a living hell. Wendig is at the top of his game with the Miriam books – the writing flows like a flooded river, sweeping the reader in and pounding, slashing and drowning them with irresistible pace.

So, compiling this list, I noticed something I didn’t expect – nine of the eleven books feature female protagonists. Only The Third Policeman‘s narrator is definitely male, and it’s strongly implied that the “you” of If on a Winter’s Night is a heterosexual man. Other than that, all women. I don’t know if I can self-diagnose a definite preference for female protagonists from this small a sample size, but I definitely enjoy reading stories about resourceful, determined women with plot agency. Fair to say I probably haven’t yet outgrown Buffy the Vampire Slayer

 

[1] Excluding romance, I’m afraid. I’ve never developed much of a taste for it, unless it happens to show up in other genre works (as it often does in fantasy). I’ve no objections to it, though, so if anyone has any promising recommendations, let me know.

[2] Andrea, cousin Tyler needs a spinoff novel. C’mon!

[3] In case it was not clear, Atlanta Burns is a young adult. Bait Dog is not necessarily YA. It would have given me nightmares for weeks when I was thirteen, I think.

[4] I bought it for my Mum for Christmas. I am totally serious.

January 1, 2013

Stats of 2012 – Books read

This is long, and probably of interest to nobody but me (especially since I have been posting monthly summaries throughout the year). It’s my complete [1] reading list for 2012. Some achievements:

  • I read 66 books in the year, which fell 14 short of my faintly-ridiculous Goodreads target of 80. Of course I would have nailed it if I’d included graphic novels and comic trades, so I’ll call that a win. Of course, trying to read so much chewed into writing time more than I really wanted it to, so
  • Non-binding New Year’s Resolution #1 – Set a more modest target for books read, like one per week or something. I am allowed to read more if I hit my writing targets, whatever they happen to be.
  • I read 12 and reviewed 11 novels by Australian women for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 [2].
  • I read only a handful (5 or so) non-fiction books, not counting various works of writing advice. Now, one of the abandoned books was also non-fiction (about the actually-fascinating history of fonts and typesetting) which I only quit on because the person I borrowed it from was leaving the country.
  • Non-binding New Year’s Resolution #2 – read more than one non-fiction book in 2013. Collections of Doctor Who essays do not count.
  • I read a lot more single-author short story collections (7) and anthologies (12) in 2012 than probably ever before in my life. This was a generally rewarding experience and I mean to continue in that fashion.
  • Non-binding New Year’s Resolution #3 – read a metric tonne of short fiction. I believe that I will actually track the short pieces I read in 2013, just to see how much of that I consume as well.
  • Most frequent authors – I read 4 books by Chuck Wendig (not counting two novellas), 4 books by Kaaron Warren (not counting her novella in Ishtar), 3 by Andrea K. Höst and 3 by Matt Forbeck (who did the crazy 12 for ’12 project and nearly pulled it off).
  • I read The Hobbit for the first time in my life, out loud (in a faux-Stephen Fry narrator voice, with a bad Ian Holm for Bilbo, a not-terrible Ian McKellen for Gandalf and a way-toned-down Andy Serkis for Gollum) to my five year old son. It took all year. Short review: There are more boring geographic descriptions than I would have expected in a book for children, but the poetry scans better than the stuff in LotR. Also Thorin Oakenshield is a bit of a dick.

In the grand internet tradition, I will do my Best of 2012 lists (which is to say, the stuff I like most that I happened to read this year) in another post.

[1] “complete”, except for comics and graphic novels, anything I read online (blogs, essays, etc), podcasts, and a couple of novels and several short stories that I beta-read for other people. It also doesn’t include a couple of books that I started but didn’t finish, for whatever reason.

[2] Sorry Andrea – I should have done the Touchstone Trilogy as well, but I didn’t get around to it! Will do better with Champion of the Rose when I read that!

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