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

September 19, 2014

Review – Bound (Alex Caine #1) by Alan Baxter

Bound (Harper Voyager 2014) is the first volume in a supernatural thriller series by Alan Baxter. Alex Caine is a mixed martial artist whose professional fighting career is helped along by the ability to see what he calls his opponents’ “shades”, vague outlines of possibility that allow him to predict what they are about to do.

Already handy in a fight, Caine is making a tidy career in Sydney’s underground fighting circuit when his unwillingness to throw a fight gets him into a spot of bother with local gangsters. His need to slip out of sight for a while coincides (or does it?) with the appearance of a dodgy Brit by the name of Patrick Welby. Welby claims Caine’s ability to see the shades is magical, and he wants to hire him to accompany him to the UK to use his magic to read a certain book for him.

That’s the setup. What follows is a cascading sequence of dramatic revelations, startling ambushes and supernatural punchups that start big and keep getting bigger. Alex is soon joined by Silhouette, a mysterious Kin woman. The Kin are humanlike predators organised into clans and the Fey are involved somehow and – look, there’s a lot of supernatural stuff going on. In a quest to rid himself of a parasitic curse, Caine is pursued by a psychopathic broker of mystic artefacts and a variety of horrifying supernatural mercenaries. People die, smack is talked and a lot of stuff blows up.

Bound moves from one scene of bloody mayhem to another with a smooth grace, slowing down just often enough for a bit of hidden lore or a spot of raunchy sex before rolling into another action sequence. It’s a fast-paced ride, escalating to a gruesome climactic confrontation in a suitably picturesque location. Baxter doesn’t muck around, constantly keeping his protagonist on his toes and constantly second-guessing the motivations of his allies.

I had a lot of fun with this one. Recommended for anyone who enjoys watching the Big Bads get a punch to the face and a roundhouse to the nards.

September 10, 2014

Woo! Acceptance!

I’d like to report that I’ve broken my drought of short story acceptances, but I can’t quite do that yet. Lots of irons in the fire but nobody’s getting branded. That’s how that saying goes, isn’t it?

But maybe even better than that is the news tonight that my brother Ian (aka Gazza) has made his first fiction sale! He’s had a piece entitled ‘Potential’ accepted in the flash fiction section of the Tiny Owl Workshop The Lane of Unusual Traders anthology! Check it out! A couple of other writer friends – S G Larner and Rob Cook – also made the ballot, and I’m very excited for them as well.

I found out via a tweet from Stacey,who linked the Tiny Owl announcement. My jaw hit the ground when I saw the full list of authors. I had completely forgotten that Ian told me he was going to sub something.

I rang him to complain that he’d be holding on me with his big news.

Nope. He didn’t know. He hadn’t checked his email all day. LOL.

He was over the moon, of course. How well I remember the giddy thrill of that first email from an editor who wanted to buy my story. It was dazzlingly exciting. I’ve been chasing the dragon ever since 🙂 And now he has something I’ll never manage – a 100% successful submission record.

(Dammit! He’d better not quit with an unbeaten record. I’d never live it down!)

I have a story submitted for the up-to-3000 word category, so it’s not impossible that we’ll get to share a table of contents sometime next year. That would be kind of amazing.

But even if I don’t get up, I am awfully proud of Gazza. Good work bro!

 

 

September 9, 2014

Bass lines

Filed under: musical challenge — Tags: , — lexifab @ 12:18 am

I got dragged into a YouTube rabbit hole today, thanks to a random tweet about the drummer from Oasis.

(The following has nothing whatsoever to do with Oasis, so do feel free to read on).

Due to one click and another, I started listening to recordings of popular music with a single instrument isolated. Just the drums, just the keyboards and – eventually – just the bass.

One track in particular impressed me with its unexpected virtuosity – Duran Duran’s John Taylor on bass for ‘Rio’. Check this out:

I’ve never particularly thought of ‘Rio’ as one of the Duranies’ more complicated pieces so it came as a bit of a shock that there’s so much going on, hidden away in the background. All the flash and glitter of the warbling vocals, guitar stings and obligatory 80’s saxophones provide impenetrable cover for what is a pretty complex bass part. Drums too, probably, but let’s not get sidetracked.

Once I started listening to these isolated bass parts, I realised I’ve been unconsciously maligning the bass as ‘the easy instrument’ for more or less ever. As long as you can keep time and remember when to change key on your four-note sequence, you’re gold, or so I imagined. Then I listened to Bootsy Collins doing slap bass (or John Entwhistle from The Who, or John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, or Flea, or Sting, or McCartney or a million other people I’ve never heard of because they’re the bass player) and it slowly occurred to me that maybe there might be a bit more to it than that.

At this point certain friends of mine who may have played bass for decades will likely roll their eyes and wonder why it’s taken me so long to figure this out. In my defense, my hearing’s probably not as good as it should be in the lower ranges, so I often find it very difficult to pick a bass line out of an arrangement.

So it’s become clear to me that the bass line is the glue that holds a whole song together. Bass isn’t flashy. In a typical band, the bass players doesn’t get as much attention as the lead guitarist or vocalist (although at least they get to stand in front of the drummer, so they have that in their favour). They just hang back, downstage, doing their thing and getting the job done without too much fuss.

I think I might have finally discovered my spirit instrument.

September 4, 2014

Review – Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Reading Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Annihilation’ (first volume in the The Southern Reach trilogy from FSG Originals) reminded me of the experience of watching the first season of Lost, when the sense that something terrifying was just out of sight and the atmosphere of uncanny threat was almost smothering at times. There are some other surface similarities – both have a group of anonymous strangers working together in a mysteriously threatening wilderness. At a little under two hundred pages, though, ‘Annihilation’ makes its point at a much snappier pace.

The novel documents the exploits of the 12th expedition into a hostile wilderness known as Area X. The narrator is the unnamed biologist of a four-woman team (the others, equally anonymous, are a surveyor, an anthropologist and a psychologist) dispatched by a government agency called the Southern Reach. Nobody knows exactly what happened to the previous expeditions, though it’s apparent that it’s bad. It’s also apparent that the members of the team have been very selectively briefed about what they can expect; it’s not long before the gaps in their knowledge lead to bad decisions and inevitably to tragedy. It’s like Lovecraft without the hysterical xenophobia.

It’s short, but I found ‘Annihilation’ an absolutely riveting read. It’s a dramatic and oddly intimate perspective on a brush with unknowable, indifferent and overwhelming alienness, bolstered with healthy chunks of conspiracy, treachery and personal tragedy. Vandermeer is lavish in his descriptions, particularly of a landscape which clearly exists in the real word (though hopefully not in every respect) and his use of language is rich and loving throughout. I adored this book, and I cannot wait to read the second book in the sequel, which will apparently deal with bureaucratic nightmares.

September 3, 2014

Back to the Island 3.1 – A Tale of Two Cities

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — Tags: , , — lexifab @ 2:42 pm

Back to the Island 3.1 – A Tale of Two Cities

“I don’t think you’re stupid, Jack. I think you’re stubborn.” – Juliet Burke

Summary: Jack, Kate and Sawyer are prisoners of the Others, who live in a nice Dharma Initiative village

The Best Bit: In an episode centering on how much of a stubborn, obsessive arsehole Jack Shepherd is, the best bit is, as you’d expect, something Sawyer does. Specifically, Sawyer’s cranky struggle with the weird Skinner-box animal cage he’s been put in, his triumph at ingeniously solving it using lateral thinking, his disappointment that his reward is a Dharma fish biscuit, and his utter deflation when Tom Friendly tells him that “it only took the bears two hours” to solve it.

The Worst Bit: Okay, at this point, do we really need yet another insight into how Jack is a stubborn, obsessive arsehole? He single-handedly destroyed his own marriage and, for an encore, drove his recovering-alcoholic father back to the bottle that eventually killed him? Bra-fucking-vo, heroic leading man Jack!

The Mythology: This episode is all about the tease – the Others’ were all minding their own business, baking muffins, reading books and fixing plumbing when Oceanic 815 crashed. They live in a Dharma facility but “that was a long time ago”. They seem to have access to impressive resources – Juliet had Jack’s life story in her file, which they seem to have put together in just a few weeks despite being on some uncharted island in the South Pacific. Just what exactly do they do all along, and why have they been pretending to be murderous ninja-hobos all this time? Mysterious! Oh, and it turns out that “Henry Gale” is really a guy called Ben, who is probably the Others’ leader.

The Literature: Juliet’s book club is reading Stephen King’s “Carrie”, which one member dismisses as trash that, intriguingly, “Ben wouldn’t read on the toilet”. It’s Juliet’s favourite book, so the other club members must have been disappointed to be robbed of a good literary stoush by the sky turning weird and a plan exploding overhead. The other literary reference is the title, but for once I’m stumped. Is it referring to LA and Sydney? They are hardly mentioned. And there’s the Oceanic survivors on one side and the Others on the other side, but that’s kind of a long bow to draw. I hereby accuse the producers of wedging a gratuitous literary reference in for no reason whatsoever.

The Episode: It’s all setup, from the flashback of Jack being a destructive, life-ruining arse to the present where Jack is being a destructive, life-ruining arse. Juliet is introduced as a smart woman with a lot of very strong emotions she is working hard to suppress. Weaselly manipulator Henry Gale is reintroduced as Ben, a ruthless manipulator and the leader of the Others. Tom Friendly is reintroduced as, well, a friendly guy who doesn’t mind administering the odd clinical beating. And Kate, we are stunned to learn, wears a summer dress well and has a great line in upset stares when Ben tells her that “the next two weeks are going to be very unpleasant”. We also meet Carl, but it’s safe to say it will be some time, if ever, before we care about Carl.

The episode is okay. The opening scene with Juliet popping open a CD and having an unsettling emotional breakdown to the tune of Petulia Clarke’s “Downtown” is a nice callback to Season 2’s opening scene with Desmond. With only three of the principal characters present, and spending most of their time in cages of one sort or another, it’s not the most action-packed episode, but it does have some nice psychological drama elements. Juliet is presented as someone who has learned to survive in Ben’s company by controlling herself carefully and playing some of the same mindgames we’ve come to love from him. Sawyer is concerned with living in the moment and surviving, reflected by his incarceration in an animal cage. Kate is required to do nothing, literally, but to look pretty in this episode. And Jack is, as always, an arrogant, self-obsessed arse.

Seven fish biscuits, and we really need to cut Jack out of this diet.

What I’m working on in September

First of all, I still don’t have a day job, so the main thing I’m working on is reversing that. Much as I’d like it to be otherwise, the mortgage won’t pay itself and I have to say I’m fond of living in my own home. So, it’s not quite time to retire into full-time writing. Yeah, I’m disappointed too.

Around that, I’ve got some projects ongoing. Now that the weather is warming up, the downstairs guest room is finally getting some renovation love. Last week I painted the walls – we’ll quietly overlook the fact that I didn’t check the paint buckets I was using and so have painstakingly applied two coats of exterior paint in a room that gets barely any sun and now reeks of unusually weird fumes – and this week I’m doing door frames, cornices and cupboards. We have a guest arriving next Tuesday, so I’m on a deadline there.

I have some writing projects as well:

Lane of Unusual Traders – I got my submission in (just) to Tiny owl Workshop’s  The Lane of Unusual Traders anthology that closed on Sunday night. I’m pretty proud of how it came out, a bleak little fantasy fable about a character who believes he can hold on to his humanity in a job where a conscience is an active hindrance. That probably sounds like a thinly-veiled political critique but if so it wasn’t intentional (I only just this minute recognised that as a possible interpretation of the story). I suspect that it is really my subconscious lecturing me about the self-destructiveness of procrastination, which is a far more resonant theme with me.

Lost – On my trip to Sydney this weekend, my buddy Andrew reminded me that he was watching along with my Lost reviews, the last one of which I posted almost two years ago. I felt immediately guilty for absolutely no sane reason. As a result I have resumed my rewatch and blog project Back to the Island, starting with the Season 3 opener ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (see next blog entry!). I figure I will probably power through Season 3, which is probably my least favourite, so that a succession of pretty terrible Nikki and Paolo episodes don’t kill my enthusiasm.

Lighthouse – My still-unnamed lighthouse story is now a full draft in need of revision. I think it’s a pretty good story, so I’m doing my best to look forward to throwing myself at editing it. I still haven’t quite cracked the art of being enthusiastic about revising my work, though I am at least starting to consciously acknowledge the benefits of taking editing seriously. That’s a start.

Breakdown – What would have been my entry to the CSfG Never-Never Land anthology really never came together, but I worked on it a bit over the weekend and at least dragged it a bit closer to being a real story. This will be my “just write it and see what happens” project for the month. Because it’s always worked this way before, I expect that at some point the story will just click into place and I will know how to get from where I am to where I think I’m going, but at the moment it’s a bit of an existential talk-fest between two mildly hostile teenagers. I suspect it needs to be a little more than that. I’ve missed the deadline for the anthology though, so the pressure is off that one.

School Hall – A long-ish fantasy short story with an interesting setting and intriguing characters that either needs paring back to about half its current word count, or needs an injection of considerably more action to justify its length. Either way it’s in need of a complete revision and rewrite. With that one I will have to do a proper outline, not to mention a glossary so that I can remember the weird terminology I made up around the magic systems and the oddly-constructed character names. It’s also a story in search of a title.

Colony Ship – The outline of the novel is about three-quarters done, but there’s a space of about three chapters which is thematically similar to and not much more detailed than “The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed” (only way less cool than that opening sentence to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series). I am unsure whether I need to know what happens in that bit before I start writing or if I can just jump in and expect to have to revise my outline as I go anyway. Either way I probably won’t start writing that novel for a while yet – probably not before I have an outline for the sequel at least.

Short stories – Even once I’m finished with the stories I have in draft form, I still have two stories to write to make my minimum goal of ten new stories in 2014. I’d like to get at least one of them underway in September. Most of the stuff I’ve been writing lately has come in at the 6000-8000 word mark (though my Lane story was written to a 3000-word limit) so I would like to aim these next couple at the far more manageable (and marketable) 4000 word length. We’ll see how I go – both Lighthouse and School Hall were intended to be that short, and both are nearly double that size.

Slush reading – In addition to doing a lot of critiquing of other peoples’ short stories, I’ve started working as a volunteer slush reader for an Australian speculative fantasy magazine. Basically the job involves rating stories for the benefit of editors putting together an issue of the journal, and providing a few critique comments for the author about what did and didn’t work. At some point down the line I may throw my hat into the ring to become an editor, but for the moment I’m concentrating on building my ability to read critically and pull writing apart to see how it ticks. It’s not something I’ve ever worked hard at before, but I’m interested now.

(Clam – still going on the middle 99 Cities. Ssstttiiiilllllll going.)So that’s it for now (unless there’s something I’ve forgotten which is by now means impossible). What’s up in your neck of the woods?

September 1, 2014

Sydney Book Expo – Personal observations

I spent the weekend working the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild table at the inaugural Sydney Book Expo, held at the Olympic Park over 30-31 August 2014. I imagine that CSFG will be asked to provide feedback to the organisers or, if not solicited, may decide to provide some anyway. So I want to make it clear that these are my personal thoughts and don’t represent the views or the official position of the club. I’m also not linking directly back to the Expo website, because this isn’t intended as constructive criticism.

Basically, it wasn’t very good. Allow me to expand on that a little.

Venue

The venue was fine, I guess. The expo was held in one of the exhibition halls in the Olympic Park that was probably built to stage the rhythmic gymnastics or something. There was plenty of space for exhibitors and punters to walk around – too much, to tell the truth, but I’ll get to that. Our CSFG table was slightly on the cramped side, in that we bought in at the minimum level (we didn’t need any more than that) and so had a table, some backing display boards, a power point and a couple of chairs. There was no way to cram in three people behind the table, though, so at any given time one of us was always roaming.

The downside of the venue was that there was almost no food to be had, other than a single coffee stand and a single mini-cafe selling sandwiches, soups and toasties. If none of that rocked your boat, the options outside the pavilion were vanishingly slim. On the first day I got a pie from the skateboard park nearby (edible); on the second day I went to a nearby park when a fun run was finishing and bought a steak sandwich from a cart there (barely edible). Other than that it was coffee and coke.

The venue was also hot when the sun got on it in the afternoons. That would be consistent with the pavilions being great big aluminium boxes that heat up in direct sunlight.

Offerings

It’s a bit hard to tell exactly what the theme of the Expo was. There were no big publishers in attendance, so the biggest displays were from booktopia.com.au, your bookshop (both online bookstores) and King’s Comics (a comic shop). Those three were clearly the major sponsors of the show, with the largest displays closest to the front doors. Virtually everyone else was a small press publisher – like Satalyte Publishing and our close colleagues from Peggy Bright Books – or a self-published author. I guess there were about forty or fifty vendors all up, maybe?

There were some entertainments of various sorts, starting with the usual author readings and panel discussions on various literary topics of the sort that might interest authors and conceivably also normal people. There were puppeteers, cartoonists and some board games for the kids. There was a guitarist who was selling her CD bundled with a comic and whose set list included about eight light-hearted geek-friendly folk/pop songs. She played all weekend, set after set after set. . And there was a medieval sword-fighting display, complete with costumes and pretty decently choreographed swordplay. I’ve certainly committed worse acts of public martial arts, so more power to them for staying committed all weekend.

There was no discernible pattern to which exhibitors went where – our neighbour on one side was selling a children’s book she’d written about not being afraid of huntsman spiders, and on the other side was an author selling heavily-researched biographies of NSW Governors Arthur Phillip and Charles FitzRoy. Directly across from us was a woman selling her wildlife photography series for kids. Elsewhere were books on alternate histories, mythic romantic fantasies, journeys of discovery, Aussie yarns, crackpot spiritual conspiracy theories and self-help books for self-publishing, sexual health and child behaviour. All reasonably interesting in one way or another, but the word ‘eclectic’ doesn’t begin to cover it. The question we all kept asking each other was, who is the audience for this expo?

Punters

The answer to that question appears to be a resounding “nobody”. Far from a crowd of “up to ten thousand” passing through the figurative turnstiles, we boredly estimated that maybe three or four hundred people came in on the first day. It could have been as few as 250. The second day’s numbers were definitely down on that. If there was any point over the weekend at which there were more punters than exhibitors in the hall, it was a fleetingly brief moment late on the first morning.

We had not much to do. We chatted with maybe forty customers all weekend, and sold stuff to maybe ten. We weren’t expecting to make huge sales or shift a lot of stock, but that was well below even the most pessimistic estimates. At that rate we’d have needed three times as many people (i.e. less than a third of advertised estimates) to show up just to cover our costs.

As it was we did a lot of sitting around chatting to the neighbours, who also had very little to do. I had plenty of time to wander off with my notebook to work on a short story. *Plenty* of time. The other two guys working the stall with me just went off to do stuff with friends during the day, and I can scarcely blame them. If I’d known what it was going to be like I’d have arranged something social for myself as well.

Positives

Personally, I did get a fair amount of writing done, so I don’t consider the time to have been wasted (my family, abandoned for the entire weekend, may have a contrary view they wish to express). And of course I stayed with my dear friends Andrew and Von, and got to spend time with them and their delightful little girls on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Not only that, I saw a few familiar faces – Alan Baxter and Jo Anderton were there as featured authors. It was a delightful surprise to see Jon Blum and Kate Orman out and about, and to get an all-too-brief chance to catch up. I guess for me the Book Expo it was a bit like a geek con, where you have a series of brief reconnections with people you don’t otherwise get to see, but without most of the other fun parts like boozy parties, elaborate costumes or celebratory backslapping.

Conclusions

I’m tired now. And the CSFG still has plenty of stock of its anthologies, if anyone is interested in purchasing some fine Australian speculative short fiction… Hurry now, while stocks (continue to) last.

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