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

October 19, 2014

Review – Suspended in Dusk (Edited by Simon Dewar)

Suspended in Dusk (Books of the Dead Press 2014) is an outstanding collection of supernatural suspense stories. All the more so for it being edited by a first time anthologist. The story of the mountains editor Simon Dewar moved in order to get this anthology into print is worthy of its own entry in the volume. I’m pretty sure supernatural horror played a part alongside his sheer implacable force of will. I don’t know if he has a basement at his house, but maybe don’t go down there if you happen to be visiting.

But to the stories themselves: they’re excellent. In my personal taxonomy I class them more as suspense than horror, creating a sense of unease and haunting doubt rather than going for a visceral pulse-accelerating (or heart-stopping) effect. And not all of them are supernatural, though that’s the most common technique here, alongside the central motif of dusk, when the certainty of daylight begins to give way to the disquiet of night’s darkness. Out of a collection of 19 stories, there were only one or two that didn’t resonate with me – an amazing hit rate that puts Dewar in a class with some of the finest editors in the business as far as I’m concerned.

I won’t mention every story but here are some of the highlight:

Alan Baxter’s ‘Shadows of The Lonely Dead’ kicks off the collection strongly, with a melancholy meditation on the grief and isolation of the terminally ill, shot through with a strong sense of empathy and righteous indignation. Anna Reith follows with ‘Taming the Stars’, in which a drug deal goes insanely badly for a couple of grubby Parisian chancers. I loved Chris Limb’s nightmarish bureaucrat in ‘Ministry of Outrage’, which has a horribly plausible conspiratorial heart. Stacey Larner’s ‘Shades of Memory’ is a grim post-apocalyptic ghost story which I felt a personal connection to (it’s set in a small highway township not far from where I was born). Legendary horror writer Ramsey Campbell offers up a nice take on a classic claustrophobic nightmare scenario in ‘Digging Deep’. Tom Dullemond’s ‘Would to God That We Were There’ is a wonderfully creepy account of a doomed space mission. Angela Slatter closes out the anthology with another suspenseful encounter in the wake of an unspecified apocalypse in ‘The Way of All Flesh’ (it’s delightfully nasty).

Honestly I feel bad skipping over the stories I didn’t cover. The ones I was least interested in were still strong pieces, and overall the quality was impressively high. There’s little outright horror here, but there’s plenty of grist for a few quality bad dreams as a result of a late-night dip into Suspended in Dusk.

(Disclaimer: This collection was edited by a friend of mine, so take my review with the usual grain of salt. That said, if I didn’t like it, I would just have quietly not written a review).

October 15, 2014

Back to the Island 3.2 – The Glass Ballerina

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — Tags: , , — lexifab @ 2:21 pm

Back to the Island 3.2 – The Glass Ballerina

“You said this dock was abandoned” – Sun-Hwa Kwon

“That would be part of the lying you mentioned” – Sayyid Jarrah

Summary: Sayyid, Jin and Sun try to ambush the Others but lose their boat instead

The Best Bit: While the focus of the episode is on Sun, and particularly exploring the fractures that have always existed in her relationship with Jin because of his willingness to use violence, which is a rich, rich vein to mine, that’s not the best bit of this episode. The best bit would be a shirtless, grubby Sawyer attempting an impromptu breakout from the Others’ chain gang, getting thwarted because Juliette pulls a gun on Kate, and then using the resultant brutal kicking to assess which of the Others represents a real threat when the time comes for a *real* breakout. It’s a classic Sawyer moment, combining his charming, sleazy opportunism – he instigates his half-hearted getaway by planting a showy, unsolicited kiss on Kate – and his cunning eye for the long game. Oh and something new is revealed for the first time: “Why did she call you James?” asks Kate. “Because that’s my name,” he replies casually.

The Worst Bit: Nothing about the episode is bad at all, though it feels more like a loosely-connected set of scenes than usual. Sun’s backstory is a clean through-line: she has an affair with her English tutor, her father finds out about it and orders Jin to kill him without mentioning why, Jin baulks at murder but Jae the translator kills himself anyway, and Sun’s dishonour has now made mutual the ill-feeling between herself and her father. None of the rest of it quite clicks into that narrative. Crucially though, Sun officially joins the list of killers among the Oceanic survivors, after she shoots Colleen (one of the Others). Admittedly it’s pretty much self-defense, but still – that doesn’t leave too many characters who have yet to murder someone. Maybe just Hurley and Claire.

The Mythology: The final scene, in which Benjamin Linus introduces himself and reveals to Jack that the Others are in contact with the outside world by showing him the winning hit of the baseball World Series, is purely there to touch base with the mystery. Who are the Others and why are they on the Island? “If you could leave this island, why would you still be here?”, asks Jack, to which Ben replies “Yes Jack, why would we stay?” It’s shameless place-marking, but thanks to the way Michael Emerson plays his fish-eyed delivery off Matthew Fox’s exasperated intensity, it’s a compelling scene to watch.

One question that occurs in this episode that is never clearly resolved is – who are all the other slaves on the Others’ work gang? Since an explicit answer is never provided, I choose to assume that they are other passengers from the plane crash or other castaways who have arrived at the Island over time and have declined to join in the Others’ as-yet-unspecified cause.

The Literature: Pretty sure nobody touches a book in this episode. In lieu of that, I will note that subtitles translating Jin and Sun’s Korean dialogue makes unambiguous that Jarrah’s first name is spelled “Sayid” with one Y. I note that only because I intend to keep defiantly spelling it Sayyid because I like how it looks. So there.

“The Glass Ballerina” doesn’t establish much that’s new, but it’s a showcase for Jin and Sun, whose relationship is one of the most compelling of the pre-crash storylines for my money. Sun’s willingness to use people is clearly shown as a weakness of character – she knows that she puts people in harm’s way for her own advantage or to avoid the consequences of her own actions, and she feels acutely guilty for it, but she does it anyway. The fact that she crosses a rubicon in this period of the story by killing someone feels like a significant milestone, either it’s the crash before her first steps towards redemption or it’s a point of no return on the road to self-destruction. At this point in the show that is absolutely one of the most interesting questions being asked: now that we are starting to get a handle on where these characters came from, where are they heading?

Eight out of ten shards of shame and dishonour for “The Glass Ballerina”.

October 7, 2014

Acceptance Part II

I’ve been in a daze all day, after receiving the thrilling and flattering news that my story “The Teahouse of Serendipitous Unions” has been accepted for publication in the upcoming The Lane of Unusual Traders anthology from Tiny Owl Workshop.

If you’ve been following my blog this year, it probably won’t have been very hard to read between the lines that I’ve had my heart set on getting my work into a Tiny Owl project. Earlier in the year I didn’t quite nail my sub for the Unfettered project, and for a long while I despaired of coming up with a good idea for the Lane. Luckily a suitably wistful and dark idea submerged from the depths in time to turn it into a story.

Huge thanks to Jodi, Rob, Leife, Zena, Chris and Chris, who helped me knock out the dents and make the ending more coherent. I really couldn’t have done it without appropriately tough beta-reading comments.

(Also I get to share a Table of Contents with my brother. How weird is that? It’s weird).

(A further thought: for the sake of being able to crank out quick self-promotional tweets, comments and postings, I heartily recommend against including words like “serendipitous” in the title of your work. or is just me who can’t type that on the first three attempts?)

October 2, 2014

Review – Shatterwing (Dragon Wine Book 1) by Donna Maree Hanson – AWWC 14

This is my fifth review for 2014 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve dropped a bit of momentum on that project (along with most of my other projects, it’s fair to say) but I am still on track to read 10 and review 6 books this year. Er, if I get a move on, at any rate.

Shatterwing is the first half of Donna Maree Hanson’s Dragon Wine series (digital release from Momentum Publishing) and to be very clear, it is very much the first half of a single story. While both its main threads are brought to intriguing points of climax, neither is resolved in this volume. That will presumably have to wait for Skywatcher (Book 2, due out on the 9th of October 2014). Severing the story is an interesting publication choice, but not one that I’ll go into here; I’ll save that for a review of Skywatcher.

Let’s get the important bits out of the way first – Shatterwing is brutal. If you need trigger warnings for torture and sexual abuse, consider yourself warned. I hesitate to use the expression “grimdark”, mostly because I’m yet to see a satisfactory definition of the supposed subgenre, but it is grim and it is dark. The setting alone is post-apocalyptic – one of the moons has shattered and left the world of Margra a devastated meteor-blasted wasteland. Wild dragons prey on incautious survivors. A brutal dictatorship controls the only commodity that matters any longer – dragon wine, which has restorative properties and might be the only thing keeping humanity alive. Violent rebels use terrorist tactics to wrest control away from the governors. And political prisoners are kept in slaves camps to tend the dragon wine vineyards.

Salinda is a vintner is a prison camp ruled by the Inspector and a sadistic cadre of guards. Salinda avoids the most savage treatment meted out to the prisoners partly by virtue of being a skilled wine maker, but mostly by pretending to be diseased so that her guards won’t rape her. Brill, a new prisoner assigned to her as an apprentice, is tortured by the Inspector for information on a rebel faction. The first part of the story concerns their fight for survival within the camp and the revelation that both are guarding powerful secrets.

A second narrative thread concerns an explorer from an underground city who has been in life suspension for hundreds of years, emerging to explore a world in complete ecological collapse. A third concerns a trade delegation from an order of astronomers that goes badly awry. Both storylines are interesting but are more set up than resolved in this volume.

Rape, along with every other conceivable form of torture and maltreatment, is a constant threat throughout this book. To be clear – protagonist characters in this book are raped, tortured and threatened with abuse and death. It is rough going – while there are moments of optimism and even some sly humour, the characters of Shatterwing suffer terribly. Strange powers and secret knowledge do not protect them from horrific abuses at the hands of their captors.

Shatterwing is not so much a brutal fantasy as it is a fantasy about surviving brutality. The characters endure horror and loss, but they keep going, hanging on to life with a death grip. The story looks at the different ways that humans respond to horror, whether though grim resolve, pragmatism, denial and a desire for justice or revenge. For all that the brutality was not an enjoyable read, the honesty with which the characters respond to the brutality is a strength of this book.

The world building in Shatterwing is also a strength. I could happily have read an entire novel about the intricacies of combining dragon physiology and wine making, not to mention the various hints that crop up about strange magic powers – or technologies indistinguishable from magic. This first Dragon Wine volume raises a raft of interesting questions that I want to see paid off. Understanding how this broken world works – and how these characters might put it back together – has got me intrigued to read the concluding volume.

I’ll steel myself for what the characters might have to go through to get to the end though.

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