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

October 30, 2012

MRP Day 29 – A reading backlog

Filed under: books of 2012,the month of relentless positivity — lexifab @ 1:45 pm

All my life I’ve always had a few books lying around, ready to pick up the instant I finish with my current read. New and secondhand bookshops, libraries and even jumble sales all have a powerful attraction on me. I can fossick a badly-sorted shelf display for hours if left unattended. Rare’s the day I wander in and escape without a purchase.

The existence of my kindle, the ease with which I can indulge my irresistible urges for impulse purchasing and the sheer range of cheap and readily available ebooks have all combined forces to overwhelm my will and my reading list. The latter has become a seething thing too vast to be encompassed by a mere slab of plastic and electronica [1].

I just did an audit of the unread titles sitting on my kindle. There are:

  • 15 novels;
  • 11 anthologies or short story collections (4 of which are “Complete Works of” various authors, one of who is Dickens and another G. K. Chesterton, both appallingly prolific writers);
  • 2 issues of periodicals (both short story focused);
  • 3 works of non-fiction;
  • 3 stand-alone novellas or short stories; and
  • both The Iliad and The Odyssey, which I count separately from the above for various reasons.

On top of all those, I have two anthologies and a short story collection that I picked up in paperback at the recent Conflux dealer’s room [2], two novels I am beta-reading for friends and up to half a dozen more works of various lengths expected to flow in from Kickstarters and subscriptions.

Now, delightful as it is to me to be so spoiled for choice, there’s no getting around the fact that it is going to take some time to work my way through that stack. Hence I am absolutely, positively [3] placing myself under embargo for the rest of the year. No new books until I clear the backlog…

or there’s a really good sale.

 

[1] Not really. The kindle’s memory is TARDIS-like in its spaciousness. I can choke it with tonnes more crap yet.

[2] I can’t pass by a dealer’s room either, I have discovered.

[3] See what I did there? Huh? Huh?

October 29, 2012

MRP Day 27 – Review – Anywhere but Earth anthology

The first thing to say about the Anywhere but Earth anthology from Coeur de Lion Publishing is that it’s a pretty damn thick slab of stories, over 700 pages in paperback form. There are 29 stories, most of them short but at least a few straying up into novellete territory, and most of them by Australian authors. As is the style of the times, it seems, this hefty collection of science fiction is a themed anthology. The title will give you the gist – these are all stories set far from the human homeworld. In many cases it’s not mentioned at all, and a handful don’t deal with recognisably human characters at all.

Unusually (in my experience) for a book like this, editor Keith Stevenson has not elected to insert himself in the work with an introductory foreword or in fact with commentary of any kind. What you get for your money – which is incredibly good value by the way – are the stories and short author bios and nothing else. I think it was the right call, mind you – these stories speak for themselves.

As with any collection of this size, there are some stories that didn’t work for me, but overall the quality is exceptionally high. To my undertrained scientific eye the vast majority pay reasonable attention to keeping the science plausible and consistent, though one or two stretch the limits in order to shoot for a more lyrical effect (I’m thinking in particular here of Margo Lanagan’s “Yon Horned Moon”). As a reader I tend to be much more concerned with good storytelling than strict fidelity to science, however, and Anywhere but Earth delivers. There is such a wealth of appetising material here, ranging from punchy little episodes like C J Paget’s “Pink Ice in the Jovian Rings” and Alan Baxter’s “Unexpected Launch” to troubling, expansive landscapes of alien worlds like Lee Battersby “At the End there was a Man” and Chris McMahon’s “Memories of Mars” to violent military thrillers like Jason Nahrung’s “Messiah on the Rock” and Brendan Duffy’s “Space Girl Blues”.

The quality of this collection is frankly astonishing, given its size – there are only two I can think of that I didn’t like at all, and perhaps only two or three others about which I was ambivalent. Of the rest, I am hard pressed to pick a favourite, but I will mention that “Eating Gnashdal”, Jason Fischer’s horrific vision of a post-human culture, is inventively funny and creepy; Penelope Love’s “SIBO” lives somewhere at the intersection of zombies and triffids and therefore rules; and Sean McMullen’s “SPACEBOOK” pulls off a view of near-future social networking with a brilliant and unpleasantly plausible twist. And I could mention at least a dozen more stories which might be in my top three on a different day.

Anywhere but Earth is a massive, generous, impressive tome. The ideas on show are clever, funny, weird and sometimes deeply alien, but almost invariably worth your reading time.

October 28, 2012

MRP Day 26 – Review – Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

I reviewed the first of Miriam Black book, Blackbirds, back at the start of the Month of Relentless Positivity, so it makes sense – to me – to bookend the series, as it were, with a look at the sequel. I read it (on the Kindle) while I was away at Margaret River, sipping wine and sampling chocolates while I chowed through a story even more violent and sinister than its predecessor. So, just a warning for anyone who may be confused by my lauding a deranged horror-thriller under the MRP banner – I’m doing that again.

I adored the squirming rank guts out of Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds – its spiteful arch protagonist Miriam Black with her malign visions of death, its black comedy, its psychopathic bad guys. I loved its bruised and buried but still-beating sense of hope unquashed and fate defied.

The sequel, Mockingbird, somehow manages to find darker places to drag poor Miriam. Unable to face the compromises of an ordinary existence, she reluctantly takes an opportunity to make some semi-legitimate money from her unfortunate affliction – the ability to see how a person she touches will die, in precise and vivid detail. But Miriam being Miriam, she sees more than she wants to and finds a way to make a bad situation worse. Before long she is trying to save the students of a “school for bad girls” from a very sick serial killer. Worse than that, she’s suffering increasingly regular visitations from something dressed up as the ghosts of her past, which may or may not be the thing that gave her the death-visions. And worse than that again, she may have to confront the mother she walked out on years ago.

The actual plot is terrific – a serial killer hunt more tense than a tow cable and twisting like a cut snake – but the real meat of the story is in Miriam’s confrontations with what could be a spirit guide or a taunting revenant or her own guilty conscience. Her self-doubt, dark sarcasm and a regular one-two punch of instinctive lying followed by the telling of blunt unpalatable truths keeps friends and allies at arm’s length, but she can’t avoid the uncomfortable revelations that come out every time she closes her eyes (and even a few times when she’s awake). She is faced with the horrible realisation that there might be more to her visions than just some spiteful curse; she may be burdened with the unbearable horror of having a purpose.

Mockingbird dashes along like a fox with the hounds at its heels, though many of its worst horrors are reserved for the moments of breath-catching contemplation. The antagonists of Blackbirds were vicious and deranged, but like cartoon monsters compared to the monumental sickness that Miriam has to deal with here. The characters are rounded and distinct, but often defined more by their flaws than any possible virtues. Miriam remains a compelling lead, wounded and sharp-tongued and incapable of surrender, but thankfully this time out her truck-driving man Louis gets a bit more depth as well.

The smart dialogue and prose rolling out with belligerent ease make it easy to read even the more confronting scenes, many of which are more emotionally than physically brutal. Wendig reserves some of his best, most evocative writing for the death-vision sequences, which are even more beautiful and dreadful than in the previous story. There is worse stuff than red balloons in this one. The language is, of course, Wendig-esque – the man loves a colourful turn of phrase, and his palette favours blue.

Mockingbird is a supernatural thriller that wanders close to the border with horror more than once, but never commits itself fully to hopelessness and despair. For all her darkness, Miriam Black is a survivor with a streak of nobility to go with her self-loathing and remarkable instinct for making the most destructive choices in life.

October 11, 2012

MRP Day 11 – eBooks for Charity!

Filed under: books of 2012,the month of relentless positivity — lexifab @ 2:55 pm

I am deeply and passionatly in love with my Kindle [1], which has been more or less instrumental in revolutionising my reading habits. Over the past year I have discovered a fondness for Australian writers, for short story collections and anthologies and for obscuer small-press and self-published material. Before the Kindle, none of those existed for me in any meaningful sense – I read novels. Almost exclusively I read soft SF or epic fantasy, and more often than not heavily serialised examples of those.

Now I’m like an overcaffeeinated crow at an eyeball factory, spoiled for choice and plucking at every shiny treat that rolls through my field of view. I still read the epic fantasies and SF, but I’ve added crime, horror, pulp adventure and even romance to my reading list. Maybe not all that much more intellectually stimulating fare, you might argue, but a few steps closer to a well-rounded literary diet, at any rate.

And then along comes something like this: the Humble ebook Bundle. The Humble Bundles began as a promotional tool for small independent games, to raise money for charity while promoting some terrific but obscure games with nonexistent marketing budgets. They went very well, by all accounts: the first one raised more than a million bucks [2] and the numerous subsequent bundle variants have mostly beaten the takings from their predecessors.

Now they are trying the same thing with some ebooks, and though none of the writers are exactly obscure (John Scalzi, Mercedes Lackey and Neil-frickin’-Gaiman are all household names, for certain values of ‘household’), there is a good range of old hands and fresher faces represented.

The selection of titles is a dead-on hit for me. Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City were both on my to-read list, I’ve enjoyed several of Cory Doctorow’s previous works, and Paolo Bacigalupi and Kelly Link are names I’ve heard a lot lately. It’s been ages since I read any Mercedes Lackey, but I am happy to give her latest a shot as well. I already have the Gaiman/McKean in trade paperback, but a PDF copy is nice too.

All in all it’s a pretty fabulous collection, and you can pay whatever you want (but you need to pay over the average, which at the time of writing was about $12, to get the Gaiman and Scalzi books). A sizeable chunk of cash is going to charity, and the writers will all do very well out of it as well. [3]

[1] but, oh, Kindle Paperwhite, how my roving eyes have strayed in your direction these past weeks, especially on those night when I feel like reading in bed without waking up Fiona or the baby wombat…

[2] The proceeds are split between the charities and the games developers, with an optional gratuity payable to the promoters.

[3] As Scalzi pointed out on Twitter, if the sales on this promotion were treated like normal sales, all eight titles would make the New York Times bestsellers list this week.

October 6, 2012

MRP Day 6 – Books of 2012 – September

I love to read. I have an overwhelming preference for fiction, and in particular genre fiction, though I do occasionally stretch my muscles and dip into  literary fiction, as well as non-fiction works on history, popular (read: easy, on-mathematical) science, biographies and pop culture analysis of one sort or another. Very rarely, something a little more esoteric will attract my eye, but in general that’s about as far afield as I tend to stray, at least when reading for pleasure.

Reading for research is another thing entirely, and I have to say I’ve let those muscles go dreadfully slack over the years. But to dwell too long on my many failures as a diligent researcher would fly in the beaming face of the spirit of the Month of Relentless Positivity, and we sure wouldn’t want that.

I’ve set myself the challenge of reading 80 books in 2012, a laudably optimistic target that I will in all likelihood miss by a good margin, but not for want of trying. The end of September took me just past 50 works, which makes me just a little short of the pace, but with the rest of the year shaping up as pretty busy, I think the chances of 10 books a month from here on are slivery at best.

But but but – it’s still a fantastic year for reading. I’ve found some remarkable new authors I’d never heard of and would likely never have tried, if not for the Australian Women Writers Challenge [1] and the not-quite-random books I’ve encountered via recommendations by other readers, stuff Amazon thinks I would like and (the usual method) stuff with a cool cover. I’ve rediscovered a taste for short stories, as I think I’ve mentioned before, and especially anthologies. And all of that reading has been a constant source of inspiration for my writing (albeit a competitor for my time and attention, and often the more successful competitor).

All of which I say by way of introduction to last month’s completed reading, included below. Most of the following works I will probably review through the course of the month – I have to get content ideas somewhere, right? – but I’ll drop a comment or two on each item.

(Is that intro enough of a distraction to divert attention from the suspicious pattern that these MRP entries are beginning to fall into, in which I post one of my regular features and slap a Relentless Positivity label on it? It was? Great!)

Books I finished reading in September were:

Brave New World: Resolution by Matt Forbeck – The final volume in Forbeck’s first trilogy in his insane 12-for-12 project. This conclusion neatly wraps up the trilogy, as you would expect, but I think is also the best of the three. It moves fast and it doesn’t wrap up any plot threads left dangling by the previous volumes without first ramping the stakes up by an order of magnitude. It’s a bit of a masterclass in pulp action plotting and pacing.

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #54 (Volume 10, Issue 2) edited by Simon Petrie – I’ve only been getting ASIM for a few months, but the thing that has impressed me more than anything else so far is that it represents very good value for money. This volume, the ebook version for which I think I paid around $4.50, contains 16 stories, a couple of poems, an essay about something Douglas Adams cut from The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and interview and some reviews. Now granted, I didn’t think all the stories were great, but a couple of them are, and at least half of the rest are very good. I think this might have been an issue that was unusually to my tastes, but I don’t think I’m steering anyone wrong to suggest that ASIM is an excellent periodical for anyone with a hunger for short form fantasy and science fiction.

Angels of Vengeance by John Birmingham – I bought this one months ago at a book launch at my favourite Canberra pub, where I got the author to sign it. Another third volume in a trilogy, I only just got around to reading this one because I had to read Book 2 first. It wasn’t quite as satisfying as I was expecting, probably because the necessity of tying up the trilogy meant that the plotlines of various POV characters had to join up or at least dovetail in what looked to me a somewhat contrived fashion. On the one hand I didn’t care, because there was a lot of exploding and head-kicking – but when two characters did meet in the latter stages of the book, it did feel a bit forced. On the other hand, I give Birmingham huge credit for a couple of his ballsier authorial choices.

Discount Armageddon by Seanan Maguire – I will be reviewing this one, but let’s just say that as an actiony urban fantasy in the Buffy-meets-Supernatural-meets-Strictly Ballroom ballpark, I found it pretty satisfying fare.

Rise of the Fifth Estate: Social media and blogging in Australian politics by Greg Jericho – Oh look, some non-fiction about Australian politics and media by the wonky Canberra blogger sometimes known as Grog’s Gamut. I’ll review this as well, but in the unlikely event that you happen to be interested in the intersection of politics, journalism and amateur analysis of both – as I am – I would recommend this.

You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing by John Scalzi – More non-fiction! I would like to pretend I bought this because I respect Scalzi’s insights into publishing and writing and enjoy his authorial voice, but to be honest I got it in a Kindle sale pretty much for the title alone. Still, as most of these essays were written before the rise of ebooks and the formal commencement of the publishing apocalypse, it’s interesting to see how well Scalzi’s analysis has held up. (Pretty well, as it turns out, though like probably everyone he was too conservative in guessing how soon e-readers would reach Ubik-level popularity) If nothing else, this has reinforced my desire to get his first novel Old Man’s War, which has been on my to-read list for a while.

Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman – The author is a gamer, whose name stuck in my head from various fora like RPG.net and Story Games, back when I was regularly visiting such places. Later I came across Life in the Wormhole, his excellent regular blog column about playing the intriguing, life-sucking space MMORPG Eve Online. When I heard he was writing a novel, I jumped at it because I like how the man writes. Turn out that was a good bet. I will review this one as well, but take this as a thumbs up.

Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig – The sequel to Blackbirds, which I reviewed a few days ago. This one is darker, more violent and features some spectacularly over-the-top villains. I will review it soon, and I will heap praise upon its dark and festering form.

Beat to a Pulp: A Rip through Time by Various (edited by David Cranmer) – A mildly down note to end on, this is another short fiction collection. There’s a two-fisted pulp action time travel novella and a couple of short weird tales, but my favourite bit was the essay on the various treatments of H.G Wells’ time traveller character in films (up to and including the godawful ‘The Time Machine’ with Guy Pearce). Well, they can’t all be gems, I guess.

 

[1] I’ve fallen off the pace there too, but I have a couple more books in the reading pipeline by women I haven’t read before, so I should finish the year with a much improved breadth of reading, if not a terrific male-to-female writer ratio.

October 3, 2012

MRP Day 3 – Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

I read Blackbirds back in May. I’ve been planning to review it ever since. Considering the sequel has now been out for a couple of months (and I’ve now had a chance to read that too) it’s long past time to get it crossed off the list. And because you already know that this is the Month of Relentless posivity, you can probably guess the overall direction I will be going with my assessment. Though be warned, Blackbirds is not a graduate of the happy-werebunny school of urban fantasy.

Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds is the story of Miriam Black, a young woman afflicted by the unfortunate ability to see in precise and accurate detail the manner in which anyone she touches will die. Living a transient lifestyle from one cheap motel to the next, Miriam makes a ghoulish living by hovering close to people whose deaths are imminent and scavenging from their corpses after the event. She’s callous, abrasive and bitter, keeping the world at arm’s length with a steady stream of sarcasm and profanity. And yet –

Miriam meets someone in whose death she may be implicated. As she struggles to change what horrific experience has taught her is an inevitability, Wendig peels back the layers of his misbegotten heroine. Miriam’s fearsome misanthropy is the shell of a heart sorely hurt. The great tragedy of her past is compounded again and again by misguided attempts to atone for her mistakes, attempts with invariably horrible consequences. Years of cruel experience have taught her that she is nothing but a poisoned chalice. Despite that, Miriam spits in the eye of her own completely justified fatalism and sets out to change the future.

On one level, Blackbirds is a snarling, vicious crime thriller populated by con men, druglords and psychotic assassins up against a prickly psychic heroine hauling a truckload of emotional baggage. It stinks of cheap booze, bad sex, greasy food, tire smoke, festering wounds and smouldering cigarettes. You don’t have to dig far beneath the surface to get at the good stuff, though. Blackbirds is upfront about asking big questions about free will and destiny, but more intimate subjects, like death, loss and the harmful consequences of deliberately becoming physically and socially distanced from humanity, are laid bare as well.

Which is not to say it’s a slow, thoughtful read. On the contrary, Blackbirds screams along, propelled by Miriam’s fear, anger and desperate dark humour, not to mention a cadre of vicious criminals out to reclaim what’s theirs. Set against a backdrop of highway motels, seedy bars and trailer parks, there’s slick violence, black comedy and a sprinkling of supernatural horror. Miriam Black is a broken, jagged wreck of a person with a spiteful tongue and a psychic curse who is forced to decide whether she wants to be human. She’s mean and tortured and cunning and compassionate and she’d kick you in the crotch if she thought you pitied her, because fuck you, that’s why.

Yeah, I love this book. All the stars. ALL OF THEM.

September 4, 2012

Books of 2012 – August

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage — lexifab @ 7:50 pm

It is spring already. How in the hell is it spring already?

It seemed like Canberra’s winter this year was especially bitter. Maybe that’s because I spent much less time outside than I am accustomed to. Gearing up two kids to venture out into the freezing wilds is an order of magnitude harder than it is for one, especially when the expeditions tend to last less time than the preparations, so all else being equal we were just as likely to remain indoors this season. Plus it was, like, *super*-cold most of the time.

I haven’t checked my pedometer stats yet, but I would be surprised if my step count for the entire season was not way down on the nearly 14000-step days I had been achieving in the warmer months. I know that I didn’t make up any shortfall on the treadmill. I daresay if I monitored my weight more closely I’d have a second data point confirming a significant increase in slackness.

That had corresponded with a pretty drastic fall in my word count in all areas – novel, short fiction, reviews, blogging. I do most of my writing in the evenings after the kids have gone to bed. Throughout winter my energy level after about 8:30 pm could typically be rated somewhere between “just finished a marathon” and “just had a mild cardiac episode”. Stupid long cold nights. At the end of the year I am totally going to graph my step count and word counts against the daily maximum temperature, just to see how closely the correlate. Unless that turns out to be too hard to do, of course.

Anyway, while I wasn’t getting much work done or exercising properly, I apparently did have enough energy out there to do some reading:

(more…)

August 7, 2012

Books of 2012 – July

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage — lexifab @ 12:52 pm

Thanks to two separate holidays (one long weekend away and one week at the seaside with the kids) I got stuck into books a bit more last month. That made me happy. Let’s check out what worked its way from one (virtual) pile to another this month, after a “Warning: Long Post” break.

(more…)

August 4, 2012

Stained Glass Monsters by Andrea Host

One of the first purchases I made last year for my then-spanking new [1] Kindle e-reader was the complete collection of Andrea Host’s novels, self-published and distributed electronically through Smashwords, Amazon and probably heaps of other places. I immediately devoured the two series – the Medair duology and the Touchstone trilogy – and then went on to massively neglect the two stand-alone novels, Champion of the Rose and this one, Stained Glass Monsters. Well, that was a mistake. I am reviewing this book for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 [2].

 Stained Glass is a pearler, a romantic fantasy with a welcome sense of restraint, for all that the fate of the world is at stake. Initially the story is told from the perspective of resourceful orphan Kendall, who is rescued from an unexpected magical disaster by a mysterious stranger who knew it was going to happen. Kendall, now homeless, is more or less dragged into the wake of the secretive mage, Rennyn, as the authorities appear on the scene and the scope of the threat becomes clear.

From there Stained Glass Monsters becomes a two-hander, switching between Kendall, who is sent off to learn the principles of her latent magical abilities, and Rennyn Claire who, along with her younger brother, is a member of clandestine magical conspiracy dedicated to saving the world. Kendall knows almost nothing about politics or magic, so the reader shares her crash course in world affairs. Rennyn, meanwhile, rushes about from one disaster to the next, walking a fine line between guarding terrible secrets and sharing enough information not to get everyone else killed. Both characters develop relationships with members of the Kellian race, glowing golems-turned-human with supernatural prowess and a mysterious past. If that makes them sound like Twilight vampires, I apologise; the Kellian are cool and awesome, but they also unexpectedly provide the emotional core of the story. A wrenching one it is, too.

The dual perspective is an excellent device for showing the audience the world, though in the latter stages of the book Kendall gets squeezed out a little. I thought that was a shame, though there is no doubt that Rennyn – the cool magical secret agent weighed down by self-doubt and staggering levels of responsibility – is the more interesting character of the two. Not that Kendall doesn’t get her cool moments to shine, but it’s not on her to save the world from astral-dimensional evil.

Stained Glass Monsters is a romantic fantasy, and both heroines develop strong, believable relationships. I thought perhaps too little of the early growth of Rennyn’s romance happened on-screen. It came a little out of nowhere for me (though I concede that as a reader I tend to focus on plot before character, so it’s quite possible there were cues I just missed). Whatever the buildup, Host absolutely nailed the romance itself, which is not only tender and affecting but is also crucial to everything that follows. The stakes in the dramatic climax work on every level.

This story has it all: swashbuckling adventure, magical explosions, monster fighting, kind-of-ancient evils from beyond space, noble sparkling supernatural creatures (who don’t make you want to vomit) and a heroine who would very much like to settle down with a good book and a piece of cake, but only once the world is saved, thank you very much. Highly recommended.

[1] And now slightly grimy and oddly cracking at the inside corners of the screen’s frame . I am morbidly curious about how far the cracks will extend before the whole thing falls apart. So far it has demonstrated a brutish durability I don’t normally associate with consumer electronics.

[2] Reversing my now-inexplicable earlier policy of not reviewing Andrea’s books for the challenge on the basis that I was planning to read them anyway. I guess it’s possible I was operating under the notion that somehow promoting work I had already decided to promote was against the spirit of the challenge? I dunno, that impulse seems dumb in retrospect. Andrea certainly deserves every bit of plugging she gets, because her books are wonderful.[3]

[3] And she has a new one out soon which starts after aliens have destroyed Sydney, on which I am SOLD.

July 12, 2012

Review – Ishtar by Kaaron Warren, Deborah Biancotti and Cat Sparks

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 11:37 am

It’s taken forever – which is to say, more than a week – for me to finish reading Ishtar, an anthology of novellas by three Australian writers about the Assyrian and/or Babylonian goddess of love and war. Not for want of trying though – all three stories are gorgeous pieces of work and I would love to have had the time to read each in a single setting. Alas, too busy even to read, much less write, so it’s taken longer than I supposed that it would to get to this review. As all three writers are Australian women, this will be another entry in my Australian Women Writers Challenge (which I think I must have just about completed by now; I must check and see how many reads-and-reviews I committed to, back in January)

Ishtar is an anthology of three linked novellas from Gilgamesh Press (edited by Amanda Pillar and KV Taylor) about the Babylonian goddess of love and war. The stories, each by a different Australian author, tells a tale of the goddess in a different time period – the ancient world, the modern day, the near future.

Kaaron Warren’s “The Five Loves of Ishtar” is a sumptuous recounting of Ishtar’s mythic origins in Mesopotamia, told through the eyes of generation after generation of the washerwomen who serve her. As the title implies, the story charts her great relationships with men, beginning with the demigod Tammuz and including great rulers like Gilgamesh and Sargon among others. Ishtar is beautiful, passionate and wise, but also murderous and fickle, delighting in war and given to tantrums and spontaneously cruelty; as centuries pass she becomes embittered with humanity and weakened by petty betrayals and boredom. Her slow decline is painted with a certain sad inevitability, though Ishtar herself is hardly a sympathetic character. As she goes, so goes the ancient world, passing through decadence into slumbering myth.

Deborah Biancotti’s “And the Dead shall Outnumber the Living” begins as a straight police procedural set in modern Sydney. Her no-nonsense, professional police detectives might have stepped straight off the set of every Aussie Cop TV Drama of the past 20 years, though their work for the (fictitious) Gender Crimes unit is an uncommon angle. Investigating a series of repulsive killings, they soon figure out that there is a supernatural angle to the murders. Once the real horror of “Dead” begins to become apparent, it builds grim energy towards a monstrous conclusion. Chilling and nasty and absolutely terrific fun.

Cat Sparks’ “The Sleeping and the Dead” is set several decades after an apocalypse that has left the world a MadMaxian wasteland. Into a fortified fertility clinic, Dr Anna endures rather than enjoys the company of a psychopathic cult of nuns as she vainly administers IVF treatments to crowds of despairing women. It’s a bleak, hopeless situation that only takes a turn for the worse when some men wander out of the desert with news that sets Anna on a quest into the figurative underworld. A metaphorical retelling of the Ishtar legend which becomes rather less metaphorical as it progressesm, “Sleeping” contains some graphic, striking imagery. No review would be complete without mention of the evocative description of the nuns as “Necromaidens. Fallout wraiths. Praising absent gods for their blisters as well as their dreams” It’s a grim, unsympathetic world where morality has worn almost to dust, with an ending that strikes just the right note of slim, ambiguous hope.

Ishtar showcases three writers with very different strengths working to similar ends. Warren applies an obvious love of research to evoke a rich sense of place and mood; Biancotti’s command of dialogue and pacing delivers the feel of the breathtaking acceleration and sudden loss of control of a high powered sports car; Sparks’ showers her story in riches of imagery, metaphor and tone to create as bleak a future as any I’ve seen. All three stand on their own. Together, Ishtar is an beautiful and rewarding collection.

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