Lexifabricographer

August 4, 2014

Review – Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres – AWWC14

I’ve been off the pace on my reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014, but as I’m resolving to do more blogging in August, what better way to kick off proceedings than by catching up on my own self-imposed commitments? This will be my fourth review for 2014, which means I’m well behind on my target of ten Australian women writers read and six reviewed. That’s unsurprising as I’m behind on my reading in general. For some reason my book consumption has declined sharply in the past few months, though sadly my book acquisition rate has pushed through previous ceiling records.

Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres (Angry Robot Books 2014) concerns Virgin Jackson, a park ranger who works in Birrimun Park, a vast desert nature preserve in the middle of the megalopolis that covers the eastern Australian coast. Jackson witnesses an after hours murder, when the park should be deserted and monitored by every surveillance device known to man – but there’s no sign of the killer, she’s wounded by what appears to be a ghost crow, and an implacable police detective seems determined to fit her up for the killing. She bristles when her boss agrees to United States cooperation in the investigation, and she is assigned a stetson-wearing, sixgun-packing partner named Nate Sixkiller.

Peacemaker walks a strange line between futuristic police procedural and old-fashioned Western, mixing in a supernatural conspiracy to boot. With such a bizarre melange of elements, not to mention two lead characters with borderline-ridiculously iconic names, there’s no way this book should work. And yet it does, carried along by strong character work and a solid investigative core. Virgin is a tough loner with a tragic past who’s buried herself in her work – of course – and Sixkiller is a strong, laconic lawman who knows more about what’s going on that he’s letting on – of course – but their strained partnership dodges around cliches of sexual tension and professional jealousy and works all the more strongly for it. The supporting cast is very strong, including Virgin’s stripper boyfriend, her investigative journalist best friend and an introverted tech support guy with privacy boundary issues.

The action moves fairly quickly, and Virgin in particular comes off the worse for wear in virtually every confrontation, but it all remains remarkably grounded and focused. De Pierres sneaks some fascinating world-building in at the edges, shoring up the implausible setting elements with some real thought and care. This is a fascinating setting, and I’m keen to see more. If I have a complaint about the book, it’s that it leaves an awful lot open for the sequel (or sequels, I’m not sure). The resolution of the central murder mystery become almost incidental as the scope of the plot expands outwards. I’m also looking forward to seeing whether the author will successfully pay off what seems like a contrived final-chapter revelation. That said, Peacemaker is a solid, fun and confident-enough book that I’m definitely on board for the next installment.

 

May 19, 2014

Review – A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Filed under: books of 2014,books read,reviewage — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 10:03 pm

Doctor Clam: this is specifically a recommendation for you.

Sofia Samatar’s wonderful ‘A Stranger in Olondria’ (2013 Small Beer Press) is the story of a naive innocent, Jevick of Tyom, who travels from his isolated backwater island home to the dazzling opulence of the mainland empire of Olondria, armed only with a student’s command of the local language, to trade spices. It’s almost criminal to reduce the book to the plot elements of Jevick’s various adventures, which concern legal strife, hedonistic anarchists and an inconvenient haunting. What sets ‘A Stranger in Olondria’ apart is the richness of its prose and the novel’s preoccupation with the beauty of language itself.

This is a glorious, dazzling book, its endless sumptuous descriptive passages conveying a fascination with language, culture and the transformative effects of communication. A fantastic world with few fantastic elements – though those are of deep significance – ‘A Stranger in Olondria’ is alive with strange alien customs and characters who are at once instantly recognisable and wholly foreign. Jevick’s journey through Olondria passes through phases familiar to any traveller: the dazzling shock of first impressions; the bewildering challenge of comprehending unfamiliar behaviours; the slow process of acclimation to local customs; and finally the return home of the traveller, much changed by his experiences.

On top of that, throw in a few of the standard dangers of travel – becoming sick, running afoul of legal systems beyond your comprehension, becoming involved with cultural movements outside your experience – and one or two problems with a supernatural edge.

Samatar’s powers of description elevate what might be a reasonably straightforward fantastic travelogue into a rich banquet of language, each course more lavish and satisfying than the last. The fantastic elements have their place in the novel alongside the mundane, but no matter where the author directs her gaze the writing is glorious and compelling. ‘A Stranger in Olondria’ is fabulous, simply fabulous.

March 17, 2014

Review – Champion of the Rose by Andrea K Höst – AWWC14

This is my second review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. The novel this week is Andrea Höst’s Champion of the Rose, a political-mystery-romance set in a high fantasy realm with great mages, ancient magical constructs and some very daunting Fae. Like all of Höst’s novels, it is self-published (with a very beautiful Julie Dillon cover).

You almost feel sorry for Soren Armitage, the mystically chosen personal Champion of the monarch of a kingdom that has been a Regency for a couple of hundred years. Not being naturally inclined to the court, she’s happy enough with the complete lack of prestige or responsibility that comes with a position that nobody takes seriously. Which is when, of course, a magical rose blooms to let everyone know that the King has unexpectedly returned.

The shape of Champion of the Rose is a little hard to pin down. The first third or so is a hunt for a King whom nobody’s seen and who shouldn’t exist. Then the focus shifts to Soren’s navigation of courtly politics flavoured with espionage, betrayal and attempted assassin, all while she attempts to unravel ancient magical secrets and negotiate impossible personal relationships. Finally the last bit is more of the previous, only with the stakes turned up to eleven by the unanticipated presence of a Fae embassy.

Soren Armitage is one of those reluctant heroines who goes from comfortable to out-of-her-depth in a matter of a few paragraphs. With no great martial or magical skills, she holds her own only with a slightly disoriented pragmatism and a tenacity reinforced by a series of confounding magical revelations. While she is far more resourceful and brave than she’s given credit for, I found myself far more interested in several of the supporting cast. In particular Aristide Couerveur, the son of the Regent (and a character with as Höstian a name as the author has ever conjured) is fun. He is the tremendously powerful mage whose ascent to the Regency is arrested by the King’s return – the author successfully teases his inscrutable motives for quite some time before he shows his true colours. Despite the dour self-control that dominates his personality, I found Aristide one of the highlights of the story.

Champion of the Rose is an engaging fantasy political thriller (in part), a tormented romance (in some ways) and a complicated magical murder mystery where the dead bodies are in all the wrong places. I found it an enjoyable read with a satisfying resolution. I would just caution readers that the geopolitical history of the setting set out early in the novel is pretty important. Maybe don’t skim over those bits quite as casually as I did, or you’ll find yourself having to check back when it all comes together in the later chapters.

 

November 26, 2013

TMoRP Day 22 – Saga by Vaughan and Staples

Okay, Saga.

I’ve been putting this blog post off for days. Partly because I’ve been both busy and exhausted, but mostly because I just don’t know if I can do this thing justice.

Saga is a monthly (-ish) comic from Image Comics by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (artist). It’s billed as an epic space opera, but the interplanetary conflicts, majestic science-fictional (and science-fantasy) concepts and larger-than-life characters are quite secondary to the romantic relationship drama of the two lead characters, Alana and Marko. She has delicate bat-shaped dragonfly wings and combat boots; he has curly ram horns and a magic sword. They are madly in love and on the run. They come from worlds that have been at war for so long that they now outsource the conflict to vassal states, such as that of one of the more colourful secondary characters, expectant-father Prince Robot IV.

As the series opens, Alana is giving birth to their (impossible) baby, a daughter named Hazel. Hazel narrates the story, presumably from sometime far in the future. Virtually everyone else wants to kill all of them, for defying the war, for engaging in forbidden love (or miscegenation, as most of society would have it) and for giving birth to a child who might possibly represent a path to peace for the galaxy.

There are bounty hunters, ghosts, magic, giant tree-spaceships, people with televisions for heads, trashy romance novels, horror, sex, violence, humour and (in the very first scene) the miracle of birth, complete with swearing and a sword fight.

Saga is a very adults-only book with a wonderfully operatic backdrop for the flight of the lovers – and their pursuit by mercenaries, super-spies, parents-in-law and murderous ex-lovers. Marko and Alana are great characters - brave, devoted and competent but also flawed and capable of exceedingly poor judgment – but the book is elevated by the many fantastic secondary characters, especially the relentless bounty hunter The Will (the profession of bounty hunter appears to confer singular titles, for some reason) and Izabel the dismembered teenaged ghost, who acts as Hazel’s baby-sitter. And Marko’s parents, who are senior figures in the Wreather military establishment. And Lying Cat, The Will’s pet/partner, who is an emaciated hairless cat who can tell when someone is lying. Lying Cat gets all the best lines.

Saga is beautiful. Fiona staples’ art is sumptuous. Just look at this cover:

Breastfeeding mothers are badass

Breastfeeding mothers are badass.

Vaughan has described Saga as being his vehicle for creating concepts that can’t be realised in television or movies, and Staples’ art more than delivers on the often bizarre grandeur and grotesqueness of the setting. A recent issue featured a for-want-of-a-better-term upskirt shot of a deformed giant’s scrotum, which was both a feat of remarkable technical drawing and easily as horrible as it sounds.

Oh, I should mention, there’s a lot of sex in this book. Some of it is just explicit but otherwise ordinary, but some elements like the existence of an underage sex-slave whom The Will attempts to rescue, is confronting and unpleasant and skirts the line into exploitation. It didn’t cross it for me, as the material is presented as objectionable by sympathetic characters and is treated without sentimentality. Your line may be drawn elsewhere. There was also a controvery surrounding the sneak-insertion of a gay porn money shot into a couple of panels in a recent issue. I found that pretty hilarious but again you may not agree.

This is a story about war, about love and about the strength of social and family ties in the face of unimaginable pressure. The dialogue is sharp, the art is breathtaking and the story is so bursting with potential that it could go anywhere. It’s clear (from the name and the setup) that Vaughan and Staples have every intention of making Saga a landmark SF&F epic to equal Star Wars or A Song of Ice and Fire. They might never achieve that lofty ambition, but based on what we’ve seen and the accolades rolling in – several Eisners and a Hugo, not to mention best-sellerdom – they haven’t fallen short yet.

Look, there are already two very reasonably priced trades (Saga Volumes 1 and 2) available, which I recommend without hesitation.

November 13, 2013

TMoRP Day 17 – Short stories of April

This is not going to be easy to pin down. According to my spreadsheet, I read 98 short stories in April 2013.

Ninety. Eight.

There would be very few times in my life when I would have read more short stories than that in a year, let alone in one month. In terms of the short fiction form, I guess this is my golden age. That’s almost entirely down to having ready access to a wealth of anthologies through the Kindle, although I’ve supplemented my library by picking up a lot of collecvtions by Australian writers in particular.

Anyway, this month the bulk of my reading came from four main sources:

  • Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (specifically issue 56) – a mildly quirky Australian quarterly magazine of science fiction and fantasy short stories. I like it a lot, although the fondness with which I respond to it varies from issue to issue, probably according to which member of its shadowy collective/cabal is sitting in the editorial big chair that month. Your mileage will likely vary.
  • Daily Science Fiction – a site that emails subscribers a new science fiction or (more often) fantasy short story every day. many of these are flash-fiction lengths i.e. around 1000 words. I recommend it, because despite the fact that I only think about half the stories are good (and very few are great), it’s a steady source of new material, and it doesn’t take much time to read them. The stories almost never exceed 4000 words.
  • Thoraiya Dyer’s Twelve Planets collection Asymmetry, about which I blogged earlier in the year. It’s good.
  • Stoneskin Press’ anthology (edited by Robin D Laws) of Aesopian fables for the modern world The Lion and the Aardvark. I didn’t do a full review, but here’s what I said on Goodreads.

Anyway, with that many stories, it’s impossible to narrow it down to just one or two. Here’s the ones I thought stood head and shoulders above the others.

‘Spirit Gum’ by Mike Resnick and Jordan Ellinger in Daily Science Fiction is the story of a stage illusionist who becomes a professional debunker, with tragic consequences.

‘Illegal’ by Pete Aldin and Kevin Ikenberry in ASIM 56, a police procedural, set in the outer solar system, about stateless refugees – three flavours that mash together to moving effect in this case.

‘The Wisdom of Ants’ by Thoraiya Dyer, on the Clarkesworld Podcast. She won the Ditmar for this at this year’s awards ceremony. It’s good, just go and read it. Then feel free to speculate on who genetically engineered the weird-arse metal-eating ants and why anyone would do that.

‘The Blind Pig’ by Lyn Battersby is a creepy fantasy set in a Prohibition-era speakeasy. I wish there were a version of it online, I’d love to chat about that one.

‘After Hours’ by Thoraiya Dyer in Asymmetry. This was the werewolf one. I’m a sucker for werewolf stories. This was an outstanding example of finding something new to do with them.

There’s about sixty stories in The Lion and the Aardvark, most of them of flash-fiction length. I particularly liked: ‘The Loquacious Cadaver’ by Kyla Ward; ‘The Minotaurs and the Signal Ghosts’ by Peter M Ball; ‘The Coyote and the High-Density Feed Lot’ by Greg Stolze (great name for a story!); ‘The Stray Dogs Learn Their Lesson’ by Nick Mamatas; and ‘The Unicorn at the Soiree’ by Rich Dansky. But come on, there’s sixty stories in this volume. There are at least a couple fo dozen more that are almost as good as the ones I mentioned.

The wealth of great new short stories out there is almost too rich to contemplate. This is just a smattering of what apepals to me.

What are you putting through your eye-jellies at the moment? What do you recommend? What will I be reading after I finish reading this unnervingly tall to-be-read pile?

 

November 12, 2013

TMoRP 16 – Hawkguy!

Today I will be gleeking the hell out of a comic. I’m going to be doing a lot of that for this year’s Month of Relentless Positivity, because this seems to be an especially propitious time for good comics. So take that how you will.

Hawkeye, aka Clint Barton, aka the guy with the bow and arrow in The Avengers movie. In the comics he’s not a super-cool government assassin working for Nick Fury (and/or Loki). No, in the comics he’s a two-bit criminal carnie with a bow and some trick arrows who FOR SOME REASON THOUGHT HE COULD TAKE ON THE AVENGERS. Give the guy some props for having brass cojones. Anyway, after he does a stretch in prison, he gets out, flies straight and eventually becomes a hero. And the leader of the Avengers. And the leader of the West Coast Avengers. And then he died for a few years until he came back as a mute ninja and – oh shit, I’m doing that thing where I overexplain comics continuity, aren’t I?

(Totally deliberate in that case. I could not possibly resist mentioning the bit about his being dead and then a ninja, because COMICS!)

So, Hawkeye (2012) by Matt Fraction and David Aja (with covers and colours by Matt Hollingsworth and letters by Chris Eliopolous) is a standard Marvel monthly title. [1] Except that it really isn’t like any other superhero book I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s still about Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton and his teenaged protege Kate ‘Hawkeye’ Bishop, who are both regular unpowered-but-hypercompetent hero-adventurers. Yes, the superheroics of the greater Marvel Universe do occasionally intrude at the edges.

But Hawkeye – affectionately known as Hawkguy, as pronounced by the writer’s young son – takes its tone cues not from the absurd power fantasies of the superhero genre but from grimy TV crime dramas from the seventies, in particular The Rockford Files. In this series, Clint Barton’s life as an Avenger occurs off-screen. Instead, the story focuses on his after-hours life in a worn-down New York apartment building, hanging with his working-class neighbours, wrangling with some menacing low-rent Russian mafia scumbags in sportswear (the always-fantastic “tracksuit Draculas”) and generally screwing up his love-life and other relationships.

The colours are muted just short of sepia. The covers are stunning works of pop-art design. The vibe is run-down, weathered weariness bordering on the fatalistic. Clint’s in a low place, and despite gangster shenanigans, sexy mayhem and the odd high-speed chase with turbo-charged muscle cars and exploding arrows, he’s getting more down with every passing issue. Kate is a rich girl with a snarky confidence and thrill-seeker’s joie de vivre who can see Clint’s mounting depression sapping the life out of her.

Despite Clint’s world-trammelled, downbeat optimism and Kate’s sometimes biting cynicism, this series is funny. Hilarious, even. Even in the grimmest situations – such as the issue set in the eye of Hurricane Sandy as it beats the hell out of coastal New Jersey – the sparkling sense of fun and glimmers of hope seep through the murk. Matt Fraction, one of my favourite writers at the moment (and rapidly ascending into the pantheons of my all-time favourites) is at his best here, showing a sincerity and humanity that bleeds through every panel.

Not being much of an art afficionado, my initial impression of David Aja’s art was to dislike the scratchy lines. I’m an idiot. Aja does more with the body language and facial expressions in a single panel than most artists manage in a two-page spread with forty superheroes punching each other. Moreover, the composition in this book is amazing. The pacing, from panel to panel, page to page and issue to issue, is so controlled it’s almost impossible to rush through it.

This is a book where you notice the panel layout, because it’s doing as much storytelling as the dialogue and the pictures. I couldn’t tell you the last time I noticed stuff like that while reading a funnybook. And you don’t see it because it’s obtrusive. You admire it because it’s teaching you a language that you probably never paid the slightest attention to before. It calls attention to the fact that it’s something that you can pay attention to. It doesn’t just teach you how to read this book. It skills you up for reading every other comic you will ever lay eyes on.

And hey, there is an issue shown from the point of view of Lucky, the one-eyed stray mutt that only hangs around with Clint because he offered him a slice of pizza, that is basically a one-issue revolution in graphic storytelling. I just don’t have the words for how good that single issue is, and yet it’s not even my favourite in the series. (That might be the one where loonie teenaged gang-boss Madame Masque secretly bankrupts and then befriends Kate Bishop so that she can exact a bitter revenge, or the one where Clint’s exes team up to stage an intervention on him only to decide he’s a shiftless bum who deserves everything he gets).

Look, there are two volumes out so far: “Hawkeye Volume 1: My Life as a Weapon” and “Hawkeye Volume 2: Little Hits”. If not for the fact that I will be recommending several other comics in the course of TMoRP, I would practically insist that anyone with an interest in superheroes, light noir or witty dialogue should immediately cease all delaying activities and get both books.

But also, that would be bullying. And that’s Not Okay.

 

[1] Actually, scratch that. Standard Marvel titles are coming out about once every three weeks these days - presumably so that the trade paperback collections can be assembled and released more frequently - but Hawkeye has a slightly slower turnaround. Let’s describe the release schedule as “at a leisurely pace”.

 

November 5, 2013

TMoRP Day 12 – The short stories of March

None of the stories I read in March seem to have made a lasting impression on me. Still, looking over my list I see that there are quite a few that struck me as high quality yarns without being life-changing events, so I hereby dedicate this TMoRP entry to a handful of stories I thought were well worth a read.

The reliable Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine website gave us the extravagantly-entitled “The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, and Their Wounds” by Seth Dickinson. It’s a tense, uncomfortable story about the final test of loyalty of a bureaucrat who led and betrayed a rebel uprising against an oppressive Throne. The titular character’s battle-inflicted left-side brain damage has left her oblivious to the right side of her world, an injury she employs to great effect to ignore the inconvenient parts of her difficult situation. Re-reading it this morning has bumped it up in my estimation. It’s a fine examination of the two sides of leadership qualities – strength and moral character versus selfishness and cruelty – and the necessity for both.

In March I read the previous CSfG anthology, Winds of Change, edited by Elizabeth Fitzgerald and available now in ebook format (sorry – as a new CSfG council member, I feel a small obligation to plug the wares). I consumed the anthology across the month, and while it’s a strong collection in general, I recommend it for a few stories in particular: ‘Wraiths’, by Jason Nahrung, set in a spirit-blighted post-apocalyptic Australia; ‘The Tether of Time’, Leife Shallcross’ mythic variant of the Flying Dutchman legend; and the late James Goodrum’s haunted-child story ‘By Watcher’s Pool’. Those are just the ones that stood out in my mind, though – WoC, like Next, is a fat volume that represents an excellent cross-section of Australia’s speculative fiction scene.

Finally I have to give a shout-out to Lisa Hannett’s ‘Sweet Subtleties’, which is probably the only piece of confectionery-based erotic speculative fiction you are ever likely to encounter. It’s beautiful, grotesque, absurd and difficult to describe in terms of plot: Una is a sentient or possibly haunted sculpture crafted by the confectioner Javier over and over again, for the amusement and consumption of decadent and sometimes depraced clients. It’s one of those stories that is not outright horror, but still finds several different ways to be upsetting, but fascinating and memorable with it. I listened to a reading by Kate Baker on the Clarkesworld Podcast, but it’s also there to read on the website.

October 25, 2013

TMoRP Day 9 – Review – Nine Flash Nine by Patrick O’Duffy

I like flash fiction, even though it’s not always done well. By my lights, good flash fiction gets in with one shining idea, fleshes it out with humour or at least sparkling prose, and gets out before anyone notices how thin the concept is. One thousand words or less, all boom.

I like weird fiction. The more off the wall, creepy and surreal the ideas presented, the better as far as I’m concerned. It’s one of the few areas in fiction where I’ll give ground on decent characters and something resembling a plot, if the weirdness is weird enough, or fun enough, or simply something I haven’t seen or thought of before.

Nine Flash Nine, Patrick O’Duffy’s collection of nine flash fiction pieces are mostly a bit weird, even if not all of it could be defined as weird fiction. Or at least very weird mutations of the rather traditional story types they are emulating.

There’s the touring band rocked by murder but more rocked by internal dimness.

There’s a ‘Dear Penthouse Forum’ letter which is epically explicit and hilarious, but decidely unusual.

There’s an invasion by impossibly giant monsters who don’t give a rat’s arse that physics forbids their existence.

There’s one about a ghost moustache.

There’s five other stories. One simple idea per story, executed well. O’Duffy’s a writer who has fun with his language. These stories gleam with his trademark wit and insight and the occasional moment of well-directed snark. Like all good flash fiction, they’re gone way too soon.

The other thing is – look, the collection is a buck on Smashwords, so it’s not a huge investment. Personally I would recommend browsing his entire self-published catalogue. There’s good stuff in there, of which I’ve reviewed several pieces. (I read this back in March, and I feel kind of bad that it’s taken me this long to recommend it. But I do recommend it, because it’s a delight).

August 16, 2013

AWWC 2013 – Review – One Small Step: An Anthology of Discoveries (edited by Tehani Wessely)

This is my 8th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. I picked up my copy of the anthology at the April 2013 launch at the Australian National Convention, Conflux 9.

One Small Step: An Anthology of Discoveries is a showcase of Australia’s current wealth of women writing speculative fiction. These 16 stories cover a range of genres, from far-future science fiction to dark fantasy, fairytales – traditional and post-modern – to police procedurals, and the odd foray into the weird. All tie into a theme of exploration and discovery – emotional, intellectual and sometimes geographic.

My experience of themed anthologies is that the quality can vary considerably, usually with one or two outstanding stories balanced out by mostly good ones and a couple of duds. One Small Step is better than that. The standard here is very high. The worst that I could say about editor Tehani Wessely’s selection is that a couple of them are excellent specimens of styles that aren’t to my tastes. Even the very few stories I didn’t particularly like were undeniably worth reading. (In fact the story I enjoyed the least in the collection was probably the most strongly written. My tastes don’t always line up perfectly with storytelling excellence!) I would note that if your speculative fiction appetite starts and end with hard science fiction of the spaceships and robots variety, there’s probably only one story – D K Mok’s “Morning Star” – that will suit. But it is a good one!

I’m calling out a few of my favourites here, but take my word for it that I’m not papering over any cracks in the collection. I’m prepared to bet that every story here would make someone’s top three. One Small Step opens with Michelle Marquardt’s “Always Greener”, a child’s encounter with strange aliens on a hostile colony world, a setup that seems like it could go anywhere but still takes an unexpected and bittersweet turn. Jodie Cleghorn’s “Firefly Epilogue” is a colourful evocation of the Australian tourist’s experience of Malaysia, again tinged with a sweet sadness. I adored Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Cold White Daughter”, a homage that nails its colours proudly and playfully to the mast, while re-examining a beloved childhood tale.

One Small Step is worth picking up for a good idea of what the current renaissance in Australian speculative fiction looks like at the moment. Smart, heartfelt and a little bit otherworldly. It works for me.

July 9, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – A Trifle Dead by Livia Day

This is my sixth review for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I picked up this particular volume at Conflux 2013 back in April, shortly after the book’s launch.

I don’t read a heap of mystery stories – I enjoy reading them but I like fantasy and science fiction more, so I tend to relegate crime and mystery fiction to when I need a change of flavour and when I have some free reading time. Basically never, in other words. But I was all a-quiver with anticipation for A Trifle Dead for a few reasons: one, because it’s the first release from the new crime imprint from Twelfth Planet Press, who have produced some exceptional speculative fiction in the last couple of years. Two, because the author behind the Livia Day pen name has a fun, witty body of work (some of which I may have reviewed at one time). And three, because although I am quite fond of Hobart, it has always struck me as somewhere where murder is probably popular. It just seems like the sort of place where the charming, somewhat sleepy facade conceals a streak of bloodthirstiness and taste for the macabre. Maybe that’s just me.

Tabitha Darling is the proprietor of a trendy Hobart cafe that might be doing better business if not for the gaggle of overprotective policemen making up most of its clientele. She isn’t having much luck convincing her recently-deceased father’s colleagues to try the modernised menu, her somewhat-disreputable co-owner has gone missing and she’s struggling to sort out her feelings towards a charming-if-taciturn police detective who seems to think of her as his little sister. As if that were not enough, the publicity-hungry band living upstairs discovers a body suspended in a net in the spare room. For no particular reason other than intense curiosity, Tabitha can’t help but try to solve the murder.

Tabitha is a delightfully fun character, obsessed with food, vintage clothing and the Eurovision Song Contest, endlessly inquisitive and amusingly snarky. She has no particular aptitude for detecting, other than possessing a stubborn persistence, a wide social circle and the willingness to use baked goods as bribes. A Trifle Dead is definitely a cosy mystery – there’s comparitively little bloodshed and mayhem, and much of the book is taken up with Tabitha’s navigation of her complex social life. In fact, that’s something of the genius of A Trifle Dead – it’s impossible to tell from one moment to the next which parts of the story are plot-related, and which parts are relationship-drama red herrings. In Tabitha’s mind they’re wholly indistinguishable. I spent most of the book expecting (and dreading) that one particular character would turn out to be behind everything, only to have the revelations of their dark secrets be innocent and of significance only because of Tabitha’s keen interest.

A Trifle Dead is great fun. Tabitha may appear light as a souffle and obsessed with quirky pop culture, but she has an appealing streak of businesslike determination that carries the story. The supporting cast are a likeable crowd of trendy hipsters, baffled coppers and slightly scurrilous crims, all of whom are connected in odd and unexpected. The way that Day has knit these characters together so intricately that the murder plot is effectively camouflaged at the same time that it sits front and centre is a very neat trick. I found it a fun modern murder mystery with none of the grim forensic details so often prevalent in this genre. Oh, and I really can’t let the review pass without noting the striking cover by Amanda Rainey, which is a gorgeous piece of iconic design a little bit reminiscent of Saul Bass – it’s perfect!

 

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