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

October 17, 2015

Half-baked Review – Musketeer Space by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Filed under: books of 2015,books read,reviewage,women writers challenge 2015 — lexifab @ 10:58 pm

Oh this book. THIS BOOK!

Tansy Rayner Roberts’ genderflipped retelling of The Three Musketeers, as space opera.

This book has flat-out my favourite D’Artagnan of all time (the character who hitherto has made every version of T3M drag for me, including the original book): Dana D’Artagnan is the sexy-smart wannabe Musketeer with high expectations, dubious impulse control issues and a habit of crashing through the plot like a meteor strike. I love her to bits. The actual Musketeers are fun as well.

This book is just fucking great, y’all. It’s funny, it’s smart, the action is fun, the sex is sexy, the characters are one delight after another, and the cake jokes are ridiculous and excessive i.e. perfect. And the plot makes sense all the way through (which I’ve never quite been sure is true of the source material).

I got to read it as an ebook because I was a Patreon backer, but you can check it out over at Tansy Rayner Roberts’ site. I gather she’s shopping it around to publishers. She should – a book this much fun deserves to be in print.

(It may seem to certain readers that this is less a review than a gushing outpouring of glee. Yes.)

September 25, 2015

Review – Last Year, When We Were Young by Andrew McKiernan

Andrew McKiernan’s collection Last Year, When We Were Young (2014 from Satalyte Publishing) is a fine example of a strong writer testing his limits by stretching in different directions. As you might expect from an Australian writer with a well-deserved reputation for compelling dark fantasy and horror, outback ghosts and urban nightmares are represented.

One of my favourite stories appears early in this volume: “White Lines, White Crosses” is a grimly familiar tragedy of teenage isolation, testosterone-fuelled recklessness and car culture, with a smear of the supernatural to amp up the stakes. “The Memory of Water” is haunted by childhood memories of beach holidays tinged with tragedy. And “The Haunting that Jack Built” is a classic yarn of strange and sinister goings-on in a country town.

But McKiernan shows his range with some unexpected variations on theme and setting: the Middle East appears in modern and mythological states, in “The Dumbshow”, “The Desert Song”, “They Don’t Know That We Know What They Know” and the excellent clash of espionage, battles handed down across generations, old gods and chess in “Daivadana”. He does a creditable Stephen King-like grotesque in “The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim”. He does old-fashioned SF horror in “The Wanderer in the Darkness”. He even does a noir tragedy soaked in betrayal and cheap whiskey in “Torch Song”.

But where this collection stands out is in the weird and absurd corners. The title story is a brief piece of deranged survival horror set in the aftermath of a more than usually disturbing apocalypse. But the jewel in the crown is probably “All the Clowns in Clowntown”, which is perhaps a parable about surviving an epidemic or could be a metaphor for involuntary unionism or hostile corporatism, but in any case is probably the only story you will ever read about the last surviving resistance members of the clown counter-revolution.

Last Year, When We Were Young had a remarkably high hit rate for me. McKiernan’s quality as a short story writer is consistently strong across the collection. Highly recommended.

August 3, 2015

Progress report – The whooshing sound they make

Filed under: books of 2015,books read,Uncategorized — Tags: — lexifab @ 2:27 pm

Per Douglas Adams’ famous observation “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by,” I have predictably failed to type THE END on the A Flash of Black Wings manuscript before my self-imposed target date of the end of July. C’est la vie. To be fair to myself, I did pass the 75,000 word mark with a day or two to spare. It’s just that the story isn’t quite done yet. I estimate it will probably be closer to 90 to 95 K to get to the planned conclusion. So I am not as bad at keeping to a writing schedule as I am of estimating a project’s scope (or controlling scope creep, which I think is the likeliest culprit in this case).

So I will continue to plug away with a revised estimated completion date of the end of August. That’s a pretty good target to aim for, since I will be travelling overseas for work (briefly) at the start of September. I’d like that to be a nice clean transition point between this writing project and the next [1].

Forget about that, I’m going to talk about what I’m reading:

I have a stack of physical books next to my bed and a (much larger) stack of ebooks which is, um, also next to my bed, on the kindle. Feeling the tremendous shame of having a tendency for impulse purchasing that far exceeds my reading time, I have decided to concentrate on at least knocking off all the books by Australian writers in the TBR pile before the end of the year. I also have a vague plan to review all or most of them, but that will definitely have to wait until after I’m done with the novel. (My traditional Month of Relentless Positivity daily blogging project in October may well be a succession of book reviews and not much else).

So far I’ve knocked off works by Andrea Höst, Andrew Macrae and Alis Franklin, as well as a couple of issues of Aurealis and some anthologies.

(No, I’m not working through the list in alphabetical order).

I expect to be done with that before summer, after which I’m planning to embark on a Reading Project.

The next reading project (help wanted)

Paying attention to various podcasts and other discussions on the history of science fiction and fantasy, it has become appearent to me just how wide the gaps are in my reading of “the classics”. I’ve read, for example, bugger-all Heinlein (probably because the Heinlein I have read is from his baffling later years). I’ve not read Bester. I’ve not read Samuel Delaney or Octavia Butler or Joanna Russ or Poul Anderson or Frederick Pohl or James Tiptree – well, you name someone outside the biggest names in genre, and I probably haven’t read much of their stuff.

I plan to fix that by going back and investigating some of the great classic works of science fiction. Twelve of them to start with – perhaps one a month, but more likely I will binge – and exclusively skiffy for the first round (I’m better read in fantasy, although I’ll probably undertake an equivalent project there as well). But because I am a proud desktop social justice warrior, I have no intention of allowing the content of my reading to be dominated by dead white guys, so I am going to attempt (to the greatest extent possible) to include non-white and non-male authors in the mix. Since I have to cherry-pick what constitutes a classic anyway (because it’s impossible to read everything) I figure I might as well read as broadly as possible.

Thus far I have determined that I will include Dhalgren by Chip Delaney (which I tried to read in high school but gave up on for whatever reason), at least one of the C J Cherryh Alliance-Union books (probably Downbelow Station, but I’ll see what I can find), The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, something by Joanna Russ (probably The Female Man), something by Octavia Butler (not sure what yet), something by James Tiptree Jr aka Alice Sheldon (son’t know what yet), something by Alfred Bester (probably The Stars My Destination, but maybe The Demolished Man, and no, I haven’t read either of those) and something by Robert Heinlein that isn’t Stranger in a Strange Land or The Number of the Beast (because fuck The Number of the Beast sideways; what a shitty book that was).

I’ve set some rules for this project:

  • I can’t have read it before (I’ll give a pass to Dhalgren because I know I didn’t finish it, and because it was the book that prompted this line of thinking)
  • Only one book by any given author
  • Novels only (I do read a lot of short stories, but for this particular project I am shoring up my novel background)
  • Science fiction only – I’ll do fantasy classics later
  • Only books published pre-1985 (arbitrarily picking the publication of Neuromancer as the point at which I started reading science fiction semi-widely, and 30 years seems like a reasonable period to establish a work’s classic-ness)
  • I am seeking parity between male and female authors (counting Tiptree as female for the binary purposes of this exercise)
  • I am seeking parity between white and POC authors.

I have a feeling that last criteria will be hard to live up to but I will do my best.

So, I’m after suggestions: given the criteria above, what do you recommend I add to my reading pile of the classics of science fiction? What do you think are the landmark works of great science fiction that I should have absorbed into my brain-meats before now? 

(Doctor Clam, I feel quite sure you have something to contribute here!)

[Edited later]

Here’s the list as I settle on it (not yet in a particular order):

  • Samuel R Delaney – Dhalgren
  • Ursula K Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Alfred Bester – The Stars My Destination
  • C J Cherryh – Downbelow Station
  • Frederick Pohl – Gateway

[1] The next writing project will be the small to medium-sized stack of short story ideas that have accumulated in my notebooks since I started the novel manuscript. It will be at least three new stories, plus two revisions, before I go back to revise the novel.

February 25, 2015

Review – Frost (The Flotsam Series Book 2) by Peter M. Ball

Filed under: books of 2015,books read,reviewage — Tags: , — lexifab @ 9:53 am

This action-packed supernatural thriller improves on the previous volume in Peter M. Ball’s Flotsam series, Exile. Continuing its deep dive into the hard-boiled supernatural underbelly of Queensland’s Gold Coast, the action in Frost centers on grimy, compromised monster hunter Keith Murphy’s bargain with a demonic crime boss and a brewing gang war with a bikie gang.

The action sequences are suitably brutal and inventive, and the tense working relationship between Murphy and the various demon-possessed criminals he is nominally allied with lends real bite to the stakes. It’s very much a vicious, backstabbing workplace drama turned up to eleven by the presence of demons, firearms, murderous ghosts and literal stabbings in the back.

I’m looking forward to the next (final?) chapter of the series, in which I presume the much-anticipated Ragnarok on the Gold Coast will arrive at last.

February 18, 2015

Review: The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data by Patrick O’Duffy

Filed under: books of 2015,books read,reviewage — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 12:00 pm

Patrick O’Duffy’s followup to his wildly entertaining 2012 crime novella The Obituarist opens with the attention-grabbing line “ECCENTRIC MILLIONAIRE COMMITS SUICIDE-BY-BEAR”, then immediately subverts that declaration of delirious intent with a snarky deconstruction of its own cynicism and deceptiveness.

The book holds the same mirror up to its protagonist. Kendall Barber returns as Port Virtue’s resident social media undertaker, a systems analyst specialising in discretely closing down the online presence of the recently deceased on behalf of grieving relatives who may not want to know what their loved ones got up to online.

As before, Barber is a study in contradictions – a cynical, shifty smartarse with the cracking skills of a Russian spammer playing the part of a sensitive online undertaker. He’s a beaten-down has-been with a shaky assumed identity and a driving sense of justice undermined by a fluid ethical framework. Considering the rough treatment he collected in the previous story – beaten up, run over with a car, etc – he also has a surprisingly undeveloped sense of self-preservation when it comes to keeping his mouth shut.

Basically, he’s a perfect modern noir anti-hero. This time around he’s caught between an investigation of his racist demagogue client’s affairs, fending off a hot but nosy investigative journalist, getting the snot beaten out of him by the usual collection of brutal low-rent criminals and playing a game of cat and mouse with Port Virtue’s corrupt, violent police department. Oh, and being mauled by unexpected wildlife.

The setting of Port Virtue gets a little more flesh on its bones with this installment – Barber’s client is the local eccentric scrap merchant king, with a notorious private zoo and an off-the-book business as a right-wing crank-for-profit. The discovery of a collection of body parts looms over the story like a winter cloud. And Kendall Barber clearly has a love-hate relationship with the town where nobody knows he’s a native.

The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data is coarse, violent and awash with the weary bitterness of optimism dashed one too many times. And that’s a terrible description, because this book is also hilarious and brimming with righteous (and yeah, sometime self-righteous) anger. Kendall Barber is more devil than saint, and he knows it, but he’s determined to do as much good as possible before Port Virtue grinds him up for good. He just doesn’t plan to walk a righteous path to do it, not when tricks and lies will do the job just as well. (Spoiler: they don’t).

It’s short, it’s wild and contains even more creative swearing, grotesque thuggery and cautions against lazy password administration than the previous book. If nothing else, after reading this you will almost certainly want to tighten up your online security habits.

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 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.

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 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.

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.


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