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

January 1, 2013

Stats of 2012 – Books read

This is long, and probably of interest to nobody but me (especially since I have been posting monthly summaries throughout the year). It’s my complete [1] reading list for 2012. Some achievements:

  • I read 66 books in the year, which fell 14 short of my faintly-ridiculous Goodreads target of 80. Of course I would have nailed it if I’d included graphic novels and comic trades, so I’ll call that a win. Of course, trying to read so much chewed into writing time more than I really wanted it to, so
  • Non-binding New Year’s Resolution #1 – Set a more modest target for books read, like one per week or something. I am allowed to read more if I hit my writing targets, whatever they happen to be.
  • I read 12 and reviewed 11 novels by Australian women for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 [2].
  • I read only a handful (5 or so) non-fiction books, not counting various works of writing advice. Now, one of the abandoned books was also non-fiction (about the actually-fascinating history of fonts and typesetting) which I only quit on because the person I borrowed it from was leaving the country.
  • Non-binding New Year’s Resolution #2 – read more than one non-fiction book in 2013. Collections of Doctor Who essays do not count.
  • I read a lot more single-author short story collections (7) and anthologies (12) in 2012 than probably ever before in my life. This was a generally rewarding experience and I mean to continue in that fashion.
  • Non-binding New Year’s Resolution #3 – read a metric tonne of short fiction. I believe that I will actually track the short pieces I read in 2013, just to see how much of that I consume as well.
  • Most frequent authors – I read 4 books by Chuck Wendig (not counting two novellas), 4 books by Kaaron Warren (not counting her novella in Ishtar), 3 by Andrea K. Höst and 3 by Matt Forbeck (who did the crazy 12 for ’12 project and nearly pulled it off).
  • I read The Hobbit for the first time in my life, out loud (in a faux-Stephen Fry narrator voice, with a bad Ian Holm for Bilbo, a not-terrible Ian McKellen for Gandalf and a way-toned-down Andy Serkis for Gollum) to my five year old son. It took all year. Short review: There are more boring geographic descriptions than I would have expected in a book for children, but the poetry scans better than the stuff in LotR. Also Thorin Oakenshield is a bit of a dick.

In the grand internet tradition, I will do my Best of 2012 lists (which is to say, the stuff I like most that I happened to read this year) in another post.

[1] “complete”, except for comics and graphic novels, anything I read online (blogs, essays, etc), podcasts, and a couple of novels and several short stories that I beta-read for other people. It also doesn’t include a couple of books that I started but didn’t finish, for whatever reason.

[2] Sorry Andrea – I should have done the Touchstone Trilogy as well, but I didn’t get around to it! Will do better with Champion of the Rose when I read that!

(more…)

December 31, 2012

Review – Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett

One last review for 2012, and one last entry for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. This will be a quick one because it’s New Year’s Eve and I have to go see in 2013 by reading comics and falling asleep long before midnight. I’d blame this weakness on the kids, but frankly the annual turn of the calendar hasn’t exerted much pull on me for the last decade or so. Not being a fan of fireworks or getting drunk in public, NYE has sod-all to recommend it. Unlike the subject of this review, Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett.

Bluegrass Symphony is a collection of twelve short stories by Lisa L. Hannett, published by Ticonderoga Press. Though an Australian writer, Hannett has set her stories in unspecified parts of the US south. They are fantastic, exploring new takes on ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other things in a voice that seems (to my untrained ear) authentically Southern Gothic. These are beautiful stories, even the ugly ones – and a few of them are very dark indeed. In particular the chilling and repulsive vampires of “From the Teeth of Strange Children” touch not only on the horrific amorality of immortal blood drinkers but also the twisted sexuality of the vampire legend in ways I’ve not seen before.

These are all strong dark fantasy tales. Most are not as out and out horrific as “Teeth”, but they all have at least a tantalising undercurrent of darkness. The standouts are probably “Down the Hollow” in which a community’s grotesque fertility rite goes wrong, and the astonishing “The Short Go: a future in eight seconds”, which wraps together rodeo riding, minotaur hunting, divination and marriage rites together to amazing effect. It deservedly shared the Aurealis Award for Best Short Story this year with Paul Haines’ “The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burned”, and that was a breathtaking piece.

I’ve digressed, so let me mention one more story. The collection opens with a short, dreamlike piece called “Carousel”, without doubt my favourite in the book. It’s one of the shorter stories, a beautiful elegaic piece about a dying girl being comforted in her final moments by moths. It’s heartbreaking and funny and somewhat grotesque, and it has a lovely punchline. It sets the tone for the rest of Bluegrass Symphony wonderfully well.

December 30, 2012

Review – Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren

It’s late in the year, but not too late to add a couple more reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 (coming soon: AWWC 2013. Seriously, get in on that action). I’ve long since “won” the challenge at the Franklin level by reading ten titles and reviewing at least six. More to the point of the exercise, though, I have won in the sense of learning about quite a few writers whose stories and names were unknown to me, among them Tansy Rayner Roberts, Deb Biancotti, Jo Anderton and the author of this collection, Kaaron Warren. And through the Challenge, there are plenty of others to follow up on come the new year.

Through Splintered Walls is a collection of three short stories and a novella by Kaaron Warren. This is the rusty orange-covered entry in the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press, each of which collects thematically-linked works from a female Australian writer. Kaaron Warren has planted her flag in the weird/dark/horror fantasy corner of the genre, and the four stories collected here are an impressive showcase of her range. The short stories “Mountain”, “Creek”, “Road” and the novella “Sky” are inspired by features of the Australian landscape, and there are hints of a faintly Lovecraftian indifference of the sunburnt country to its human inhabitants.

“Mountain” is the unsettling memoir of a woman whose life takes an unexpected turn following a supernatural encounter. A story about relinquishing and resuming control in one’s life and the consequences of both, a subtle sense of dread accretes at its core but “Mountain” is more an emotional drama than a supernatural one.

“Creek” is straight-out supernatural horror, featuring the chilling Quaking Women, as horrible as they are unmistakeably Australian. It’s sad and malign and probably my favourite of the collection. There’s an emotional gut-punch at the end of the story that’s all the more effective because I should have seen it coming and didn’t.

“Road” is a sweet little ghost story about one of Australia’s many “black spots”, referring to those notorious stretches of road where fatal accidents tend to happen, and why you might see one of those memorial wreaths laid out there.

“Sky”, the novella, is one of those horror stories that stays with you. It is a horrific, sprawling tale that begins with a tiny act of callous cruelty and becomes a clinical examination of the insidiousness of human malice – how it can begin, how it spreads and how it can become institutionalised. It asks bleak questions about humanity and finds the answers lacking, but it is a compelling read. And if ever a story has paid off on the promise of its opening passage with its closing sentence, it’s “Sky”. The ending is utterly sickening, but it earns the reader’s repulsion.

Through Splintered Walls was a complete success for me. Creepy, daring and provocative, the horror stemming from humanity unhinged as often as from the supernatural, each as nasty as the other.

December 5, 2012

Review – And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst

I think that due to website load issues, or possibly other reasons, the Australian Women Writers Challenge is formally over for 2012. They are currently running a mini-survey to measure its impact, so if you think it might have had one then I encourage you to go and check it out. I’ve already signed up for more of the same in 2013, both because I think it goes some way towards redressing imbalances in acknowledgment and celebration of Australian writers in public discussions and – much more importantly from a personal point of view – because by participating in the Challenge this year, I’ve discovered many Australian writers (men too) about whom I was previously wholly ignorant. In terms of expanding my awareness of the Australian speculative fiction scene, the AWWC has been an unparalleled success. But whether or not the Challenge is still going officially or not, I’m not done with it and intend to keep reading and reviewing right up until New Year’s Eve. All of which is a long-winded introduction to my review of And All the Stars.

And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst [1] is a YA apocalypse-in-progress adventure set in modern-day Sydney. As the story opens, teenager Madeleine Cost’s plans to ditch school to conduct a portrait-sitting with her newly-famous cousin come to grief when a vast alien spike suddenly punches up from the earth. In the chaos that ensues in the shadow of the towering black spire, just one of many that have appeared around the world, Madeleine struggles to stay alive in a quarantine zone, gathers around herself a growing army of survivor and discovers unexpected side-effects of the disaster.

Post-apocalyptica seems to be a big thing in YA writing at the moment, but I think there’s an untapped vein of possibilities in telling stories about the collapse of civilisation as it happens. AAtS maintains a constant, narrow focus on Madeleine and her friends as they establish themselves, build relationships and make survival plans. The strange worldwide catastrophe looms as a mysterious background presence, which makes it all the more threatening when it intrudes on the survivors. Like any good YA adventure, the key here is the relationships: the growing friendships, the petty arguments, the buildup of trust – and coping in the aftermath of tragedy and betrayal. For all of its strong emotions, AAtS never steps over the line into angsty melodrama, which I for one appreciated.

And All the Stars is a not-quite-cosy catastrophe. The characters’ circumstances are dangerous and constrained, their fear of capture or worse is oppressive and justified, and their losses are keenly felt – but at the same time they have pretty good wifi and access to food and shelter. It makes for an odd – but not unbelievable – atmosphere, combining the tension and paranoia of survival in enemy occupied territory with a curiously larkish teenage high-spiritedness. Think ‘The Famous Five Go to Stalingrad’!

Probably the most impressive thing about AAtS is that it’s told and done in a single volume; the author has commendably resisted the urge to bloat the story out to a trilogy. The downside is that the resolution of the plot feels a bit rushed –  towards the end, the acceleration to the climax after a slow expository scene feels almost hasty. In terms of the characters and their relationships, though, the end comes at just the right time. That said, I would happily inhale a sequel with these characters.

 

[1] Hey look, I finally figured out how to do a frackin’ umlaut. It turns out there’s a whole extra hidden toolbar in the WordPress editing menu, including the ‘Insert custom character’ tool. At last, I can spell Andrea’s surname properly without looking like a massive nitwit.

 

November 20, 2012

Review – The Last City by Nina D’Aleo

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 10:26 pm

It’s been a while since I reviewed something for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, so I will take a few quick minutes out to mention a novel I picked up as part of a giveaway from Momentum Books.

The Last City by Nina D’Aleo is one of the first speculative releases from Momentum (Pan MacMillan Australia’s digital-only imprint). My copy came as a free promotion from the Amazon Kindle store.

The Last City is a strange melange of cop procedural, survivalist thriller and epic fantasy – in fact, the book can be divided into three parts that roughly correspond with those descriptors. It’s set in a vast, crowded, intensely stratified – physically, economically and culturally – megatropolis called Scorpia, the nominal last city on an apparently arid world. The story concerns a squadron of elite police investigators called the Oscuri trackers, led by the pleasingly pulpishly-alliterative Commander Copernicus Kane. As the story begins the Oscuri, including first-day-on-the-job rookie Silho Brabel and socially-awkward genius Eli Anklebiter, are investigating a gruesome, ritualistic multiple murder. As is so often the way of things, that crime leads inexorably to gang wars, royal intrigues, demon infestations, revolutionary uprisings and horrors from beyond the dawn of time.

D’Aleo’s worldbuilding is compelling and rich, if occasionally somewhat patchy. The population of her world of Aquais are all descendents of some form of genetic splicing (whether magic, superscience or spirit-binding was the original cause is unclear, though I would bet good money that the author has detailed notes). These various bloodlines bestow everything from physical and behavioural attributes to magical superpowers – lion-breeds socialise in prides, cobra-breeds have fangs and spit venom, and so on. Scorpia comes across as a magical reflection, albeit a couple of orders of magnitude more populous, of Bladerunner’s LA – multicultural but ghettoised, steeped in history and habitual cultural behaviours. Much of this we see from a somewhat jaded cop’s perspective – the story does not touch on much of day to day life for the presumed millions of ordinary Scorpians.

I had a few problems in reading The Last City, most of which would probably not bother other readers. The story is presented from multiple points of view, and virtually every character with any prominence in the story is tormented with the need to protect a dark secret from their past. Some of these hidden secrets forge improbable connections between the main characters and the rest are plot-essential linkages to a rising demonic menace. The tight interconnectedness of the leads felt out of place against the sprawling urban chaos of the setting.

The balance of the pacing is a bit strange. The early investigation scenes are painstaking and methodical to a frustrating degree, and the momentum gathers very slowly as the demonic shenanigans get rolling. The final act, by comparison, is full of exhilarating and desperate action. I found my perserverance rewarded with the ending, but it was only obstinacy on my part that got me to that point. I also had trouble identifying with several of the characters for much of the story, and it was only towards the final third – when the epic threat has fully manifested and the whole world is at stake – that I felt most of them started to kick into gear.

Overall I thought The Last City was a good read that never quite made it to a great read for me. It’s inventive and thoughtful but the pace is deliberate and some of the characters wear their plot-essentialism a little too close to the surface for me. That said, once the setup is out of the way and the action gets started, it’s a satisfying epic technomagical thriller.

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.

July 2, 2012

Review – Debris by Jo Anderton (Books of 2012 – June)

Books of 2012 – June: Well, June was a bit of a crash to earth after the more impressive reading stack of the preceding few months. I finished reading just two books: Kaaron Warren’s Mistification and Joanne Anderton’s Debris. Since I already reviewed Mistification, I’ll just go ahead and review Debris right here. Jo Anderton is a Sydney writer, so count this as another entry in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jo Anderton’s Debris (Angry Robot Publishing 2010) is the meaty riches-to-rags fantasy tale of Tanyana, a celebrated architect on the verge of completing her great masterpiece, a vast statue known as Grandeur. Tanyana has a powerful talent for controlling pions, mystical quasi-subatomic particles that can be manipulated to create anything from solid objects, complex utility systems and thumping great works of triumphalist architecture. Just as she is about to put the finishing touches on her great work, though, something goes wrong, and Tanyana falls, literally and figuratively. Gravely injured and disgraced, she also loses her ability to perceive and control pions, and becomes useless to the society that once feted her. The only role left for her is as a lowly collector of debris, the destructive waste by-product of pion-bound systems.

Debris is the story of Tanyana’s struggle to find her way in a class that she once barely acknowledged, but of course there’s more going on than just a simple exploration of the underclass of a magically-advanced society. Tanyana’s need to understand what has happened to her is an excellent device for exploring the possibilities of this world of pion-binding and debris-collecting. Something is interfering with the fabric of reality and she is of course connected to it more closely than she realises. Her climactic insights into the nature of her reality are satisfying, if darker than I was expecting.

Thankfully Debris avoided my early fear that this was going to be a pretty-but-dull variant on the “chosen one who will bring balance to the Force” trope. Tanyana’s special, but not in the tedious fated-by-prophecy sense. She’s feisty and self-assured, but both qualities take an understandable dent when Grandeur falls, and she gets herself into all sorts of trouble through wilful denial of some of the realities of her situation. She’s powerful, but mostly because she’s smart and determined, and even so she can’t magically overcome her social ruin.

If I have a complaint, it’s that Debris is clearly only the first part of Tanyana’s story. By its conclusion she understands more or less what has happened to her, and makes a suitably world-changing decision but she has yet to confront her sinister tormentors and their quislings. Nevertheless, Debris finishes with the work of rebuilding Tanyana’s life – and the arcs of every single supporting character – only half-completed. But now that I look at the title page, it says ‘Book One of the Veiled Worlds Trilogy’ right there. So I guess I can stop complaining. Fortunately the second volume Suited is due for imminent release to soothe my mild disappointment.

(Ooh, actually, I have another complaint of sorts, which is that the beautiful and arresting cover of Debris features the young female protagonist looking cool and powerful and not dressed in ridiculous boob-accentuating fantasy attire – hooray! The sequel, alas, apparently does not.)

June 18, 2012

Review – Mistification by Kaaron Warren

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 11:29 pm

This will be my fifth full review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, and in fact my third review of a Kaaron Warren novel. Mistification (published by Angry Robot) is her third published novel, following on from Slights and Walking the Tree, both of which I enjoyed. So with that in mind – and having subsequently met Kaaron and found her to be charming, insightful and encouraging to new writers [1] – you can reasonably assume I will be predisposed to like this one as well.

“You love your tricks, Marvo. You must be careful to let people believe they ARE tricks, at all times. Let them think there is an answer, an explanation. If they think your magic is true, they will hate you. This has happened to me more than once.”

Marvo is a true magician, raised by his grandmother within the walls and attic of an old house, where they have fled from a murderous if vague civil unrest. There he teaches himself magic tricks, learns about the world watching a mute television and begins his lifelong addiction to listening to the stories that people tell about themselves. Once he is old enough to go out into the world, he devotes himself to understanding the world almost exclusively through these stories – some heartbreaking and personal, some awful and transgressive, some resonant with myth. Denied the grounding of a typical family upbringing, he is particularly obsessed with birth stories, the stranger the better. He finds love, of a sort, and becomes a renowned stage magician. He begins to understand that the mist, his magical ability to alter how people see the world, conveys a great and ultimately terrible responsibility.

Mistification is a fascinating piece of storytelling about stories, from the small curiosities that people build up into important myths with themselves at the centre, to the huge lies that they spin around themselves to obscure truths they cannot bear. It’s a story obsessed with magical traditions, superstitions and mythology, as is Marvo himself.

The pace of the novel perhaps suffers from Marvo’s apparent aimlessness – much of the book is taken up with his meandering trade in stories with just about everyone he ever meets – but I felt his relentless inquisitiveness worked in the book’s favour. Marvo’s quest to understand the world through stories is his life’s work, and Warren’s primary concern is to show what Marvo has learned. She almost never lets us glimpse the world except from his odd and myopic perspective. The plot has to force its way in between the gaps in the mist and the impact of the ending is all the more stunning for it.

Mistification is a beautiful piece told in a fairytale lilt but not always accessibly so. Marvo is not overly concerned with being liked and is often more selfish and spiteful than he lets himself believe. Given the tightness of the viewpoint, it was sometimes hard to sympathise with him. But Marvo’s lesson, that the world is best understood by listening to stories, is a resonant one.

[1] I’m new to the community of writers, at any rate.

May 6, 2012

Review – Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti

Filed under: books read,reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 9:57 pm

Bad Power is a collection of five linked short stories by Deborah Biancotti in the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press. I read the ebook version a couple of months ago and review it now as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.

“Every kid growing to an adult wants a power. Too stupid to want otherwise.”

The stories in Bad Power are about people who possess extraordinary abilities – superpowers – and how those abilities don’t make their lives better. Nobody dresses extravagantly. The only people fighting crime are the weary, jaded cops – primarily Detective Palmer, whose ability, if she has one, is getting all the fruitcake cases.

In ‘Shades of Grey’ a monstrous millionaire tests both the limits of his ability to heal any injury and society’s capacity to tolerate him. A young man is being stalked by a psychic homeless woman in ‘Palming the Lady’ but it’s not just him that needs to worry. A further exploration of the young man and his family in ‘Web of Lies’ is about the destructiveness of family secrets (some families more so than others). The eponymous tale, set some indistinct time generations earlier, is a gruesome morality play comparing the unwitting use of power to its deliberate exercise, and how either path can lead to terrible consequences. And finally, as if to relieve some of the grim fatalism of ‘Bad Power’, the final story ‘Cross that Bridge’ is the story of a policeman with an unusual tracking ability that condemns him to ostracism but lends hope where it is least liable to be found.

The last one is my favourite – it’s almost an adventurous romp, albeit one with a core of real dread. In the others there’s little relief from the cynicism of selfishly powerful and cruelly fearful people. Biancotti’s cast are for the most part an unlikeable lot, though an exception must be made for Palmer, whose self-recrimination is unfair if understandable, and Detective Ponti, the hunter who finds lost children. He’s not as creepy as his reputation suggests.

‘Bad Power’ treads familiar ground for a long-time comic reader like me; the notion of super-powers being a horrible curse rather than an extraordinary opportunity to do good is not new. Biancotti grounds her exploration of the idea in ordinary (mostly) contemporary life, and draws very different conclusions than a typical cape book. There are no flashy battles here – no fanciful costumes or bombastic monologues or heroic triumphs. There are just people, some good but most not so much, finding themselves with powers that do not, in themselves, offer solution. Just new problems.

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