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April 4, 2012

Books of 2012 – March

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 11:33 pm

March was a series of near constant interruptions, so the only thing that surprised me about it was that I managed to keep up with my daily walking step-count (tedious monthly stats post is still to come). I didn’t read much either, which again was not surprising. Happily, those books that I did finish are all ones I would recommend without hesitation. I’ve already lauded the Tansy Rayner Roberts collection, and I will do a full review for the second of the Twelve Planets books I picked up.

Most of the books I read this month were short stories. That was deliberate. Knowing I had less time than usual, I just went with stuff I could dip into quickly. I plan to chuck a few more collections and anthologies in my Kindle’s ‘to read’ folder to make sure I have a good supply handy – this month isn’t looking any better for spare time.

With four more books read this month my total comes to 17, including 5 for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. Despite the lean count, I still look pretty good to hit my goals of reading 80 books this year and reading 6 works by Australian women (not that the latter has turned out to be difficult at all). I’m halfway through a couple of paperbacks that I should finish soon. That will punch up the April numbers, as bad sitcoms would have us believe they say in high-powered business meetings.

So here we are with the riches uncovered in March. Will we see a repeat of last month’s controversial review of something I didn’t like that much? Er, no.

Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede by Bradley Denton – Kindle copy. I believe that I picked this up on the recommendation of someone like Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing. It’s a 1992 novel that does a remarkably good job of describing itself in the title – to whit, one day every television channel in the world cuts to a picture of a mildly-confused Buddy Holly, sitting in a glass box in orbit around the Jovian moon Ganymede. Holly chats amiably to the camera, sings a few songs and asks if anyone can get in touch with one Oliver Vale of Topeka, Kansas. Most of the novel is concerned with Oliver Vale – who was conceived at the moment Holly died, decades earlier – fleeing for his life while he tries to figure out what’s going on, pursued by enraged couch potatoes, crazed evangelists, a hit man from the FCC and a cyborg doberman.

It’s part road movie, part nostalgic journey through the early decades of American rock and roll and part alien/Atlantean high weirdness. It’s funny most of the time but there are some achingly sad moments, of wasted lives and squandered love and obsession supplanting affection. To me it also commited the unsettling crime of inflicting every song Buddy Holly ever recorded as a string of consecutive earworms. Which is fine until ‘Rave On’ gets into your brain and just stays there for a week. (Oh, and you can get the book for free if you want to. Obviously I think you should. Especially Evan, who won’t read this. Also, there’s a movie in production starring the guy from Napoleon Dynamite. The trailer is pretty amusing).

Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts – short story collection, Kindle version. My review is here. I liked it a lot.

Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti – short story collection, Kindle version. Review coming as soon as I finish it. I liked it a lot as well.

Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled by Various authors (Anthology edited by David Cranmer and Scott D. Parker)  Kindle version. Beat to a Pulp is a series of anthologies of crime noir short stories. I won’t go through the full collection of thirteen stories – most of them were enjoyably gruesome and misanthropic, ranging from fair to pretty good. There were outliers in both directions, of course. I’ll only mention a few of the best ones, but in all it’s a good collection, well worth checking out if you have a taste for sex and violence, murder and revenge and bodies dumped in bayous for the ‘gators to pick over.

The first story is ‘The Tachibana Hustle’ by Garnett Elliott, which has by far the strangest premise of the lot: it’s the story of some low-rent Tokyo hoodlums trying to preserve their boss’ fading star by stealing these new-fangled Pac-man games everyone’s putting their money into. Like every other story in the anthology it’s violent, but unlike all the others it’s kind of adorable too. Viper and Jun are such hard-luck losers it’s mean not to like them a little. Most of the protagonists of the rest of the stories are vicious, uncompromising, world-weary or all three, so the laughs die off pretty quick. Still there are some gems in there – ‘Second Round Dive’ by Benoit Lelievre, about classic down-on-his-luck boxer, is grim and inevitable; ‘.38 Special’ by Amy Grech lends a kinky absurdity to Russian Roulette; and I have to give a special shout-out to the stomach-churning brutality of ‘The Death Fantastique’ by John Hornor Jacobs.

Also worth the very reasonable price of admission is a well-research opening essay on the history of hardboiled noir and its antecedents in Westerns and pre-WWI crime fiction, most of which I had no idea about.

April 3, 2012

Review – Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Filed under: reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 1:29 pm

My second full review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 will be Tansy Rayner Roberts’ short story collection Love and Romanpunk from Twelfth Planet Press. It’s part of TPP’s ‘Twelve Planet Series’ of what I presume will be a dozen collections of interlinked short stories by Australian women in the fantasy, science fiction and horror genres. (My next review will be of another collection in the same series.)

The four short stories that make up Love and Romanpunk wrap around the premise that the Rome of Augustus and his heirs was crawling with mythological beasts, in particular vampires and lamia. So far, so here-take-all-my-money please. I’m not a particularly dedicated history buff (unlike Rayner Roberts, who has a doctorate all up in that bizzo) but I am drawn to the lives gleefully depicted in I, Claudius, Rome and even goddamn Gladiator. There’s just something about the series of debauched lunatics who paraded through Octavius’ wake that captures the imagination – Nero, Tiberius, Caligula and dear old Claw-claw-Claudius. Rayner Roberts cannily folds inhuman monsters into that mix and serves up a delicious alternate history in which lamia plague humanity over the course of centuries.

First up is my personal favourite, ‘Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary’, which recounts the rise and disintegration of the Augustine Emperors, as told by Nero’s mother Julia Agrippina Minor. It begins – and wins my undying affection – with this passage:

Let us begin with the issue of most interest to future historians: I did not poison my uncle and husband, the Emperor Claudius. Instead, I drove a stake through his heart.

Colour me delighted. It goes on to detail, in alphabetical order, the specific mythological monsters that helped or beset or sometimes comprised the various branches of the Imperial family. Basilisks, centaurs, harpies – and of course the much-reviled Livia (Augustus’ wife) was a blood-drinking lamia. The story centres around the Julias, the three sisters of Caligula (Julia Agrippina, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla) who fight to preserve themselves, their brothers and their children from various brushes with mythology and from their fiendish relatives.

The choice to tell the story in an alphabetical-order series of vignettes seems a catchy gimmick at first, but the story so comes alive with Julia Agrippina’s passionate ferocity that the gimmick completely fades into the background. Looking back on it, it’s a clever artifice that gives ‘Julia Agrippina’ the feel of a real old-world bestiary as well as an epic family saga.

‘Lamia Victoriana’ is a gothic retelling of the romance between Mary Wollstonecraft and the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, which somehow despite the presence of bloodsucking monsters, gratuitous murders and a rather steamy lesbian seduction is rather less sordid than its real-history equivalent. The characters swan about The Continent being determinedly romantic and inevitably tragic, which makes it sound like a romp, albeit one where the consequences of thoughtless indulgence and frequent acts of murder are always lurking. The ending is upliftingly chilling, which is a bit of a neat trick.

‘The Patrician’, a YA romance featuring a young woman and an ancient monster hunter (set primarily in an Australian tourist attraction only a little more improbable than most of the real ones) which explores the dynamic of a Doctor/Companion relationship without once making even an oblique reference to Doctor Who. Instead, ‘The Patrician’ concerns the hunting of ancient Roman monsters and their kind, with the focus on the young protagonist’s lifetime journey to becoming an unmitigated badarse. This is the story in the collection that picked up a nomination for an Aurealis Award, for which it is more than deserving, though as I mentioned it’s not my favourite. I loved the line “She did not see him again for five years, and when she did, he was too busy stabbing harpies to stop and chat.” Sweet.

Finally there’s ‘The Last of the Romanpunks’, which is a straight-up action-adventure set on an airship crawling with monsters. It ties directly back to the previous three stories in amusing and unexpected ways, but Rayner Roberts never lets that get in the way of the hardboiled Die Hard antics. Snappy dialogue, clever and determined protagonists and – yeah, well, she had me at airships.

‘Love and Romanpunk’ is a great collection. While I picked up this one more or less on a Rome-based whim after hearing it mentioned on the Galactic Suburbia podcast (co-hosted by the author of this collection and its editor, Alisa Krasnostein), I now plan to pick up the rest of the Twelve Planets Series as soon as they become available on the Kindle. Highly recommended.

March 7, 2012

Books of 2012 – February

February was a bit of a lean month for reading, particularly by comprison to the rich bounties of January, but I did manage to get a few titles under my belt. I haven’t had any time to sit down to write proper reviews of any of them yet, but I will give a few thoughts and recommendations here. Somewhere down the track I intend to do more fleshed-out reviews of at least a couple of them.

Quick observations: everything I finished this month was an ebook, consumed through the gaping word-maw of the ever-hungry Kindle. I have been reading a paperback as well, but very patchily – I don’t know if I will perservere with it or abandon it and come back to it later. (Yes I do – I almost never abandon books, and this one shows great promise, so I will keep going. But dammit, there are about five things in my reading pile that I know I’m going to enjoy more than this one. I suck.) This month I also read two short story collections, which is something that I am finding the Kindle lends itself to nicely. I have a couple more anthologies lined up in my Amazon wish list. I reckon I’ll be picking those up before too long. It’s good to rediscover a taste for short stories after a long time away from the form.

Also (shameless tease alert!) I read one book this month that I kind of hated. Love controversy? Read on!

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January 31, 2012

Books of 2012 – January

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 11:43 pm

Since taking on the 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge means keeping a tally of books I’ve read by Australian women, I figured I would expand the scope of my bibliographic accountancy and count up everything else as well. The results from January are below. I am counting completed books (physical and electronic), fiction and non-fiction. I am not counting graphic novels – partly because I forgot to and partly because somewhere in the deep recesses I place comics in a separate (not lesser) category to books. I’ll get to them in some later post.

One thing I expect this tally to show is that my reading of Australian women will continue to be a disproportionately small fraction of my overall fiction consumption. I am working my way up from a low – well, pretty much nonexistent – base. If nothing else I do expect this experiment to sharpen my awareness of the options. Before a couple of months ago I had barely heard of Kaaron Warren, for example. Since then I’ve read two of her novels and today I found out that she is closely related to someone I work with. (Small town).

Another reason to track what I’m reading is to see what patterns emerge from using the kindle to consume fiction in particular. Already it is becoming obvious that it has affected the volume of consumption. The convenience of only having to carry one physical object – which is considerably less bulky than many of the books I typically read – goes without saying. Instead of my usual habit of having three or four books on the go at once – which I must then either carry with me or deploy to scatttered reading locations like the bedside table or the bathroom – I can compress at least some of them into a single location. (I have noticed that I tend to only read one title at a time on the kindle as well, but having multiple books in simultaneous progress is an option).

The other curious effect is that I am reading a fair amount of material outside my usual genres of science fiction and fantasy. Crime and horror in particular have re-entered my reading lists. I’m pretty happy about that. I think (without having this sort of detailed accounting to back up my notoriously faulty memory) that up until the middle of last year or so my reading habits had become somewhat moribund. I was reading less and less and what little I read was pretty strictly within those walls. Having easy access through Amazon to a ridiculously broad range of authors, genres and styles can only do me good, I think. I would bet that over the year my tastes will continue to broaden. I predict too that there will be more short fiction in my future. That’s good too. It’s an area with which I would very much like to reacquaint myself.

So here is how January shaped up, with some quick increasingly elaborate comments on each:

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino (own copy, paperback). I read this years ago on the recommendation of Dr Clam. It’s pretty unlikely that I appreciated it then as I do now. I haven’t read Calvino deeply (Invisible Cities might be the only other one of his, actually) but on the evidence of If~ he was a mad genius. This is basically a love letter to the act of reading and something of a satire of the adjacent disciplines of writing and publishing. A looping, recursive lunatic narrative in the second person interspersed with a series of intriguing and frustratingly unrelated first chapters of different novels, If  rewards rereading as much as it defies comprehension. I don’t hesitate to declare it a timeless classic, even though it’s nuts.

Slights by Kaaron Warren (library copy, paperback, an Australian Women Writers challenge contender). Mildly supernatural (or supernatural-seeming) psychological thriller told in first person from the perspective of a serial killing psychopath. Stevie starts pretty much bonkers (whether or not she’s really seeing the afterlife as she thinks she is) but Slights does a very effective job of showing the development of her derangement over several decades. I reviewed it on Amazon. Long story short – it’s a slow, creepy, often sad, occasionally hilarious and usually uncomfortably close examination of the unravelling of a deeply damaged person.

Cazsandra by Andrea K. Host (own copy, Kindle ebook, technically qualified for the Australian Women Writers challenge but removed from consideration because I was going to read it anyway). The final volume of Andrea’s excellent Touchstone trilogy, the diarised account of a young Australian woman swept away by wormhole to…look, the cosmology of this series is so outside my usual frame of reference that I am not sure I understand it fully. That doesn’t matter because it also has a small army of psychic teenage space ninjas (I pictured them as G-Force with superpowers), a ghost cat and kaiju-scale interdimensional monsters. There’s romance, weird mental powers and dodgy television reenactments of our hero’s adventures. In amidst that mayhem, there’s a brief but serious exploration of the alienation and helplessness of the refugee caught up by instituionalised bureaucracy, but then there are also snowball fights, so it balances out. Sooner or later I will get to a proper review of the series but the tl;dr is that while I don’t think it is *quite* as polished or moving as Andrea’s Medair duology, this is an excellent conclusion to a deeply satisfying series.

Dead Money by Ray Banks (own copy, Kindle ebook). I can’t remember where the recommendation for this one came from. Probably someone or several someones that I follow on Twitter, I’d guess. Dead Money is stark and somewhat miserable, portraying the descent of a sharp, self-controlled Mancunian double glazing salesman who is brought to mayhem, violence and ruin by his best mate, who combines a gambling addiction with a short fuse and a vast overestimation of his intellectual powers. I enjoyed reading it, but the grinding sense of inevitability is wearing. Not, I conject, a story paid for with Manchester Tourist Board money.

Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow (free ebook version). Doctorow has released several of his early novels for free download. I read this one on the strength of his excellent Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Tribe is good fun, but it’s possible there’s a limit to the real narrative juice you can squeeze out of an intellectual property heist story. It’s witty and full of ideas, but I never completely engaged with the narrator’s problems. He was a bit of a smug git at times. EST is worth reading, but I would recommend Down and Out first.

Yellow Medicine by Anthony Neil Smith (own copy, Kindle ebook). Small-town crime drama that make an unexpected detour into airport thriller territory. The corrupt cop narrator Billy Lafitte is a selfish bastard with a gift for sweeping away any sympathy that builds up around him, only to unexpectedly claw it back once in a while. It starts slowly but accelerates towards violent series of climaxes. I can forgive its ending with a mildly underwhelming whimper because it sets up a sequel. I have the sequel Hotdoggin’ downloaded and I’m looking forward to seeing where Billy ends up.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (paperback courtesy of the inestimable Dr Clam). An absurd Irish comedy which was written in 1940 and shelved unpublished until after the author’s death nearly three decades later. Like probably 90% of its audience post-2005, I first heard of it through Lost. I will happily assert that the two works have few points in common, the most striking being a mysterious underground base which may or may not provide insights of great metaphysical signficance. That said, it’s a madly entertaining read. The narrator, a one-legged devotee of a misanthropic and probably inept natural philosopher, is convinced to commit murder to fund the publication of his definitive treatise on his hero. He encounters ghosts, a one-legged assassin, bicycle-obsessed policemen, a bizarre interpretation of atomic theory and his own soul (a sarcastic internal voice he calls Joe). Note that this synopsis leaves out many of the more surreal elements of the story. Need I add that this kind of methodically deranged weirdness ticks many of my boxes? And it has a great couple of opening lines: “Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded.” Makes me giddy ‘n gleeful.

Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren (library copy, paperback, an Australian Women Writers challenge contender). Even with a month that included Policeman and Winter’s Night, the award for the downright strangest thing I read all month goes hand-down to Walking the Tree. On an island which seems to constitute their entire world, the young women of small coastal communities lead groups of children on a years-long educational circumnavigation of the vast Tree at its centre. As they visit one community after another, the children learn about the various cultures of the island, Botanica, and the women seek a place to settle down. This is some exemplary worldbuilding – each new village has its own distinct culture: crafts, sciences, cooking, superstitions, sexual traditions, beliefs about how to treat the Tree, behaviour towards outsiders etc. It’s a thoughtful – though never preachy or obvious – examination of gender politics, cultural tolerance and the role of tradition and superstition in shaping communities. It’s also a tense, suspenseful drama – the longer that protagonist Lillah keeps her deadly secret, the fewer allies she can depend on for protection. I think that it might do this beautiful, melancholy journey an unfortunate disservice to classify it as an epic anthropological mystery, but I think that’s as close as I can get.

Conclusions: January was easily the busiest reading month I’ve had in the last couple of years. At least some of those finished this month were started last year, so it will be interesting to see whether I come even close to that level of voracity over the rest of the year. 4 ebooks, 2 library paperbacks, 2 owned paperbacks. Three works by Australian women writers, two by the same author. A bit of crime, a bit of sf, a bit of fantasy and a rare example of literary fiction (two example if you count Policeman, which I do, while conceding that my definition may stray from some accepted norm).

I don’t know if I can pick a favourite for the month, but it would be between Winter’s Night, Policeman and Walking the Tree. I’m not inclined to reread books often but I would happily reread any of those.  Cazsandra had the best cover, which may be a superficial observation, but it really is a solid design over a gorgeous piece of artwork. Taken as a whole I think the Touchstone trilogy would have been among my favourites, but I read the previous two volumes last year.

On to February, and hopefully less indulgently long blog entries.

January 4, 2012

Review – Slights by Kaaron Warren

Filed under: reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 11:26 pm

This is my first entry in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. I might have finished it a bit on the early side (Boxing Day 2011), so the legitimacy of its inclusion in an exercise to read a specific category of works within a specific timeframe could, I suppose, be held up on a technicality. I prefer to run with the spirit of the affair and will throw myself upon the mercy of the court and the judgment of my peers with nought but the claim “I got a bit carried away” as my sole defense.

The novel is Slights: a dark-as-the-pits-of-Stalin’s-soul psychological/supernatural horror memoir from Australian (and sometime Canberra local) author Kaaron Warren. I picked it up from the library, where there was a display of several of her titles. I am nothing if not impulsive, so I put down whichever fat Stephen King tome I had intended to catch up on (might have been Bag of Bones or Under the Dome, the latter of which I’m going to have trouble taking seriously after The Simpsons Movie) and grabbed this one and Walking the Tree by the same author.

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December 20, 2011

Reading women writers

Filed under: reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 4:00 pm

Apropos of that discussion we were having a couple of weeks ago about the writers that have influenced us, in which it was quite rightly observed that very few of my big influences were women (Dame Agatha aside), the Australian Women Writers blog has come along with a very timely challenge: read and review more books written by Australian women. More, in this case, would really mean ‘any’. With the exception of a personal friend (Andrea K Host) and a close relative (my mum), I don’t recall the last time I read anything by a female Australian author.

As far as I can tell, this has not been by deliberate act of exclusion, mind. I just…haven’t. Clearly there’s some kind of blind-spot bias going on there that warrants examination. So to that end I am accepting the challenge above. In 2012 I will read and – to some lesser extent to be determined at the time – review a number of books by Australian women numbering not less than six. This lofty goal corresponds with the “Miles” Challenge Level (read six, review at least three). To place a further constraint on myself, I won’t count anything by either Mum or Andrea in my count. I would have read whatever they put out anyway, so it seems like a cheat to bolster my figures thus. I’m also reserving the right to not review anything that doesn’t really appeal to me. I don’t have the energy to write recommendations for things I think are mediocre. If I love, like or really hate a book, I’ll review it, but if you don’t hear details on a particular title then it’s safe to assume that I didn’t especially care about it.

So, to get things started, Australian writer (and woman) Tansy Rayner Roberts has helpfully posted a list of recent award-winning works  in the SF&F genres that meet the basic criteria herein. (Note that Tansy Rayner Robert’s ‘Power and Majesty’ beat out  Andrea’s ‘The Silence of Medair’ for Best Fantasy Novel at the 2010 Aurealis Awards, so I’m thinking I will include it on my list for purposes of comparison. It will have to have been bloody good to be better than TSoM, in my opinion). There’s clearly plenty of action in this part of the publishing industry, and that’s before we even widen the net to include non-speculative fiction genres.

Who would like to recommend something – what is it, who’s it by and why do you think I might be interested? (Outside the speculative genre is fine – I like crime and mysteries too, and am very partial to good comedic fiction, but I will consider all recommendations).

(Thanks to Patrick O’Duffy for tweet-alerting me to the AWW 2012 challenge).

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