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

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!

 

June 18, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – River of Bones by Jodi Cleghorn

This is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. It’s my sixth for the year, which means that I am probably on the verge of hitting my goal of 10 books read and six reviewed. But I’m going to keep reviewing anyway.

I understand Jodi Cleghorn’s River of Bones was originally written as a novella named Elyora. I like the evocative sound of Elyora, the name of the haunted country town in which the story is set, better than the generic spooky title the story has ended up with, but that’s my last major complaint. And anyway it’s not as if River of Bones is misleading in any way.

River of Bones is the story of a band falling apart on the verge of breaking in. At least, that’s what’s happening when their tour van breaks down in a sleepy Australian country town that appears to be literally stuck in the past. As they become acquainted with a handful of locals, some of them friendlier than others, they begin to realise that Elyora is a very nasty place to get lost in.

The setup to this novel is indistinguishable from any number of gore-filled slasher flicks, in which pretty young people encounter outback/backwoods/hillbilly chainsaw/cultist/cannibal crazies and are grotesquely murdered. Cleghorn does something more interesting with the trope, though, overlaying her bloodbath with gothic imagery, restless ghosts, secret government experiments, Australian xenophobia and a passionate if disturbing romance. With so many ingredients, River could have been a cluttered mess, but Cleghorn pulls it off (although I admit I needed a second readthrough to figure out how the government experiment part fitted in).

Cleghorn has a great eye for the small details that bring her 1970’s-era Elyora to life. River is as gloomy and atmospheric as you’d hope in a gothic novel, the character dialogue is sharp and the horror scenes are memorably gruesome. There were plenty of effective horror moments, though as a parent I think the worst was one character’s alarming indifference to child safety. Overall River of Bones is what I look for in horror – inventive, emotional and gruesome.

June 14, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – Fire & Ice by Patty Jansen

Filed under: books of 2013,books read,women writers challenge 2013 — Tags: , , — lexifab @ 6:43 pm

This is not so much a review as a response to Patty Jansen‘s Fire & Ice: Icefire Trilogy #1 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. This is my fifth review for 2013. At the time of writing, this novel is available as a free ebook from SmashwordsAmazon  and Kobo. (Edit: Oops, correction, not free at Kobo). As the name implies, it’s the first volume in a trilogy.

The first part of what promises to be an exciting epic fantasy, most of the elements of Fire & Ice work very well – fascinating magic with some truly weird qualities, an arctic (or at least very cold) setting, political intrigue, fantastic beasts (mainly giant riding eagles, bears under harness and sea lions) and protagonists with a variety of relatable agendas.

Mostly Fire & Ice worked for me, but I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I might for a couple of reasons. While most of the women in the story – in particular the long-suffering midwife and the adolescent queen – were intriguing and appealing, the men were almost all either terrible, stupid or desperately broken. I’ll deal with my problems with the guys below the cut, as there are some spoilers involved. (Also: trigger warning for discussion of rape).

Aside from the elements that put me off, this is a good story – a political potboiler in the process of colliding headlong with a magical apocalypse, told through the eyes of a (somewhat ill-prepared) revolutionary, a captive queen and a couple of naive young Knights with dark secrets. The pieces crash together in exciting ways, and the situation escalates nicely toward an explosive climax. That said, nothing is resolved by the end – it’s undoubtedly the first part of a series, though in itself that’s by no means a complaint.

But I had a few problems with Fire & Ice that dragged it down for me. I enjoyed the prose and characterisation, so I’ll definitely be looking out for more of Jansen’s work, but I’m not sure I’ll necessarily go back to this particular series.

(Some character spoilers below. Also: major trigger warning)

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June 10, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – Asymmetry by Thoraiya Dyer

This is a review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. It’s apparently only my fourth review, which is a bit slack, since I know I’ve read more than four books that meet the criteria. But nearly all of my writing time lately has gone into novel writing, so I’ve allowed a bit of a backlog to emerge. I’m going to try to deal with that by writing a few – gasp – shorter reviews. That’s the plan, anyway.

By now it should be obvious to anyone who reads my reviews that I have complete faith in the Twelve Planets Series from Twelfth Planet Press. This volume – Asymmetry – presents four new stories from Thoraiya Dyer, whose short story ‘The Wisdom of Ants’ (first published by Clarkesworld Magazine) was the winner for Best Short Story at the 2013 Ditmar Awards for Australian science fiction and fantasy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the stories in this collection in the running next year.

Asymmetry is excellent. If there’s a unifying theme, I’m not up to the job of identifying it, though Nancy Kress takes a good stab at it in her introduction. Then again, I’m quite content with no theme at all, if the stories are this good. I’m going to do my best not to spoil any of them.

‘After Hours’ is the story of a veterinarian assigned to treat security dogs on a military airbase. She struggles to cope with the military mindset of her patients’ handlers, only to discover that their belligerent, obstructive attitudes have an uncanny explanation. ‘Zadie, Scythe of the West’ is a military fantasy about a character trying to escape the rigid expectations of her family, society and religion – and the costs of taking shortcuts. In ‘Wish Me Luck’, a man begs and borrows luck from sympathetic passers-by so that he can be reunited with his lost love. (It may not sound like hard science fiction, but it is). Finally, in ‘Seven Days in Paris’ a woman is subjected to what seems like a pointless and grotesque social experiment, but her impatient handlers have a desperate purpose.

‘After Hours’ is probably my favourite story ever of its kind, though I won’t say what kind that is (even if the back cover blurb does kind of give it away). However all four stories are excellent (and the sample chapters from Dyer’s novella ‘The Company Articles of Edward Teach’ are an intriguing bonus).

Like the rest of the Twelve Planets books, Asymmetry does a fantastic job of showcasing the talents of a remarkable Australian speculative fiction writer. I am comfortable adding Thoraiya Dyer’s name to my list of must-read authors on the basis of this collection.

May 21, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – Hunting by Andrea K. Höst

This is my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. I thought I was doing a little better than that, but then I remembered that I’ve been reading short stories almost exclusively for the last couple of months. So I’ve got a little bit of catching up to do.

Hunting is a standalone young adult fantasy novel by Andrea K. Höst [1]. Ash Lenthard is the street-smart young heroine  who has disguised herself as a (slightly younger) boy and apprenticed herself to a herbalist in order to escape from an unfortunate previous life. When her guardian is murdered, she finds her desire to return to life on the streets thwarted when she is warded to the Investigator appointed by the king to look into the serial killing of herbalists. With no choice but to maintain her identity as a young boy, Ash finds herself cornered into becoming a seruilis (squire) to the foreign noble and a key part of his murder investigation.

A summary of the first couple of chapters makes Hunting sound like a bit of a fantasy version of a grim investigative procedural, and to an extent it is. The more that Ash and the nobleman, Thornaster, poke around, the more vicious and bleak the conspiracy they uncover becomes. Beneath the witty banter, romantic interplay and the flirtation with cross-dressing farce, the world of Hunting has a more nihilistic streak than most of Host’s work. But she does an excellent job of keeping the action moving so that the story never threatens to wallow in its own darkness.

The author has mentioned that Hunting was written at least partly in response to her frustration with the heroines of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels, who despite their deep reserves of pluck and spirit often fall just short of being proactive. Some guy always comes along to make all their decisions for them.  Ash is every bit as strong-willed as any Heyer heroine, but she’s only likely to go along with a would-be white knight if it happens to suit her purposes. She’s a fun character, even if she herself is not often having much fun.

I have to confess that I didn’t fully understand the magical elements of the story, which are integral to the plot’s resolution, but it certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying them. Apart from that, it’s an adventurous romp with plenty of derring-do, peril and romance, flavoured with the odd splashes of darkness to settle the froth.

 

[1] I have previously reviewed her novels And All the Stars,  Stained Glass Monsters and The Silence of Medair.

February 16, 2013

Review – Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan

As with everything else, I’m already behind on the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Stupid self-imposed deadlines, why must you constantly mock me? Anyway, I’ve managed to do a bit of reading lately, so let’s get straight into it. This is the second book I’ve read for the AWWC13 and is my second review.

Cracklescape is award-winning fantasist Margo Lanagan‘s contribution to the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press. It’s a collection of four short stories. The stories are unconnected, though the introduction rightly points out that they are all essentially ghost stories, albeit unusual and diverse examples of them.

‘The Duchess Dresser’ is a strange tale that seems to be more of a reflection on lifestyle and relationships in inner city apartment dwelling than it is about a piece of haunted antique furniture. The supernatural presence is a puzzle more than a threat, and most of the characters treat it as a mild curiosity when they think of it at all. I found the situation in the story a perfect expression of the routine accommodations that have to be made in living in close proximity with others that – when viewed from the outside – looks inconvenient at best and crazy at worst.

‘The Isles of the Sun’ is wonderful, a dreamy exaltation of  the power of children’s imagination on the one hand and a chilling plumb of the depths of parental fear on the other. Alternating perspectives between Elric, a young boy, and then his mother Jenny, Isles has a sense of dreadful inevitability that never quite lets the reader go, even after the point where it seems like it should.

‘Bajazzle’ is probably my least favourite of the four stories in Cracklescape (‘Isles’ is my favourite, or maybe ‘Significant Dust’). It’s a solidly told tale, but there’s something lurking behind the narrative that I don’t quite grasp. In the first half, a boorish middle-aged train commuter’s encounter with a group of young women staging an odd protest prompts him to reflect – not to his credit – on his marriage and unsatisfying sex life. In the second half he is served a supernatural comeuppance of a sort. It’s an engaging story, but I didn’t grok how the two halves fitted together or why the ending happens. The unpleasant sexist pig of a narrator probably didn’t help.

Finally, ‘Significant Dust’ rounds out the collection with, if not a bang, then a remarkably accomplished piece. It’s the story of a young woman who has fled her terrible reputation in her home town. She finds anonymous refuge among the human flotsam who have accumulated at a highway truck stop. There are ghosts and UFOs in the story – well, there might be – but the centrepiece is the slow, merciless revelation of what Vanessa did, its consequences and what she and others sacrificed in order for her to leave. There’s a cold horror to the way that the story refuses to end with the tragedy but carries the reader through the aftermath as well. ‘Significant Dust’ is powerful and accomplished.

I had been getting used to the Twelve Planets series having a strong sense of interconnectedness between the stories, but Cracklescape‘s stories (like the Kaaron Warren collection) are linked by themes rather than plots. Cracklescape continues the series’ impressive run of showcasing the talents of remarkable writers at the height of their powers. I didn’t care for a couple of the stories, but there was never a moment reading them that I was not certain that Lanagan knew exactly what she was doing and what she wanted to accomplished. Cracklescape is confident storytelling.

 

January 27, 2013

AWWC 2013 Review – Rayessa and the Space Pirates by Donna Maree Hanson

I had a good time last year with the Australian Women Writers Challenge. More to the point, I discovered several writers whose work – especially their long-form work – I might never otherwise have come across. I see no good reason to abandon the effort to enure that I include in my reading diet a healthy dose of local content authored by women. In fact I’m going to steal an idea I read somewhere (it might have been Sean Wright’s Adventures of a Blogonaut) and attempt to read, every month, at least one novel written by a woman, one by a man, one short story collection or anthology, and one non-fiction work. Variety is important. Anyway, this is my first review for the AWWC for 2013.

Rayessa and the Space Pirates is the debut novel from Canberra author Donna Maree Hanson. I’ll state right off the bat that I’m not at all the target audience for this piece – I don’t read a lot of Young Adult-oriented science fiction, and I’m even less well-versed in the romance field. So take my comments with whatever salt dosage you think appropriate.

RatSP is a fun romantic space adventure aimed (I presume) at young adult readers. Rae Stroder is a cheerful but somewhat hapless young teenager who has been abandoned by her father to manage an asteroid-based refuelling outpost which is in rapid decline as a result of her earnest yet untrained maintenance. Her only companion is a brain-damaged engineer named Gris, who can keep the lights on and the oxygen flowing, more or less, but can’t carry his end of a conversation. Charged with holding the fort until her Dad returns, Rae is barely hanging in there. Her clothes are improvised tatters, her diet is unhealthily bland and her engagement with the wider universe appears to be disturbingly constrained to the consumption of trashy romance videos. Her fringe-dwelling existence is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a humourless auditor with a number of sternly worded enquiries about the management of the station.

Rae is a risky lead character – while she’s tenacious and loyal to her absent parent, she is also naive, gullible, cheerful to the point of Pollyannaishness, not as resourceful as she needs to be and maddeningly uninquisitive about her straitened circumstances. And yet the opening chapters of this novellette work wonderfully well as screwball farce. Rae’s improvisations, as things begin to go wrong and her routine is forever dashed, are very funny (even if the implications of living aboard a decrepit space station at the edge of collapse are unsettling and somewhat glossed over). The dialogue is witty and fun, the situation is given just enough weight to make it plausible, and once it begins the action can fairly be described as rollicking.

Without giving anything away, the ending didn’t work as well for me as the beginning. The third act wraps up some plot threads more hastily than I would have liked, and brings in several new characters with challenging relationships to Rae whose plots are then resolved almost as soon as they are introduced. And some of the interesting characters from the second act never reappear at all. I think the story could have comfortably accommodated another chapter or two of plot developments in between Rae’s encounter with the titular baddies and the dramatic climax.

Then again, there is something to be said for a story that gets in, delivers its action and gets out again fast. RatSP is on the short side at some 30K-ish words, and with filthy slavers, illegal clones, embezzlement, space battles and an awkward romance jammed into it, there’s plenty of story to be had. It wasn’t really my thing, but it was quick and quirky fun.

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