AWW16: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan

cracklescape

A presence haunts an old dresser in an inner-city share house. Shining sun-people lure children from their carefree beachside lives. Sheela-na-gigs colonise a middle-aged man’s outer and inner worlds. And a girl with a heavy conscience seeks relief in exile on the Treeless Plain.

These stories from four-time World Fantasy Award winner Margo Lanagan are all set in Australia, a myth-soaked landscape both stubbornly inscrutable and crisscrossed by interlopers’ dreamings. Explore four littoral and liminal worlds, a-crackle with fears and possibilities.

Published by Twelfth Planet Press.


This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 and to my commitment to A Journey Through the Twelve Planets.

I purchased this book.


 

Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan is the seventh book in the Twelve Planets series of collections published by Twelfth Planet Press.

Knowing that a Margo Lanagan collection was going to be part of the Twelve Planets was, I have to admit, one of the reasons I was initially interested in the series. Lanagan is one of Australia’s best writers of short fiction (as her stack of very well-deserved awards testifies), and I knew that she and Twelfth Planet Press were going to create a collection that was something amazing (and I hasten to add that all of the authors involved in the Twelve Planets have also done the same).

For me, Lanagan’s short fiction frequently reads something like a fever dream. The conventions of what is “supposed” to make a short story work aren’t always there – there aren’t always explanations for the strange things happening, and sometimes there are no real conclusions, but Lanagan is so skilled with language and imagery that none of this matters in the least. The stories in Cracklescape fit very much in the fever dream model (albeit fever dreams which may continue to haunt your waking hours).

The collection opens with The Duchess Dresser, in which a a man picks up the titular dresser from the side of the road and brings it into his room in the flat he shares. The dresser has a mysterious stuck drawer – a drawer which begins to rattle as odd things begin to happen, all centred around the dresser. There is something both unsettling and poignant about this story. It will make the reader think about the impressions we leave on the world, and what may be seen beneath the surface of things, should you only know how to look.

Isles of the Sun is an extraordinary story (which I wonder-and I’m not sure if I’ve seen Lanagan talk in an interview about this or not-was inspired by the clip for Sigur Rós’s Glósóli)  which walks the border between this world and another, dreamlike place. Part of Lanagan’s skill with writing speculative fiction is the grounding of the fantastic in the real, and this story is an excellent example of this.

Bajazzle is one of my favourites from this collection, giving the reader a glimpse into a strange group of women (they may be a cult of some kind, but it their presence is shown with essentially no explanation), the Sheelas, inspired by the the sheela-na-gig, a carved female figure seen in churches in Britain and Ireland. The use of the viewpoint character Don, a misogynist who has little respect for his wife, in a story about women reclaiming their feminine power in such a startling fashion, is a brilliant stroke.

The last story in the collection is Significant Dust, which is the most emotionally wrenching of the stories. On the surface, its the story of Vanessa, a girl who’s run away from a tragedy, but her story is interwoven with a real supposed UFO encounter. All of the stories in the collection are good, but Significant Dust is extraordinary, and amongst Lanagan’s best.

Cracklescape is a brilliant collection by Margo Lanagan, and continues the extremely high quality of the Twelve Planets collections. If you’ve never read any Margo Lanagan, this is a fine place to start – just be warned that you’ll need tissues when reading a good portion of her work, and you’ll likely find yourself wanting to devour everything she’s written.

 

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Review: Bound by Alan Baxter

 

Caine-Bound-full-web

Alex Caine is a martial artist fighting in illegal cage matches. His powerful secret weapon is an unnatural vision that allows him to see his opponents’ moves before they know their intentions themselves.
An enigmatic Englishman, Patrick Welby, approaches Alex after a fight and reveals, ‘I know your secret.’ Welby shows Alex how to unleash a breathtaking realm of magic and power, drawing him into a mind-bending adventure beyond his control. And control is something Alex values above all else…
A cursed grimoire binds Alex to Uthentia, a chaotic Fey godling, who leads him towards chaos and murder, an urge Alex finds harder and harder to resist. Befriended by Silhouette, a monstrous Kin beauty, Alex sets out to recover the only things that will free him – the shards of the Darak. But that powerful stone also has the potential to unleash a catastrophe which could mean the end of the world as we know it.

Published by Harper Collins.


An eARC was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


Alan Baxter begins a new urban fantasy series with Bound, the first of the Alex Caine books.

Alex Caine is a professional fighter who has some odd talents – a kind of magical intuition is one of them, which he uses at the opening of this book to win a fight. This win, and the use of his talents, bring him to the attention of Webley, and Englishman who shows Alex that his talents are part of a bigger magical world.

Cue a fast-paced trip around the world, with Alex discovering more and more about the world that is hidden beneath the mundane world. This is no pleasure cruise for Alex – tough as he is, even he finds it difficult to deal with some of the darkness that he finds.

It’s really quite refreshing to see urban fantasy/dark horror written very much in the style of a thriller – this works especially well with Baxter’s writing, which often evokes a very cinematic feel (and I am so with reviewer Sean the Bookonaut in that I could so see Jason Statham playing Alex). It’s also very clear that Baxter has spent a lot of time building up this world – of which we only skim the surface (and of which I hope we delve deeper in the two subsequent books in the trilogy).

Some readers should be warned that there is a decent amount of sex (consensual) in this book, as well as lashings of violence. Especial note needs to be made of how damn good Baxter’s fight scenes are – quite frequently fight scenes are something that I’ll skip over as a reader, but I found myself sunk into each one in Bound (see the cinematic comment above).

Alex is always a very human character – he really struggles with the powers that he acquires, even as he takes a fighter’s joy in them (which is a really refreshing change to a lot of urban fantasy). Even the minor characters live and breathe on the page, and always seem to act in a fashion that makes sense (even if it is sometimes a warped kind of sense!).

Hat tip to the naming of the characters Hood and Sparks (references to friends of the author and prominent people in the Aussie SF field), which I think just reflects the absolute joy that Baxter takes in his writing and his community.

An extremely promising start to a new urban fantasy series, which is highly recommended. I’m looking forward to the next two books. And dammit, someone make a movie out of this, please, because it is begging for it.

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AWW16: Survivor by Amanda Pillar

survivor

Billie Young is a city guard from Pinton with a troubled past – she was kidnapped, tortured and almost murdered by vampires. Though she managed to survive her attack, it’s left her scarred and damaged. Now, she wants revenge.

Vere Radcliffe is a vampire spy who answers directly to the king. Recently returned to the city, he’s stuck living with his family – a fate almost worse than death. But trouble is brewing in the streets of Pinton, and Vere is asked to investigate the abduction of a city guard and the murder of several other humans.

Can Vere and Billie work together to find the killers, before it’s too late?


A copy of this novella was received from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Disclaimer: I consider Amanda Pillar a friend and colleague (and have been published in anthologies edited by her), and I will do my best to provide and unbiased review.

This review may contain spoilers for the previous instalments in this series.


 

Survivor is the second novella released in Amanda Pillar’s Graced universe (following on from the original novel, Graced, which I reviewed here, and a previous novella, Captive, which I reviewed here). The world of the Graced books is dark fantasy/urban fantasy/paranormal romance; it is populated by humans, Graced (humans with psychic abilities), vampires and weres, all living in a complex society.

Survivor takes the focus away from the Graced, and is centred instead upon the City Guard of Pinton (who are mostly human) and their interactions with vampires. Specifically, we follow Billie Young, a Guard who was captured, tortured and left for dead by unknown vampires. By chance, she survived, albeit scarred and with injuries which have left her physically disabled and in chronic pain. As she discovers that her abduction was only one of a series of such incidents in Pinton, her path crosses with that of Vere Radcliffe, vampire and King’s spy. As they both investigate the crimes, their paths are drawn together in more ways than one.

I absolutely adore the Graced universe, and I believe that the world Pillar has created is one that is unique and fascinating, even when it draws on well-worn tropes. This novella doesn’t expand overmuch on the universe as established throughout the previous instalments, but for those who have read the previous novel and novella, you will find as much to enjoy here as you did in both of them. I was particularly pleased by the appearance of several characters from the previous works, most particularly by Alice the human coroner, who remains one of my favourite characters.

Billie, to me, was the most interesting viewpoint character. She deals with physical limitations and chronic pain due to the injuries she sustained during her abduction, and yet she still continues to try to do her job as a Guard. Of particular note to me as a reader and person who deals with a chronic pain condition, Pillar never presented Billie as any kind of “inspiration porn” or someone to be pitied, but simply as someone who was trying to live her life as she wanted.

Vere is the other viewpoint character, and for me, he didn’t come across quite as strongly as Billie (which may, of course, have a lot to do with my own personal empathy and resonance with Billie). I was interested in learning more about his story, especially his work as a spy, and found that this novella didn’t delve as deeply as I would have liked into this. This, of course, is likely due simply to the length constraints of working in the novella form, and I hope that we’ll get to see more of Vere and his story in future instalments. I especially liked the fact that Vere in particular, never pitied Billie for her injury or pain, but always let her take the path (literally and figuratively) that she wanted to – I wish there were more relationships in fiction like this that dealt with disabilities and chronic illnesses.

There were two main aspects to this novel: the mystery of who abducted Billie, and the romance between Billie and Vere. As with Vere’s story, I found myself wanting more of both of these story threads. The romance moved just that little bit faster that I would have liked as a reader, and the mystery felt as though it was solved just that little bit too easily. Again, this is likely just a result of the format, and not any real criticism of the work. Both storylines are resolved in a satisfying manner, despite the rushed nature of it.

There is one aspect to the storyline late in the novella which some readers may find problematic (I don’t want to go into specifics, but I does relate to the trope of magical cures). For me, it wasn’t a problem, specifically because of the general attitudes that Pillar has written in her characters in relation to how they deal with disability and chronic illness (and it’s also made clear that the cure wasn’t necessarily the intended effect). It’s worth noting, however, since some readers may want to steer clear because of specific issues with reading that kind of storyline, no matter how well written).

Overall, my main complaint with Survivor is the same as what I had for Captive, in that I wish that it had been expanded into a full novel, simply because I would have liked more time in this world, and specifically with Billie and Vere. If you haven’t read Graced and Captive, I believe that you could easily read Survivor on its own, since it deals with vampire tropes that many readers of speculative fiction won’t have any issue with, but I believe that in order to get more enjoyment out of it, you would do well to read the previous two instalments first. Pillar, an award-winning editor, has created a fascinating urban fantasy world in the Graced universe, and I hope that her fiction starts to get the attention that it richly deserves.

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Review: The Never-Never Land, edited by Mitchell Ackhurst, Phillip Berrie and Ian McHugh

neverneverland

Australia has it own mythologies. Some of them were here long before Europeans arrived; some of them are yet to come. Steam-powered bushrangers. Restless penal colonies. Robotic mining operations. Fairy colonies in the gum trees and old ghosts in the laneways. Drought and fire and flood and new life struggling to emerge from the dust. These are the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we want to hide from.

Thirty new stories from some of Australia’s best-known speculative fiction writers and some of its newest.

Published by CSFG Publishing.


A copy of this anthology was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


The Never-Never Land is a new anthology published by CFSG (The Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild) Publishing, and it is edited by Mitchell Akhurst, Phillip Berrie and Ian McHugh.

The aims of the anthology are to present “stories with Australian settings or characters or themes or flavours, or that draw on Australian histories, experiences and traditions, immigrant or Indigenous” (quote taken from the introduction by the editors).

The anthology includes thirty stories, which include a wide variety of genres and subjects, and which range from being set in colonial Australia to potential future Australias. As a result of this wide variety, readers will no doubt find that some stories speak more to them more than others. All of them, however, succeed in the editors’ aims of being “Australian” stories, and all are well-written and engaging in their own right.

Several stories stood out for me in particular:

Kimberley Gaal’s The Nexus Tree is probably my favourite story in the anthology. Plot-wise, it’s a deceptively simply story of a man, wanting to protect his new trailer from leaves falling from a tree, who seeks to kill and remove the tree, and finds that the tree was more than he thought. The Australian voice is this is superb, and Gaal in particular nails a very larrikin-Aussie voice for Bert, while also writing a fascinating piece of imagined folklore. This is the first story I’ve read of Gaal’s, and I’ll be seeking out more from her.

Helen Stubbs’ Hard  is an almost fairytale-esque piece of fantasy, and is utterly enchanting. Something about this story reminds me of the kinds of fairytale-inspired work written by Catherynne M. Valente. I absolutely adored this story.

Shauna O’Meara’s To Look Upon a Dream Tiger centres around a photographer’s search for the extinct thylacine (Tasmanian tiger). This is a haunting, almost dreamlike story, and is utterly beautiful and heartbreaking, all at once.

Suzanne J. Willis’ Memory Lane explores the laneways of Melbourne, and the young girls who begin to vanish from them. This is another story which feels dreamlike, and is utterly haunting. Some of the imagery from this one is going to stick with me for a long time, I think. I believe this is the first story from Willis that I’ve read, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more.

Darren Goossens’s Ghost Versions is an another haunting story (and you can probably start seeing some of my own biases and tastes coming out in the stories which stood out to me by now!), of a man left alone when his wife and son choose to leave him. Skilfully written and heartbreaking.

Rivka Rafael’s Beyond the Factory Wall takes place in steampunk-influenced colonial Australia. This is a powerful story about women and the walls which hold them.

Several more stories deserve mentions for the spot-on Australian voice they capture, notably Charlotte Nash’s The Seven-forty from Paraburdoo, Donna Maree Hanson’s She’ll Be Right, Dave Coleman’s The Spectacularly Lucky Country (which earned a giggle from me at Tina Swineheart), Michael Kraaz’s The Inventor of Ironclad Creek and Edwina Harvey and Simon Petrie’s Trike Race (which is almost worth reading just for the racing names alone).

Many stories also drew well on both the Australian connection to the land, as well as the potential horrors of the wide-open spaces of Australia, and the things that could lurk below the ground, notably Laura E Goodin’s Jimmy’s Boys, and Jacob Edwards’s Rainbows of the Drought. 

The cover art by Shauna O’Meara also deserves a nod. It’s striking and holds just a hint of the creepy possibilities that could be hiding beneath the landscape, which sums up many of the stories in the anthology well.

My one real criticism is the lack of Indigenous voices in the collection. It’s difficult to tell if any of the authors I’m not familiar with are Indigenous, and it’s possible that some of them are, but it feels like something which could have been emphasised in the creation of such an anthology. It is pleasing that there aren’t noticeably any non-Indigenous authors appropriating Indigenous stories outright. It would be a nice thing to see a companion to this kind of anthology which focuses entirely on Indigenous writers (and if such a thing exists, and I simply haven’t seen it, please feel very free to point me in its direction).

Overall, this is a complex and varied anthology which, I feel, very much accomplishes what the editors set out to achieve. There are some excellent stories by well-known Australian authors, as well as some just as good offerings from emerging writers, and many writers new to me who I will now be looking for more work from.

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AWW16: Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren

throughsplinteredwalls

Country road, city street, mountain, creek.

These are stories inspired by the beauty, the danger, the cruelty, emptiness, loneliness and perfection of the Australian landscape.

Published by Twelfth Planet Press.


This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 and as part of the Journey Through the Twelve Planets.

I purchased this book.

Note: I was on the judging panel of the 2012 Aurealis Awards which awarded the story Sky from this collection with Best Horror Short Story.


 

Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren is the sixth collection in the Twelve Planets.

If there’s an Australian Gothic, Kaaron Warren is certainly at the centre of it, and is perhaps, one of the mistresses of it. The collection Through Splintered Walls, features three short stories, Mountain, Creek and Road, and one novella, Sky. The collection as well as all of the individual stories, have been nominated for, and won, for various awards.

Mountain is a story about a haunted mountain, known as Temptation Tor, and perhaps more importantly, about a woman whose life intersects with those of the ghosts, and of the mountain itself. This is a deceptively quiet story (where quiet involves a fair amount of the horrific – this is Kaaron Warren, after all), but nonetheless a powerful and emotive one. I will admit to practically cheering at one point (read the story and you’ll know which point).

Creek is a story that is steeped heavily in the Australian land (both literally as well as figuratively). This is an excellent example of Warren’s mastery of the deeply disturbing, giving us a land filled with “quaking women”, the women who have been drowned in the creeks of Australia, and who claw their way back up onto land to search for those who they have lost. This story got deeply under my skin, and may make you think twice before you approach a creek next time.

Road contains a quiet kind of horror, as Mountain does, but there’s a kind of warmth here as well in this story about an old couple who live near a road which suffers frequent fatal car accidents, and lay out wreaths for the dead of those accidents. There’s something visceral about this story, making it all too easy to believe that this is a real place, and these are real people.

For me, the highlight of the collection is Sky. This multi-award-winning novella revolves around the town of Sky, home to a cat food factory and a lot of strange people with strange ways. Like a lot of Warren’s work, this story feels very grounded in reality, with all of the characters feeling like real people (even when they’re doing truly horrific things, which makes those acts even more horrific). The protagonist, Zed, is not a likeable character at all, and yet Warren manages to make him as fascinating as the town of Sky itself. It should be noted that this story includes rape, for those who wish to avoid that topic.

Kaaron Warren is easily one of Australia’s best horror writers, and this collection brilliantly displays her skills. If you don’t consider yourself a reader of horror, Warren is a good writer to begin with, since you won’t find any exploitative kinds of horror in her work, but instead a gentler (and perhaps more insidious) kind of horror which encapsulates the deep strangenesses that can exist in the kinds of open spaces that exist in Australia.

 

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Review: Monstrous Little Voices

monstrouslittlevoices

It is the time of Shakespeare. Storms rage, armies clash, magics are done – and stories are made. Five new great and terrible tales reshape the Bard’s vision, a new set of stories that will be told and retold down through the centuries. 

In the Year of Our Lord 1585, all the major powers of the Mediterranean are at war. The throne of the Grand Duke of Tuscany is the prize, and every lord from Navarre to Illyria is embroiled in the fray. Prospero, the feared Sorcerer-Duke of Milan, is under pressure to choose a side, and witches stalk the night, steering events from the shadows. Even the fairy courts stand on the verge of breaking down.

Published by Abbadon Books.


A copy of this book was received from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


 

Monstrous Little Voices is a novella anthology, with all of the stories taking place in a fantastical world based on several of Shakespeare’s plays.  The particular focus is on the world of the fairies, and how it and the fairies themselves interact with the human world.

I will admit up front that my memory of much of Shakespeare is more than rusty, and I chose not to go back and refresh any of that before reading this series of novellas.  It’s entirely possible that someone more familiar with the plays will get more out of this collection that I did.

Not to say that I didn’t get anything out of it.  For me, the absolute standout story is the first one, Foz Meadows’ Coral Bones, which extrapolated from the story of The Tempest, in particular focusing on Miranda, and in making her genderfluid.  I would recommend this to anyone, even if they hate Shakespeare, just for the excellent view on gender and fluidity.  I’d think that even if you have little knowledge of The Tempestyou’d be able to get a lot out of this novella.  I’d expect to see it possibly popping up on awards shortlists, as well.

The rest of the novellas didn’t quite have the impact that Coral Bones did.  All of the novellas were well written, and it’s to be noted that they particularly focused on strong characterisation of female characters, but none of them grabbed me quite the same way as Coral Bones.  I did like the way the novellas all interweaved with each other at times, giving the whole collection what felt like a cohesive narrative.

I did also particularly like the last novella in the collection, Jonathan Barnes’ On the Twelfth Night, which uses William Shakespeare and his wife Anne, as well as their children, as characters, interweaving them with the fantastic narrative of the previous novellas.  This isn’t an easy story to read, with the bulk of it being in second person, but it’s definitely worth it.

If you have a passing knowledge of Shakespeare, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this collection.  If you have a deeper knowledge, I suspect you’ll find even more.

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AWW16: Showtime by Narelle M. Harris

showtime

Family drama can be found anywhere: in kitchens, in cafes. Derelict hotels, showground rides. Even dungeons far below ruined Hungarian castles. (Okay, especially in Hungarian dungeons.)

Old family fights can go on forever, especially if you’re undead. If an opportunity came to save someone else’s family, the way you couldn’t save your own, would you take it?

Your family might include ghosts, or zombies, or vampires. Maybe they just have allergies. Nobody’s perfect.

Family history can weigh on the present like a stone. But the thing about families is, you can’t escape them. Not ever. And mostly, you don’t want to.

Published by Twelfth Planet Press.


This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 and to A Journey Through the Twelve Planets.

I purchased this book.


 

Showtime by Narelle M. Harris is the fifth volume in Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets series.  The stories in this volume aren’t linked, in terms of settings and characters, but they do contain some thematic linkage, in that they all deal in some way with families and feature supernatural elements.

The first story in the collection is Stalemate.  This is a deceptive story, which on the surface features a mother and daughter confronting one another in a kitchen.  There’s an emotional gutpunch that I didn’t see coming (and frankly, didn’t want to, since I think knowing going in might have ruined some of the impact of the story), and a very clever ending.  Really liked this one.

Thrall takes a tonal shift, and can be summed up as the story of an ancient vampire facing the modern world.  I loved so many of the details in this one, with lots of twisting of vampire mythos, and I loved Erzsebet in particular.

The Truth About Brains takes another shift, this time taking us firmly back to modern Australia, and features both magic and zombies (and also zombies in Australian summer, which ew).  The grounding of the characters in this one is fantastic, with the teenage protagonist’s voice absolutely spot on.

I looked forward to the last story in the book, Showtime, because it takes place in the world of, and features characters from, Harris’s novel The Opposite of Life (which if you haven’t read, you should).  Again, Harris manages to twist “known” monster mythology, and her vampires are truly her own.  You can definitely read this one on its own if you haven’t read The Opposite of Life, but I’d recommend reading them both, just because the fictional world of the book and story are so much fun.

This is a quieter collection than the previous Planets, and feels more grounded, especially in terms of the characters, who all feel very much like anyone you might pass on the street (with perhaps the exception of Dragomir from Thrall.  I hope.).  I enjoyed all of the stories, and I feel that they are all great examples of Harris’ talent with characterisation and subtle twisting of supernatural mythologies to create new worlds.

 

 

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