Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Bride Price by Cat Sparks

The Bride Price by Cat Sparks is a collection of longish short stories and one novella. If you've only ever seen the cover as a thumbnail, I highly recommend zooming in on the image to the right and taking a closer look. I did not fully appreciate the cover until I opened the ebook and saw it in its detailed glory.

Before I get to talking about the stories, I should note that I didn’t quite read these stories in order. I read “Scarp” first (because it was on the Ditmar shortlist), and then through the rest of the collection from start to finish. Except for "The Sleeping and the Dead", the very last story/novella, which I had read before.

The Bride Price contained a lot of depressing endings. People looking for hopeful, life-affirming stories would be better off looking elsewhere. Here, rather than ending with a flash of hope (as is customary, one could say), a lot of these stories end in what I would loosely term "doom". But not all of them. Above all, these stories are nothing if unconventional. This collection is full of unique ideas and uncharted settings. In new and different ways, Sparks explores what it means to be human and what it means to be a woman.

The introduction, by Sean Williams, captures the spirit of the collection wonderfully. Williams writes:
Cat deftly weaves you through known and unknown, familiar and unfamiliar. Her characters are trapped and desperate. They’re literally dying to escape, even if escape means finding themselves somewhere much worse than where they started. You’ll understand their yearning even if we don’t always sympathise with it. In aiming for the unattainable, or attaining something they didn’t realise they were aiming for, Cat’s characters reveal themselves in the very best and the very worst possible lights.
I couldn't say it better myself.

My favourite story was the first in the collection, "A Lady of Adestan". It was poignant and gut-wrenchingly awful, increasingly so as we learnt more about the setting. "The Bride Price" was also a favourite. Perhaps, now I think about it, I liked these stories best because they did not end as bleakly as most of the others. But on the other hand, I also quite liked "Street of the Dead" and "Seventeen" and I'm not sure I'd call those endings happy. As usual, there is a story-by-story breakdown at the end of this review.

The Bride Price was a varied collection and one I would definitely recommend to anyone wanting to familiarise themselves with Cat Spark's work. There were some stories I really loved in it and some I didn't feel as strongly about, but I think that means there will be some stories for all types of readers to enjoy. There were a slew of post-technological stories, near-future stories and secondary world stories. anyone looking for a variety of settings would do well to look here.


A Lady of Adestan — This is my favourite Cat Sparks story that I’ve read so far. It’s horrifying and poignant and brutal. The main character is visiting her youngest sister, who married a nobleman in the nearby city of Adestan. The customs of the city are very different from those of the plains, where the sisters are from, and noblewomen have even less freedom than usual:
“Dena understood that grand ladies of Adestan were not supposed to speak. When Nadira had accepted master Etan’s offer of marriage, an elegant lady from the Adestan court had presented herself at the family home accompanied by two handsome bodyguards. She had taught Nadira handsign, the language exclusive to high-ranking women in the city of noble stone.”
What starts off seeming like a strange custom, oppressive and inconvenient — a noble lady can’t eat and sign at the same time — gets progressively more atrocious as the story progresses. It was an excellent read about a terrible place.

Beyond the Farthest Stone — A post-technological world with remnants of old technology lying about the place. Most notably, some sort of... Ship? Vehicle? Hybrid? ...called a whale featured, which scavengers for its internal organs/mechanisms, despite the dangers of retrieving them. Not a bad story, but I didn't feel strongly about it.

The Bride Price — A story written in the New Ceres world (which I haven’t read, but I recognised the name). A rich youth negotiates the purchase of a bride and then encounters war-torn refugees who lead him to realise that life is harsh for most people and to question the direction his life is taking. Another enjoyable read.

Street of the Dead — UFOs have descended on the planet and rural Australian families have been told to locate from their homes to new, supposedly safer, towns. Not quite the ending I was expecting. A quick read that I rather liked.

Sammarynda Deep — A fascinating world with a fascinating culture. A tourist searching for someone in a city of rich heritage and customs. Surely writing other, made-up cultures is a particular strength of Sparks's. I really enjoyed this story, but I'm not sure how to say more about it without spoiling the experience.

Seventeen — A future world where old ladies who remember the blitz (so near future?) and live in safe compounds hire grandchildren to come visit them. But when the pretend grandkids turn seventeen, their contracts end. A good story, but a more depressing ending than I had hoped for.

All the Love in the World — In a war-torn post-apocalyptic Australia, a woman ventures out of their protected compound out in search of medicine. A little bleak, but less than expected. Not a bad read.

Dead Low — scavengers in space face danger and unexpected spoils. And there's more to their leader than meets the eye. Not a cheerful book, but not a bad read. Good unexpected ending.

Arctica — A unique world where people periodically fall through a rift in the sky (above the North Pole?) and are then hunted down and killed. Another story (like "The Bride Price") which deals with refugees as both characters and constructs. And another story that does not have — could not have had — a happy ending. I liked it, for all its bleakness.

The Alabaster Child — Set in the same world as "Sammarynda Deep”, but I would not have guessed if it weren't for the place names. A woman travels to a new place, meeting different, troubled (in the sense that no one has an easy life) people along the way. It struck me more as an atmospheric piece than an especially plot-driven one.

Hollywood Roadkill — A bleak story that I found particularly devoid of hope for the characters. Homeless kids living just outside Hollywood in a not-too-distant future. Their lives suck and then suck some more.

Scarp — A post-technological society and teenagers pushing the boundaries. The isolated society was oppressive (although, I suppose not systematically so per se) and very isolated. The ending, the pushing of the ultimate boundary, was not what I expected.

The Sleeping and the Dead — Already read as part of the Ishtar anthology, did not reread.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Ticonderoga Publications
Series: no.
Format read: ebook
Source: purchased from SmashWords
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Short Stories, an assortment of two

In recent times I've consumed a few free-floating short stories and I thought I'd give them a quick review. Because why not. Presented in the order I read them.

Fairy Debt by Gail Carriger

"Fairy Debt" was an audio short story that I received as a perk from the Kickstarter campaign for Crudrat. Incredibly, there is a blurb on goodreads, so I include it here for your delectation (and to save me coming up with my own summary):
Cups is a fairy with a problem. She can't grow wings because is she under a death promise to a local king. So she takes service at his castle as the Least Jester, hoping to earn her wings and learns a great deal about cupcakes, tea daemons, and Earth dragons along the way.
This was an amusing tale of amusing contract shenanigans and, of course, fairies. I enjoyed it, especially the dragon. The narration wasn't my favourite, but I think I'm always going to feel that way about US-accented audiobooks. It was a fun, quirky read and a pleasant way to spend slightly longer than a car trip (it's 27 minutes long). The story and style put me in mind of some of Tansy Rayner Roberts' short stories (which I read before blogging), so if you're a fan of those (or of Splashdance Silver/Ink Black Magic), then give this one a go. If you're not into audiobooks, you can buy the ebook from SmashWords and the usual suspects. I should also note that as part of the same backer perk I have the audiobook of "Marine Biology", but I've already read it in ebook form, so I won't be listening to it. There are more coming, too, including another I haven't read, so yay.

Not the Worst of Sins by Alan Baxter

"Not the Worst of Sins" appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies 133 and I will admit up front that I read it because it made the Ditmar ballot and am not very familiar with the magazine at all. You can still (as of writing) read "Not the Worst of Sins" online here.

This is a Western horror story about a teenage boy out to chase down his father. The main character wants vengeance for his father running out on him and his mother and has teamed up with a ghost to track him down. I won't spoil the ending, of course.

Westerns aren't really my thing and the style of this one didn't really do it for me. I'm hoping I'll enjoy Baxter's upcoming novel more. The backstory with the mother "breaking" after the father left and having to go to a nun-run sanatorium didn't really sit well with me either. Nor did the complete lack of female characters, although I suspect that is primarily a symptom of the Western setting. I liked the twist at the end. Definitely give it a shot — it's not that long, after all — if it sounds like your cup of tea.


I also read a bunch (read: all) of other Ditmar shortlistee stories, but they all belong in larger collections or anthologies which I will review here in full when I get around to finishing them. I'm currently feeling a bit stressed about my reading, so I don't want to make any predictions about when and in which order those might appear in.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Crudrat by Gail Carriger

Crudrat by Gail Carriger is a Kickstarted audiobook that I backed last year. It will soon be available to non-Kickstarter backers in both audio and ebook forms. Although I got both ebook and audiobook versions for backing, I consumed the audiobook version and I've only opened the ebook to check name spellings. Oh, and it's not in any way related to Gail Carriger's steampunk novels.
The Progenitors of The Wheel live high up above the sky, amongst the stars, removed from the petty concerns of mere mortals. Each one designed, engineered, perfect; their imperfect children get left to die.

Ghosts. Cyphers. They do not exist. A lucky few, the Crudrats, scrape out a perilous living cleaning the toxic wastes from the great machines that power the station.

Meet Maura. Cypher. Crudrat. Grown too tall, alone in a spaceport with no use for her, doomed to starve. With only her crud-eating murmel and an alien monster to help her, she must find a way to survive, or escape, before they catch her and blow what’s left of her life, and her companions, into space.
As I said, this was a very different book to Gail Carriger's other work. It's science fiction and not a comedy. Also, the main character is twelve or thirteen, which I think is even younger than the Finishing School characters. She does have a cute pet, though, but I think that's the only common element. Maura's life starts off as bleak as a Dickensian orphan's until a luck and a chance encounter basically save her life and allow her to get off the space station she was born on and to a better society where she has a chance to, well, not be dead within a year.

I'm a big fan of Carriger's other books, but this one took me longer to get into than I expected. I think there are a few contributing factors. First up, I'm not used to listening to audiobooks with special effects and — especially — background music. In the opening scene, especially, the music was louder than I would've liked — relative to the words — and a bit much when trying to first get my bearings in a new story with setting and characters to learn. I think there were similarly directed scenes later on which didn't bother me in the same way.

Another thing that bothered me was the dialect of the crudrats speak. It just grated. I suspect the reason I enjoyed the second half of the book more was because Maura was in a different setting, trying to fit in (to a degree), and the people around her spoke in a different dialogue that didn't bother me.

What I liked was the view Carriger gave us of different societies and, particularly completely different societal systems. Showing the difference between an urchin and aristocrats (or their equivalents) is one thing, but then showing us a society where neither concepts exist is another thing entirely. Furthermore, everyone in Crudrat is a genetically engineered human (or their antecedents were genetically engineered), even the people Maura thinks are aliens. I was left wondering whether the particularly broad selection of phenotypes was a stand-in for race. Probably not. On the Wheel phenotype seemed more indicative of social class with crudrats being stained blue because of the dangerous work they do (they clean crud off shafts with blades slicing through them, a construct that initially reminded me of Galaxy Quest and the urge to make SF settings dangerous for purposes of entertainment) and the upper classes are selectively bread. But on the other hand, the society Maura encounters after leaving the Wheel has humans from different "original" habitats living together in equality (or meritocracy, at least).

I enjoyed Maura's disbelief at how the society worked. Not only did it work well for setting the scene, but the complete lack of mutual understanding was entertaining, especially when no one believed her about her previous job. (Because why would you power a space station with giant blades and use orphans to clean them?) I also really liked that some cursory attention was paid to the laws of physics, though I can see why my talk of giant blades — which are part of dark matter engines — may not lead you to think so. It's certainly not hard SF, but there were no stupid errors/misconceptions that made me want to punch things, so that's automatically a win.

Anyway, Crudrat was ultimately enjoyable and I would read a sequel (although I'm not sure that one is forthcoming). I recommend it to fans of adventure-style SF and coming of age stories. I highly recommend not going into it expecting something like Soulless, because your expectations will not be met in the slightest. If you like full-cast audiobooks/productions then definitely get a hold of the Crudrat audiobook.

4 / 5 stars

First published: March 2014, ArtisticWhispers Productions (Kickstarter edition)
Series: No... (but it is listed as The Tinkered Stars, Book 1)
Format read: Audiobook
Source: Kickstarter campaign (it should be available commercially somewhere

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

CAUTION: Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermott

CAUTION: Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermott is the most recent (just, the next is due to come out soon) addition to the Twelve Planets collections being put out by Twelfth Planet Press. So far, this collection has been shortlisted for the Norma K Hemming Award, made the Ditmar ballot — both as a collection and the first and last stories individually — and was shortlisted for Aurealis Awards as a collection and for Best Horror Short Story for, again, the last story. As far as Ditmar voting goes, I'm going to have difficulty deciding how to rank the two stories — "What Amanda Wants" and "The Home for Broken Dolls" — against each other, let alone against the other stories (which I intend to read soon).
A creepy wooden dog that refuses to play dead.
A gifted crisis counsellor and the mysterious, melancholy girl she cannot seem to reach.
A once-successful fantasy author whose life has become a horror story - now with added unicorns.
An isolated woman whose obsession with sex dolls takes a harrowing, unexpected turn.

Four stories that will haunt you long after their final pages are turned.
CAUTION: Contains Small Parts contains three shorter (but not short!) stories and a novella. Aside from all dealing with the darker sides of human nature, there's not a huge amount of similarity between them. They fit together well in the collection, but beyond that, they're probably best treated individually. I'm not even sure which one I like best and I don't have a least favourite one. Looking below, it's clear I had the most to say about "Horn" but it wasn't the one I enjoyed reading the most. The only sensible conclusion is that CAUTION: Contains Small Parts is a very strong collection, which it is.

I highly recommend CAUTION: Contains Small Parts to fans of horror and contemporary fiction. For those scared of genre fiction, the stories could all be taken as magical realism, if that's what you prefer to think you read. All the stories, as I said, deal with the darker side of humanity and none of them are excessively gory (unless you count damaged and dismembered sex dolls as gory; it's kind of a grey area), though some parts might make you cringe. This is an excellent collection and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to most people.


What Amanda Wants — a counsellor with the power to lessen her patients’ trauma. That is, until she meets Amanda, a girl whose problems she can’t figure out. A dark tale, but a satisfying one. Some of the stories within the story aren’t for the faint of heart but then the faint of heart probably shouldn’t’ve picked up this collection to begin with.

Horn — This story is a bit less straightforward. On the surface, it’s a story about a male fantasy writer whose success is overshadowed by personal loss (which he blames on himself and his writing). But when you look at the details, there's a lot more subtext there. For a start, the writer is named Dermott Mack, although, I'm not really sure what Kirstyn McDermott was saying with that detail (perhaps indicating the gender-flip in the story? There are several possible interpretations). The most interesting parts, to me, were the discussion of Dermott Mack masculinising the fantasy genre with his best selling series about violent unicorns. To me this is either a reference to Australia's "female-dominated" fantasy scene (y'know, for a given value of "dominated"), or to the sort of reception female fantasy writers are likely to receive on a more global (well, UK/US) level. And yet, even as we are treated to a scholarly analysis of Mack's masculine work in a feminine world —
“In his efforts to redress a very real gender imbalance, Mack imbues the genre with a fresh, masculine vitality that has been sorely missing from the output of mainstream publishing mills.”
— we're presented with a fan letter that makes mention of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, hardly overly feminine works. Is this addressing the ongoing "discussion" of the masculine and violent nature of grimdark fantasy and whether women can write it (they can)? Or is it a grim gender-flipped parody of the kind of comments female fantasy authors can expect to have thrown their way? I also couldn't help but notice some ironic parallels between this story and another novella by the same name written by Peter M Ball and published by the same publishing house. "Horn" gives this reader much to ponder.

CAUTION: Contains Small Parts — a creepy story and a sad one. The protagonist is sent a toy dog-on-wheels one day for no apparent reason. As he soon learns, it’s not an ordinary toy dog and what he experiences is not a random haunting. It turned out to be less horrifying in the end than I expected to be.

The Home for Broken Dolls — This is probably the most talked-about story (well, novella) in the collection, or at least the one I'd heard most about before reading. At the book's launch — back in June 2013 at Continuum 9 — McDermott read an excerpt which was definitely creepy and horrifying. But it was an excerpt that squicked me out a lot more back then than it did yesterday when I read it in context. I think probably because I was prepared — and it only got a little bit worse than that — and because my mental voice doesn't have the same creepy tone as Kirstyn's did at the launch. Anyway, the story is about a woman who fell into collecting and repairing sex dolls. The kind of dolls that resemble real women (or at least pornstar women) and are as anatomically correct as silicone can be. The passage I mentioned above, describes in loving detail the severe damage a particular doll had suffered when Jane, the main character, first encounters her. There are two main stories here. There's Jane's, who is a “Girl to Whom a Very Bad Thing Happened Once”, and there's the dolls who turn out to have lives of their own (minor spoiler). It's all very sordid, especially the parts about what's been done to the dolls — and the implicit questions of why and what kind of people might do such things — but the main thing that squicked me out upon reading was part of an interaction Jane had with another person, rather than with a doll (details are spoilery, I think). This isn't the kind of horror to make you sleep with the light on or check under the table for errant toys. More the kind that reminds you how unsavoury some people can be.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Twelfth Planet Press
Series: Twelve Planets, the ninth collection in the series (all are by different authors about different things)
Format read: eBook
Source: Subscription to the series
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Back of the Back of Beyond by Edwina Harvey

The Back of the Back of Beyond by Edwina Harvey is an unusual collection. Somewhere between a collection of stories set in the same universe and short novel. I would say that in general each story/chapter (they are called chapters in the book) feels most like an episodic instalment. It put me in mind of a TV show in that respect.
Come and join the Party!
Through her short stories “No Pets Allowed”, “Get Me to The Worldcon on Time” , “My Sweet 286” and “Party”, Edwina Harvey introduced her readers to a world where flatmates discover the difficulties of raising young dragons in small suburban apartments, where “flying” to a science fiction convention takes on a whole new meaning, and where “the next door neighbours” on an Australian rural backblock are out of this world, but the parties are legendary. Now collected here for the first time, these stories are interwoven with seven new tales set in the same universe.

Come and be introduced to a rural Australian landscape you never knew existed somewhere out in the back of the back of beyond.
I started off commenting on each story as I usually do, but some of them were more like chapters/instalments than self contained stories, so I was a bit haphazard in doing so. I think, ultimately, this is a collection best considered as a whole rather than on a story-by-story basis.

Written as a sort of alternate-reality autobiography, the stories deal with the mundanities of life made more exciting by the addition of dragons or aliens (usually). The opening story, "No Pets Allowed" recounts the story of a troublesome past flatmate who left, not because of the weird parties he used to throw, but because of the pet dragon he acquired. The same ex-flatmate causes difficulties in getting to the Melbourne Worldcon on time, and so forth. The stories are fannish in the sense that they deal with SFF fans and geeks and more or less tell a story of geeky wish-fulfilment. I mean, who doesn't want a friend with a dragon (so long as you don't have to deal with the dragon poop yourself) or to make friends with aliens?

The Back of the Back of Beyond was a fun read. It wasn't laugh-out-loud hilarious, but it definitely had me sniggering or chuckling on several occasions. I am intrigued by the serialised/episodic form of the storytelling and, in general, would like to see more of that sort of think around. OK so maybe I'm biased because I'm working on something like that myself, but that's beside the point. This is the first substantial work I've read by Harvey (not counting her editing, I might have read a short story somewhere, but I'm not entirely certain) and based on this I would definitely consider reading more. I recommend this book to fans of "odd" humorous SFF and anyone looking for a light-hearted read, especially if the idea of stories with strong influences from Aussie fan culture appeals.


  1. No Pets Allowed — a snigger-worthy story, told in the form of a housemate interview. As in, the narrator is telling you, the reader/prospective renter, about the previous housemate and, in particular, why there’s a giant scorch mark on the wall of your would-be room.
  2. Get Me To The Worldcon On Time — How one gets to the Worldcon when one’s crazy dragon-riding friend drops by to delay you. A bit of recapping of the previous story at the start was annoying (but understandable since it was originally published by itself), but otherwise, another amusing and enjoyable story.
  3. The ‘R’ Word — The main character is made redundant and buys a property out west (no, further west, further than that, no not as far as Perth). This place is the titular back of the back of beyond. Moving shenanigans ensue.
  4. Seeing The Light (When The Fridge Door’s Open) — Bean, the one with the dragon, helps her set up solar panels in the middle of nowhere.
  5. Move Your Ass — in which our protagonist attempts not to purchase equines.
  6. Meet The Neighbours — in which our protagonist discovers something odd on the neighbours' property.
  7. Painters And Decorators — in which our protagonist plays host to artist friends on retreat
  8. Party With My Sweet 286 — in which aliens upgrade our protagonists 286 laptop (in a world where farmers have iPads), but we never learn how it was able to connect to the internet before the aliens came along. Also there's a large party. An enjoyable read and one of the longer instalments.
  9. Dragoncats — in which our protagonist tires of having young dragons around.
  10. Neighbourhood Watch — in which a journalist attempts to write a story on UFOs sighted near our protagonist's property.
  • A Cast Of Thousands!!! — not a story, but it explains how some of the characters correspond to the author's family and friends. Apparently, she sold appearances to fund the production of the book. A neat idea, especially for these sorts of stories.

4 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Peggy Bright Books
Series: No
Format read: eBook
Source: review copy received from the publisher/editor
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Feather Bound by Sarah Raughley

Feather Bound by Sarah Raughley is the author's début novel. I went into it with no expectations beyond title and cover thumbnail (if I ever read the blurb before writing this review, I have no memory of it) and I was pleasantly surprised. By the end of the first chapter, Feather Bound had me hooked with its surprising revelation of the premise (which, OK, not surprising if you read the blurb, but it was still well-executed).
When Deanna's missing friend Hyde turns up at his father's funeral to claim his corporate empire and inheritance, she is swept into his glittering world of paparazzi and wealth.

But re-kindling her friendship and the dizzying new emotions along for the ride are the least of her concerns. Because Deanna has a secret - and somebody knows. Someone who is out to get Hyde. And if she doesn't play along, and help the enemy destroy him...she will be sold to the highest bidder in the black market for human swans.

Now Deanna is struggling to break free from the gilded cage that would trap her forever...
In this story, some people are swans. It's not genetic, but it is something that usually becomes apparent roughly during puberty. They don't turn into birds or anything, they just grow a cloak of feathers on their backs. And if a swan's feathers are stolen, the thief gets complete control over the swan, making them a slave in the most literal sense.

We learn very early on that Deanna sympathises with swans and is against swan slavery (and, alarmingly, that not everyone is). It seems almost inevitable when, early on, Deanna finds herself sprouting feathers for the first time. But that's only the start of her problems. Not only does her freedom depend on keeping her secret, but she very quickly has to contend with threats because of it. I don't want to go into too much detail because spoilers, but suffice to say the existence of swans makes for a lucrative and prevalent human trafficking market. I did like the way in which Raughley used swans to highlight the horrors of human trafficking and sex-slavery.

I also liked how the worldbuilding was more than just a surface layer. Every now and then there are historical references which mention how swans have been treated and societal attitudes towards them through the ages. It was nice to see that the author had given this some thought and hadn't, for example, just made it a modern phenomenon.

Finally, I liked that there were lots of female characters. The main characters were overwhelmingly Deanna and Hyde, but Deanna's sisters, especially Ade who witnesses her first swan transformation, plays and important role as well. The only other male character's are Hyde's cousin, who's a terrible person, and Deanna's father who is an alcoholic that doesn't do much more (story-wise) than exist. Even the miscellaneous swan activists were all female. It was nice to see.

The only thing I didn't like, really, was that Deanna was a bit slow at working out certain plot twists which I'd guessed much earlier. But even this wasn't as bad as it could have been. She figured it out only a chapter later than I had wanted her too, so my frustration was relatively short-lived.

Although Feather Bound is a YA book and Deanna is 17, it doesn't deal with a lot of common YA issues, at least not the sort that tend to pop up in paranormal YA. There's no school for example (I think because it takes place over summer) and Deanna and her family are relatively poor, living in Brooklyn and with the daughters having to work to pay the bills. That is strongly juxtaposed against the wealth of the other characters (particularly Hyde and the oldest sister's husband) and the society parties that Deanna keeps finding herself at.

Feather Bound was a surprising and good read. I was impressed with the way it dealt with its issues and I'm glad I picked it up. I recommend it to all fans of paranormal YA and, for that matter, contemporary YA (since the feather thing can easily be taken as a metaphor). I highly recommend it to all fans of YA and contemporary stories with fairytale roots.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2014, Strange Chemistry
Series: I don't think so, but there's room for a sequel...
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 15 May 2014

North Star Guide Me Home by Jo Spurrier

North Star Guide Me Home by Jo Spurrier is the final instalment in the Children of the Black Sun trilogy. I have also reviewed the first two books, Winter Be My Shield and Black Sun Light My Way, both of which I loved, especially the first book. This review contains spoilers for those earlier books but any spoilers for this one are under a spoiler tag (hover to read, or don't to not be spoiled).
Some things are broken beyond mending ... Grievously wounded in battle, Isidro's life hangs in the balance - but the only person who can help him is the man he can never trust. Sierra is desperate to rebuild shattered bonds with her old friends, but with Isidro incontrovertibly changed and her own wounds still fresh, things can never be as they once were. Burdened by all he's done at Kell's command, Rasten knows he cannot atone for the horrors of his past. But when their enemies in Akhara follow Cam's small clan back to Ricalan, carrying a thirst for vengeance, the skills Rasten swore he'd renounce may be their only hope for victory...

My favourite storyline in this book was Isidro's. The story starts with him pretty out of it after the events of book two. He's lost a lot of blood and his crushed arm is not getting better. Saving his life results in the loss of the troubling arm (which has been an ongoing problem for him since the first book) and also the loss of a lot of blood. What I really liked in this book is that instead of falling into the much-overused trope of the characters suddenly inventing blood transfusions (think about how often that happens, also tracheotomies get invented a lot), Spurrier takes the more sensible path of having Rasten be familiar with with the side-effects of extreme blood loss and letting the characters deal with it from there. The side-effects included fatigue and, more crucially, Isidro's wits being addled. (That isn't a spoiler, it happens very early on.) Watching him deal with this once he regains consciousness was fascinating, scary and sad, especially when he's sufficiently self-aware to realise that there's something wrong with him. Obviously it was hard for him, but it was also hard for the people around him to deal with. Delphine's reaction, in particular, was heartbreaking, and interestingly at odds with what Isidro was feeling as he got better.

On a slightly different Isidro note, after spending two books putting up with a dysfunctional arm that caused him a lot of pain, he now has to adjust to a missing arm. On the one hand, once it heals it doesn't hurt, but on the other, things like picking up a baby become a bigger deal than for two-armed people.

Isidro, Sierra and Rasten all have emotional wounds as well as physical ones — or more so than physical ones, a lot of the time — that have to heal before they can move on with their lives. Isidro has difficulty sliding back into family life once he's physically strong enough. As well as overcoming the physical ordeals he's been through, he also found himself with "tainted" power, because of a blood magic ritual Kell forced him to be part of. Because blood magic is inherently pretty evil, Isidro has to grapple with the feeling of having been made into something evil (from his point of view) and it's an interesting struggle. It's not hard to see the parallels with real world stigma. Sierra's emotional journey, by contrast, is more about learning that it's OK to be safe in one place and that she is loved and wanted, not just needed. And forgiven, when she didn't necessarily expect to be.

Rasten, of course, is the most broken character. He spent a decade as Kell's servant, suffering abuse and doling it out on command. Sierra is the first person, since his family was murdered when he was ten, to care about him and he has difficulty coming to terms with that idea. His coping strategies mean that he isn't present for the whole story, but they are entirely plausible. I know a lot of people who have been reading this series have enjoyed Rasten's character development most, and I don't think those people will be disappointed. I wasn't (although I still liked Isidro's story more). The last thing I want to say about Rasten is a spoiler for the very end and it is under a spoiler tag. Hover or highlight to read.

<spoiler warning. Do not read if you don't want to know whether Rasten survives the book>
What I liked best about Rasten's story is the way Spurrier subverted the Noble Sacrifice trope. It's so often easy to kill off the redeemed bad guy to avoid dealing with the ongoing fallout of their earlier actions. But it gets old. And I'm not sure that it's a healthy trope. Rasten wanted to die so much, but him living was a more interesting outcome, not only for him but also for Cam, Mira and the others, who have to deal with his presence. Isidro and Sierra moved on from hating him relatively early, having some idea of what he'd gone through to become who he was. But for the others and for Rasten himself, it's a much longer journey to acceptance.
<end spoiler>

The middle book of the series, Black Sun Light My Way, was definitely the darkest of the lot. This one was almost gentle in comparison. If you were hesitating over reading the conclusion because of the darker aspects in the second book, don't. It's not that nothing violet happens, but it's more action-movie violence (battles, exploding heads, generally quick deaths) rather than degrading torture. (I had actually managed to block out the details of the most horrific scene in Black Sun... until the specifics were mentioned. For most of this story, you don't have to relive the characters' past horrors, just remember that they had happened.)

On a final note, this series has very good titles. They are both metaphoric (there's no actual North Star in the story) and accurately descriptive (they do go home). They describe the main thrust of the story (or, at least, Sierra's story if not everyone's) well enough that I think can distinguish which arcs go in which books reasonably well. Clever.

If you've read and enjoyed the earlier books in the Children of the Black Sun trilogy, you absolutely have to read North Star Guide Me Home. If you haven't read the series, but got this far in my review anyway, then I can't recommend it enough. All fans of BFF (/epic/high/grimdark fantasy) should give it a go. I look forward to seeing what Spurrier writes next.

5 / 5 stars

First published: May 2014, Harper Voyager AU
Series: Children of the Black Sun, book 3 of 3
Format read: iBook
Source: The publisher
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Tsana's May Status

This month has been pretty busy and a bunch of things happened, including in non-book world. But this blog only concerns bookish things, so I shall regale you of those only. I interviewed Marianne de Pierres, I, somewhat amateurishly,  Blogged Against Disablism and two awards shortlists were released, the Ditmar Ballot and the 2014 Norma K Hemming Award shortlist. The Ditmar ballot was particularly exciting for me, because I made an appearance in the Best Fan Writer category. A really big thank-you to everyone who nominated me. It's extremely gratifying to have this sort of external recognition, especially since blogging can often feel like typing into the void.

What have I read?

What am I currently reading?

I just finished reading North Star Guide Me Home by Jo Spurrier. It's not in the above list because I haven't written the review yet, but expect to see it very soon.

I started reading Stolen Songbird by Danielle L Jensen, but didn't get very far (but far enough for the title to take place) before feeling pretty meh about it all. I think I'll probably finish it, but later. It definitely won't compare favourably to Spurrier's book.

So instead, I just started reading Feather Bound by Sarah Roughley. Haven't gotten far enough to form an opinion yet. I also plan to start reading The Back of the Back of Beyond by Edwina Harvey to fit some short stories around the novels.

New Booksies:

  • Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan — already reviewed
  • North Star Guide Me Home by Jo Spurrier <3
  • The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne — looks interesting
  • Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising by Sarah Cawkwell — new fantasy author to try
  • Use Only As Directed edited by Simon Petrie and Edwina Harvey — upcoming anthology of ANZ writers
  • The Back of the Back of Beyond by Edwina Harvey — collection of linked short stories
  • Lock In by John Scalzi — future virus thing plus social consequences, as far as I can tell
  • Some Fine Day by Kat Ross — YA science fiction
  • The Buried Life by Carrie Patel — gaslamp fantasy/mystery, I think
  • Innocence Lost by Patty Jansen — first in a new series. Fantasy.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

2014 Norma K Hemming Award shortlist

The shortlist for the Norma K Hemming Award has been announced. According to their website

The Norma K. Hemming Award marks excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability:
  • in the form of science fiction and fantasy or related artwork or media.
  • produced either in Australia or by Australian citizens.
  • first published, released or presented in the calendar year preceding the year in which the award is given.
And the shortlistees are:
  • A Very Unusual Pursuit – City of Orphans by Catherine Jinks (Allen & Unwin)
  • Caution: Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermott (Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Dark Serpent by Kylie Chan (HarperVoyager)
  • Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near (Random House) — my review
  • Rupetta by N. A. Sulway (Tartarus Press (UK))
  • Trucksong by Andrew Macrae (Twelfth Planet Press)
Congratulations to all the the shortlistees! The winner will be announced at Continuum X, the 53rd Natcon, in Melbourne 6-9 June. 

I haven't heard much about the Catherine Jinks book or the Kylie Chan (although I've read other books by Chan in the same series) but the others are all on my teetering TBR pile (well, imaginary electronic pile) and I look forward to getting to them.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Dead Americans and Other Stories by Ben Peek

Dead Americans and Other Stories by Ben Peek is a collection of short and long stories. Mostly on the longer side, really. They were an odd bunch and some of them went a bit over my head for various reasons (see below) but several of them did involve dead Americans, as promised in the title. (Somewhat unusually, the collection is not named after one of the story titles.)
A collection of the critically acclaimed dark, weird, and surreal short fiction of Ben Peek. It presents a world where bands are named after the murderer of a dead president, where the work of Octavia E. Butler is turned into an apocalypse meta-narrative, and John Wayne visits a Wal-Mart. It presents a world where a dying sun shines over a broken, bitter landscape and men and women tattoo their life onto their skin for an absent god. It presents a zombie apocalypse, Mark Twain dreaming of Sydney, and answers a questionnaire you never read.
My favourite stories, looking back over them were, in order of appearance, "The Dreaming City", which was the only Australian-flavoured story, "Johnny Cash", which was pretty funny, "The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys", and "theleeharveyoswaldband", which was a relatively straight forward, albeit it definitely speculative, tale.

"The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys" along with three other stories, "Possession", "The Funeral, Ruined" and "Under the Red Sun" were all set in the same world. They were set in very different parts of the world, so that it wasn't until I got to the third story, which referenced both of the two before it, that I realised. I am fond of short stories expanding on the same world. In this case, all the stories dealt with death and life after death, both in the religious sense and in the sense of coming back as a cyborg. I liked the way in which Peek touched upon, for example, the war that affected different aspects of the world, without centring the story on the war itself, just some of its ramifications. And the different attitudes that different people had towards cyborgs were broadly explored throughout the stories.

I have to admit that some of the stories went a bit over my head, I suspect as a result of not being familiar with the right part of American culture. Especially "John Wayne". I caught some of the social commentary, but definitely not all of it. Similarly, I enjoyed "Octavia E Butler (a remix)", but I am positive that there are references to that author's work which I missed on account of not having read any of it (I know, I know, bad me, I'll get to it eventually).

Anyway, as usual, comments on individual stories are below. Peek's writing is well developed and I highly recommend this collection to fans of speculative fiction, especially the kind tending towards the weird, and horror. Also, aficionados of the short story (well, up to novella length, I think) will find much to appreciate here.

  • There Is Something So Quiet and Empty Inside of You That It Must Be Precious — ok, the title of this story makes it even creepier; I had forgotten it while I read. I also went back and read through the chapter/section headings and they were eerie. A story whose creepiness creeps up on you (heh). The kind of horror with a drab and mundane setting that puts the fear in the commonplace.
  • The Dreaming City — I did not know, before reading this story, that Mark Twain had ever visited Australia (apparently he circumnavigated the world in his 60s). The story is told from several perspectives and time-frames. We have Mark Twain on his visit to Sydney and Mark Twain being spoken to by an Aboriginal spirit who shows him the past and, briefly, the future. There's also the point of view of an Aboriginal tribesman told from the landing of the first fleet to his death. That particular story is more of the "progress marches on" variety, whereas Twain's is (sort of) more neutrally observational. There are also some excerpts from the introduction to a more-or-less present-day travel guide, which talk about Twain and Sydney's history. It's a rich story with many layers and very different to the one that preceded it. There are even footnotes on a few historical points, explaining them further.
  • Johnny Cash (A Tale in Questionnaire Results) — This story was pretty funny and quite short, coming in at 50 answers. It is not about Johnny Cash. It is about Reagan, demons and blood sacrifices. And clean-up.
  • Possession — This story started a bit slowly but then improved. Shows us a glimpse into a desolate future and a look at a particular subterranean botanist's life. The future combines some sort of (post-) apocalyptic event and cyborgs as longevity-proofed humans (sort of). Really interesting once it got going.
  • The Souls of Dead Soldiers are for Blackbirds, Not Little Boys — Similar in setting (that is, subterranean) to the previous story and well placed for being so. Otherwise quite different. The title actually describes it very well. The world building was detailed and very much added to the foreign setting and mystical (sort of) story.
  • The Funeral, Ruined — Same world as the previous story, but a different country. And, actually, as I realised a little way in, they are both also set in the same world as "Possession". Addresses some of the personal social consequences of cyborgification from an entirely different perspective to "Possession".
  • Under the Red Sun — Same world as above. Set in a very different place to the previous two stories. I have a particular fondness for short stories set in the same world, and I enjoyed the windows into different societies in this set. This one deals with death (again) and the beliefs surrounding it from the point of view of people who can choose to come back as cyborgs but don't necessarily think that's the right thing to do.
  • John Wayne (As Written by a Non-American) — a story about John Wayne and Orson Welles. I don think I quite "got" it. Maybe one needs to know more US culture? It just seemed a little odd to me (ironic, given that some aspects were supposed to seem odd...)
  • Octavia E. Butler (a remix) — this was a really weird story. The opening confused me, because at first I thought it was going to be about the real Octavia Butler, like how some of the earlier stories featured real people. But as soon became clear, it was a science fictional story, set in a near future with a complicated (and, as it turns out, sentient) disease infecting humanity. Possibly, it was a reference/homage to a story the Butler wrote, but I haven’t read any, so that aspect would’ve been completely lost on me, if it did indeed exist. Beyond that, I’ll just add that it was a fairly depressing story, spanning many years and, more or less, the main character’s entire life.
  • theleeharveyoswaldband — OK, all the stories in this volume were a bit weird, and this one probably falls into the less confusing category. I quite liked it. Told by following a key character and through an interview with someone else in Rolling Stone, it was about a one-man-band's surprising rise to fame and the bootlegger who helped him get there.

4 / 5 stars

First published: March 2014, Chizine Publications
Series: No.
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Challenges: Aussie Science Fiction Reading Challenge, Aussie Horror Reading Challenge

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan

After looking at the Ditmar ballot more carefully, I thought I'd try to get an idea of what Shaun Tan's Rules of Summer is like. Poking around on the book's website, I learnt that it had an app and, seguing my poking to iTunes, I saw that the app was in fact an ebook rendition of the book. Since there's very little chance I'll even get the paper book and since the app was a bargain ($6.49 AUD) for what it was, I grabbed it.
RULES OF SUMMER, is a deceptively simple story about two boys, one older and one younger, and the kind of ‘rules’ that might govern any relationship between close friends or siblings. Rules that are often so strange or arbitrary, they seem impossible to understand from the outside. Yet through each exquisite illustration of this nearly wordless narrative, we can enjoy wandering around an emotional landscape that is oddly familiar to us all.
The "rules" described by the protagonist start of fairly innocuously like "Never eat the last olive at a party" but become darker and more worrying as the story progresses. Although the narrative is told in sparse sentences, a large amount of the story is conveyed in the gorgeous artwork.

The layout of the app is that you turn pages (more or less) to get to each "rule" and then each rule leads you to the corresponding artwork. On the iPad, a single-page image is taller than the screen in landscape mode, but being an iPad, you can easily pan and zoom to see as much or little of the image and detail as you wish. In fact, each image "lands" zoomed in to some pertinent element. The magic of the iPad (or iPhone/iPod Touch, but I can't imaging that experience would be as good) is that you can zoom in on details much more easily than would be possible in the printed version. It's like having a built-in magnifying glass for the artwork. There's also a little bit of pulsing colour areas, which obviously wouldn't exist in the printed version. Another non-printable feature was the background mood music that you could turn up while reading. I think the music complemented the work nicely, but in terms of listening with sound on and off, I don't feel that strongly about it.

A few other features are in the app but (I assume) not the printed book. When you've read through it once, it unlocks sketch mode. This allows you to go through the illustrations (and words) again but with preliminary sketches instead of the finished illustrations. Some of these are charcoal (I think? I'm not entirely au fait with art stuff), while some are in colour but on a smaller scale to the finished oil paintings. The most interesting to me, as someone who isn't remotely a painter, was seeing the sketches which were slightly different to the finished works, and thinking about why they evolved that way.

After reading through the book in sketch mode, you unlock a journal with some early concept images, storyboard and so forth. Seeing some of the "rules" which didn't make it into the book was probably my favourite of the bonus content (for lack of a better term). The glimpse into the development of the book was fascinating.

I highly recommend this book and the app in particular to anyone with a passing interest in fantasy art, children, and fans of Shaun Tan's work. To be honest, I'm not actually sure that the app would be the best way to read the book to children, but it would good for a slightly older child to explore by themselves, I think. Assuming the printed book is what I think it is (that is, just the finished artwork), this app would be a great accompaniment for anyone interested in looking further at the developmental process.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Hachette Australia
Series: no
Format read: iPad app
Source: Purchased from the App Store

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Blogging Against Disablism

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2014 Today is Blogging Against Disablism day and I thought I'd join in. I'm going to be mainly talking about the representation of mental illness and neurological conditions in books, partly because that's one of the things the book that inspired this dealt with and partly because, well, it needs to be talked about. Also, there will be miscellaneous spoilers for some of the books I discuss. Thems the breaks.

The book/series that inspired this post was the Assured Destruction trilogy by Michael F Stewart and, particularly, the final volume, With Zombies. The main character's mother has MS and is confined to a wheel chair — another piece of nice representation in this story —and on top of that, she suffers a period of severe depression (like catatonia severe) starting from somewhere in book two. Obviously this has a strong impact on the main character's life (more so since her mother is her sole parent) but what was most incredible was that her mother wasn't stigmatised for suffering from a mental illness, nor for spending time in the psych ward. And quite frankly, the book gets points just for calling it a psych ward (it's concerning how rare that is). Later on, the main character also ends up in a psych ward (a different one, since she's a teenager — love the attention to detail) suffering from plot-induced acute stress disorder. Her friends, while a little confused about what's been going on at first, end up being really supportive and — gasp! — also don't stigmatise her for having mental illness cooties. The terrible thing is how rare this kind of representation is in books and in real life.

In real life, mental illnesses — especially the kind that require time in a psych ward — tend to come with some stigma attached. I shouldn't have to spell out why this is a bad thing. I also believe that the more people know about mental illnesses and the more they understand how they work (and, critically, how they don't work), the better it will be for everyone. A key way of learning about a diverse range of people is by reading about them or by seeing them in other forms of media. I'm obviously biased towards books because I'm a book-blogger, but I do think the way books allow us to get into characters' heads is a particularly powerful tool.

I've already talked about the thinks I think Michael F Stewart does right in the Assured Destruction trilogy, and now I want to talk about some other books that do things both well and poorly. Also, I'm including characters with neurological conditions as well as mental illnesses because, quite frankly, there isn't a huge number of either.

Viral Nation by Shaunta Grimes is a post-apocalyptic novel about an autistic girl with a service dog, her brother, and some other people they befriend. I don't know as much about autism as I do about some other conditions, but to me this was mostly positive representation. For a discussion of some of the things the author didn't quite get right, I recommend this article. One thing I particularly liked about Viral Nation was that the main character needed support from her brother (or a reasonable facsimile) to comfortably survive. So often "non-independent" characters (scare-quotes because no one is truly independent of other people, yet some forms of dependence are normalised while others are stigmatised) are assumed to be killed off as soon as the first disaster strikes, it's refreshing to see one who survives. I would very much like to see more diverse characters appearing post-apocalyptically.

Some other books with good portrayals are Playing Tyler by TL Costa and Pawn by Aimée Carter. Playing Tyler is split between two point of view characters, one of whom is a teenage boy with ADHD. Costa's writing allows us to get into his head and the choppy way she's written some of his thoughts gives us an idea of what it's like for him. Featuring a bit less prominently, the main character in Pawn is dyslexic. In her dystopian world, this means that she has very few opportunities to live a life not hampered by poverty, despite her intelligence and knowledge. The world is set up so that if you can't do well on exams (which she can't because she has difficulty reading them even though she knows all the content), you can't get ahead. Since she's the main character, unusual circumstances take her in an unexpected direction, but even then, not being able to read is an issue. The reader is set up to empathise with the main character and feel the injustice of her not being able to properly convey her talents to a faceless examination board.

Finally, I want to end on a less positive note. The following book was not one I particularly enjoyed and a large part of that was the ableism perpetrated by the main character. It did not help that Cracked by Eliza Crewe opened in an "insane asylum" complete with just about every stereotype you can think of. Part of the problem is that the main character is a terrible person — that's built into the premise of the worldbuilding — but that doesn't mean I had to like it. The book concludes with (among other things) the main character grudgingly accepting that the "crippled" girl (who has a limp from an old injury) is not as much of a waste of space as she'd initially assumed based on her disability. Charming, right? But what's worse, I think, is that while it's clear that the main character's attitude towards the girl with the limp is part of her being a terrible person and evolving from that, her attitude towards the "insane asylum" and it's residents is not explored at all. And that really pissed me off.

There are just some examples from recent YA books that I've read. I feel like mental illness is more likely to be covered in YA books than adult books, but maybe that's just a case of the genres I read in (speculative fiction on all counts). And I have to admit, part of the reason I chose to talk about mental illness and neurological disorders disorders is because I could think of more books that fit into those categories than books that dealt with other disabilities or chronic illnesses. And I've been going out of my way lately to find books with disabled and/or ill characters, so that makes me sad. (It does mean that there are some waiting to be read that I haven't got to yet, but still.)

More books with more diverse casts! Go!