All posts by mark

A writer of speculative fiction and all round good egg. Well, mostly good. OK, sometimes good.

The Ambassador’s Mission by Trudi Canavan – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2014 Reading Challenge. All my 2014 AWWC reviews can be found here.


The Ambassador's Mission

My first review for the 2014 Australian Women Writers’ challenge. I’m very slow of the mark this year.

Years ago I read Canavan’s first trilogy set in this world – The Black Magician trilogy. I enjoyed it at the time, but hadn’t really followed up on any of Canavan’s other work. When looking for books for the 2014 Australian Women Writers challenge, the thought of continuing some adventures in the same world appealed.

Having been years since reading the first trilogy, it took me a while to re-orient myself in The Ambassador’s Mission. There was a bit of assumed knowledge in the first few chapters – assumed knowledge that I couldn’t quite bring to bear. It made the first part of the novel hard going – I couldn’t remember the rules of the world, exactly what black magic was (for instance), who the characters from the last trilogy were and their relationships with each other.

Once I got past that “entrance exam”, I remembered why I’d liked the first trilogy. Canavan has created an interesting world and this new book expanded that world significantly. The focus on different countries and cultures was very interesting.

Canavan makes interesting comments on same sex relationships and gendered power imbalances through some of her choices for her characters. The points are well made without being overwhelming and I think added to a more sophisticated feel for the book.

Having said all that, the plot is a little slow for my tastes and it didn’t feel like the characters were in enough “peril” (for want of a better word). I never strongly felt that there was a possibility that they would fail (or die), and without that I found it difficult to get as strongly engaged with the characters as I would have liked.

A great book and well worth the read, especially if you like a more sophisticated take on a secondary world fantasy.

I also reviewed this book on Goodreads. View all my reviews.


Creative Commons License
This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

 

Catch up December 2013 – March 2014 – mini reviews

This post contains the first of my “reviews in brief” for books I’ve read. Normally this will be a monthly post, but this month I’ve got to catch up a few months in a row.

Over the summer break (that’s December for any northern hemisphere readers), my wife and I  took the kids to Bali and Western Australia, to visit my brother-in-law and his family for Christmas. Here is a chance to put a dent in the dreaded Kindle to-be-read pile I thought to myself as we set off.

I didn’t. I read Wild Card books instead.

Wild Cards is a anthology series that first came out in the 1980s. It deals with a world where an alien virus kills 90% of the people infected by it (Black Queens), hideously deforms 9% (Jokers), and transforms the lucky 1% into super powered Aces. I loved it at the time, it was a super hero style universe without the somewhat cheesy standard DC/Marvel super heroes that I’d become jaded with in my teen years. Hey, it was the pre-hipster era. Nobody told me you could watch things like Batman and The Incredible Hulk Batman ironically.

I remembered the series recently when I was preparing to attend a George RR Martin interview at the Opera House and came across the first Wild Card book in one of my many boxes of books while looking for my copy of the first volume of Game of Thrones for Martin to sign.

On a whim I looked it up on Amazon to see if you could get copies for the Kindle. I’d never been able to find all the books in the series as a kid (pre-internet and all that).

And there it was, an eBook copy of the original with extra bonus stories. I downloaded it and was instantly transported into 1980′s me heaven. Fortunately it had not been visited by the suck fairy. I devoured it, and then spent the rest of the holidays reading all the books that had been re-released on Kindle. Including the original trilogy:

  • Wild Cards
  • Aces High
  • Jokers Wild

These first three books were very much anthologies, with significantly varied stories. I was amazed at how well a lot of the story telling had held up. These was some material that might be considered slightly problematic in terms of how women are portrayed, but it didn’t seem to grate too much (at least not with me). Super powers in the 80s.

There is a significant gap – it seems like quite a few of the books are yet to make it to eBook form (although from looking at future releases it seems like they are making their way through them over the next year or two). I skipped forward to  a much more recent stand alone book and subsequent trilogy, that was made up of straight novels with an ongoing plot.

  • Death Draws Five
  • Busted Flush
  • Inside Straight
  • Suicide Kings

I didn’t enjoy these four as much as the original books, but it was interesting jumping forward to the 2000s to see how the world had evolved. In particular, watching a world evolve to deal with people whose card might “turn” any time from puberty onwards, especially when they are under stress. I probably preferred the first stand alone novel (Death Draws Five) to the trilogy.

On top of these, I also read two stand alone books. Dueces Down  tells the story of people who get powers, but they are so weak that they don’t really count as Aces. The second book – Fort Freak – was a mosaic novel focusing on the police station that operates out of Jokertown – the Joker slum in New York City. Both were interesting reads, and while not as powerful as the original set of books, they still were very entertaining. So, 9 books later I’d finished my holiday and made virtually no dent in my existing reading pile.

The next four of the older books will be released over the next three months, and I suspect you’ll see them show up in a future monthly review.

I also read the first two books in the Traitor Spy trilogy by Trudi Canavan, however I’m planning a full review of those books for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge so I won’t say any more about them.

The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter is the sequel to The Long Earth, a story about the discovery of many, many unpopulated parallel versions of Earth and mankind’s colonisation of them. It was a good story, well told but lacked the wow factor of the first book, and the stakes didn’t seem very high. It seemed to be setting up for a third book in the series – perhaps that one will be more exciting!

There – we’re up to date.

 

Time management and the art of maintaining a blog

I don’t spend enough time writing.

As we’ve established in previous blog posts, I am somewhat time poor. Between a busy job, a busy family, the ever increasing health related demands of middle age and wanting to keep my writing going, I’m not giving everything the attention it deserves.

Over the last 18 months, exercise and writing have taken a back seat to work and family. Life hasn’t been feeling particularly balanced though, and in the last few months I’ve been trying to find ways to carve out a bit more time for writing (and exercise for that matter – although with less success).

One of the things that has dropped away as a result is regular posting on this blog. Last year it was generally time pooredness (that’s not a word) that kept my updates infrequent. But this year, as a part of my write-at-least-one-page-before-you-go-to-bed strategy, I’ve said to myself that the one page has to be done before any blog writing.

And that has meant significantly less blog writing.

I want to keep the blog up, but something has to give. And I’ve decided that thing is a full review of every book that I read.

I’m lots of books behind at the moment. I read quite a few books over the Christmas break that haven’t made it onto the blog yet. I’ve been doing some reading particularly for the 2014 Australian Women Writers’ Reading Challenge, which are way back in the queue. And I can’t see me ever catching up.

So, I’m going to try something different. Each month I’m going to put in a blog post that summarises the books I’ve read through the month. I’ll save a full review for those books where I have something particular to say, or where there is some specific purpose to me writing a review.

And I’ll try to keep most of my blog writing focused on the process of writing and publication.

If any regular readers of the blog see a book that I’ve skipped over in terms of reviews and want to know more, just leave a comment and I’ll add some more detail. Otherwise, lets try this new approach and see where it leads us!

Dimension6 launches

Dimension6

I’m very excited to see a new speculative fiction magazine launch in Australia. It’s Dimension6, Keith Stevenson’s latest venture through his publishing house Coeur de Lion.

Long time readers might recall that I interviewed Keith for GalacticChat a few months back. Keith is a mainstay of the Australian speculative fiction scene and one of its true innovators. I’m excited to see what he’ll do with Dimension6.

Go and check it out – can’t argue with the price (free!).

This website is also an affiliate for Dimension6 – you can download each issue’s copy from this page.

Getting to “The End” – novel first draft finished

Well, last night I wrote the words “The End” in the notebook I’ve been writing my novel Unaligned in. Those that have been following along with the blog know that I’ve been trying a new approach to getting regular writing done this year, and because of it I’ve managed to get to the end of the first draft of the novel I started back in 2011 (and pretty much abandoned throughout 2013) over the last three months.

Of course I still have to convert the last 20,000 words from freak-localised-household-fire-could-ruin-me notebooks to backed-up-in-about-4-different-places-should-survive-the-apocalypse electronic form. And then do a structural edit, because I’m pretty sure the end doesn’t connect up properly with the beginning given the 2 years between writing the two parts. And even a cursory read over my early work makes me blush, as, now that I think of it, does a cursory reading over my later work. So lots of copy editing. And the dialogue could use some work. And there are a lot of dodgy/lazy metaphors. And I’m worried the ending doesn’t have the right level of crescendo.

But apart from that, it’s excellent.

But despite all that it feels like an achievement. At GenreCon last year, crime author John Connolly talked a lot about finishing the things you start. While I was listening to him, my normal cynical self was parsing his words as self help clap trap. But despite that initial reaction, those words stuck with me and I began to realise that not finishing the novel was subtly bugging me. My reasons for leaving it to one side had been sound – there was a lot of life going on at the time that quite rightly demanded my attention and I decided that in what little time I had available to write I wanted to practice my craft on shorter length pieces, where I could get more immediate payback/feedback. But not finishing was creating friction in my subconscious, that tiny irritation that’s always there but hard to detect until its gone.

Well now its gone.

I’m excited about the challenge of editing and making the story the best it can be. There’s a lot of work ahead – more than the effort of getting this first version down, that’s for sure. But I am left feeling that a milestone has been met, and I didn’t want to let that pass by without note.

So, let it here be noted.

Galactic Chat – 2014 season off and running

After a bit of a hiatus over the summer break, the Galactic Chat podcast is off and running again for 2014.

David McDonald kicked off the  year with a fascinating interview with one of my favourite authors, Kaaron Warren. Warren is a stalwart of the Australian horror scene, with some truly disturbing tales. I’ve reviewed a few of her works over the last couple of years, including Through Splintered Walls, Mistification and IshtarIt’s a great listen.

Alex Pierce then moves the year along with an interview with Tehani Wessley. Wessely is the principal of Fablecroft, a small independent press here in Australia. While Galactic Chat tends to focus on authors, I love the interviews with people involved in other aspects of the publishing world. Well worth a listen, especially if you’re keen on understanding the Australian speculative fiction publishing scene.

At the time of writing this post, Wessely’s Pozible project Cranky Ladies of History, is still active here.

To top off this brilliant start to the broadcasting year, Sean, our stalwart leader and driving force behind Galactic Chat, has started  a Facebook competition where you can win copies of Jonathan Strahan’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. Go to our Facebook page for details.

If you like to keep up with the Australian speculative fiction scene, Galactic Chat is the place to do it. Do your ears a favour and download one of the podcasts.

(You could even vote for it in the Ditmars, but only if you want to :-)

 

Short story sale – Robot and Raygun

Well, good news in the Webb household as I celebrate my first short story sale for actual money. Wefting the Warp is a 4,300 word science fiction story and has been bought by Robot and Rayguna new UK based online and print magazine. From their blurb:

Robot and Raygun features all kinds of science fiction, from post apocalyptic worlds to starships travelling through the voids of space and all that lies between.  It is our aim to help fire your imagination and to envision the many futures that lay before us.

Each issue is made up of a selection of short stories to help you discover great new writers of science fiction.

R&R put out their first edition in March 2014, and my story appears in Issue 2, April 2014 which has just been released.

It is a great feeling to have someone like your work enough to pay for it. This is also my first short story length piece to be published (previous publications have been flash fiction).

As always, my bibliography page has details on where you can find all my published work.

Several people have given editorial feedback on the story, and to them I’d like to offer my sincerest thanks. The story wouldn’t have made it without you.

2014 Ditmar Eligibility Post Roundup

Last year I produced a roundup of all the Ditmar eligibility posts I could find.  The Ditmar awards are the Australian national awards for speculative fiction that are voted on by members of the speculative fiction community. The awards are usually attached to the National Convention, which is being held this year in Melbourne at Continuum X.

The nomination process for the 2014 Ditmars is open until 30th March, and can be found at this online form.

While there is a wiki site that contains a pretty comprehensive list of works that are eligible for the Ditmars, I also thought it would be useful to keep track of all the eligibility posts I read around the traps. Will keep adding in items as I come across them – feel free to suggest authors/posts in the comments below.

In no particular order (or rather, the order I happened to come across them):

I’m struggling to find other posts this year – seems to be less than normal. Perhaps people are relying on the Wiki to get the word out.

 

Ditmar eligibility 2014

The Ditmar awards are the Australian national awards for speculative fiction that are voted on by members of the speculative fiction community. The awards are usually attached to the National Convention, which is being held this year in Melbourne at Continuum X.

The nomination process for the 2014 Ditmars is open until 30th March, and can be found at this online form.

Follow the following link to a wiki site that contains a pretty comprehensive list of works that are eligible for the Ditmars. Well worth a look if you’re stuck trying to remember what culture you consumed last year.

Some artists agonise over whether to publicise their own eligibility for awards, concerned that it may be considered crude and self serving by the community at large. I hold no such sensibilities, so here goes.

Best Short Story

I have two stories that are eligible under the short story category:

You can still read both stories online in the Antipodean SF archive site – just follow the links.

Best Fan Publication in Any Medium

Last year I was lucky enough to be involved with Galactic Chat, a podcast which interviews people involved in the Australian speculative fiction scene. It was (and continues to be) a great experience. Sean Wright is the anchor that holds the podcast together, and I’d love to see him (and all my podcast colleagues) get acknowledged for the work that they do.

  • Galactic Chat Podcast, Sean Wright, Alex Pierce, Helen Stubbs, David McDonald, Mark Webb and Sarah Parker

Best Fan Writer

Well, theoretically you could nominate me for this award as well. But I’ve been looking through the eligibility list and frankly there are a lot more talented, and prolific, fan writers out there. But for completeness:

William Atheling Jr Award for Review or Criticism

I was quite happy with my reviews as a part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers’ Reading Challenge. So, if you wanted to nominate me for anything here:

That’s about it for my contributions to the field in 2013, meagre as they were. Stand by for more posts about excellent stuff I’ve seen and enjoyed elsewhere in the Australian scene. And get voting!

My new writing process – 2 months in

So, at the end of last year I wrote a post about my plans for my writing in 2014. In it I put forward a new writing process, to try for “slow and steady” progress. I thought it might be time for an update on how it is going.

I’ve tried a lot of different techniques for getting more regular in my writing. After trying a lot of pieces of software, I’ve landed on Scrivener as my preferred electronic writing tool of choice. But as I’ve commented elsewhere, when writing directly on the computer I find it hard to turn off my inner editor, and it is difficult to get any momentum going.

Back in 2012 I had some success with setting myself weekly goals instead of daily goals. By having a target of 2,000 words a week, I managed to get 70,000 words into the first draft of my novel over a 6 month period. However, this happened to coincide with a very slow period at work when I could pop down to a local cafe at lunch time and get 30 – 45 minutes writing done. Once work picked up to its usual frenetic pace, this technique fell away.

Since then I’ve been drifting – writing in fits and starts. The long period between writing sessions would mean that I would take ages to get started. Kids would interrupt, time would run out. Every now and then I’d get inspired and get a lot of words down in one big session, but it was very hit and miss.

So, my new plan. I took into account a few factors:

  1. I seem much better at turning off the inner editor when I am writing freehand.
  2. Regular writing is more important than volume of writing.
  3. I am never going to find distraction free time.

With all that in mind, my new writing technique has been going like this. I have a preferred type of notebook for writing (a certain type of Moleskin notebook with completely blank pages, each page roughly A5 size). On each page I seem to average 100 – 110 words. So, I decided on the following:

  • Each day I have to write at least 1 page in one of my notebooks. That’s only 100 words. It doesn’t matter how late I stay up, how much other stuff I have on, I need that 100 words.
  • Most of the time those 100 words happen as my absolute last thing of the day. I’m tired. I’m often slightly snarky. It is exactly the opposite of the time of day most people recommend for writing. However, it is about the only time that is practical.
  • Most nights I do more than 1 page. Some nights I only barely do 1 page.
  • I leave the writing sitting, then follow along about 6 weeks behind typing it up into Scrivener. Here I let my inner editor go crazy, and what I type up is often quite different than what I wrote in the first place. It’s still pretty crappy, but it’s slightly more consistent crap.

Since I started this technique on 1 January 2014, I’ve written about 150 pages, conservatively about 15,000 words. That’s about the same number of words than I wrote in all of last year. I seem to be able to sustain it. It seems to be working. I’ll never be the most prolific writer in the world, but I’m very glad to be making progress.

That’s enough for now – I still have a page to fill up before I can go to bed.