First story hits the airwaves

My first published story (Shipwrecked – published by the Antipodean SF website) has also been aired on the AntiSF radio show (with yours truly providing the voice “talent”). If you missed it on Nambucca Valley community radio station 2NVR, the podcast of the radio show (episode 163 alpha) is also available on the web.

Details of this and my other publications can be found on my bibliography page. Don’t get too excited – the list is distressingly brief so far.

Neil Gaiman at the Wheeler Centre

I just listened to the recording of Neil Gaimen‘s recent appearance at the Wheeler Centre. I’ve never listened to him speak before – it was a very interesting insight into his approach to working across an eclectic range of media, the modern publishing scene and his sources of inspiration. Also very funny – I particularly liked the panda story towards the start of the presentation.

If you haven’t had a chance, I’d recommend watching the video of the event that is up on the Wheeler Centre website.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – review

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes has a very interesting premise. People who have committed heinous crimes (mostly murder) have their guilt manifest as an animal that cannot be far removed from their person on pain of… well pain. With such an obvious manifestation of a shady past, those with animals generally form a sub-class of society. But with this downgraded socio-economic status comes one advantage – the animals confer on their “owners” a power. The exact nature of the power changes from person to person.

The story is set in an alternate Johannesburg in an alternate South Africa. The main character (Zinzi December) is in possession of a sloth, who gives her the ability to find lost things. While her past is never examined in depth, it becomes clear fairly early that her upbringing was relatively privileged and that she’d been a journalist in a previous life.

First off can I say – a sloth! The choice of animal alone made me predisposed to like this book. There must have been some temptation to use a “cool” animal. Ms Beukes resisted that temptation, and created a much richer character pair between Zinzi and her sloth as a result. I notice nobody seemed to name their animal – I guess as a manifestation as a part of themselves it would seem somewhat redundant.

I liked the Zinzi character a lot. She is obviously a very flawed protagonist – she did something awful to get her sloth in the first place and has amassed a significant debt courtesy of a former drug addiction, which she is paying off by undertaking some morally questionable activities. While she doesn’t show much remorse for doing what she needs to in order to survive, it is clear that she is striving to extract herself from her situation and have the chance to lead a better life. It made for the kind of character I like – flawed but functional.

The story reads as a urban fantasy detective novel, with Zinzi looking for a missing pop star in return for a sizeable fee. I found the plot solid and reasonably engaging – it felt mostly like a vehicle for showcasing the world building and main character, but was interesting enough to keep me along for the ride.

The description of Johannesburg was enthralling. In fact, there was a fantastic sense of place throughout the novel – I thought Ms Beukes did an excellent job of painting a picture of the city and its surrounds (of course I have never been to Johannesburg so I have no idea whether it was an accurate picture but it was certainly vivid!)

The themes of how society treats its underclasses were woven in subtly enough that I didn’t feel beaten over the head (soften perhaps by the fact that the price of entry to this particular part of society was killing someone – no accidents of birth here).

I really liked Ms Beukes use of alternate media/communication formats for showing backstory and moving the plot along in parts. Email scams, chat sessions, newspaper articles – even an IMDb entry. As much as I liked them, I did wonder a couple of times whether those aspects would make the book date a little more quickly than it otherwise would (a little like the more recent William Gibson novels Spook Country and Zero History). Along with some other elements  – such as naming brands and giving a definitive timetable for the introduction of the animalled – it marks the book as of its time.

I was heading towards absolutely loving this book, but I felt a little let down by the end. Without giving any specific plot away, I felt Zinzi’s participation in the final scenes was very passive. If she hadn’t been there, I’m not sure what would have been different. Still, it was an excellent book overall and hopefully there is a sequel somewhere in the works – I’d love to read more about this animalled world.

I read this novel as a result of it being the subject of one of my favourite podcasts, The Writer and the Critic, this month (January 2012).

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.

The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood was a very interesting read. It is set in Melbourne, Australia in a near future where the Australian population has become almost entirely sterile as an unintended consequence of a hastily rolled out mass vaccination program for a new strain of avian flu. A new ultra nationalist/ultra conservative/ultra religious party called Nation First has used the crisis to get into power, and immediately denounced scientific infertility solutions as being the work of <insert bad supernatural entity of choice here>, with clean living and godliness being the only way to fertility.

The heightened awareness of fertility has led to an even stronger set of prejudices around gender identity. The protagonist, Salisbury Forth (Sal), identifies as androgynous – not the easiest path in this milieu. Sal works as a bicycle courier for an illegal fertility treatment distributor and is an animal rights activist. When someone starts distributing inferior knockoffs of the treatments under Sal’s employers brand, mystery ensues.

I recently read and enjoyed Ms Westwood’s contribution to the Anywhere But Earth anthology, so I’ve been looking forward to reading this book.

The heightened gender politics in the novel were very confronting. While obviously exaggerated in this darker world, you can see the origins of the attitudes represented in today’s society. I’ve always struggled to understand why people care so much how someone choses to live their lives when it is not harming anyone else, but if you have a relatively liberal circle of friends it is easy to forget how much prejudice still exists in broader society. I think Australians in particular will resonate with the future painted, because you can certainly identify those aspects of contemporary Australian political life that are being built upon to create the world of The Courier’s New Bicycle.

Counterbalancing this dark setting is a beautifully rendered series of relationships that show the importance of the family you choose to form around you in life as opposed to the one you are born into. The examination of self in this context was very powerful, and one of the stronger elements of the book.

That’s all a bit metaphysical though, so lets focus on the story for a moment. Sal-as-reluctant-detective investigates an acceptably interesting mystery and there is a good balance of action with mystery solving. Care is taken to ensure that all red herrings are explained. Sometimes the explanations felt a little forced, but you certainly weren’t left wondering about any loose ends. All of the sometimes disparate elements of the story come together at the end.

The sense of place was also very strong in this book. My wife is from Melbourne originally, and as a result I’ve spent more time there in the last 10 years. I loved the description of the dystopian city and the images created of settings I know (especially some of the fancier parts of the southern parts of Melbourne that have fallen on hard times!). For those not familiar with Melbourne it will obviously have less impact, but for those that are it is a fantastic contributor to the reading experience.

The character of Sal was very sympathetic, and the story was certainly arranged such that future novels could be set in the same world. If any ever are, I’ll be lining up to get my copy.

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.

Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti is one of the Twelve Planets series published by Twelfth Planet Press (12 boutique collections of stories by Australian women writers). It is made up of five shorter stories, including:

  • Shades of Grey
  • Palming the Lady
  • Web of Lies
  • Bad Power
  • Cross That Bridge

This is the first work by Ms Biancotti that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. The five stories are set it the same world, a version of modern Australia where some people have highly unique and personalised powers (the exception being the short story Bad Power which is set in the same world but in an earlier time period).

I think the setting established in this collection would lend itself well to a longer story as well, and this collection did an excellent job at establishing a very interesting background if Ms Biancotti ever decided to go in that direction.

I loved the way the stories related. They were very cleverly crafted to fit in to one other well. Minor characters introduced in one story become dominant in another. I don’t think you’d get anywhere near as much impact/understanding if you read the stories out of order. The writing is fairly dark but with very balanced characters and each story contains an interesting exploration of aspects of human nature and how people react to the unknown.

Shades of Grey introduces the world and Samuel Rainer (“Esser”) Grey, a wealthy man used to getting his own way in life who finds that he is literally indestructible and isn’t impressed. It is an interesting exploration of a man who, through both his wealth and his power, finds himself living a consequence free life and the lengths he goes to in order to try and re-introduce consequences into it to feel more human. This is not a pleasant tale – Ms Biancotti takes Grey to a dark place. But as a result the story packed more of a punch.

Palming the Lady takes a minor character from the first story, Detective Enora Palmer and makes her the lead. In this story, she is investigating a complaint by a university student (Matthew Webb – somewhat unlikeable in this story which is unfortunate given our shared last name) about being stalked by a homeless woman. It turns out the homeless woman has a power as well. I liked the way the unnamed homeless woman was described, taking the reader from a superficial description of her appearance (mimicking most of our initial reactions to homeless people) to making her a very sympathetic, richly described character, all without telling us her name.

Web of Lies focuses on in on the Matthew Webb character. His father has just died, and it turns out that Webb has a power as well, one that his father has kept him medicated against for most of his life. The story is mostly told from Webb’s drug/alcohol/hangover addled perspective. With Webb’s disintegration we also see his mother’s emergence from her own prescription drug haze. The mother character is very interesting/chilling, and by the end of the story I found myself rethinking the entire family power dynamics.

Bad Power was very interesting. Told in first person and in a different (much earlier) time period, it tells the story of one of the first people in Australia to have emerging powers and the reaction of those around her. The style of story telling is very different, and to be honest it took me a couple of pages to work out what was going on (the connection between the first three stories is a lot clearer, this one you have to work at a bit). The story telling is strong and quite dark, but the ending is more surprising as a result. Having finished the book and looking back, I would say this is probably my favourite story of the lot although I might not have said that when I was in the middle of reading it. I think the shift in time and setting worked well to provide a contrast to the other stories.

Cross That Bridge is back to modern Australia, this time focusing on Detective Palmer’s new partner Detective Maxillius Ponti. Detective Ponti has a knack for finding lost children and uses it to track down Angie, a young girl who has used a power of her own to leave her suburban life behind. It is probably the most optimistic of the five stories, with Detective Ponti seeming comfortable with his power and using it for good. It nicely rounds out the collection.

The blurb for this book says “If you like Haven and Heroes, you’ll love Bad Power“. Having just watched season 1 of Haven, I can certainly see where the comparison is coming from – Detective Palmer reminded me a lot of Special Agent Audrey Parker and the view of powers as more of a curse than a blessing is a theme that runs through both shows. Bad Power is sufficiently different as to stand apart though – as much as I enjoyed Haven, Bad Power is a much more intelligent treatment of the subject.

This is an excellent collection, and I highly recommend it.

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 Unported License.

Haven – Season 1 – review

I got Haven Season 1 from the kids for Christmas, and K and I have pretty much inhaled it over the last week or so.

The series is (very) loosely based on a novella by Stephen King called The Colorado Kid. The TV series follows FBI special agent Audrey Parker who arrives in a small town called Haven in Maine, USA where people are exhibiting strange powers/abilities (a result of The Troubles – a phenomenon which has occurred before – and leaving people afflicted with powers they can barely control). After Parker, an orphan, finds a photo of a woman that looks exactly like her in the local paper’s archives from years before, she joins forces with a local police detective, Nathan Wuornos, to investigate the strange goings on and perhaps find out something about the woman she suspects is her mother.

This is a series that definitely gets better as it goes on. After the first few episodes I was feeling fairly ambivalent about it. The premise was interesting enough in the abstract and the characters were solid, but it felt a bit “freak of the week” and the solutions to the afflicted’s problems seemed a little fragile (for instance a blind man who can separate his shadow which proceeds to rampage around killing people is put in his house with all the windows blacked out so no light can get in. While I understand the concept, it seems like an impractical way to spend the rest of your life…).

However, as the story arc covering Parker’s search for her mother comes to the fore in the second half of the season the series really picks up. By the final episode K and I were hooked, and quite disappointed when we realised we couldn’t get season 2 straight away!

The scenery and landscape is beautiful. The series was mostly shot in Nova Scotia and it is obviously a lovely part of the world. It was shot on film, which makes for a beautiful cinematography.

The characters grow on you and the cliff hanger at the end was suitably tense. Parker is a good female lead – pretty kick arse all round.

There are only 13 episodes in season 1, so if you are going to try this show out then I recommend you commit to the whole thing before you make up your mind.

Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge.

I recently read Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts and liked it a lot. On the strength of that collection I decided to give Ms Roberts latest trilogy a try. Power and Majesty is book one of the Creature Court trilogy, a fantasy series set (going off the map at the front) in an alternate Earth, more specifically in an alternate Italy.

Teenagers Velody, Delphine and Rhian have come to the city of Aufleur (an alternate Rome?) to become an apprentice dressmaker, ribboner and florister respectively. One night Velody sees a young man (Garnet) fall from the sky and land in the street outside. He displays magical abilities and sees in her the ability to use the same magic. Freaking out, Velody agrees to give up her powers and give them to Garnet, then promptly loses her memory of the encounter.

12 years or so later, Garnet dies and Velody suddenly gets her power back. She enters the world of the Creature Court, where powered individuals fight attacks from the sky at night to keep the city safe (the normal citizenry are completely oblivious to both the danger and the Creature Court and indeed seem to spend their days celebrating an almost never ending series of festivals). The Court is a decadent place and the rest of the book describes Velody’s trials and tribulations as she attempts to navigate its somewhat murky waters.

The magic system is very interesting – practitioners are aligned to a particular animal and can split themselves into multiple instances of that animal (although I have to think that splitting your consciousness multiple ways to control your various animal vessels has got to at least involve a headache). The Creature Court is divided into a hierarchy depending on levels of power, with more powerful members having stronger abilities. I liked the way the magic was described and the complex web of interrelationships that make up the Court.

Sometimes the first book in a trilogy works well as a stand alone novel as well. This is not one of those books. It felt very much like the first in a series, and established the major characters without fully introducing the main antagonist (assuming you consider the danger from the sky as the main antagonist). If you considered this as a stand alone book, it would feel a little underdone. As a start of a trilogy it did a good job of whetting my appetite for the rest of the series.

I enjoyed the writing and the characters seemed well realised to me. The dialogue was great and the main characters seemed quite three dimensional. The minor characters were also excellent, with my personal favourite being the Sentinel Macready. The pacing was just about spot on and there was a good balance of violence, vicious politics and romantic elements (although I must say that the cover makes the book look like it is going to be mainly a romance and I wouldn’t describe it that way at all).

As someone with very little interest in the craft/fashion world there were aspects of Velody, Delphine and Rhian’s professional day jobs that were difficult to generate enthusiasm for. I suspect someone with a stronger interest would have got more out of those sections of the book.

The only bit of the story that bothered me a little was that there was a touch of the never-done-martial-arts-before-go-into-the-woods-for-a-week-and-become-a-kung-fu-master-accompanied-by-a-suitable-video-montage in how quickly Velody came into mastery of her powers. Given the painstaking time it took each of the three women to master the skills necessary for them to become successful in their chosen daytime professions, I thought there might be a little more of that ethos in mastering the magic as well. But that is a minor quibble, and at least it did serve to move the story along at a good pace.

(As an aside, I got this novel on the Kindle and there was some weirdness in how it rendered the text. The font size kept jumping around and for most of the book even the smallest font setting on the Kindle had very big text on the screen. But every now and then it would revert to normal for a few pages. I’ve read quite a few books on the Kindle, and this was the first time I’ve seen behaviour like this. Having said that, my Kindle is a couple of generations out of date – perhaps that had something to do with it).

Overall I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. Excellent fantasy generally, and if you particularly like dress making, ribboning and floristry then you’ll like it all the more!

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 Unported License.

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini – review

A good friend of mine who is not a fan of speculative fiction found that she loved the Harry Potter books (I recognise that she isn’t Robinson Crusoe there). When that series was coming to an end, she decided she wanted to try another fantasy series and settled on the Inheritance Cycle. While I don’t usually read much young adult fiction, I decided to read the books at the same time to be supportive and so we could discuss them (and with the hope I might be able to direct her towards some other novels she might like down the track).

So, I over the last couple of years I’ve found myself reading the four books of the Inheritance Cycle, culminating most recently in the final volume Inheritance. I give this by way of introduction to make it clear that I don’t read much young adult fiction, as such I perhaps don’t have a wide enough reading base to compare. So, this review is probably aimed more at an adult reader of speculative fiction i.e. not the target market for the book. Read on with that grain of salt.

My friend loves these books. She was absolutely gutted when the third book ended up being split into two. She has been waiting impatiently for this fourth book. A quick glance over some of the many reviews in Goodreads confirms that once again she isn’t stranded alone on a desert island on this topic (as a side note, I’m not quite sure I understand the desire to give a book a 5 star rating before it has been released. How do you know? I suspect I’m missing something there too).

I didn’t love this series in the same way. While I could perhaps understand the appeal intellectually, I found the characters and plots somewhat shallow. The good guys were really good. The bad guy was really bad. The few characters with shades of grey (I’m thinking mainly of Murtagh here) were compelled to be bad by forces outside their control (despite this I did find Murtagh to be the most interesting of the characters as a result of his “greyness”, and I would have liked to see more space devoted to him).

Difficulties faced by our heroes were mostly resolved within a few pages, especially internal imperfections. This seemed to be a major theme of all the books. Eragon in particular was faced with a series of personal challenges, but it seemed like as soon as a shortcoming was revealed he almost immediately found a way of overcoming it. Mr Paolini constantly told us that Eragon had character flaws, but these character flaws never seemed to actually manifest in anything other than trivial ways.

I also had some difficulty with some of the devices used to resolve major plot points (e.g. major sources of power becoming conveniently available – although to be fair Mr Paolini did make some effort to foreshadow some of these elements in earlier books). Mr Paolini does seem to be heavily influenced by some other stories, which again probably isn’t so much an issue for younger readers (or readers new to the genre) who haven’t come across the themes (dare I say tropes?) before.

The book was readable without being challenging at all. There did seem to be a lot of filler – I did find myself wondering whether the last two books really needed to be split, or whether some tighter editing could have produced a single volume covering the same plot.  The last hundred pages or so was a very Lord of the Rings style wrap up of nearly every plot point that had been raised throughout the series but hadn’t been resolved before the climactic battle. I was keen to finish the book by this point and that may have flavoured my reading, but it did feel like the editor had made a list of all the unresolved plot points and the author sat down and wrote a paragraph for each one. However I was happy with the way the Eragon/Arya relationship plot was resolved.

Having said all that, the plot did move along at a fairly fast rate (although I must admit that I was skipping the occasional descriptive paragraph). The battles were large scale and executed competently enough.

I did get the impression that I would have liked the book a lot more when I was a kid and I didn’t have patience for loose threads and flawed characters. There were enough battles with enough gore to keep young Mark entertained, and a lot of triumphing over impossible odds. As I said before, I’m not the target market for this book and I suspect that it probably does a much better job at appealing to that audience than I’m able to see.

Generally speaking this wasn’t the series for me, but I can see how for a younger audience or those new to genre books it would have greater appeal.

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

Make Mine a Macchiato accepted for publication

Hot on the heels of my last news, Ion Newcombe, the editor at Antipodean SF, has also accepted another one of my flash fiction pieces for publication. Make Mine a Macchiato is currently scheduled for issue 166 of Antipodean SF, published in April 2012. I’ll also record a reading for the radio show/podcast, which will be broadcast some time in April.

That’s three publications so far. My bibliography page seems positively full! Many thanks again to Ion and the group of people that volunteer to help out with Antipodean SF.

The Gloriously Cunning Plan accepted for publication

Ion Newcombe, the editor at Antipodean SF, has been kind enough to accept another one of my flash fiction pieces for publication. The Gloriously Cunning Plan will appear in issue 165 of Antipodean SF, currently scheduled for March 2012.

It is very exciting to have a second story published – if for no other reason that I can start to tell myself that the first publication was not a complete fluke! Many thanks to Ion for giving me the opportunity.

But yes, this also means that I need to record another reading for the radio show/podcast. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to my voice eventually.