Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan – review

Cracklescape cover

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge. All my AWWC reviews can be found here.

Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan 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 four shorter stories, including:

  • The Duchess Dresser
  • The Isles of the Sun
  • Bajazzle
  • Significant Dust

Cracklescape is a beautiful book, with the stylish writing that characterises Lanagan’s work. In some ways it is more literary than genre, where exploration of language and elegant passages and phrases are prioritised over plot. Despite its short length, I do not recommend coming to this book for a quick read. More than one of the stories that I read late at night before going to bed I found myself having to read again with a less sleep deprived brain to make sense of it. For this reason more than anything else, I appreciated and admired Crackescape without loving it.

I recognise that this loses me genre-cred.

The Duchess Dressor tells the story of a share house dweller who finds a duchess dresser by the side of the road. The dresser is cursed/haunted. This opening piece is filled with strong imagery, evoking sadness and quiet desperation with gorgeous prose. I was a little let down by the ending, the story just seemed to peter out.

The Isles of the Sun involves a Pied Piper style engagement of alien/other worldly creatures with a town’s children. The ring leading child Elric was particularly well drawn here, with a distinctive voice and an almost cultish vibe to his engagement with the other children. Switching perspective to the mother for the last part of the story was very effective, and there was an ambiguity to the end which I found very appealing.

Bajazzle was an uncomfortable read. The point of view character Don was very unsympathetic. In fact, all of the characters were unsympathetic but yet the story remained engaging. This story had a bit of raunch in it, which was vividly described and quite visceral.

Significant Dust was probably the least genre of the stories, going back to the early 80s to describe a young woman’s retreat into a lonely existence working in a roadside diner in the Western Australian outback. The backdrop of the story is a UFO encounter, but the story itself doesn’t really have any genre elements. I thought this story was structured very effectively, with interspaced flashbacks that effectively filled in the reason for the lead character’s despair.

I’ve been impressed with the whole Twelve Planets collection so far, and Cracklescape is a worthy addition to the series.


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

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Salvage by Jason Nahrung – review

Salvage cover

I didn’t really know what to expect from Salvage by Jason Nahrung published by Twelfth Planet Press. I’ve read and enjoyed Nahrung’s short fiction in a variety of venues, so I knew enough about his preferred genre to assume this novella would be horror. I’d also picked up somewhere that there were vampires involved and it was set on Queensland island (a juxtaposition that sounded interesting), but beyond that nothing. I even avoided reviews from my usual sources so was able to come to the story pretty fresh.

After some of the raw imagery and violence of Nahrung’s other work, I was surprised at how understated and nuanced a story Salvage is. The main character, Melanie, is in a slowly disintegrating marriage. Melanie and her husband Richard have come to a holiday house reminiscent of happier days to work on their marriage. Things aren’t going so well when Melanie meets the mysterious Helena.

The description of a marriage on the rocks was extremely effective, making Melanie’s eventual attraction to Helena very believable. Indeed for a shorter form of fiction, the description of all the main characters was excellent, with Melanie’s development over the course of the story particularly well handled. While I wasn’t able to personally relate to some of the issues Melanie was dealing with, the exploration of the character left me feeling very sympathetic to her plight.

(There is a bit of raunch in the story – if that kind of thing isn’t your cup of tea there will be parts of Salvage that you won’t love).

The setting was richly described, really immersing the reader in isolated tropical splendour. I had wondered how the bright sunshine reputation of Queensland would mesh with dark loving creatures of the night, but the combination of humid heaviness and wild tropical storms was a surprisingly effective backdrop.

The take on the vampire was also unexpected and quite different from what I’ve seen from Nahrung previously. Indeed, I came away from Salvage with a deeper appreciation for Nahrung’s body of work in general. His range is quite excellent and he is rapidly cementing his place as one of my favourite authors.

Nahrung is releasing a novel soon called Blood and Dust, from Australian publisher Xoum. I’ll be virtually lining up for my electronic copy.

Highly recommended.

(Disclaimer: I met Nahrung at a recent conference, and a nicer person you’re not ever likely to meet. I don’t think that fact has influenced my enjoyment of his work, but then again you never know).

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

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

A Flash in the Pan? now available through Smashwords

I’ve recently put my flash fiction pieces together into one (very small) eBook mainly to have them in one place (and to try out the Smashwords process, which was very interesting in and of itself). I’ve called the collection A Flash in the Pan? and it is available through Smashwords. Just to remind you, the collection includes:

  • Beware Antipodean Shores (50 words)
  • Shipwrecked (500 words)
  • The Gloriously Cunning Plan (500 words)
  • Make Mine a Macchiato (500 words)
  • Striking Twice (500 words)
  • In the Service of the Public (500 words)
  • The Devil Wears Ugly Shapeless Garments Covered in Dog Hair (500 words)

I’ve also included a brief author’s note under each story just to give you a feel for what I was thinking when I was writing. It’s free, so if you missed any of my stories through the year (or just want to be able to enjoy them again and again!), feel free to go and download a copy in one of the myriad of formats that Smashwords supports.

I might write a separate post on the process of taking a manuscript on Scrivener and getting it published on Smashwords. It took me quite a few goes to get it right.

My thanks to “BluntChisel” who read and reviewed the collection within 12 hours of me publishing it! I’ve never met you BluntChisel, but seeing your review made my day.

Details of all my publications can be found at my bibliography.

GenreCon 2012 – Sydney (2nd – 4th November 2012)

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the inaugural GenreCon in Sydney. This is only the second convention I’ve attended, the first being this years SF National Convention Continuum 8 (see my earlier series of blog posts for a blow by blow description of my fun and games). There was a remarkably different tone in this event, which was aimed at writing professionals (writers, editors, publishers, book sellers etc). The fan elements of Continuum gave a good community feel, but I must admit that at my stage of writing I think that the GenreCon program was probably better suited to my needs.

The program for GenreCon can be found here.

Unfortunately work kept me away from the opening night drinks on Friday 2nd November and late night panel discussion, although I’m told they went well. I showed up bright and shiny on the Saturday morning. The conference “kit” included a free book (always a good way to start off the morning) and before I knew it I was sitting in the main room waiting for the first keynote speech of the day.

Meg Vann (incoming CEO of the Queensland Writer’s Centre) opened proceedings with an upbeat description of the state of genre fiction and the process by which GenreCon had come together. She was extremely energetic. I personally would have needed a much stronger cup of tea to match those energy levels after my 2 hour public transport trip to reach the wilds of Parramatta. She turned over to Kate Eltham (the outgoing CEO of the QWC) who made some thoughtful comments on the state of the industry, including the concept that the current changes in markets more reflect the move from manuscript scarcity to plenty, rather than any particular technology issue.

The opening address was followed by a community showcase by the Romance Writers of Australia. While I don’t write in the romance genre, I have heard a lot of good things about the professional nature of the RWA. The talk certainly bore this out, it is clear that they provide their members with significant support. It is a shame that the broader speculative fiction genre doesn’t have a similar professional association (I did join the Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Association, but it seems to have vanished without a trace, and my joining fee with it).

Following morning tea, I attended a workshop entitled Kicking Off Your Writing Career by Peter M Ball (one of the conference organisers and a well known speculative fiction author) and Alex Adsett, a copyright and writing contract specialist. This was an excellent session, worth the conference price of admission by itself. Ball spoke articulately about the need to think of your writing career as a business, applying some of the planning techniques that I’m familiar with from my day job into the writing game. It was very thought provoking.

I enjoy my day job, and my goals with writing have never been to quit and have writing as my only profession. However, I have had the impression previously that if you’re not aiming to be a full time writer, some people feel you are not taking your writing seriously enough. Ball’s talk was an excellent antidote to that kind of thinking. His own goals were clearly articulated and combined his desire to seriously experiment with genre forms with the idea that writing would only ever be a part time gig for him (by design). Very interesting.

Adsett’s part of the session focused on copyright and various tips and traps for young players that come from assigning rights for your work. It was a very thought provoking discussion. Sadly I’ve not needed to delve into the wonderful world of writing contracts, but it did make me reflect on the kinds of things I’ll need to keep in mind if my work ever does move to that stage.

After this session we moved through to lunch. I might pause at this point and say this GenreCon was much more like the kind of conferences I would normally attend for work than Continuum 8 was. The morning tea/lunch/afternoon tea breaks were communal – by providing food in a common area it pushed people to mingle more. I found it easier to chat to people than at Continuum 8, perhaps a feature of the conference being relatively new and incorporating quite a few different genres (i.e. less “pre-established” groups of people). I’m still not entirely comfortable breaking into conversations, but the conference felt much more designed to encourage you to talk to new people.

So as a result of this communal eating arrangement I shared lunch with the writing power-couple Jason Nahrung and Kirstyn McDermott, as well as new acquaintance Chris McMahon. Jason and Kirstyn both have books coming out early next year through the relatively new publisher Xoum and it was exciting to hear about their engagement in the marketing and publishing of their books. I’m eagerly waiting to read both books (Blood and Dust by Jason and Perfections by Kirstyn). In conversation with Chris I realised that I had read and enjoyed some of his short fiction, most recently his story in the excellent anthology Anywhere But Earth edited by Keith Stevenson. A very enjoyable lunch where I had less to contribute, but had an excellent time listening.

In the afternoon there were three streams of panel discussions running. First up I attended What Writers Get Wrong chaired by Aimee Lindorff and featuring Simon Higgins, PM Newton and Charlotte Nash Stewart. The discussion focused on medical and crime related fiction (not my usual writing), but it was good to hear people with expertise talking about where fiction writing diverges (jarringly) from reality. Everyone always has problems with how their occupation is depicted in stories. What I took away from the discussion was that the amount of research required to give your work verisimilitude when dealing with modern occupations is large and perhaps beyond my attention span. I may have to stick with genres that allow me to make up occupations.

The second session of the afternoon was After the First Draft chaired by Irina Dunn and featuring Jodi Cleghorn, Sarah JH Fletcher and Bernadette Foley. This discussion focused on the rewriting portion of the writing experience, including the use of beta readers and how to keep an editor on side. There were some excellent suggestions for books to read to help make your work as polished as possible. I am getting close to the point where I’ll want to start seriously polishing some long and short fiction, so it was a timely discussion for me.

There were a lot of parallel sessions I would have loved to attend, as this was true of most of the GenreCon program.

Just before afternoon tea, the community showcase was for Conflux – the national speculative fiction convention for 2013. It was a great showcase which encouraged me to sign up for the convention, which is held in Canberra around Anzac Day next year.

After afternoon tea (where I caught up with Lynda R Young – a much more developed than me author who is excitingly on the edge of publishing in an anthology and has some advanced manuscripts just waiting to find a home), the last session of the day was the international author guest Joe Abercrombie in conversation with Jason Nahrung. I’ve read and enjoyed several of Abercrombie’s books, which I tend to think of as epic fantasy for adults – very gritty with flawed characters. I’ve drifted a little away from epic fantasy over the years, but Abercrombie’s work appeals in a way that shiny hero fantasy just doesn’t anymore. The interview was excellent – Jason had done his homework and kept the conversation moving smoothly. Abercrombie was funny and self deprecating and gave some interesting insight into his own writing journey as well as some good thoughts on what the modern writing and publishing scene looks like.

After the last session finished up, I stayed behind and had a great series of conversations. I don’t know that I added any stunning insights to any of these discussions, but is was fantastic listening to people in the industry talk and being able to ask questions. In particular I thought Jodi Cleghorn had some great thoughts on the current online writing community scene and how it could be improved. I hadn’t signed up for the banquet (always difficult to know whether to sign up for something like that when you could be sitting on your own in the corner) but there were a few people that similarly hadn’t booked in, so a group of us went for dinner at a local Indian restaurant. It was interesting and varied conversation, where I heard everything from the unorthodox way that Wollongong based author Alan Baxter used to prepare for rugby games in his youth through to the fact that author Martin Livings was launching his new collection Living with the Dead at the convention the next day. Good times.

Unfortunately, I had another event on Sunday which limited how much of the convention I could attend. I made it over for the first session of the day, a keynote talk by Curtis Brown agent Ginger Clark who was over from the US as the other international guest of the convention. It was a fascinating discussion about the state of the publishing industry in particular in the US, UK and Australia (a bit depressing at times, but still very interesting). I think if I was trying to make my writing a full time career it would have been even more depressing – things seem a bit dire at the moment. Clark also gave some insights into the changing role of the agent, the impact of the rise of self publishing, the changing nature of writing contracts and the difficulties of getting publishers to focus on mid list authors. She also spoke about the importance of understanding contracts and which rights you have sold or retained.

The community partner session before morning tea was by Sisters in Crime, which sounds like an extremely supportive and successful organisation made up primarily of women either writing or reading crime.

I had to leave after morning tea, so I missed the workshop (would have gone to Get Your Characters Moving with Karen Miller) and the afternoon panel discussions (absolutely spoiled for choice here – possibly would have attended Practical Worldbuilding and Text/Sub-Text but would have loved to attend several others as well). I also missed the Great Debate: Plotters vs Pansters which was by all account hilarious.

All in all this was an excellent convention. I understand they will run it again next year, this time in Brisbane. If I can at all make it up there I will be looking to attend (hopefully with some slightly more advanced writing under my belt next time!). If you attended I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or any musings on conventions in general.

The Devil Wears… narrated on the Beam Me Up radio show/podcast

One of my more recent flash fiction pieces, The Devil Wears Ugly Shapeless Garments Covered in Dog Hair, was narrated on the Beam Me Up podcast episode 336 (starts at around the 9 minute mark). Beam Me Up is a US based radio show which also comes out in podcast form, focusing on science news with a couple of stories thrown in each week.

My thanks to Paul Cole for his support of my work. He described The Devil Wears as the latest in my interstellar public service series. I better write another one!

A full listing of my flash fiction pieces can be found at my bibliography page.

Aurealis #55 (October 2012) – review

Aurealis #55 cover

Issue #55 is the October 2012 issue of the Aurealis magazine, a monthly magazine showcasing Australian speculative fiction and with an emphasis on Australian content and news. This edition was edited by Dirk Strasser. This month is an “Award Winners” editions, with two short stories that won Aurealis Awards this year. This is the last edition of Aurealis for 2012, with the publication kicking off again in 2013.

Fittingly, Strasser’s editorial focuses on the history of the Aurealis awards and what drove the Aurealis publication to introduce a judged award into the Australian landscape in the first place.

The first award winning story is Rains of la Strange by Robert N. Stephenson. Rains of la Strange was released as a part of the excellent Anywhere But Earth anthology, edited by Keith Stevenson. I reviewed Anywhere But Earth here, where Rains of la Strange was one of the stories I highlighted, particularly for the world building.

The second award winner in this month’s edition was The Short Go: a Future in Eight Seconds by Lisa L. Hannett, from her World Fantasy Award nominated collection Bluegrass Symphony. Given its accolades, Bluegrass Symphony has been on my “to read” list for a while, so it was good to get a chance to “sample” one of the stories.

A fascinating tale, one of those ones that starts off hard to read (the dialect of the narrator is hard to engage with in the first page or so) but before you know it you’re completely enveloped by the story. The pacing was excellent as was the choice in language and imagery. The twist in the story was unexpected and well executed.

Both stories were very worthy of award, and together they make a great edition of Aurealis (if you haven’t read either this is a cost effective way to get exposed to some excellent Australian short fiction).

Crisetta Macleod lets us know what she hates about fantasy, in the appropriately titled article What I Hate About Fantasy. And man, there is a lot she doesn’t like! Some interesting discussion on issues as wide ranging as getting rid of the name “fantasy”, through to the need to give fantasy novels ratings where they deal with adult themes such as torture, through to the tendency to use magic as a deus ex machina (i.e. to solve a plot problem). Interesting comments from an experienced reviewer, well worth a read.

Crisetta Macleod also gave a run down on Conflux 2012, the Canberra speculative fiction convention. Sounds like a fantastic time was had by all – my lack of attendance has made me jealous.

There are the normal array of reviews of books. Robert N Stephenson decries the loss of quality in the writing field in his Rants and Raves segment. Rob Parnell decries the loss of originality in the superhero movie genre in Surfing the Dark Side. And Robert Jenkins decries the loss of quality in TV with his review of Sinbad (the UK TV series) in his The Couch Potato Speaks article. A poor quality trifecta!

As always Carissa’s Weblog provides a round up of some of the more interesting articles around on the web in the area of Australian speculative fiction, mostly in the form of audio interviews and video.

I’ve really enjoyed the Aurealis series of publications through 2012, and I’m looking forward to 2013.

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


Aurealis #54 (September 2012) – review

Aurealis #54 coverIssue #54 is the September 2012 issue of the Aurealis magazine, a monthly magazine showcasing Australian speculative fiction and with an emphasis on Australian content and news. This edition was edited by Michael Pryor.

Pryor’s editorial focuses on the passing of Neil Armstrong and the interaction between space exploration and science fiction.

The first story in this month’s edition is Anvil of the Sun by Karen Maric. A tale of bloody revenge set in a fantasy setting, the world building behind this short piece was very good. It felt like an introduction to a universe that Maric intends to do more work in. The writing was very good, with a strong sensory immersion into the harsh landscape the characters inhabit.

Running Wild by Jack Nicholls tells the tale of a suburban prank that takes a turn into the surreal. I loved the point of view character’s perspective in this story, and the description of the backyard world of suburbia was excellent (while simultaneously reminding me why I prefer a more urban existence).

This month’s edition also contains a very interesting interview with Trudi Canavan, by Crisetta Macleod. The interview covers everything from the rise of eBooks, to the exploration of social issues in Canavan’s books and the combination of creative endeavours that Canavan involves herself in.

There are the normal array of reviews of books (including Canavan’s latest The Traitor Queen). Rob Parnell’s Surfing the Dark Side explores why horror fans can love a truly bad horror movie, and Robert Jenkins reviews one of my favourite TV series at the moment Grimm in his The Couch Potato Speaks segment.

As always Carissa’s Weblog provides a round up of some of the more interesting articles around on the web in the area of Australian speculative fiction, mostly in the form of audio interviews and video.

Well worth the read.

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

The Light Heart of Stone by Tor Roxburgh – review

The Light Heart of Stone cover


This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge. All my AWWC reviews can be found here.

I was first made aware of The Light Heart of Stone by Tor Roxburgh through this excellent interview that Sean the Bookonaut undertook with Roxburgh in episode 15 of the Galactic Chat podcast. If you’re an Australian fan of fantasy novels, I defy you to listen to that interview and not be interested in picking up a copy.

The interview also contains some interesting comments about a previously published author’s path to self publishing. Roxburgh has brought an impressive degree of professionalism to editing and the publication process for this novel – there is nothing amateur about it at all (down to the excellent cover which is worth a second look once you’ve read the novel, fantastic representation of the main participants in the narrative).

I’ll summarise the story using the blurb from the website: “11-year-old Fox lives in Kelp province where her father is the Indidjiny keeper of the land and sea. When the 84-year-old Oak Companion arrives to test the camp’s children for talent, Fox finds herself wrenched from her family, forcibly adopted into the famous Oak clan, and thrust into the slow culture of the city of Komey. Fox’s adoption should signal a life of bound motherhood, aimed at returning her talent to its rightful owners, but nothing is as it seems. The Companionaris’ ability to grow plants and breed animals is failing, a murderous ambition has been sparked, and there is a stirring of old magic in the air.”

The themes of this novel are very thought provoking, especially for Australian readers. This is the first time I can remember reading a fantasy novel that is clearly set in another world, but uses Australian tropes and themes to inform the world building. Here we have a “civilised” colonising force and an indigenous population that is more nomadic in nature and close to the land. You have a “technological” advantage (the ability to boost the agricultural capacity of the land), issues of land rights, stolen children and the threat of slavery.

This could have easily become a thinly disguised diatribe on the state of modern Australia’s race relations. Fortunately, through most of the novel Roxburgh has put the story first and created an engaging narrative where the parallels with the modern Australian context add depth to the novel without overwhelming it. I was impressed with Roxburgh’s attempts to portray the motivations of the various characters and factions sympathetically. I think this is what prevents the novel being too over the top – if there were simple answers to some problems they would have been solved years ago, and Roxburgh does an excellent job of expressing that complexity through her characters.

Towards the end of the novel, some of this complexity is lost and the “goodies and baddies” become more starkly drawn. I can see this was probably a narrative necessity in order to bring the story to a close, but it would have been good to keep some of the ambiguity and complexity all the way through the narrative.

This sense of looking at an issue from multiple points of view is picked up by Indijiny practice of telling four stories when examining an issue – the first story describing the story teller (because there is no such thing as an unbiased narrator), the second and third stories telling about the issue from two contrasting perspectives (the more contrasting the better) and the fourth story attempting to tie the issue together by drawing on a story from mythology or fable to capstone the process. This sense of gaining broader perspective was an excellent addition and sounds like a good way to examine all issues to me!

The characters are very three dimensional and developed well over the course of the novel. There is an excellent sense of place, the continent is as much a character as anyone else and the rich descriptions help orient the reader. Again, the description of the landscape resonated very strongly from an Australian context.

As an atheist, I quite liked the religion of the colonisers – the concept of a god who turned its back on people once they grew up and left them to fend for themselves. If you’re going to have a god, you may as well have one defined by its absence.

The novel is the first in a series, and while the story stands alone reasonably well there are threads left untied to connect to future books.

I’ve commented in several parts of this review on the resonance I found between this novel and the Australian context. I’d be very interested in hearing comments from any non-Australian readers to how their experience of the novel changed.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Light Heart of Stone and am looking forward to the next book from Roxburgh. Highly recommended.

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

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

The Devil Wears… available on Antipodean SF podcast

My latest flash fiction piece to be published by Antipodean SF is also available on the AntiSF podcast episode 171. My story starts at about the 23 minute mark, but why not listen to the whole podcast and get some quick exposure to some short speculative fiction?

Details about all my publications can be found at my bibliography.

In the Service of the Public now available on the Beam Me Up radio show/podcast

One of my flash fiction pieces, In the Service of the Public, was recently narrated on the Beam Me Up podcast episode 334.

Paul Cole, the host of the show, was kind enough to narrate the story. It is the first story on the podcast, starting after Paul’s introduction.

In the Service of the Public was originally published in issue 169 of Antipodean SF.

Details of all my flash fiction pieces, including links to where they are published, can be found on my bibliography page.