Black Glass by Meg Mundell – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2013 Reading Challenge. All my 2013 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Black Glass by Meg Mundell

Black Glass by Meg Mundell has been on my reading list for a while. When I was looking through my Kindle to find which book to read next, I picked it more because I’ve had it for a long time than because it leapt out at me.

And I loved it.

So why did it take so long for me to pick up the book? I try to avoid reading detailed reviews of books on my to-be-read list (for fear of spoilers) but I do often glance over high level descriptions to get a feel for whether I’m going to like a book. And I realised that I had internalised two main facts about Black Glass through this vague process of osmosis.

  1. The book was really good (like, award nomination good).
  2. It was a story of two teenage girls trying to find each other in a dystopian Melbourne.

From this (admittedly very small) evidence base, I had put together an image of a technically very good book, a “worthy” novel, that would make me a better person to read, but that I might not actually enjoy. And those kinds of books tend to stay on my to-be-read pile for a long time.

I shouldn’t have hesitated. The book is technically very good and does have interesting things to say, but it is also hugely entertaining.

So, in the interests of providing an alternative view of the book, let me describe it this way. If you like William Gibson (especially the Blue Ant series) and love speculative fiction set in an Australian context, you’re going to like Black Glass.

The structure of the novel seemingly chaotic on the surface, with a conventionally constructed main narrative thread told from the point of view of the two separated sisters (Tally and Grace) interwoven with minor threads told from the point of view of Milk (a man pioneering the art of influencing the mood of a group of people through light, sound and smell) and Damon (a freelance journalist in a world where you’re only as good as your last story). To top it off, small vignettes from a variety of minor or one-off characters, performed in unusual modes (e.g. one sided conversations, surveillance tapes, news snippets etc) illustrate aspects of this future dystopia. It comes together in a chaotic blend, exactly the kind of smart writing that rewards a small investment in adjusting to an unusual narrative style.

Mundell covers some big themes, including the unhealthy manipulation of the citizenry by the media, the dumbing down of journalism, increasing stratification of society into haves and have-nots, government control, familial relationships and survival on the streets when you have no resources to draw on. In some of the scenes that depicted the freelance journalist pitching stories to editors, I detected the scent of personal experience in the journalist’s frustration with people who want “grit” but not “substance” – I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Mundell herself has some experience in the journalism space.

The main characters are all richly drawn, with distinctive voices (both in terms of dialog and general tone). Mundell invests a lot of energy in creating characters that are both mostly sympathetic (despite their flaws) and compelling. This depth pervades even the more minor character, some of the tragedy that surrounds the character of Blue, for instance, has a strong impact even though the worst of it happens off stage.

The style is reminiscent of Gibson’s work, obviously set in the future, but not the unrecognisable future. Interesting asides on technology, and the different styles of narrative, complete the affect.

This is a strongly character driven piece, sometimes at the expense of the plot. This does result in the pace sometimes dragging a little but this is a minor quibble.

All in all I found Black Glass a thoroughly engaging read. Highly recommended.

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


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Australian Women Writer’s challenge Jan-Feb speculative fiction roundup – link

Tsana Dolichva has done an excellent summary of some of the speculative fiction reviews submitted in January and February for the Australian Women Writers’ challenge 2013. Fantastic idea! She even kindly mentions a couple of my reviews, but don’t hold that against her.

Ditmars, Galactic Suburbia award and the Stella Prize

A few items of news from the last week or so, all in one handy post!

***

For anyone active in the Australian speculative fiction scene, the annual national SF award, the Ditmars, are now open for nominations. Why not nominate your favourite speculative fiction story or novel by an Australian author from 2012?

The Ditmars also include lots of ancillary categories for fan writing, artist etc. There are a lot of excellent reviewers out there in the Australian scene, such as Sean the Bookonaut or Alex Pierce, that are worth your attention.

Speaking of what to nominate, if like me you don’t remember what was released in 2012, or how long your favourite story was, you can go to the excellent Ditmar eligibility wiki here.

Get your nominating skates on! Nominations can be lodged here.

***

The speculative fiction podcast Galactic Suburbia has given out their annual award for “activism and/ or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction in 2012”. And this year the award went to Elizabeth Lhuede for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.

Details can be found here, as well as links to the podcast where they announce the award.

I enjoyed my participation in the 2012 challenge, and found it an excellent catalyst for expanding my circle of reading. Congratulations to Elizabeth, a very well deserved award!

***

One of the most frequently reviewed books in the 2012 Australian Women Writers’ challenge, Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan, has been long listed for the inaugural Stella Prize, a new major literary award for Australian women’s writing. See the full long list here and more details about the prize here.

There have been many reviews of Sea Hearts, including one by yours truly here.

Congratulations Margo!

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina – review

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2013 Reading Challenge. All my 2013 AWWC reviews can be found here.


 The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

 The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is Ambelin Kwaymullina’s first novel. It is based in the far future after a devastating cataclysm has left the world reshaped into a single continent, and the remnants of humanity living in a small number of cities and adhering to a philosophy of Balance to prevent future catastrophes.

Some people are born with special abilities (e.g. the ability to run abnormally fast, turn their dreams into reality, start fires, cause earthquakes etc). These people have been deemed to be a threat to the Balance and are kept in detention camps.

Ashala Wolf is the leader of a tribe of young people with abilities that have escaped detention and live in the wilderness. The story opens with her captured and about to be interrogated for information to help the authorities capture her fellow rebels.

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is a young adult piece, so I don’t think I was exactly the target market. For the most part the heroes are young and the villains older, and the story plays out with a strong teenage sensibility.

For all that I wasn’t exactly the intended audience, I enjoyed this novel. The pacing was good, with a lot of action to counter-balance the teenage angst. The writing was clear and crisp and brought me along for the ride smoothly. I finished the book quickly.

I thought the novel had an interesting structure. Without giving spoilers, there is an event part way through the book which casts things in a new light and allowed for the more gradual introduction of information about the broader world in a way that was credible and avoided too much info dumping. There is a lot of use of flash back and memory to tell the story, but it is done in an interesting way.

I enjoyed the references to Australian Aboriginal culture. Because of the near civilisation-ending nature of the cataclysm, there aren’t the same kind of racial divides as there are in contemporary society. However, Kwaymullina makes it clear that Ashala is one of the last descendants of Aboriginal Australia and weaves in Aboriginal mythology into this far future tale. While I can’t comment on the authenticity of the representation, I found it interesting to consider the perspectives on connection to land and people that the book explores.

There are other themes that will resonate with an Australian audience, such as the granting of citizenship, the nature of detention and even the ability to carve out a place for humans in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Both the “normal” society and rebel society have a strong connecting theme of living in harmony with the enivornment, they just disagree what constitutes harmony. Respect for land and the environment pervades every aspect of the story.

While this is the first book in a series, the story is self contained and finishes without invoking a large cliff hanger.

An enjoyable story that I’d have no hesitation in recommending to a young adult audience.

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


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Dark Space by Marianne de Pierres – review

Dark Space by Marianne de Pierres

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2013 Reading Challenge. All my 2013 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Dark Space is the first of the Sentients of Orion series by Marianne de Pierres. The storyline primarily follows three characters – Baronessa Mira Fedor, a member of the planet Araldis’ aristocracy and born with a genetic makeup that allows her to interact directly with living spaceships, Trinder Pellegrini the spoiled son of Araldis’ planetary ruler and Tekton, an influential citizen of the planet Lostol chosen as a candidate to interact with a recently discovered powerful entity some think is God.

These three point of view characters are interesting selections. All of them are from positions of great wealth and privilege. None of them is particularly sympathetic (although for entirely different reasons). I think the reader is meant to side with Mira, but I found it hard to warm to her.

With three unsympathetic main characters you’d think the story would be in trouble, but the way the storylines interact really works. You see glimpses of the potential for growth in Mira and Trinder, and Tekton is so self centred and devious I found myself cheering for him. So while the characters were not sympathetic, I found them compelling. Just as good in my books.

The world building behind the story was comprehensive and consistent. There is plenty of ground setting in this first book for the rest of the series to build on. The cultures of the various planets and societies referenced, the implications of “humanesque” vs alien sentients and the technology were all well thought through and supported the story.

Italian is not the first culture you expect to see represented in a space opera. This created an interesting point of difference from a lot of other books. The repressed role of women on Araldis provided the source of a lot of the conflict in the novel. It was interesting to think about how some cultural traits that we consider backwards could flourish if the cohort who supports them were to get their own planet.

The plot was enjoyable, with plenty of political intrigue and short bursts of action. Interesting questions were raised and story arcs begun. I’ll certainly be tracking down the rest of the books in the series to see how the story unfolds.

Recommended.

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


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Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott – review

Perfections cover

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2013 Reading Challenge. All my 2013 AWWC reviews can be found here.


Perfections is Kirstyn McDermott‘s second novel, following the excellent Madigan Mine in 2011 (which I reviewed here as part of the 2012 AWWC challenge). The two novels are not related in terms of plot, although they do share a certain sensibility (which I’ve heard described by the author on her Writer and the Critic podcast as “modern urban gothic”). I enjoyed Madigan Mine, so have been looking forward to this release.

Perfections has been released as an eBook only from the relatively new Xoum. The quality was good, with only one typo jumping out at me. Given Xoum are also publishing a work from another of my favourite Australian authors (Blood and Dust by Jason Nahrung), they will be a publisher I’ll be keeping a close eye on in the future.

The blurb for the novel is Two sisters. One wish. Unimaginable consequences. Not all fairytales are for children. It’s hard to tell much more about the plot without giving spoilers, but it is one of those storylines that unfolds well. There are twists, but the twists felt natural. Rather than changes coming completely out of left field, I found that McDermott balances the foreshadowing well to ensure that when something was revealed my first thought tended to be “oh yes, in hindsight that is obviously what must have been happening”. That’s a difficult thing to get right – maintaining surprise while having fairly outrageous things feel natural.

There are some themes of emotionally abusive relationships, with hints of physical violence within those relationships. These themes are handled in a sensitive and nuanced manner, but are still very confronting.

There is a strong focus on the relationship between the two sisters. The characters are very engaging, this is something I noticed different from Madigan Mine where the characters were unsympathetic and in some ways difficult to engage with – I thought one of the strengths of MM was the way McDermott managed to drag you through the story despite the unsympathetic protagonist. In Perfections, the main characters (the sisters) are very sympathetically drawn, even when they are being slightly annoying. You want things to work out for them. And McDermott does an excellent job of playing on that sympathy as a source of dread for the reader.

Not all the characters in the book are sympathetic of course, and I thought the interplay between the minor characters was handled very well. Both the major characters went through significant growth, in particular in the nature of their relationship with others. The minor characters felt well realised, contributing their specific part to the story while staying three dimensional.

While the supernatural elements of the novel come in fairly early, the horror is more subtle, with less “jump in your seat” moments and more “stays with you and creeps you out at unexpected times in the future” moments. Stepping back from specific sentences and paragraphs, I found the writing generally to a) be beautiful and b) leave you with a slightly off balance feeling. Even in the sections of the book that are describing relatively mundane life, there is something about the way things are described that adds to the sense that there is something wrong, that things aren’t quite right.

This leads into the pacing, which was very good. I flew through the book and never felt that the pace dragged. Reading on the Kindle it’s easy to lose track of how far you are through a novel, I was surprised when I noticed I was almost at the end after only a couple of sittings. I put this speedy read down to a combination of wanting to resolve the mystery of the plot and my attachment to the main characters.

I loved the ending. Now, I’m not sure how much I can really say beyond that without giving anything away. But the ending does a great job of both resolving plot and character development.

Another excellent book by McDermott. Highly recommended.

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


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2012 Wrap Up / 2013 Preview – Reading

As seems to be the custom at this time of the year, I’ve decided to do a bit of summary of my year in reading followed by a few thoughts on the year to come. Being an engineer by training, I’m breaking this post down into a couple of logical sub sections. Well, they are logical to me. Go find your own damn logic if you don’t like mine…

I’ve also published a companion post on my year in writing.

Reading in 2012

Probably the biggest influence on my reading year has been joining the Australian Women Writers’ 2012 Reading Challenge. The challenge forced me out of my comfort zone. Not too far out – I stuck with speculative fiction of course – but it did push me to seek out more authors. The results of my reading/reviewing can be found at my “Mission Accomplished?” post from a while back – in total I read and reviewed 17 books by Australian women speculative fiction authors in 2012.

I’ve looked back over this blog at reviews published in 2012 and come up with some statistics. Note: Given the number of novels, novellas, multi-author publications, anthologies etc, I’ve used a whim based system for counting up things I’ve read. Sloppy workmanship may also be a factor. It is highly unlikely that anyone who could be bothered going through my back catalogue of reviews would come up with exactly the same numbers, however the percentages should be roughly correct. Stop complaining. What are you – perfect?

Stuff in book form:

  • Total number of books read: 42
  • Total by female authors: 25 (60%)
  • Total by male authors: 17 (40%)
  • Total by Australian/New Zealanders: 27 (64%)

Sean the Bookonaut has put up a post describing a gender audit of his 2012 reading recently. He has graphs. They are very impressive. As a homage, I am also including the following graph:

2012 gender reading

Stuff in magazine form:

  • Total number of short story magazines read: 21

On the short fiction side of things, in 2012 I tried to read AurealisAndromeda Spaceways Inflight MagazineAsimov’s and Analog. I failed, but I did keep up with Aurealis and ASIM (I have a lot of Asimov’s and Analog to get through).

It wasn’t included in my review statistics above, but I also read every monthly edition of the online magazine Antipodean SF. This is partly because AntiSF was where all my flash fiction from 2012 was published. It was also because I like keeping in touch with what new and emerging authors are writing and AntiSF is an excellent venue for that. It was also also because I create the ePub version of AntiSF each month and get advanced access to the stories.

In 2011 I started broadening the base of authors I read, this trend continued in 2012. I also tried to become a lot more familiar with the Australian speculative fiction scene.

Looking back over my Goodreads reviews, my 5 star reviews included two books by Deborah Biancotti (Bad Power and A Book of Endings), Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott, The Silver Wind by Nina Allan, The Last Days of Kali Yuga by Paul Haines, the Sprawl anthology edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Pyrotechnicon by Adam Browne. So, I guess that constitutes my reading recommendations for the year that was.

2013 Reading

I’ve joined the Australian Women Writers’ 2013 Challenge, so expect more reviews of Australian speculative fiction from some of our fantastic writers (starting with Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott – review coming soon).

There are quite a few “must read” books from 2012 that I haven’t actually read yet (e.g. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson). I also intend to have read the Ditmar and Aurealis Award short lists before the respective award ceremonies, especially so I can vote intelligently in the Ditmars.

In 2012 I completely failed to read the Hugo short list. I intend to fail to do so again this year.

I’m currently rethinking my short story approach, but I will look to read Jonathan Strahan’s Best of the Year for 2012 to catch up on the good quality short fiction from 2012 that I missed. I’m also considering committing to Strahan’s Eclipse Online series of short stories which I think is an excellent forum. I will continue reading Antipodean SF, Aurealis and ASIM in 2013, and will give Asimov’s and Analog a red hot go. Apparently I can only commit to publications starting with ‘A’.

Apart from that, I suspect my short fiction reading will be spotty.

In terms of books:

  • I am really looking forward to Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott, Blood and Dust by Jason Nahrung and Quiver by Jason Fischer. They are all loaded up on the Kindle ready to read and get my year off to an Australian start.
  • I also should mention the last volume of the Wheel of Time series is coming out in a few days. I started reading this series when I was a teenager and now sheer bloody mindedness is keeping me going. Having said that the last three books did lead me to the writing of Brandon Sanderson and I do quite like his work. But mostly I just need to see how the damn thing ends.
  • I’m also hanging out to see what Deborah Biancotti does next. Given how much I’ve enjoyed all her work so far, I don’t even really mind what it is that she writes, but I am secretly hoping for something longer set in the Bad Power universe.
  • I’ve just received the Library of America 1950s Sci-Fi collection curated by Gary K Wolfe – I think there are 9 novels in there, which will constitute the “learning more about the history of the genre” phase of my reading this year.

That’s about if for now – I’m sure there is more to say but my spidey-sense is telling me that you, dear reader, have run out of patience for reading this post. Stay tuned for a brief discussion of my writing year in review and thoughts for 2013.

Hope you all had a great 2012 and will have an even better 2013.

I’d love to hear your reading suggestions/hopes for 2013 – feel free to comment below or provide links to your own blog posts on the issue.

Australian Women Writers’ challenge 2013

The 2012 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge was an outstanding experience for me. The cause was worthy – challenging the lack of critical attention for Australian women authors. The personal benefits were fantastic – providing the impetus to expand my exposure to interesting authors I hadn’t had the chance to experience

As you can see from my “Mission Accomplished?” post from earlier in the year, I was able to meet the challenge goal of reading and reviewing at least 10 books by Australian women writers. I stuck to the speculative fiction genre. That’s how I roll.

I enjoyed the challenge so much, I’ve decided to give it a go again in 2013. The AWWC website has been revamped and the subscription process much fancier as a result. Inspired by this sophisticated example of web-based renewal I have decided to stretch myself and undertake exactly the same challenge as 2012.

You heard me. Exactly. The. Same.

So I’ll be undertaking the Franklin challenge (read 10 books, review at least 6) and all those books will be in the speculative fiction field. Some may call me stale and unable to embrace change. I view myself as a man on a quest for perfection, willing to put in the hard yards to refine my reviewing art to its most pure and potent form.

If you are inspired by my willingness to scale new heights of reviewing goodness, you should head over to the AWWC 2013 sign up page and join me in another year of spreading the word about some of the great writing by Australian women authors.

Edit 5/1/2014:

My current intended reading list (and status):

  1. Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott – complete: review here
  2. A Trifle Dead by Livia Day – complete: review here
  3. Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett
  4. The Ambassador’s Mission by Trudi Canavan
  5. Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
  6. Suited by Jo Anderton – complete: review here
  7. Dark Space by Marianne de Pierres – complete: review here
  8. Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier
  9. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina – complete: review here
  10. Black Glass by Meg Mundell – complete: review here
  11. The Accidental Sorcerer by K. E. Mills – complete: review here
  12. Asymmetry by Thoraiya Dyer – complete: review here
  13. New Ceres Nights edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Tehani Wessely – complete: review here
  14. Caution: Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermott – complete: review here
  15. Witches Incorporated by K. E. Mills – complete: review here
  16. Wizard Squared by K. E. Mills – complete: review here
  17. Wizard Undercover by K. E. Mills – complete: review here