Kaleidoscope edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios – 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.


OK, I’m cheating a little bit here. I’ve decided to review a collection of short stories that are not all by Australian women for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. Indeed, they are mostly not by Australian women. But wait, before you throw your monitor at the wall in disgust and walk out I have reasons.

  1. It is from an Australian small press that is run by a woman (Alisa Krasnostein).
  2. It has stories by three Australian women (Tansy Rayner Roberts, Faith Mudge, Holly Kench) and one New Zealander (Karen Healy), which is almost Australian.
  3. One of the editors is an Australian woman. OK, it’s the same woman as in 1. above, but in a completely different role. Editor versus publisher. Come on, it still counts as a third reason.

So, if you’re still not buying what I’m selling, then you should stop reading the review here. But you’ll be sooorrrryyyyy!

Kaleidoscope was a crowd funded anthology that sought out YA speculative fiction that was written by a diverse range of writers and featured diverse characters (e.g. people with a disability, mental illness, suffering marginalisation because of race or religion or sexual orientation etc). However the mandate of the book was very clear – while characters needed to have a diverse background, they were not to be defined by their background. I particularly liked the requirement that characters were not to be “cured” of their diversity. Kaleidoscope is a mature treatment of the issues of diversity in the speculative fiction scene, and for that alone I’m hoping it is a sign of much more diverse fiction to come.

(As a side note, and because I’ve justified this review in part by pointing at an Australian small press run by an Australian woman, I might insert a plug here for Twelfth Planet Press. TPP has been supporting Australian women authors and championing this kind of diversity for quite a few years. Alisa Krasnostein, the owner of the press, is also one of the voices on Galactic Suburbia – a must-listen podcast for anyone interested in advancing the conversation on gender equity in the speculative fiction scene. If you haven’t already, go and check out their offerings, in particular the Twelve Planets series which has showcased some fantastic Australian women writers over the last few years. I’ve reviewed all the Twelve Planets books so far for the AWW challenge (including most recently Secret Lives by Rosaleen Love) – if you have even the slightest interest in understanding what is happening in the Australian speculative fiction field, you need to read these books!)

I won’t talk about all the stories, but as this is a AWW review I will briefly mention the stories by Australian women.

Cookie Cutter Superhero by Tansy Rayner Roberts opens the collection. The story is set in a world where superhero producing machines have appeared in  major centres around the world and people are selected at random to do a stint as a superhero. It tells the story of Joey, a young woman with a physical disability who has “won the lottery”. It is a funny, and not very below the surface, dig at the comic book industry, well written with Roberts’ trademark snarky style. Very nice opening to the book.

Signature by Faith Mudge was one of my favourite stories in the book, which focuses on the dangers of entering into a deal with Fate. Well written and characters that were well fleshed out, especially considering how little space there was to do it.

Holly Kench’s Every Little Thing gives a few twists on the trickiness of love spells. I enjoy Kench’s writing style, and this story was well constructed and a delight to read.

And for completeness, I will mention that I also enjoyed New Zealand’s Karen Healy story Careful Magic, which focuses on the perils of being a bastion of order in a chaotic world. Healy’s story hinted at a much bigger world, and left me with the desire to read other stories set in the same world.

There are also stories by Australian male writers Garth Nix, Dirk Flinthart and Sean Williams, as well as an array of international authors including Ken Liu, Sofia Samata, Jim Hines and John Chu.

As long term readers of the blog know, YA is not my favourite genre to read. I don’t mind young protagonists as such, but as I complete my transformation into a cranky old man I find myself less and less engaged by some of the themes that seem to resonate with teenagers. I also find the more restricted use of language (i.e. slightly simplified and “cleaned up”) creates more of a distance in the work. Some of the stories in Kaleidoscope suffered from this for me – the writing was excellent, but I found myself unable to “get into” the stories.

That minor (and particular to me) quibble aside, this is an excellent anthology and I commend it strongly to you. If you have ever despaired at the lack of variety in who is represented in speculative fiction, this is the book for you. If you love YA oriented speculative fiction, this is for you. 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.

Supporting the Kaleidoscope Pozible campaign

Over the last couple of years, I’ve quite enjoyed a lot of the work coming out of the Australian small press publisher Twelfth Planet Press. TPP have published some genuinely interesting books and taken some risks while investigating innovative forms of modern reading (for example, their Twelve Planets series).

So when I heard that Alisa Kranostein, the principal behind TPP, was dipping her toe in the crowd funding wading pool, I was keen to support them. A bit of a blurb for the campaign follows (from their Pozible campaign page) :

Kaleidoscope is an anthology of diverse contemporary YA fantasy & science fiction stories, which will be edited by Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein, and published by Twelfth Planet Press. Too often popular culture and media defaults to a very narrow cross section of the world’s populace. We believe that people of all kinds want to see themselves reflected in stories. We also believe that readers actively enjoy reading stories about people who aren’t exactly like them. We want see more stories featuring people who don’t always get the spotlight, so we’re gathering a wonderful variety of:

* YA fantasy stories [Update: As of 10/23 we are also open to science fiction]
* Set in the modern world
* Featuring teen protagonists from diverse backgrounds

The main characters in Kaleidoscope stories will be part of the QUILTBAG, neuro-diverse, disabled, from non-Western cultures, people of color, or in some other way not the typical straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied characters we see all over the place.

That said, these aren’t going to be issue stories. The focus here is contemporary fantasy, and while the characters’ backgrounds will necessarily affect how they engage with the world, we’re not going to have a collection of “Very Special Episode” stories about kids coming to terms with their sexuality/disability/mental illness/cultural identity, etc. We want to see protagonists from all sorts of backgrounds being the heroes of their own journeys.

It sounds like a great book, and while I’m not really a YA reader I love to see this kind of focus on diversity and on non-US/UK based publishers using new media to source funding for interesting initiatives.

So, if the premise of the anthology looks interesting or you just want to support Australian small press publishing, I’d really encourage you to head on over to the Kaleidoscope Pozible campaign page and pledge. At the time of writing, there are only 5 days to go in the campaign (deadline 31 October 2013 for those of you reading <echoey-voice>FROM THE FUTURE</echoey-voice>).

Go on. You know you want to.

Edit 1/11/2013

The campaign has finished, and the funding goal was met so Kaleidoscope will be going ahead. Congratulations to everyone behind the project and well done.

New Ceres Nights edited by Alisa Kranostein and Tehani Wessely – review

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

I don’t think I can officially claim this as an Australian Women Writer’s challenge book, as only 6 out of the 13 stories are penned by Australian women. However, it show the work of many of Australian speculative fiction’s current batch of award winning female authors (think Kaaron Warren, Angela Slatter, Thoraiya Dyer, Sue Isle, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Sylvia Kelso), so I’ll probably promote this through AWW channels.

And in my mind I’ll count it as a 1/2 contribution to my target.

New Ceres Nights

New Ceres Nights was published in 2009 by Twelfth Planet Press. The premise of the anthology is that the stories are all set in the shared world of New Ceres, a planet in the outer colonies that has embraced (and ruthlessly enforces) an 18th century way of life. Apart from a single spaceport connecting it to the rest of the human race, the technological level of the whole planet has been wound back.

I found the background to this anthology interesting. The introduction by New Ceres Board members Tansy Rayner Roberts and Dirk Flinthart, tells of a world built by an online community of mainly Australian speculative fiction writers, artists and fans. This was a bit before my time (as regular readers of this blog know I have only been involving myself in the Australian spec fic scene for the last year or two), but it seems like a fascinating experiment in using the internet to build community.

As far as I can tell, the New Ceres project is gone (all links seem to lead to dead-ends and defunct sites), so reading this anthology feels like a glimpse into a now departed phase of Australian speculative fiction history. A few other artefacts survive (such as the book Angel Rising by Dirk Flinthart) as well as some cryptic references to an eZine, but that is about it.

It’s too bad – I liked what I’ve read so far. It would have been fascinating to have a look at all the shared “source material” as well just to see how the world was constructed. It reminds me of a recent Kickstarter the Massive Fiction Project, which is aiming to build a shared world for fiction writing. I’m interested in these kinds of endeavours and constructs, would have been great to see an Australian attempt.

If any reader of this article was involved in the New Ceres shared world experience, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

Anyway enough tangental musings, why don’t we return to the actual book. From the back blurb: “New Ceres Nights presents thirteen exciting stories of rebellion, debauchery, decadence, subterfuge and murder, set against the backdrop of powdered wigs, coffee houses, balls and duels”.

The mixture of 18th century limitations and illicit high technology made a surprisingly powerful combination, reminiscent of some of the better steampunk stories I’ve read. All the stories were quite good, I can’t really call out one I didn’t like. As is my habit, I’ll only comment on those stories where I have something to say – which is no reflection on the other stories of course!

  • The first story of the collection, Debutante by Dirk Flinthart, gives a very effective introduction to the world of New Ceres. Set somewhat before the rest of the anthology, it is an origins story of a sort. Flinthart’s dialogue is particularly sharp, and the ending to this tale gives you a real sense of the tone of the collection.
  • The contrast between the first story and the second (The Widow’s Seven Candles by Thoraiya Dyer) is quite stark, as the reader is thrown from a relatively hi-tech scenario to a very low tech one. Dyer’s writing is very engaging, and she creates a very sympathetic lead character in the candlemaker Etienne.
  • Murder in Laochan by Aliette de Bodard was notable in its use of a non-European 18th century backdrop. I also quite liked the conceit behind the main character, and found the story a delight to read.
  • Speaking of interesting conceits, Tontine Mary by Kaaron Warren (whose work I have been enjoying a lot of late) draws on an actual feature of 18th century life, the tontine. A tontine is essentially a lottery, where a group of people put in money and the last surviving member gets it all. Warren captures the life of the title character marvellously, so much so that her parting “gift” to her great grand-daughter is all the more affecting because of the sympathy you have developed over the course of the story.
  • Tansy Rayner Roberts‘ background as a comedic writer comes through in the somewhat arch Prosperine When It Sizzles. Sharp dialogue and great pacing made this a very enjoyable read.
  • Blessed Are The Dead The Rain Falls Upon by Martin Livings introduces an element of the detective noir genre into the world of New Ceres. I enjoyed the change of pace, and the point of view character was well realised.
  • The anthology is rounded out by The Piece of Ice in Miss Windermere’s Heart by Angela Slatter. This story, extremely well written, had one of my favourite characters of the book, the gentlewoman thief Ms Violet Windermere. While filled with humorous asides, Slatter does engender a connection with the character that left me wanting more.

The anthology also included the excellent:

All in all I found that I really enjoyed this anthology and have no hesitation in recommending it.

UPDATE 5/5/2013

The good people at Twelfth Planet Press tell me that the cryptically referenced eZines from the New Ceres shared world days are being published as eBooks. The first was released just a couple of days ago. Good timing on my part, no?

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.


Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein – review

I’ve been looking for speculative fiction anthologies with primarily Australian content recently. The first I came across was Sprawl edited by Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press), which contains a very entertaining array of stories aimed at the Australian suburbs (i.e. not urban fantasy, more like suburban fantasy). It has stories by some authors I’ve been recently discovering and loving as well as some whose work I haven’t had a chance to see before.

Overall the anthology has a strong Australian feel. In the introduction, Ms Krasnostein talks about wanting to showcase Australian writers and I think this book achieves that aim extremely well. As you’d expect from an editor that is involved with an initiative like the Galactic Suburbia podcast, Ms Krasnostein has done an excellent job achieving gender balance in the author list, with slightly more women than men contributing.

As always when writing about an anthology, I’m conscious that saying something about every story would make for a very long review. As such, I’ve restricted myself to commenting where I have something particular to say – and given the short length of the stories I try not to say too much about plot to avoid spoilers. But up front I will say that there wasn’t a single piece in this collection that I didn’t find enjoyable in some way.

One Saturday Night, with Angel by Peter Ball was the first story by Mr Ball that I’ve read (at least as far as I can recall). It is quite a short story and very self contained in terms of location, but I really enjoyed the writing and I thought the atmosphere of a late night convenience store was a fantastic counterpoint to the supernatural elements of the story.

I found Sweep by Simon Brown interesting. I enjoyed the turn of phrase and found the slowly introduced horror, especially when recounting events from memories of being a child, to be particularly effective. The end of the story stuck with me – very satisfyingly nasty.

I’m beginning to expect to enjoy work by Deborah Biancotti, and No Going Home was no exception.  A beautifully written story about a mysterious woman, Gabe, who turns up at Harry’s house one night, with no memory of her life to that point. The story felt transient, both in the way the characters were rendered and how the story flowed. Lovely to read.

Loss by Kaaron Warren was another very effective horror story, invoking a kind of claustrophobia as the (admittedly somewhat unsympathetic) protagonist’s world shrinks around her.

Walker by Dirk Flinthart was one of my favourite stories of the collection. The idea of ancient spirits adapting to modern suburban life, and the shepherds that stand between them and humanity, was very interesting. I also enjoyed the style of writing, the world building elements and the voice of the protagonist.

Seed Dreams by Liz Argall/Matt Huynh was a clever addition to the anthology – a graphical interlude that was a pleasant surprise in the middle of the book.

The “voice” of the protagonist in White Crocodile Jazz by Ben Peek was very compelling. Tom Tom is mute, and his external interactions are by necessity more physical (and often very violent). I liked the atmosphere generated in this story, with a good plot and satisfying conclusion.

The plot was also very strong in Brisneyland by Night by Angela Slatter. There were hints of a broader story here, with the feeling that you’d just touched one element of a whole world. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Ms Slatter before, but if this story is representative I am going to try to track down more of her work.

There was less post-apocalyptic dystopia than I was expecting in this anthology, but All the Love in the World by Cat Sparks certainly made up for the lack. Set in a post apocalyptic Wollongong (that was a fun phrase to write), the story balanced a description of the disintegrating world with the very personal reaction of the protagonist extremely well. Ms Sparks sketched a very strong lead character, sympathetic while still retaining human quirks and follies.

I recently read Her Gallant Needs by the sadly recently departed Paul Haines in his collection The Last Days of Kali Yuga, so I won’t describe it again here. A powerful piece of writing though, and an excellent way to finish out the anthology.

Also included in the anthology is:

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.