Tag Archives: AWWC2012

Ditmars, Galactic Suburbia award and the Stella Prize

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

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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.

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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!

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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!

Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren – review

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


Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren 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:

  • Mountain
  • Creek
  • Road
  • Sky

Through Splintered Walls is a disturbing collection, which uses an Australian backdrop and seemingly mundane settings and twists them quite savagely in parts. The supernatural elements of all four stories tend towards understatement, with the real horror coming from the behaviour of the characters.

The first three stories (Mountain, Creek and Road) are very short, with the fourth story (Sky) more like novella length and taking up by far the bulk of the book.

Mountain tells the tale of a middle aged woman trapped in a bad domestic situation, encouraged by a ghost to attempt to break the cycle. I enjoyed the non linear nature of the narrative, and the focus on building the protagonist’s character in such a short piece to the point where you entirely believe the choices she makes towards the end.

Creek is a haunting tale of a woman searching for the supernatural cause of a childhood trauma. The protagonist’s inability to form meaningful connections in her life was more tragic than the supernatural elements, again a lovely character piece. There is a line towards the end that mentions nephews and nieces (I won’t quote it in case it spoils anything for anyone) – that line was one of the saddest lines in the book for me, a quite poignant moment of self awareness for the character.

Road is a short piece about an old couple maintaining a refuge for the spirits of road accident victims. Well constructed and written, but it didn’t have the same emotional impact for me as the other stories in the book.

Sky is the longest piece. The story centres mainly around Zed, a nasty piece of work who in a rare moment of guilt decides to try and find out what happened to a childhood school teacher who disappeared years before. His searching leads him to the town of Sky, where being unemployed is not a healthy way of life.

The first few parts of the story move between different point of view characters, which could be disorienting but in this case works really well to build some background to the main story. When we settle on Zed (who provides the point of view for most of the novella) we already have a good sense of him from an external perspective. The switch to first person narrative was an effective way of showing that we were with the “main” point of view character.

There aren’t really any sympathetic characters in the story, but the writing was compelling enough to keep me engaged throughout. The view from inside Zed’s head was particularly well done, with the self justification and self centred nature of a bully and possibly a psychopath drawn out effectively.

The switching between Sky and Canberra as contrasting locations was effective, although my enjoyment of the characterisation of Canberra was probably assisted by my living there for a few years in the early 2000′s. The contrast of the city vs country cultures was also drawn out well.

In many ways Sky reminds me of the novella Wives by Paul Haines in terms of sensibility, unlikeable characters and powerful story telling (although the writing styles are quite different). I found it to be a powerful and memorable piece of writing.

I’ve enjoyed the whole Twelve Planets collection so far, and Through Splintered Walls is another fantastic addition to the series.

Recommended.

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


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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.

Recommended.

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


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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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Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott – review

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


I’m not a big reader of horror, not because of any kind of strong dislike of the genre but I find that horror novels seldom make it to the top of my reading list. Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott makes me think that I’ll have to be more active in trying to find good quality horror – I really enjoyed this book.

I hadn’t read much about the story before picking up the novel, and the reading experience was richer for being surprising. But for those that like at least some plot overview, it tells the tale of Alex, a young man drifting through life who runs into a woman who he had known when they were both kids (the Madigan of the title). They get together and have a very dysfunctional relationship. Madigan attracts a quasi cult following of young goths. After she physically attacks Alex, they break up. Madigan commits suicide.

Then weird stuff starts to happen.

My superficial plot description above does not come close to doing justice to an extremely well put together novel. The writing is superb – visceral and compelling with just enough of an ick factor to highlight when something truly depraved is happening without going overboard. Set in Melbourne, it has a fantastic sense of place with the physical descriptions used very effectively to set mood and underscore the plot.

The characters are richly described and strongly developed over the course of the novel. Alex is particularly well drawn, very passive at the start and the story is an interesting case study in him gaining agency. Madigan is a fascinating character, strong willed and ruthlessly pragmatic in the pursuit of her goals. Her impact on an array of secondary characters highlights her evolving personality as she becomes increasingly self absorbed.

In fact most of the relationships portrayed in the novel are pretty messed up. The supernatural aspects of the book serve to highlight just how badly people can treat each other. There was some very interesting comments on power dynamics in relationships and the destructive effects of codependence. Issues of gender are also explored, with different gender orientations dealt with in a matter of fact manner, which is quite refreshing.

The pacing of the novel is excellent. McDermott plays with time, with very effective use of flashbacks to fill in the history of Madigan and Alex’s relationship. The novel had a “hard to put down” quality, with the story moving along at a fair clip and the mystery of what was happening in the present nicely balanced with the flashbacks showing how Alex got to where he was.

The ending of the novel is very strong, although difficult to talk about without giving important plot points away. It was an excellent way to leave the story, reminding me a little of a movie I recall from the late 90s (which I won’t name for fear of giving anything away!).

Madigan Mine was highly commended when released, winning the 2010 Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel as well as the Victorian 2011 Chronos Award for Best Long Fiction. I can certainly understand why.

Highly recommended.

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


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Reign of Beasts by Tansy Rayner Roberts – review

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


Reign of Beasts by Tansy Rayner Roberts is the final book in her Creature Court trilogy. I’ve reviewed the previous two books elsewhere on this site (here for Power and Majesty and here for The Shattered City). To be honest I’ve been putting off this review for a bit – not because I didn’t enjoy the book (I did) but mainly because I’m finding it hard to come up with anything fresh to say about the third book in a trilogy.

Once again, I won’t give much of a plot synopsis for fear of spoiling this or the earlier books. From the Goodreads description – “The Creature Court are at war with each other. Three kings fight bitterly for power and dominance over Aufleur and the streets run red with blood.”

That about sums it up.

Reign of Beasts seemed more plot driven than character driven. There wasn’t as much sense of the characters developing or evolving as in the previous books, more reacting to circumstances in order to bring the overarching story to a conclusion. The conclusion itself was satisfying, with most of the questions raised throughout the series answered.

The one exception to the lack of character development was the threading of Poet’s back story throughout the book. These sections were very effective, even though the reader has seen how Poet turns out, his journey was very interesting and fleshed out some of the history of the Creature Court itself.

The previous books focused on the one city – Aufleur, with very little exploration of the world outside the city. Reign of Beasts has an expanded sense of place, with the city of Bazeppe featuring much more strongly. This broader landscape strengthened the story, providing a heightened sense of urgency as the consequences of failure increased.

The writing is very tight, with a good balance of drama and humour. The dialogue was particularly effective – the interplay between some of the minor characters was very entertaining. In fact, the minor characters somewhat stole the show generally, I found myself much more invested in them than some of the more major characters.

This book has lots of raunch. I mean lots. But then, if you didn’t like a bit of raunch in your reading diet I suspect you wouldn’t have got this far through the trilogy. So what are you complaining about?

I thought so.

Overall I found this a very satisfying end to the trilogy. Highly recommended.

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


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The Shattered City by Tansy Rayner Roberts – review

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


The Shattered City by Tansy Rayner Roberts is book two of the Creature Court trilogy. I reviewed book one (Power and Majesty) a few months ago.

The Shattered City picks up where Power and Majesty leaves off. I’m finding that it is a bit hard to give any kind of plot synopsis of book two of a trilogy without giving away information about book one. Suffice to say that the main character Velody has to navigate the complicated politics of the Creature Court and find out more about the enemy they are fighting against.

The first half of the book builds the tension about the as-yet-unseen enemy, demonstrating an intelligence behind the seemingly directionless attacks from the sky. Interestingly the last part of the book doesn’t really focus on the external enemy at all, bringing the focus back to the internal machinations of the Creature Court. In many fantasy trilogies, tension is built by increasing the scale of the world visible to the reader (thereby raising the stakes). The Shattered City doesn’t do this, rather it keeps the focus on a single city and builds tension through the personal interactions of the characters. It is an interesting technique.

It could be that my recollection of the first book has dimmed slightly over the months, but The Shattered City seems to have a fair bit more raunchy behaviour in it. It seems like well executed raunchy behaviour descriptive text to me, so if you like your novels steamy that aspect may appeal.

The book focuses on a wider array of characters and gives them more depth, particularly Velody’s companions Delphine and Rhian. This helps to give the series a more complete feeling, and I enjoyed getting to know more characters in more detail.

As a consequence of this, there is a lot more point of view swapping in this novel. It is handled well, I never felt confused about whose eyes I was seeing the story through which is impressive considering how often perspective is switched.

There was a lot less focus on the day jobs of the main characters (dress making etc), which kept the focus on the supernatural elements of the story and effectively highlighted the characters drifting away from the “real” world. Where professions were referenced, it usually had the effect of grounding the characters amidst the fantastic.

Like other work by Ms Roberts, the writing is very strong with vivid descriptions and fast, punchy dialogue.

Overall this is a strong work and upon finishing it, when my Kindle automatically brought up a screen giving me an option to buy and download the third novel of the trilogy, I pressed the button without any hesitation (I worry about what that particular feature of the Kindle is going to do to my to-be-read pile). Highly recommended.

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


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Mistification by Kaaron Warren – review

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


Mistification by Kaaron Warren is an interesting book – very different from anything I’ve read in quite a while. It is one of those books I suspect of having hidden depths and that my meagre comprehension skills means I’ve missed the point of much of the story. So if you read a review which teases out a sensitive and powerful underlying message that makes a profound statement about human nature and our place in the world, pay more attention to that review rather than this one.

And perhaps provide a link in the comments below for me!

Marvo the Magician, grows up hidden in a hidden attic in a house with only his grandmother for company. By sneaking out at night he scavengers enough for them to live on, including a book of magic tricks which he devours.

When he gets older he realises that he also has real magic, the ability to pull “mist” down and reshape people’s perceptions, memories and the world around them. When his grandmother dies he leaves his hidden sanctuary and heads out into the real world.

I found the structure of the novel interesting. It is made up of an overarching story arc with a series of vignettes, small stories by transient characters that serve to illustrate some of the larger themes of the book. It took little while to get into the groove of this style of story telling. At first I found the tangents a little distracting, and I put the book down and picked it up a few times without really getting into it. However, one longer stint of reading when home sick from work helped me pick up the thread and I found the second half of the book much easier to manage.

The novel explores a lot, sexual politics, relationships, fate vs destiny and in particular the baser motivations of human behaviour. The basis of Marvo’s magic is that people need unrealistic hope to survive – that without the mist blurring their perception of the world, everyone would turn in despair to suicide. That’s a bleak message.

In fact the whole novel is quite bleak. Bleak characterisation of people. Bleak message about humanity. Bleak outlook on life. I’m not sure which genre the novel has been placed in from a marketing perspective, but for my money this is a horror novel through and through.

The main character, Marvo, and his companion Andra are complex characters, equal part sympathetic and repellent. The writing is in parts visceral, especially when discussing Andra’s fascination with bodily waste of all kinds. All in all it was very difficult to feel a connection with any character in the book, but that sense of being an outsider actually worked quite well when I sit back and consider the story as a whole.

The ending was good, closing the loop on the questions that were raised throughout the novel and certainly consistent with the characters as they were portrayed.

This is a thought provoking piece of writing. Recommended.

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


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In which I become less impressed with my AWWC achievements

I recently posted on me reaching my target in the Australian Women Writers’ 2012 Reading  Challenge. I was (and still am) happy that I’ve participated in the challenge – everything that I said in the original post about expanding my reading etc still holds true.

As a part of the post I added up all the reviews that I’d done since I started this website to check the gender breakdown. It turned out it was roughly equal (16 female authors compared to 14 male authors). I was pretty happy with that too.

That’s the part I’ve been thinking about over the last week. While I remain satisfied with the ratio, there was one aspect of my own reaction that has started to bug me.

I feel like I’ve been reading mostly women authors over the last 6 months or so. I sought out books written by women in the genres I’m interested in and made a point of prioritising women authors in my to-be-read list. I didn’t feel like I was reading many male authors at all and that my reading was “dominated” by female authors.

And it still came out 50/50.

It was a stark reminder of the power of unconscious biases. Admittedly my sample was pretty small, but somehow I’d “made an effort” reading 16 books by female authors, while reading 14 books by male authors had somehow happened without me noticing.

I consider myself a firm believer in equality. I don’t think I engage in any conscious sexist behaviour and I believe in judging individuals on their merits, not based on a stereotype or cliche. I knew I’d been guilty of letting my reading circle shrink over the years, but the fact that pre-challenge I was reading mainly male authors I put down to being time poor and perhaps a little conventional in sticking with authors I’d discovered in my youth.

Thinking about my reaction and listening to some of the discussion in the last couple of episodes of The Writer and the Critic podcast (episodes 18 and 19) when Ian and Kirstyn spoke at length about some of the default male centric settings in modern Australian society has left me a bit shell shocked. It’s triggered a lot of self reflection. I blame the bloody objective data. Self delusion would be a lot easier without it.

I look forward to the day when maintaining a more diverse reading pattern doesn’t seem like an effort. But in the mean time I’ll continue on with the AWWC, listening to excellent podcasts like The Writer and the Critic when they intelligently discuss these kinds of issues and hope like hell I’m able to evolve!

Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge – mission accomplished?

This morning I published my review of Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan and I realised I’ve read 10 books by Australian women writers in 2012 and published reviews on all 10. And that means I’ve met my revised challenge target – a purist (speculative fiction) at the Franklin-fantastic level (read 10 books, review at least 4).

I must admit it feels good to have met my target. Participating in the challenge has helped me become more aware of the biases in my reading habits, assisted me to more consciously seek out diversity amongst the authors I am following and led me to some cracking good yarns I might not have otherwise come across. Can’t ask for much more out of a reading challenge!

I’m particularly proud of the article on the reading challenge I had published with Antipodean SF, as well as the review of When We Have Wings that Elizabeth Lhuede was good enough to publish on the Australian Women Writers website.

But like the circumstances that surrounded the US President who famously said his mission was accomplished, the challenge doesn’t really end here. I’m hoping this milestone marks the start of a fundamentally different pattern of reading for me. A quick check over my reviews on this website since I started shows me reviewing 16 books by female authors and 14 by male authors. That’s within a margin of error of parity. By this time next year I intend to be able to quote similar statistics.

I’m going to continue with the AWWC until the end of 2012, tagging any reviews of Australian female authors for the challenge. 10 by May – hopefully December will see me at 25 or so.

For those that are interested, links to my first 10 reviews can be found below:

  1. Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts
  2. Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti
  3. The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood
  4. Above by Stephanie Campisi
  5. A Book of Endings by Deborah Biancotti
  6. Debris by Jo Anderton
  7. Showtime by Narrelle M Harris
  8. When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett
  9. Ishtar by Kaaron Warren, Deborah Biancotti & Cat Sparks
  10. Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Update

Since finishing the initial challenge, I’ve read and reviewed a few more books. I’ll keep updating this post with the additional reviews as they come in so I have a single listing.