Reviewing

From now on, I’m going to be posting my reviews at a separate site: The Forest of Books.  Please follow me over there if you want to keep up with my reviews.

As time permits, I plan to copy all of the reviews from here over to that site.  I’ll still be cross-posting to Goodreads, and I’m going to try to remember to post more reviews to Amazon as well.

AWW2015: The Beast’s Garden by Kate Forsyth

beastgarden

The Grimm Brothers published a beautiful version of the Beauty & the Beast tale called ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ in 1819. It combines the well-known story of a daughter who marries a beast in order to save her father with another key fairy tale motif, the search for the lost bridegroom. In ‘The Singing, Springing Lark,’ the daughter grows to love her beast but unwittingly betrays him and he is turned into a dove. She follows the trail of blood and white feathers he leaves behind him for seven years, and, when she loses the trail, seeks help from the sun, the moon, and the four winds. Eventually she battles an evil enchantress and saves her husband, breaking the enchantment and turning him back into a man.

Kate Forsyth retells this German fairy tale as an historical novel set in Germany during the Nazi regime. A young woman marries a Nazi officer in order to save her father, but hates and fears her new husband. Gradually she comes to realise that he is a good man at heart, and part of an underground resistance movement in Berlin called the Red Orchestra. However, her realisation comes too late. She has unwittingly betrayed him, and must find some way to rescue him and smuggle him out of the country before he is killed.

The Red Orchestra was a real-life organisation in Berlin, made up of artists, writers, diplomats and journalists, who passed on intelligence to the American embassy, distributed leaflets encouraging opposition to Hitler, and helped people in danger from the Nazis to escape the country. They were betrayed in 1942, and many of their number were executed.

The Beast’s Garden is a compelling and beautiful love story, filled with drama and intrigue and heartbreak, taking place between 1938 and 1943, in Berlin, Germany.


 

This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


I’m a longtime fan of Kate Forsyth (I vividly remember stalking the bookstore shelves waiting for each Witches of Eileanan book to be released), and particularly loved her last two books, The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens, and was thus extremely happy to be asked to read and review The Beast’s Garden.

I will admit up front, I went into this book with a small sense of trepidation.  I had very high hopes, based on how good The Wild Girl and Bitter Greens were, but I did wonder about the premise of The Beast’s Garden– namely, combining a version of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast (specifically, The Singing, Springing Lark) and Nazi Germany during World War II.  It wasn’t that I wasn’t sure that Forsyth could pull off such a story, I wondered if anyone could pull it off.

And now that I’ve read the book, the question: did Forsyth manage to pull it off?  The answer is a resounding hell yes.

It should be noted that this book isn’t going to be for every reader.  There are scenes set in a concentration camp, and while Forsyth doesn’t linger overlong on any of the atrocities, neither does she shield the reader from the true horrors of of WWII and the Holocaust.  If any of this is a trigger for you, this isn’t going to be the book for you.  But please, if you haven’t done so, go and read all of Forsyth’s other books.  They’re more than worth it.

In the role of “Beauty” we have Ava, a German girl who is training as a singer.  In looks, Ava takes after her dead Spanish mother, while her two sisters are blue-eyed and blonde-haired, fitting the Aryan ideal.  Ava and her family are not safe beneath Nazi rule.  Ava’s own darker colouring puts her at potential risk of being declaimed as having Romani blood, and one of her sisters has a daughter who is possibly learning disabled.  More, Ava’s family are close to a Jewish family, the Feidlers.  After Ava’s mother died, Ava was practically raised by Mrs Feidler, and regards Rudi Feidler (an out gay man) as a brother.  Ava and Rudi are both musicians, and both attend illicit jazz clubs together.  To protect all of her blood and found family, Ava marries a Nazi officer, Leo von Lowenstein.

Leo, naturally is the “Beast” of the tale, and it is the romance between Leo and Ava which drives much of the novel.  At first, Ava fears Leo, only knowing him as a Nazi officer.  As she gets to know him, and see beneath the public mask he wears, she discovers that he is a lot more than he first appeared.  Like her, he is fighting against Hitler’s rule, and is part of an underground resistance movement.

The story follows Leo and Ava as they both navigate Nazi Germany and the various plots to disrupt Nazi rule and attempt to assassinate Hitler.  We also get to follow Rudi after he is arrested for “subversive activities” and deported to the concentration camp, Buchenwald.  Yet another story thread is shown via Rudi’s sister Jutta, who evades arrest and lives in hiding from the Nazis.

On the surface, it is hard to see much hope in any story set in WWII Germany.  Forsyth doesn’t shy from any of the horrors: we get to see the Jewish people suffering both in the camps and in hiding, as well as the German people starving as their country begins to bend and break beneath the weight of Nazi rule and the war.  But in the darkness, there is light.  Even while deathly afraid, Ava finds ways to fight.  And in Buchenwald, Rudi plays illicit music, saves others where he can (and is saved in turn) and even finds love.

Forsyth skilfully weaves in many historical figures and events into the narrative, giving a real weight to a book that, in less talented hands, could easily have become little more than a fluffy romance between the Brave German Girl and Nazi With a Heart of Gold, or something extremely problematic.  If you’re worried about either of these issues, let me put your worries to rest right here.

With The Beast’s Garden, Forsyth cements herself as one of the most talented authors writing historical fiction (with a good dash of fairytale retelling) in Australia today.

AWW2015: Cranky Ladies of History

crankyladies

Warriors, pirates, murderers and queens…

Throughout history, women from all walks of life have had good reason to be cranky. Some of our most memorable historical figures were outspoken, dramatic, brave, feisty, rebellious and downright ornery.

Cranky Ladies of History is a celebration of 22 women who challenged conventional wisdom about appropriate female behaviour, from the ancient world all the way through to the twentieth century. Some of our protagonists are infamous and iconic, while others have been all but forgotten under the heavy weight of history.

Sometimes you have to break the rules before the rules break you.

 


This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.   I was a contributor to the Pozible campaign that partially funded the production of this book.


Cranky Ladies of History is an anthology edited by Tansy Rayner Roberts and Tehani Wessley, published by Fablecroft Publishing.  Publication of the anthology was supported by a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible and by a Tasmanian Arts Crowbar Grant.

When I first heard about the crowdfunding campaign for Cranky Ladies of History, I rushed to fund it.  Not only was I going to be on board with any anthology edited by Roberts and Wessley, but the theme had me at “cranky ladies”.  I opted to fund at the level which gave me the hardcover edition, which is a truly beautiful book.  Kathleen Jennings has created yet another utterly gorgeous cover, not to mention the internal illustrations in the book, which are all amazing.

I have to admit upfront that I am not the most thoroughly read in terms of history or historical fiction, and as such, many of the cranky ladies depicted in the stories were unknown to me.  As I started to read, I found myself wishing that each story had been prefaced by a small biography of the woman in question, but as I read more, I found myself glad that none had been provided.  There was a small thrill of recognition in seeing the women I recognised, and it was quite lovely to come to the ones I wasn’t familiar with without any prior assumptions.  Every one of the women was fascinating, and I suspect that there is going to be a lot of reading about their histories in my future.

I went into this anthology expecting a particular kind of woman to be represented: the woman who fought for good, and perhaps broke social norms in order to do so.  I was pleasantly surprised that there was, in fact, a wide range of “cranky ladies” presented (and honestly, I shouldn’t have been, given the editors and authors involved).  The fighter for good and breaker of social norms was there, as well as the warrior, but there were also darker levels of “crankiness” presented, for example, Countess Bathory, who can in no terms be described as good, but was certainly a cranky lady of her time.

I’m not going to talk about all of the stories in depth, but don’t take this to mean that they’re not all worthy of your time.  These are simply the stories that have particular resonance for me in terms of my reading taste.

Partway through reading, I tweeted that Kirstyn McDermott’s “Mary, Mary” had instantly become one of my favourite short stories of all time.  Now, having finished reading the anthology, I stand by this.  Mary Woolstonecroft, feminist, writer, and mother of Mary Shelley (she died ten days after giving birth to the second Mary) is the focus of this story.  McDermott’s prose is gorgeous and lush as always, and there is a clear empathy for both Marys and for the plight of all women of the time.  I loved the inclusion of the possibly-supernatural Grey Lady in this, too.  I think this is possibly one of McDermott’s strongest short stories to date.

Deborah Biancotti’s “Look How Cold My Hands Are” concerns the aforementioned Countess Bathory.  Bathory is said to have been one of the most prolific serial killers in history, who tortured and abused hundreds of young women.  Her punishment was being immured in her castle, and she remained walled up for the last four years of her life.  Biancotti, as to be expected from her body of work, does not shy away from any of the horror of Bathory’s actions, and renders the Countess a very believeable and truly horrible figure.  There is no redemption for Bathory, and yet Biancotti manages to convey a sense of the Countess’ belief that her actions were just.

The third story I’m going to mention is Amanda Pillar’s “Neter, Nefer”.  A brief caveat: I’ve worked with Pillar as my editor, a role at which she is brilliant.  Here, we get to see that she’s also a brilliant writer.  I’ve always been fascinated by Ancient Egypt, so it’s little surprise that I was drawn to this story on that basis alone, but I utterly loved the way Pillar approached the story of the female pharaoh Hatshephut.  The story is told from the perspective of Hatshephut’s daughter Neferure, and reveals so much about women in Ancient Egypt, and describes a fascinating mother-daughter relationship at the same time.  I would throw great wads of money at Pillar to have this expanded into a full novel.

It would have been very easy for editors to fall into the trap of choosing stories and protagonists who came only from a Eurocentric background in developing an anthology like this.  Wessley and Roberts–as I would expect from them–do not fall into this trap.  The collection is cleverly bookmarked by stories that reference Anne Boleyn, but we travel much of the world in between these two.  We have stories about cranky women from Central Asia (Foz Meadows writing about Khutulan, warrior who challenged any man who wished to marry her to defeat her in wrestling; loss meant forfeiting horses to her.  She is said to have won 10,000 horses in this fashion), China (Joyce Chng writing about Leizu, the Chinese empress who discovered silk), Australia (Sylvia Kelso, writing about Lilian Cooper, first female doctor registered in Queensland) and Iceland (Lisa L. Hannett, writing about Hallgerðr Höskuldsdóttir, Viking woman who suffers from terrible luck), as well as many more, including a great many awesome female pirates (and I would also pay money for a Cranky Lady Pirates sequel!).

It bears repeating that all of the stories in this book are excellent, not just the ones I’ve singled out above.  Reading this anthology, it made me realise just how many of the female stories are left out of traditional history as its taught, women most often relegated to the margins as daughters and wives, their own stories forgotten.  I’d like to think that somewhere in the past, these women are looking up and thanking the authors and editors for shining a light on them in all of their glorious crankiness.

Highly recommended, even if you don’t usually enjoy historical fiction.

 

AWW2015: The Hunt for Valamon by D.K. Mok

valamon

When Prince Valamon is impossibly taken from the heart of Algaris Castle, the only clue as to motive or culprit is the use of unknown sorcery.

Reclusive cleric Seris is happily tending to his book-infested temple when he finds himself recruited to the politically compromised rescue mission. His sole companion on the journey is Elhan, a cheerfully disturbed vagrant girl with terrifying combat skills and her own enigmatic reasons for seeking the prince.

Venturing into the wild, unconquered lands, Seris has no fighting prowess, no survival skills, and no charisma, as Elhan keeps pointing out. Armed only with a stubborn streak and creative diplomacy, he must find a way to survive outlaw towns, enchanted tropical isles, and incendiary masquerades, all without breaking his vow to do no harm.

Chasing rumours of rising warlords and the return of the vanished sorcerers, Seris and Elhan soon discover a web of treachery and long-buried secrets that go far beyond a kidnapped prince.

As enemies rise from beyond the empire and within it, Seris and Elhan realise that the key to saving Valamon and averting a war may lie in their own bloody pasts, and the fate of their fragile friendship.


 

I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

This review is presented as part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.


The Hunt for Valamon is Australian author D.K. Mok’s second novel (Her first novel, The Other Tree, I also reviewed.)  The Hunt for Valamon is high/epic fantasy, a departure from The Other Tree’s urban fantasy.

First of all, I have to comment on that incredible cover art.  Mok’s books (both published by Spence City) have had the most gorgeous covers.  Huge kudos to the cover artist.

Let me tell you a story of teenage and young adult me.  I loved epic fantasy.  In high school, I would walk through the aisle looking for the distinctive fat paperbacks (preferably a series, since it lasted longer) that would give me an escape from the world.  I devoured Raymond E. Feist’s books, and waited impatiently through university for each Wheel of Time book to be released.  I loved fantasy, and for a while read fairly indiscriminately.  Wizards and magic and dragons?  I was there.

And then I read a lot more, and started seeing the same old tired tropes being trotted out again and again.  Farmboy who goes on a journey and saves the kingdom and becomes a prince?  Princess who is little more than a pretty trophy to be won?  There were always exceptions, of course, but the old tropes were still there far too often, and I drifted away from the genre.

Now, I’m slowly coming back to reading epic fantasy, mostly because of some of the incredible authors who are breaking those old tropes and breathing life back into fantasy.  Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire is pretty much a must-read, especially if, like me, you were burned out on a lot of the same-old same-old.

Now, I’m a fan of Mok’s work in general, but I will admit to some trepidation in reading The Hunt for Valamon.  And honestly, I shouldn’t have had any.  Mok brings a particular uniqueness to the genre with this book: there’s a good dose of modernity and originality in this book, and honestly, it’s just plain fun.  There are no trophy princesses, not a farmboy-turned-prince in sight.

The book begins when Prince Valamon, heir to the throne, vanishes mysteriously from his room in the castle.  A tournament is held to find a champion to be sent on the titular hunt.  Elhan, a mysterious warrior who is followed by a curse, enters and wins.  She sets out on her quest with Seris, a cleric with healing abilities.

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?  There’s a quest, someone to be rescued.  But in every aspect of this book, Mok brings something new.  It’s a prince who needs to be rescued, for one.  Said prince, Valamon, is seen by others as being vague, and quite frankly, not a suitable heir to the throne.  As the book progresses, we have chapters from Valamon’s point of view in captivity, and we learn more and more about him (also, there are scenes where he attempts to break out of his cell using straw and hessian, which are kind of awesome).

The female characters in this book are incredible.  There are women in positions of power – Elhan is an accomplished warrior, despite being cursed to bring death and destruction everywhere she goes, and rightly feared because of it.  We also have Qara, childhood friend of the princes who has grown up to become a royal adviser, and Haska, who had a hand in Valamon’s kidnapping.  The reader sees chapters from all of their points of view, allowing Mok to flesh out all of the characters fully.  There are no cackling two-dimensional villains here, just real people, all of whom believe that their actions are right.

And Seris also needs to be noted.  He’s a cleric who has the power of healing granted to him by the goddess he serves, and could easily have become a passive or weak character, especially when juxtaposed against so many other physically strong characters.  Mok draws him finely, and gives him strength of a different fashion – he has the strength of conviction, of belief, and he always stays good and true to his beliefs.

If you’re tired of grimdark fantasy, I’d suggest that The Hunt for Valamon is a good place to start.  There are serious issues at stake here, but there’s always a lightness there, too, with just enough humour to balance the darker aspects of the book.

I did feel at times that some of the modern language that Mok uses in this book jarred, but then I took a step back and thought about it.  The language that we’re used to seeing with so much epic fantasy goes along with so many of the old tropes, and why shouldn’t a different kind of fantasy also use a different kind of language?

Highly recommended to anyone who loves fantasy, or, like me, has burned out on all the same old fantasy tropes.

 

 

 

AWW2015: Rupetta by Nike Sulway

Rupetta

Four hundred years ago, in a small town in rural France, a young woman creates the future in the shape of Rupetta. Part mechanical, part human, Rupetta’s consciousness is tied to the women who wind her. In the years that follow she is bought and sold, borrowed, forgotten and revered. By the twentieth century, the Rupettan four-fold law rules everyone’s lives, but Rupetta—the immortal being on whose existence and history those laws are based—is the keeper of a secret that will tear apart the world her followers have built in her name. The closeness between women is mirrored in the relationship between Henri and Miri, a woman at the college with whom she fall in love, and also between mothers and daughters and grandmothers and granddaughters – a heritage of affection that loops down over the centuries.


 

This review is presented as part of my commitment in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.  I purchased this book.


In 2013, Nike Sulway won the Tiptree Award for her novel Rupetta, becoming the first Australian to win the award.  Rupetta was also shortlisted for the Aurealis award for best science fiction novel, and won the Norma K. Hemming Award in 2014.

I purchased an ebook of Rupetta soon after the Tiptree win, and it was left lingering in my virtual to-be-read pile for too long (along with way too many books).  This year, I’m trying to make inroads into reading through my to-be-read mountains, and Rupetta was a good place to start.

And I am now kicking myself for not reading it sooner.  I actually almost wasn’t going to write a full review of this book, simply because I wasn’t certain that anything I could write would truly reflect how achingly beautiful this book is.  I fell deep in love with Sulway’s extraordinary prose from the first page, and deeper still with Rupetta, Henri and their world.  As soon as I finished the ebook, I hunted down a physical copy as well, just so I can have this gorgeous book on my shelf.

This book isn’t going to be for every reader.  The prose is dense, oftentimes reading more like poetry than anything else, and the storyline isn’t linear.  Each chapter feels very much as though it is a cog in part of a grand machine, like Rupetta herself.  I feel very much that this is a book that will benefit from much reading and rereading in order to see the full pattern of that machine.

Women are the central focus of this book.  Rupetta was created by a woman, and requires a psychic bond with a female Wynder in order to run.  Generation through generation we follow the Wynders, each of their stories unique and compelling.  Their bond to Rupetta, and Rupetta’s very existence, shapes the society around them.

The story is told in alternating chapters, one from Rupetta’s point of view following her history, and the next from Henri’s point of view.  Henri longs to be an Obanite Historian like her mother, to be Transformed by having her heart replaced with a clockwork version.  We follow with her as she rebels against her father’s wishes and enrols.  As she delves deeper into history, she discovers more about the truth of Rupetta and the Obanites, as well as of her mother’s life.

None of the magic in this world is explained – not how Rupetta came to be, not how Rupetta bonds with her Wynders.  I suspect this will frustrate some readers, but for me, the mystery of it only added to the enchantment of the book.  My only real issue is that the ending didn’t quite draw together completely, but I feel that the sheer beauty of Sulway’s writing and the strength of the world and main characters more than makes up for this.

Sulway writes in an elaborate filigree which is not quite like anything else I’ve read.  The closest I can come is comparing her to authors like Catherynne M. Valente and Sophia Samatar.  Rupetta is fully deserving of the awards it has won, and I look forward to Sulway’s future books.

 

AWW2015: In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward

22442763

There are secrets in this family. Before Biff and her younger brother, Mark, there was baby Alison, who drowned in her bath because, it was said, her mother was distracted. Biff too, lives in fear of her mother’s irrational behaviour and paranoia, and she is always on guard and fears for the safety of her brother. As Biff grows into teenage hood, there develops a conspiratorial relationship between her and her father, who is a famous and gregarious man, trying to keep his wife’s problems a family secret. This was a time when the insane were committed and locked up in Dickensian institutions; whatever his problems her father was desperate to save his wife from that fate. But also to protect his children from the effects of living with a tragically disturbed mother.

In My Mother’s Hands is a beautifully written and emotionally perplexing coming-of-age true story about growing up in an unusual family.


 

This review is presented as part of my commitment to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

I purchased this book.


 

When the Stella Prize longlist for 2015 was announced, I went through and downloaded samples of the books that interested me.  This is the first book for which I read the sample and had to keep on reading.

Biff Ward grew up in a house that was unlike the houses of the people she knew.  There was the shadow of her sister Alison, said to have drowned in her bath as a baby when her mother fainted.  And there was Biff’s mother, a woman who always seemed distracted, apart from her family.  At times this distraction broke and became something else: a paranoia that they were being watched, that people were coming to get them.

As Ward grows up, her mother becomes more and more detached, more unstable.  She begins to gouge at her hands, pare back her nails with a razor, trying to rid herself of a “rash”.  She wears gloves all the time that she is not gouging.  Ward’s father copes as best as he can, though at times this “coping” seems to veer very close to abuse.  He has a string of affairs, but he always returns to his wife, this woman who seems empty, who seems so incredibly sad.

It is as an adult, living apart from her mother, that Ward sets off on a journey to discover what really happened to Alison, what really is wrong with her mother.  As she uncovers the truth, there is an indescribable sorrow that flows beneath the words of the book.  Sorrow for Ward and her brother, essentially growing up without a mother.  Sorrow for Ward’s father, who sought to protect his wife from a state asylum, the only treatment for mental illness at the time.  And sorrow most of all for Ward’s mother, suffering most likely from postpartum psychosis and schizophrenia.

Ward draws parallels between her life and Jane Eyre, with the mad wife Bertha locked in the attic.  Reading this book, I wonder how many Berthas there have been, essentially locked away for lack of real treatment for mental illness.  Ward’s mother lived in a time before antidepressants and antipsychotics, a time when mental illness was hushed up, swept beneath the rug, hidden by gloves.

This is an incredibly important memoir, and I can only begin to imagine how painful it must have been for Ward to write.  Without real help, her whole family suffered because of her mother’s mental illness.   There is no blame in this memoir on Ward’s part, just that deep sorrow for the woman her mother might have been, if there had been real help for her at the time.  Ward is to be thanked for her honesty and strength.  This is not an easy read, by any means, but it is a book that is very much worth reading.

 

 

Review: Cold Comfort by David McDonald

24168051

 

Strap yourself in as three tales from award winning speculative fiction author David McDonald take you on a tour of time and space.

Visit a frozen post apocalyptic Earth, a galactic delivery service, and very Australian dystopia to discover what happens to ordinary people faced with extraordinary choices or challenges.

Published by Clan Destine Press.

 

NOTE: Review copy provided by author in exchange for an honest review.

Cold Comfort is a collection of three stories from Australian author David McDonald; two of the stories are reprints and one is original to this collection.

Cold Comfort (originally published in Fablecroft Publishing’s Epilogue)

Ice spiders, snow bears and deadly cold are only most obvious of the dangers a young trader faces as she searches for the secrets of the Elders on a post-apocalyptic Earth.

Epilogue is an anthology which focused on apocalypse, and more, strove to explore the world beyond it–is there hope beyond the end of the world?  Cold Comfort explores these themes in a frozen world, where people survive only in sealed domes and heat itself is a currency.  The story follows Vanya as she travels through the icy wilderness, fighting off wild creatures as she searches for a dome in which she can trade, and discovers so much more.

There is a deceptive sparsity to McDonald’s writing which well suits this story.  Everything feels truly bleak and utterly real: the reader struggles with Vanya as she searches the frozen world.  It really feels as though there is a whole world here, and that McDonald has only just begin to explore it (and as a reader, I hope that he does return to it, because it is fascinating).

Through Wind and Weather (originally published in eMergent Publishing’s Deck the Halls)

A rebellious pilot races against time to make a vital delivery to a planet in need. But in the face of the worst solar storm in years, his only ally is a sentient spaceship who is an outcast even to its own kind.

From the Christmas-themed anthology Deck the Halls, this one is (obviously) Christmas themed.

This is a slighter story than the others in Cold Comfort, but it has no less impact.  Without spoiling anything, this is the kind of story that I’m not usually a fan of, but McDonald makes it work by adding in just enough fascinating worldbuilding.  I kind of want one of these spaceships, and now please.

Our Land Abounds

In a world divided by war and wracked by food shortages, the Republic of Australasia is an oasis protected by its isolation and the Border Patrol. But, a chance encounter leaves a weary veteran asking whether the price of plenty is too high.

This story is original to this anthology, and is my favourite.

In the possibly-all-too-near future, Australia has suffered through a war, and in order to protect itself and its wealth, has closed its borders.  But all is not well in the Republic: a teacher is taken away for daring suggest that Australia has enough wealth to share, and illegal immigrants are hung for their “crime”.

This closed-off republic is not a kind one, however–a teacher is taken away for daring suggest to her students that Australia has enough wealth to share, and “criminals” are hung for being discovered as illegal immigrants.

This story in particular cuts very close to the bone, with respect to the Australian government’s current policies, and it feels far too much like a plausible future.  I feel like, as with Cold Comfort, McDonald has shown us only the tip of a horrifying and fascinating Australian dystopia, and I would love to see him return to or expand upon it.

In summary

This is a brilliant collection, and especially recommended if you haven’t read any of McDonald’s work before.  The stories are well described by the collection title Cold Comfort: these are not easy worlds, but McDonald manages to place hope even in the middle of despair.  Vanya discovers that her world isn’t as lost as she thought, Nick and his sentient ship will find a way through, and even in the depths of dystopia, people still speak out.

Highly recommended.

 

AWW15: These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner

13138635

 

Luxury spaceliner Icarus suddenly plummets from hyperspace into the nearest planet. Lilac LaRoux and Tarver Merendsen survive — alone. Lilac is the daughter of the richest man in the universe. Tarver comes from nothing, a cynical war hero. Both journey across the eerie deserted terrain for help. Everything changes when they uncover the truth.

 

 

NOTE: I was part of the Aurealis Awards judging panel which awarded These Broken Stars Best YA Novel in 2013.

These Broken Stars is the first book in the Starbound trilogy, co-written by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, and Kaufman’s debut novel.

This is very much a book that I can see as being a gateway into speculative fiction, especially for female readers (I know that I would have made extreme grabby hands for that cover alone when I was a teenager, and would have loved the story even more).  There are some reviews that complain about a lack of worldbuilding in terms of the science fictional universe, but I can actually see that being a positive thing for a lot of readers – if you have a young reader who hasn’t read much science fiction, too much worldbuilding can be daunting.  These Broken Stars is a book primarily about the co-protagonists, just enough revealed of the world(s) around them to be tantalising, without being overwhelming.

And those protagonists.  Lilac and Tarver are both complex characters – when they walk onto the virtual stage, both can easily be seen as little more than cliches: Lilac the spoiled princess, Tarver the heroic soldier.  They quickly move past this, both of them showing their own strengths and unexpected talents.  And Lilac is never a damsel in distress – they both save each other more than once.

I can imagine that some readers would be put off by the romance in this – and that’s cool, if romance isn’t your thing, you might be better off looking elsewhere, but I found it utterly believable and compelling.

There are two other books planned as sequels (This Shattered World, the second book, has been recently released) and I hope that Spooner and Kaufman expand out and out and show us more of this fascinating world.

 

 

AWW14: Completed

This year for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge I signed up at the Franklin level – read at least 10 books, reviewing at least 6.

My stats for the year:

Female Australian authors read: 52.

Reviews written: 7.

 

Links to reviews:

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina.

The Other Tree by D.K. Mok.

Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres.

The Swan Book by Alexis Wright.

The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott.

Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko.

 

Musings on the challenge

Overall, I’m really happy with my reading year in terms of this challenge.  The total number of books was easy to achieve, since I was judging for the Aurealis Awards both at the beginning and end of the year.

I had originally set up a mental challenge to myself to review at least one book a month, but that unfortunately fell by the wayside.  I feel fairly happy with the seven reviews I got written, though.  I’m especially glad that I picked up more books by Indigenous writers this year, and hope to extend that into my challenge for next year as well.  Of particular note is Mullumbimby, which I picked up specifically because it was linked from the AWW Goodreads page, and was probably a book that I wouldn’t have normally come across otherwise.

Many thanks to the organisers of the challenge, and if you’ve never given it a go, I encourage everyone to.  Even if it makes you pick up one book by a female Australian author, I consider that a worthy accomplishment.

AWW2014: Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott

Note: I was on the judging panel for the 2012 Aurealis Awards which awarded Perfections with Best Horror Novel.


Perfections

Two sisters. One wish. Unimaginable consequences.

Not all fairytales are for children.

Antoinette and Jacqueline have little in common beyond a mutual antipathy for their paranoid, domineering mother, a bond which has united them since childhood. In the aftermath of a savage betrayal, Antoinette lands on her sister’s doorstep bearing a suitcase and a broken heart. But Jacqueline, the ambitious would-be manager of a trendy Melbourne art gallery, has her own problems – chasing down a delinquent painter in the sweltering heat of a Brisbane summer. Abandoned, armed with a bottle of vodka and her own grief-spun desires, Antoinette weaves a dark and desperate magic that can never, ever be undone.

Their lives swiftly unravelling, the two sisters find themselves drawn into a tangle of lies, manipulations and the most terrible of family secrets.

*

Perfections is the second novel by Kirstyn McDermott, originally released as an ebook only from Xoum, and recent re-released by Twelfth Planet Press as a gorgeous paperback.   McDermott’s debut novel, Madigan Mine is also being re-released by Twelfth Planet Press as an ebook.

First thing: I am so happy to be able to own a physical copy of this book.  I read a lot of ebooks, but for books that I really love (spoiler: I love this book), I really like having a physical copy on the shelf.  And this is a seriously gorgeous book, with stunning cover art by Amanda Rainey.

Second thing: I am a massive fan of McDermott’s work in general.  In terms of craft, she is extraordinarily talented – at a sentence level, her prose is lyrical and evocative, and her characters are always exquisitely drawn.  From the moment they step foot onto the page, they live and breathe and feel; combine this with the darkness that twines through most of McDermott’s work, and you have something truly extraordinary.

Perfections is what I’ve come to expect from McDermott – grounded in reality, but a reality slightly twisted, threaded through with dark magic.  I don’t want to talk too much in depth about the plot of the book – there are details that aren’t really spoilers, but I believe that the reading of the book is a much richer experience if you don’t know them.

Perfections is, at its heart, a book about sisters, about daughters, about mothers.  It is a book about the way families can twist around secrets (and oh, the secrets that this family has).  The reader moves back and forth between the viewpoints of two sisters, Antoinette and Jacqueline.  Both are skilfully drawn, and it is very easy to feel empathy for both of them and the situations that they are in; especially well done is the juxtaposition between how they see themselves and how they are seen by their sister.

There is darkness here: both of the human variety (and kudos to McDermott for how well she handles some of the true nastiness in her characters – it always makes sense, and is never there for the sake of a character having to be nasty to justify a dark genre), and of the fantastical.  There is some particular imagery from near the end of the book that I will likely never be able to get out of my head (if you’ve read the book, I bet you know what I mean).

And, without spoiling anything, Perfections has a seriously good ending.

Reading as a reader, I was utterly captivated by this world (and loving some of the connections to McDermott’s other work).  As a writer, I was torn between deep envy and deep admiration for just how damn well McDermott writes.  The envy doesn’t last long, of course, especially when an author is as damn nice as McDermott is.

Horror and dark fantasy are genres that have, at times, a bad reputation – I know plenty of readers who won’t even touch something that might be horror.  And honestly, with some of the books and movies that are in the genre, I don’t blame them (reputations are, sometimes, justified things).  And yes, sometimes there is absolutely nothing wrong with gore for the sake of gore, fear for the sake of fear.  I do wish that some of the readers who shy away would pick up books like Perfections and realise that there can be much more to the horror/dark fantasy genre.

Perfections is an incredible book.  It is haunting and evocative, presenting a world that is just so slightly askew from our own, but populated with characters who live and breathe so well that they could be anyone you know.  McDermott is one of Australia’s best writers of dark fiction, and if you haven’t read any of her work, Perfections is an extremely good place to start.  And then prepare to devour everything else.