I enjoyed Paradise in Plain Sight. Part memoir, part teaching, part gateway into the practice of Zen for the interested. How you take it will vary wit...moreI enjoyed Paradise in Plain Sight. Part memoir, part teaching, part gateway into the practice of Zen for the interested. How you take it will vary with your expectations I suspect. I didn't enjoy it as much as Hand Wash Cold because some of Miller's life story is repeated here, so having read the previous book recently I did feel like I was rereading in parts. That being said it's not intended as a fiction so if you are interested in western zen and are tired of the desire/expectation to constantly level up your life; paradise has value.(less)
Engaging, part autobiography part gentle instructional. I think I concur with the author's claim that you can't really study Zen Buddhism seriously wi...moreEngaging, part autobiography part gentle instructional. I think I concur with the author's claim that you can't really study Zen Buddhism seriously without some guidance in person. This book is for the curious and for those that perhaps need reminding.(less)
Angela Slatter has, along with her regular partner in fiction Lisa L Hannett, been one of those authors I have collected yet never really got around t...moreAngela Slatter has, along with her regular partner in fiction Lisa L Hannett, been one of those authors I have collected yet never really got around to reading due to the reviewing pile taking precedence over the personal reading pile. Sure, I have read single stories on occasion, enough to know that the money I have put down on her other collections is well spent. The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings from Tartarus, is then the first collection that I have read in its entirety. It’s also possibly the first mosaic novel that I have read.
It works well, both as a collection of separate stories and as collected narrative. One of things that is hard to do within in a short story and which our best writers often achieve, is creating that sense of a wider realised secondary world within a small word count.
What I think the mosaic format allows Slatter to do is give herself some wiggle room for story and style and let the layering effect of drip fed world details in each separate tale slowly envelope the reader to give us that realised world That isn’t to say that Slatter isn’t doing a grand job of combining style, story and detail within each tale but that structurally the envelope of the mosaic helps in some cases to accentuate the impact of certain stories, while at the same time containing deviations is form and style in others.
In Terrible as an Army with Banners, Slatter crafts an effective piece of epistolary fiction. It’s distinct from many of the stories in the collection in terms of tone and style but works equally well in maintaining a sense of increasing dread and darkness. Likewise The Maiden in the Ice meshed together horror elements that reminded me of The Ring with a a clever riff on a well known folktale.
For a while she tries to keep her eyes firmly fixed on her destination, on the silver-ash clump of sedge not so far—yet so very far—away. But the panic she’s tamped down hard gets the better of her, and she looks to the sparkling, treacherous ground upon which she moves, seeking the cracks, the veins, the fissures that are surely forming there.
But what she sees is something entirely different.
An oval face; skin sallow—in the sun it will become olive; dark-flecked, large eyes; thick straight brows; an unbalanced mouth, the top lip thin, the bottom full; and hair as black as Rikke has ever seen. Black as nightmares, black as a cunning woman’s cat, black as the water she is trying to escape. Older than Rikke, caught between girl and woman, and suspended in the solid lake as if she’s a statue, standing; head titled back, one arm reaching up, the other pointing downward.
from The Maiden in the Ice.
The Bitterwood Bible is a neat package that has allowed Slatter to explore, examine and re-imagine the fairy/folktale milieu. There’s a balance achieved here too; I never felt that I needed to rush through the stories to the larger resolution. I was able to enjoy each of the tales as a separate entity and I suspect that were I to reread it as Lisa Hannett suggests in the afterword and focus more on the connections between each story, I would have another equally pleasant and slightly different experience.
I am left feeling the beneficiary of sumptuous and stylish storytelling, Slatter, I suspect is at her best here.
Disclaimer: I am a Judge for this years Aurealis Awards and some of the stories contained in this volume are eligible. Hence my review only comments on those not eligible and on how the collection works as a mosaic novel. (less)
In a short space of time I have come to really enjoy Jude Aquilina’s work. On a moon spiced night, released in 2004 by Wakefield Press, is however, th...moreIn a short space of time I have come to really enjoy Jude Aquilina’s work. On a moon spiced night, released in 2004 by Wakefield Press, is however, the first collection solely made up of her work that I have read.
On a moon spiced night fits neatly into the kind of contemporary poetry that I have, through the course of the last couple of years, come to discover I like. It’s accessible, it riffs of nostalgia, it hooks me in and elicits an emotional response. That’s not to say that it’s simple nor that I don’t appreciate works that require some poetry reading experience to fully appreciate.
That Aquilina is a South Australian poet writing at times about South Australia, obviously adds a little extra. I know the places that she is describing and evoking.
It’s a diverse collection structured in four separate categories: Habitat, Love’s Dream, Seeds and Creature Acts.
The poems in Habitat seem to centre around experiences of growing up in Adelaide or observations of the city and suburbs. There’s some subtle experimentation with concrete poetry and some clever choices in format and presentation and I find myself noting some of the choices she has made for my own learning. The poems Street Fabric and Pointillism best display what I am talking about but are hard to present here in the appropriate format.
Grace versus The Highway is my favourite poem in this section, outlining the struggle of a South Road (presumably) resident who has survived a husband’s death and sons moved to foreign cities, only to have her home bulldozed so the government can widen the highway.
A hanging garden chokes verandah posts;
violets and agapanthus bury the pathways.
Entwined in her nest, Grace is safe for now
until the rats in suits and ties arrive
bearing smiles and papers to sign.
Her shrine will be desecrated by July.
Love’s Dream collects Aquilina’s love poetry, whether this be yearning, remembrance, celebration or vengeance. We have the racy The Lonesome Cowgirl Blues with such suggestive lines as:
…I wanna feel like Dolly P when I hold
your hard mike between my parted pouted lips.
and the chilling calculation of a murderer in Diary of a Poisoner.
Overall I found a playfulness in this section, an invitation to enjoy love and life, passion and yearning.
Seeds, which featured a collection of poems about Fruit and Vegetables didn’t grab me as much as the other sections in the book, except for perhaps Outside the Market, 7 am. which illustrates the callousness and indifference that we can have to the destitute when presented with it on a regular basis. The opening lines resonated, because this sort of indifference was part of my youthful experience:
Don't worry luv
their ears go blue
when they’re dead,
the market man says.
Creature Acts as you might expect contains observations of and questions asked of our pets, wildlife or ourselves. King Gussie reveals me as a lover of cats and by extension of cat poems, his antics remind me so much of my own that I had no chance with this poem.
But lest you think its all fluffy and cute Aquilina gives us some of her emotional heavy hitters here, particularly with The Horologist, about a father who was a fan of clocks, whose interaction with them is a daily ritual. Its a skilfully evoked and executed snapshot of a mans life and its ending.
For decades, he sat at a felt covered bench
poring over tins of sorted springs,
cogs like serrated coins, one eye shut
the other adhered to a magnified lens.
Then suddenly his heart beat stopped
and one by one the clocks followed.
Selling poetry whether it be the actual selling of poems or the concept of the art appears to be a difficult act these days outside of the community of poets. I have some inklings, some gut theories about why this might be. Folks baulk at paying the same amount (or more) for a collection than they do a novel. So I hope that my discussion here has awakened interest, particularly in those who normally pass over poetry.
I think On a moon spiced night has wide appeal and if the thought of taking a chance on poetry (which admittedly can offer diverse and strange fruit) makes you hesitate, try and find a copy at the library. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.(less)
It’s a big step moving from writing condensed, powerful and original short fiction to a multiple book, epic fantasy. As different as say running a 5km...moreIt’s a big step moving from writing condensed, powerful and original short fiction to a multiple book, epic fantasy. As different as say running a 5km run and a marathon. In each case you use the same skill but the end objective, your tactics, how you cross the finish line or complete the work is different, enough to challenge the best runners or writers when they are used to one kind of event, one format.
So how did Peek fare? He’s a very good short story writer (see Dead Americans) and The Godless is an epic in every sense of the word.
Granted a trilogy is not an uncommon sight on fantasy shelves but I get the sense that in some at least there’s a fairly straightforward structure designed to move the story along, hook in readers who will become loyal – an understanding if you will between commerce, story and entertainment that produces an easily digestible product, where the text is transparent.
Then there are books like The Godless that I think need the space for the scope and definition of the storytelling. The Godless is an epic, not just in terms of size but in its selection of characters and its apparent scope.
The city at the centre of The Godless, Mireea, is built on the back of a dying god and for a significant part of the story I was unsure whether of not this was a metaphor, a creation story, for the gods as described seemed more of that ilk, primeval forces with human characteristics but godly dimensions.
Then we have the Children of the Gods, humans gifted with longevity and power, humans that become immortals and whose life and power produce curious responses: a godlike ruler of animals, a reclusive enclave of detached natural philosophers, a crazed killer of nations. Then there are the “cursed”, those unfortunates blessed with elemental fragments of the god’s powers who are either shunned because of the differences or are killed by their inability to control the powers they hold.
What happens to a world existing in the twilight of the god’s powers when a new god appears, is the big picture The Godless series will attempt to answer. But threaded through this epic tale are personal stories, personal tragedies that help to ground it.
It’s these personal stories, the characters that they spring from that I found most interesting, especially for the genre of epic fantasy. We still have our sword and sorcery, our big battles, our scarred veterans and our young characters who we will follow on their journey. But Peek has I think made some original and diverse choices in building and filling his world. Our principle protagonist is not white, and not male - Ayae is an orphan, a refugee who up until our introduction to her has made a successful transition to being the apprentice of a renowned cartographer.
Many authors paying lip service to diversity may have stopped there but Peek provides us with a diverse cast and that diversity is three dimensional - the ruler of Mireea, is a shrewd woman of middle age with the associated changes in body and shape that it brings for many of us. The leader of “Dark”, a bunch of mercenary saboteurs, is an exiled black nobleman and the invading army of nationalistic Leeran’s, is white. Men and women appear evenly in positions of power. Now I am sure that some sections of the science fiction community might rail against such blatantly fair representation. Me, well I see diversity done skilfully, diversity and originality that enhances story. When your characters feel like real people more so than archetypes then I think the reader finds it harder to slot them into well worn parts, into literary set pieces that they have long grown used to reading and anticipating. Diversity created interest, which kept my immersed along with Peek’s writing style.
Peek’s writing asserted itself from the outset, I was very conscious of his style being an important part of the storytelling, of creating a sense of place and a mood. Some writing fades into the background, let’s the story do the heavy lifting. What I found in The Godless was a very good mix of fresh story and styled prose.
Slowly, Mireea was becoming uniform: a city of shut buildings and empty lanes, the divisions of economy washed away and falling into memory like the sprawl of markets. Each new building shut up was a part of Mireea lost, and soon he would also be gone. If he was not, he ran the risk of being drawn into the units that the Mireean Guard were making from citizens. That he had no desire for.
If you are looking for a page turner I am not sure I would classify The Godless as such, which is a good thing. I think you need to devote a bit more attention to it. This is the first of a great epic and I get the same sense of immersion and depth of history that I got when reading A Song of Ice and Fire. I want to know more about these characters, because they are fully realised and I can’t sate my curiosity by falling back on archetypes
So how did Peek fare? Very well. If you want to enjoy what is possible to achieve when you look outside the standard fantasy tropes give The Godless a go.
Poetry featuring cats is not unheard of, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is one famous example, though I am not sure how many folks r...morePoetry featuring cats is not unheard of, T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is one famous example, though I am not sure how many folks realise this collection of light hearted rhyme formed the basis for the musical Cats. Then of course the internet is powered by pictures of cute kittens. So on the face of it, a collection of cat poems is probably a very good idea.
The Duties of a Cat is described by publishers, Pitt Street Poetry as a pamphlet, a collection of 12 poems. It’s similar in size to some poetry chapbooks I have purchased previously. But whereas most chapbooks are small collections produced cheaply to give the reader the words in the cheapest fashion, Pitt Street have managed somehow to produce a compact, high spec collection, illustrated by Michael Robson, and saddle stitched with a heavy card cover for just $10.
For lovers of cats and poetry the collection is a no brainer as a gift. But for those strange folk that don’t happen to like our feline masters companions I shall expand a little.
Blackford can be hard to pigeonhole as a writer, she’s more than dabbled in a number of genres and forms (see her Snapshot Interview) and this facility is evident in the variety she presents in this short collection. The reader is treated to beautifully articulated observational poetry as in Soft Silk Sack and Learning how to be a Cat, to humour that will have even dog lovers generating a grin with The Duties of a Cat, to the dark in Something in the Corner which displays Blackford’s penchant for the weird and to the science fictional in Their Quantum Toy.
I tend to struggle with overwrought diction and experimental syntax and thankfully Blackford is one of those poets who tends to be be more direct. We get clearly evoked or described images and subtle rhythm. See the excerpt from Dream Hunt below:
The white Cat sleeping by the window growls.
I glance across. One pale curved paw, pressed hard
across his eyes, keeps out the daylight world.
His other paws are trembling, desperate to run.
While I am admittedly a cat lover and probably outrageously biased, I did enjoy the craft Blackford displayed and the words as much as their subject were a pleasure to read. On this work and other poetry of Blackford’s I have read, I hope we will see a larger collection in the not too distant future. (less)
What I really enjoy in a good book is total immersion; the kind that makes you forget your concerns, that actually leaves you feeling relaxed. Karen M...moreWhat I really enjoy in a good book is total immersion; the kind that makes you forget your concerns, that actually leaves you feeling relaxed. Karen Miller’s The Falcon Throne did this while flaying me emotionally. I dear reader, may even have required tissues at some point. I enjoy being emotionally manipulated when it’s done well and I felt that Miller was masterful in getting me to love and hate the various characters, to break me by breaking my favourites.
Comparisons will be made to GRR Martin and the back cover blurb on my ARC mentions Abercrombie and Canavan.
It’s not as drawn out as A Song of Ice and Fire, and while the cast of characters will probably scare readers of mainstream fiction (it includes a Dramatis Personae), the scope felt a little smaller than what you’d expect from “he who kills all his characters”. Where real similarities can be drawn between Miller and Martin though, is in the ruthlessness they treat the characters you come to love.
The comparison to Trudi Canavan is apt as well, structurally I found it exceedingly sharp, well paced and when I put it down I was hankering to get back to it. It’s not quite thriller paced, but I certainly felt like the story moved.
The Falcon Throne is its own book though. For your 600+ pages you get 4 tightly woven plots that deliver a wealth of conflict and one larger story arc that hints at what the rest of the series will be about.
Roric, a bastard reluctantly slays his tyrannical cousin, helped by disgruntled Lords who have had enough of living in fear. A widowed duchess struggles to hold onto power in a man’s world. Power will corrupt brotherly love and set the wheels of war turning and always, there is the presence of a power moving in the shadows that plays these personalities like pawns.
If you are looking for high fantasy, you won’t find it here. There’s greed, ambition and trusting fools. There’s war, pestilence and sorcery. If you are squeamish when it comes to the suffering of children, or with sexual violence used against either gender you might want to pause – these are not overwhelming elements but The Falcon Throne isn’t a Disney fairy tale. I’d rate it as one of my best reads of the year and would expect Miller to join Rowena Cory Daniells as one of our best women writers of Grimdark.
Enter this tale at your own risk, Miller will slip the dagger under your guard and twist. You will feel pain.
This review was based on an advanced reading copy.(less)
I can’t remember at which point I forgot that this collection was diverse YA and just plain enjoyed the read. I’d backed this particular project out o...moreI can’t remember at which point I forgot that this collection was diverse YA and just plain enjoyed the read. I’d backed this particular project out of a belief in the publishing team, the writers they managed to bring on board and the idea that a diverse world is a better world.
So I am biased, but bias can only get you so far if the product is lacking. Thankfully (though I can’t say I honestly doubted the editorial team) Kaleidoscope, is not lacking, far from it. Sure there were stories that weren’t “my thing” (two from memory that I just couldn’t get into) but on the whole this project seemed to have a coherence, flow and quality that I have come to experience more in single author collections.
I can’t comment on some of the stories due to Aurealis Award Judging commitments but I will draw your attention to stories that in light of current discussions around YA in Australia, struck me as pertinent:
Tansy Rayner Roberts, Cookie Cutter Superhero, really buried any idea that YA fiction can’t interrogate complex issues. Tansy came out swinging in this story and never really let up. I kept saying to myself “Oh, she didn’t just…yes she did.” You can view this one as a critique of the comic book industry its sexism and lack of diversity. This story doesn’t “make nice”.
“Happy Go Lucky” by Garth Nix is another interrogation of complex issues, this time refugees. I read this as Australia, in the form of Scott Morrison is attempting to give himself the power to effectively do what occurs in this story. Very timely.
Having some awareness of issues around the Filipino Diaspora, I found End of Service by Gabriela Lee, to be very clever and very subtle. Yet again we have another story that looks at exploitation, pair this sort of story with a critique of vulture capitalism and you can approach another complex issue from fiction and non-fiction standpoint.
So there were stories that focussed on broad issues and included diverse characters as part of the backdrop i.e. not every main character had to be the diverse character and not every story was about that diversity. Some stories mentioned gay characters in passing, as in John Chu’s Double Time, where there’s a one line mention of the male coach’s boyfriend. Others like Garth Nix’s Happy Go Lucky had gay parents as secondary characters. There’s no reason why any author couldn’t do this in an effort to present more diversity.
All the stories though, put story first or entertainment first, Karen Healey in Careful Magic takes an OCD witch in training, which would have been interesting just as an exploration of that condition in a contemporary world with magic and turns it into a edge of your seat story of suspense. John Cho meshes short term time travel with figure skating and overbearing parents; high concept meets human story.
Only one thing is better than finding a character that you can identify with, who is just like you. That thing is having other people see and perhaps gain insight and understanding into what it means to be “different”. Kaleidoscope, should achieve this, it has for me.
If you are critical of YA fiction I’d like to have you read this collection. If you can find stories that tackle diversity better than this collection, I’d also like to know. On reflection I am content to say that if this collection is anything to go by, Kaleidoscope is evidence that some of the best diverse fiction is being written in the YA category.(less)
I nearly missed this collection for two reasons. The first was that it was located at my local library and while the superb and nearly fully complete...moreI nearly missed this collection for two reasons. The first was that it was located at my local library and while the superb and nearly fully complete state system enables me to find and request almost anything and have it delivered to my nearest town, the clientele of the local library is generally conservative and older. I’d be more likely to find a healthy quilting section or the poems of Banjo Patterson ( to be fair they have great crime and fantasy sections). So I wasn’t expecting poetry, nor poetry written this century. Second the collection is small physically, I initially mistook it for one of those small advice books or guides that publishers release.
Whatever caused me to look further I don’t know but I’m glad I did. Readers of the blog will know that I am exploring poetry; reviewing as part of the Australian Women Writers challenge and also engaging in reading as part of my poetry practice.
I expected to enjoy some poems and to learn something. I’m not averse to sewing in general but I didn’t think an anthology organised thematically around buttons would be too engrossing.
But it was. To the extent that I feel jealousy. Creating an anthology around buttons was a stroke of deceptive genius and the poems have taken, what on the surface is a simple idea and stitched together a collection that is diverse in tone, form and subject matter.
There are 43 poems in all, presented in the sections: In the sewing draw, Love’s tangled thread, Dark holes, A buttonhole to history and Of Kith and Kin. We don’t find who is responsible for each poem until the list at the end of the collection – a good choice I think forcing the reader to concentrate on the poems themselves rather than who has written them.
Overall the collection favours less complex diction and manages to evoke nostalgia and emotion consistently. There’s humour, horror and love poems and a collection that you might think would drag on the topic of buttons ends up extremely well rounded.
It’s hard to pick favourites as several read throughs have revealed other poem’s charms to me. But if forced to pick two that were immediate favourites - From Her lover’s Uniform by Fenney, in which a small token of affection is imbued with lifelong meaning and sadness, is one. While the second is Deep in a Forrest by Aquilina, perfect in the way it holds its cards close to its chest until the final, horrible reveal.
Thread me a Button is a lovely example of accessible poetry. When I hear people criticise poetry for aloofness for being too distant and divorced from reality I think of something like Thread me a Button and shake my head. This is perfect for the person who is unsure about this “highfalutin free verse” and for poets who know how deceptively hard writing such accessible poetry can be. I think its also useful for poets thinking about the presentation and construction of their collections - its a great model to work from.
You can purchase it through Ginninderra Press(less)
It’s hard to categorise Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky in more than a general sense (as Fantasy) and this is a good thing.
It’s vivid and evocative descript...moreIt’s hard to categorise Davidson’s Unwrapped Sky in more than a general sense (as Fantasy) and this is a good thing.
It’s vivid and evocative descriptions belie the origins of a world that began in the realm of short stories (several of Davidson’s earlier published short works are set in this world) where your words must do much heavier lifting. Consequently Unwrapped Sky feels very richly realised to me, dirty, gritty, tangible. In places this might slow the ride a little but when Davidson is directing our attention at something, the direction is not wasted.
The tale follows the fortunes of three principal characters: Kata, a philosopher assassin and agent of House Technis who is increasingly at odds with her employer’s world view; Maximillian, a self taught thaumaturge and seditionist who dreams of confronting the Houses with their own magics; and Boris, a former tram worker who begins a quick(and perhaps unmerited) rise to power in House Technis.
If I must be forced to categorise it, Unwrapped Sky contains elements of Greek myth, industrial fantasy, post apocalypse and subtle weird horror. It is also very definitely a novel that shows power and the powerful to be corrupt and corrupting. The storyline features workers uniting against ancient houses after their calls for better working conditions are ignored, fallen godlike beings and the Elo-Talern - decrepit and decaying powers behind the throne.
Comparison’s have been made to China Miéville and I can see that on account of the weird horror elements and the sympathy Davidson generates for the working classes. It’s by no means message fiction, more a refreshing change of perspective from conservative fantasy that sees us sympathising with characters that seek to return the world to the “natural order of things” whether that be a quaint shire or the return to a benevolent monarchy under a protagonist who is the rightful heir.
This progressive take on the fantasy tale and its unnerving horror elements are the two standouts that I take away from Unwrapped Sky. The flickering horse skull vision of the Elo-Talern, Alien monstrosities that appear odd and whole one moment then decayed and skeletal the next, is an enduring image.
If you are after fantasy that does something different with all of those aforementioned categories, I recommend Unwrapped Sky. Its perspective also sets some unique possibilities to diverge from the standard fantasy trilogy plotline.
I read this book in the space of 2-3 hours. It was equally; compelling, comforting and unnerving.
James Brown articulates the concerns that I have had...moreI read this book in the space of 2-3 hours. It was equally; compelling, comforting and unnerving.
James Brown articulates the concerns that I have had for a long time with the growing Cult of Remembrance, with the commercialisation of the day, with the growing stature of the myth that none dare question. You can mock a person’s religion quite easily and without too much fuss, but say anything about Anzac Day and your likely to be un-Australianed out of town.
I was sagely nodding my head in the early chapters and then Brown began to outline the costs of our uncritical veneration of the myth, on both our living soldiers and on our future capacity to maintain security. It was a chilling read even for one such as myself who views much of our modern “celebration” of Anzac day with a cynical eye.
This book is about how the myth has shaped us as a nation, how that myth might not actually be the best thing (at least in its current trappings) for our armed forces now as they return from service, nor into the future as our region experiences growing tensions.
I think possibly every Australian should read this book - certainly before we hold our centenary next year, and students studying the first world war should certainly read excerpts from it.
Anzac’s Long Shadow is an opening salvo in a conversation that Australians need to have with themselves about Anzac Day and our interaction with the military as it is now.
The prologue sets the scene for how divorced civilian and I daresay political Australia has become from the reality of modern conflict. It seems as if our ideas of war can be summed up by the movies Breaker Morant or Gallipoli and Eric Bogle’s, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda or Redgum’s I Was Only 19.
Anzac’s Long Shadow puts forward the convincing notion that as a nation we are divorced from the reality of modern warfare. That our concept of what a soldier is and does, is what they did at Gallipoli.
Companies take advantage of this myth to sell all manner of products, vast sums are spent on venerating long dead soldiers while many live veterans struggle for appropriate services (support for female veterans one of many issues not handled well by the military nor indeed long running community associations). Much of our charity sector that focuses on veterans needs an overhaul and we know next to nothing about our past decade’s worth of involvement in world conflicts. Our politicians of any stripe (bar a couple) aren’t shown in too flattering a light either – disinterested to the point of negligence or blinded by veneration.
But lest you think this is an ex-serviceman come to settle some scores, Brown’s critical eye falls on the armed services and it’s not pretty. He paints a picture of a service( an underfunded one) that seems to have issues gathering and storing information on itself e.g. relatively simple statistics on how many people served in Afghanistan were hard to come by. A service that falls short in assessing performance and suitability for leadership. A service that has never generated an amphibious landing manual, that doesn’t teach the mistakes made at Gallipoli (unlike the US army that used the Gallipoli debacle to inform their own operations in the 30’s which led to successful campaigns in the pacific). A service that perhaps believes in the myth itself too much.
Ultimately though, you can read the deep respect Brown has for his fellow servicemen and women. This book is an early warning bell. It’s a book that says we need to wake up, pay tribute to the past certainly but ensure we are a capable and secure nation heading into what is likely to be a time of continued turbulence. We need to understand that there will most likely always be Australians at war or in theatres of conflict. That we need to understand what these Australian’s are doing and why it’s important. That we need to become critically engaged and involved with our military services, to laud their efforts and be informed critics of their failings. (less)
I have reviewed Capes’ work previously, notably his free verse collection Stepping Over Seasons. I also admire his skill in the Japanese forms of Haib...moreI have reviewed Capes’ work previously, notably his free verse collection Stepping Over Seasons. I also admire his skill in the Japanese forms of Haibun and Haiku. And it’s not just me, one of his poems was selected by John Tranter for The Best Australian Poems 2012.
He’s a skilled poet.
City of Masks isn’t poetry though, it’s not even realist/literary fiction. It is, however, a damn good example of fantasy fiction and a great first novel.
So what does a debut novelist(or any novelist) want to do with a fantasy novel? Entertain us, give us a mix of something new as well as giving us something familiar and entice us back for more. On the first count Capes is good, City of Masks is a slick read, a mixture of political intrigue and thriller paced action. The main cast of characters is wrong footed from beginning to end and Capes drip feeds the clues to the mysteries at the right points to allow the reader to keep slightly ahead of the characters.
So structurally, for a first time novel, I think it beats some more established writers.
Warm light fell on a large writing desk and chairs arranged before crackling flames in the fireplace. Above the mantle, set in a specially crafted setting, rested her father’s Greatmask. Argeon’s ancient face of bone stared down at her and she shivered. Impossible not to think of the mask as watching her. He was not a typical mask by any stretch. A presence, a life, lurked within Argeon’s dark sockets.
On the choice of setting, Capes gives us a port city settled by the Anaskari, a vaguely Italian/Venetian culture whose secret police, the Mascare, wear carved bone masks and ominous red cloaks. It’s a place ripe for secrecy and political manoeuvring. Several noble families jostle around an increasingly infirm King for favour and power. So yes, robed secret police, politicking and vaguely Venetian settings have been done before but I was intrigued about the Greatmasks; bone masks of power passed down through families that are imprinted with the wearer’s thoughts and personalities.
I also like the addition of a dispossessed people, the Medah, a desert people who used to occupy the land the city was built upon. They were defeated in a war with the Anaskari and consigned to a nomadic lifestyle in the desert wastes. They yearn for revenge and to oust the invaders. It will be interesting where Capes takes this plot thread as they are presented not unsympathetically.
Capes balances this familiar setting, with cool additions with likeable and well rounded characters. There are two chief protagonists, with a secondary cast backing them up. Sofia, is a scion of House Falco who are charged with the protection of the crown. Sofia’s father will, however, be succeeded by her elder brother and she is resigned (not entirely enthusiastically) to carving Mascare masks and eventually producing more of the Falco line.
Until certain events place her at the centre of things.
Now as one of the main protagonists I did feel at times that she lacked agency, though to be fair she was faced with older and more skilled opponents at almost every turn, so my discomfort is perhaps more one of annoyance at a central figure being constantly frustrated in their efforts, than her being a damsel in distress. I hope that we will see her grow in competence as the tale progresses. I think Capes is walking fine line between pushing against suspension of disbelief and having a kick arse central character. He got me invested, I just wanted to see her get some runs on the board.
The second main protagonist is Notch, a veteran and hero of the war against the Medah. We are introduced to him first, imprisoned on account of a murder he can’t remember. He’s slightly worn, a little jaded and cares little for subtlety. He’s not stupid but he tends to want to act before thinking - a failing that probably curbs any advantage of experience he might have held over Sofia, as even he is outclassed by the villains of the tale. Major supporting roles are filled by Flir, the fair skinned Renovar woman who wields inhuman strength, Seto a mysterious crime lord who bank rolls much of their response and Luik the cook.
The Medah, represented by Ain the pathfinder, charged with finding a way through the desert wastes to the homeland of his people and to destroy the Anaskari invaders, pilots a secondary plot for much of this tale and while his actions do influence the action in the city, I feel he will become a much larger part of book two.
I hate cliff-hangers in trilogies and thankfully City of Masks doesn’t have one. The novel has a satisfactory resolution but leaves some plot threads open for us to pick up on in book two. Capes has sketched a compelling world, given us two likeable leading characters and kept me entertained for the entire and engaged the entire novel.
A very successful first outing, I am surprised that he wasn’t picked up by one of our large local publishing houses but has been instead snapped up by Snapping Turtle out of New Zealand who publish Jennifer Fallon's books.
This e-arc was provided by the author. Quotes may not reflect the final text of the novel. (less)
It’s great to follow a writer and see that hard work and persistence pays off. Alan Baxter is one such writer and it was great news to see that he had...moreIt’s great to follow a writer and see that hard work and persistence pays off. Alan Baxter is one such writer and it was great news to see that he had secured a three book deal with HarperVoyager for the Alex Caine series.
Bound is the first book in the series and introduces us to Alex Caine, an MMA fighter who uses what he thinks are unique abilities to sense his opponents intentions before they act. He fights in Sydney’s underground Martial Arts cage matches, coasting along, making a decent living until he’s approached by a mysterious Englishman named Welby, who suggests that Alex could do much more with his abilities.
A reclusive sort, Caine initially rebuffs (although rebuff is putting this nicely – Alex Caine swears like you’d think an illegal cage fighter might) Welby. That is until a crime boss, who has lost money on Caine’s fight, makes a short holiday to London with Welby sound like a better idea. What follows is an escalating adventure that mixes epic dark urban fantasy with thriller pacing.
Bound is noticeably different to Baxter's earlier series both in terms of craft and genre. As I noted above the Alex Caine series is a fusion of thriller an Urban Fantasy. The pressure doesn’t let up the entire novel. It’s a polished piece of work. Baxter’s earlier works are more in the vein of horror/dark fantasy adventures. Bound feels like Baxter’s trimmed down the prose to fighting readiness and he’s come out swinging.
I’d compare this series to Jim Butcher’s work in terms of Urban Fantasy, though whereas Butcher riffs of hard boiled tropes, Baxter most definitely riffs of the thriller genre. I also found Bound to be a little more adult in tone and delivery. I am so thankful that HarperVoyager allowed the swearing and the dark fantasy/horror elements to come though. Nothing worse than having a hard as nails cage fighter, talk as if he’s got a plum in his mouth. The darkness, violence and sex might turn some readers off but I think Baxter and HarperVoyager are treating us as adults with this one and that’s refreshing, it’s not gratuitous but when you have flesh eating fey and bloodsports there is enough there to maintain our suspension of disbelief.
It was a disconcerting coincidence that brought this book to me and if I weren’t a skeptic and a rationalist I might be worried. I had been researchin...moreIt was a disconcerting coincidence that brought this book to me and if I weren’t a skeptic and a rationalist I might be worried. I had been researching the history of Speculative Poetry for a panel I was moderating at Continuum X and had of course come across the English poet Christina Rossetti, most famous perhaps for her poem Goblin Market, a snippet of which is presented below:
Lizzie met her at the gate Full of wise upbraidings: 'Dear, you should not stay so late, Twilight is not good for maidens; Should not loiter in the glen In the haunts of goblin men.
Now what I hadn’t put together was that Rossetti, was the niece of John Polidori, contemporary of the Shelleys, and Lord Byron and the first to pen the modern Vampire tale. This tied in nicely in my mind to the formation of modern speculative fiction. You hear quite a bit about Shelley as the mother of modern science fiction, but not much about Rossetti.
Now this will not be news perhaps to historians or poets that love the Pre Raphaelite movement but it did put a smile on my face.
What has this got to do with Hide Me Among The Graves? Patience dear reader, I am getting there.
So it was on the Friday morning before the convention proper that I chanced upon that most assiduous and talented publishing couple, Russell Farr and Liz Grzyb, in The Book Grocer. After assaying a good many fine tomes at the ridiculous price of ten dollars, Russell handed me Tim Powers’ Hide Me Among The Graves, saying that I should read the book as it was one of his better ones. Note, at this time Russell had no knowledge of my research or panel.
The book was promptly packed and forgotten, to be read at some future date and to spend time next to another Powers title on my to-be-read-when-I-retire-from-reviewing pile. It was not until the end of the convention, when I was awaiting takeoff that I read the blurb and discovered a slightly unnerving coincidence.
Hide Me Among The Graves, is a fictional account of the Rossetti family and their battle with an entity that puppets their dead uncle, Dr John Polidori. It’s a door-stopper coming in at just over 500 odd pages but what Powers has done in that space is… wonderful. He’s managed to create a space in which I can enjoy several seemingly disparate interests.
We have a tale of horror that artfully mixes vampire myth and history with ancient and alien entities, ghosts and a subculture of other entities that commune with them (all aptly named with appropriate sounding working class slang), suppressed Victorian sensibilities and poetry.
Several of the characters, in fact I’d hazard to say, the majority of the major characters are real persons and poets. Powers quotes and borrows liberally from them for chapter beginnings and in the text. It’s not often that a book ticks so many boxes and manages to stay on track as a story.
And that’s what I felt I got with Hide Me Among The Graves, a great multilayered layered story, brimming with verisimilitude. All of the genres that this book treads in are well trod and Powers has done what good writers do, take disparate ideas and forge them into something that appears new and wholly original. If it’s not clear, this book makes me want to dig into gothic horror, classic literature and speculative poetry of the 1800’s all at once.
My one issue, one that was overridden by Powers’ skill, was the conceit that the poets and painters produced their best work only when possessed or influenced by the entity Polidori. The muse myth I hates it.
So if you abhor sparkly vampires and prefer subtle and unnerving portrayals of sensuality, if you prefer largely suggestive horror rather than gore then try it out. Only one thing would make this better and that would be a movie of it directed by Del Torro or J.A. Bayona