azhure: (me phoenix)

In which I finally return to reading books for the AWW2013 challenge.  I have been reading a lot of Australian female authors, but the books have been for the Aurealis Awards.  Should there be any overlap with my AWW reviews and AA-eligible works, these are my personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions of the judging panels.

 

Caution: Contains Small Parts is an intimate, unsettling collection from award-winning author Kirstyn McDermott.

A creepy wooden dog that refuses to play dead.
A gifted crisis counsellor and the mysterious, melancholy girl she cannot seem to reach.
A once-successful fantasy author whose life has become a horror story – now with added unicorns.
An isolated woman whose obsession with sex dolls takes a harrowing, unexpected turn.

Four stories that will haunt you long after their final pages are turned.

 

Caution: Contains Small Parts is one of the series of Twelve Planets, collections of short fiction by female writers produced by Twelfth Planet Press.

I’d like to take a moment here to congratulate Twelfth Planet (helmed by Alisa Krasnostein) for the consistently high quality of the books they publish, in particular the Twelve Planets published to date.  Not only are the books themselves slick productions (I am, in particular, looking forward to having a complete collection of the Twelve Planets on my shelf), but the quality of the writing is absolutely superb.  Krasnostein and the crew behind Twelfth Planet have an amazingly astute eye for fiction and are seriously producing some of the best quality stuff in Australia (and in the world) at the moment.

That said, I am going to make absolutely no bones about the fact that Kirstyn McDermott is one of my favourite authors (and just a damn nice person, too, but that’s tangential to this review).  McDermott is usually classed as a horror writer, which I think makes some people hesitate to read her work (and all power to those who choose not to read horror as a genre, but I do think they miss out on some stellar and insightful work).  There are absolutely horror elements in McDermott’s work, but I never feel like they are the central axis of said work.  McDermott writes characters who live and breathe, who experience pain, who are human, even if they are, technically, inhuman.  Her prose is invariably gorgeous, too, making every sentence an absolute pleasure to read.

All of the stories in this collection highlight these elements of McDermott’s work admirably.  The opening story, and perhaps the most outstanding in the collection, is What Amanda Wants.  I don’t want to spoil any of this story for anyone who’s planning on reading the collection.  Suffice to say that I think McDermott taps into some of the darkest corners of the human psyche in this powerful story.  It is one that deserves to be included in Year’s Best anthologies and shortlisted for awards, and I am going to mighty cranky if it isn’t recognised.

Horn, a take on both the unicorn mythos and the life of a writer, follows.  There is something jarring about this story – in a good way, I have to hasten to add.  Reality and fantasy flow together until it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t.  Which is probably a really good way to describe the mental space one has to get into to write.

The titular Caution: Contains Small Parts is the third story in the collection.  Beautifully creepy, it is an example of just how well McDermott uses small details in her stories to create something truly unsettling.

The final piece in the collection is a novella, The Home for Broken Dolls.  McDermott makes mention in the acknowledgments about the research she had to do for this piece (without spoiling: the story involves sex dolls) and I kind of dread to think what she read!  The protagonist of this piece, Jane, is a wonderful character, and her “broken dolls” are hauntingly memorable.  Another example where reality and fantasy blur together and create something unsettling, but insightful into the human condition.

I also need to make note of the cover of this collection.  Twelfth Planet Press has opted for a very distinctive look with the Twelve Planets series, with simple but effective covers.  I adore the cover for this volume in particular (though the creepy dog head kind of needs to be pointed away from me after reading the story it refers to!).

In summary, McDermott’s collection is knife sharp, filled with beautiful prose and unsettling worlds and characters who provide much insight and reflection on the darknesses in humanity.  Even if you don’t tend to read horror, I recommend this collection highly (as well as all of McDermott’s work).

 

 

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

Wilkins

 

The Year of Ancient Ghosts is the first collection of stories by multiple award-winning Australian writer Kim Wilkins. Born in England, Kim Wilkins is the author of over 20 novels for readers of all ages. Her debut novel The Infernal won two Aurealis Awards. Her latest books, contemporary epic romances, are published under the pseudonym Kimberley Freeman, and include Lighthouse Bay and Wildflower Hill. Kim Wilkins is a four-times winner of the Aurealis Award, twice winner of the Sassy Award for popular fiction, and winner of the Romantic Book of the Year award. The book collects 5 novellas, comprising two written especially for this collection and 2 reprints and the first print publication of “Wild Dreams of Blood.

 

Kim Wilkins is one of the authors who has long been on my “automatically buy” list, so when Ticonderoga Press announced the publication of “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”, a collection of novellas and short stories, I happily pre-ordered the signed limited edition hardcover. As an aside, if you’re ever in the position where you’re trying to decide if Ticonderoga’s limited editions are worth the money, they absolutely are. They are absolutely beautiful books.

This collection is filled with vibrant, beautiful prose which highlights Wilkins’ expertise in the medieval period. In all of the stories, fantasy blends seamlessly with reality, to the point where it is difficult sometimes to tell which elements are fantastical and which are historical.

The collection opens with the titular “The Year of Ancient Ghosts”, original to this collection, in which Jenny, unable to live by the side of her husband Lachlan, comatose after an accident, brings her two-year-old daughter Mary to the Orkney Islands, a trip that had been planned in order for Lachlan to write a book there. The ancient atmosphere of the Orkneys is vividly captured, along with the magic and mystery of the place. Gripping and emotional from start to finish.

“The Crown of Rowan” is an fantasy piece, reprinted here, set in a fantasy version of eight-century England. Told from the perspective of Rose, wife of one of the kings of Thyrsland, this story, for me, doesn’t quite hit the mark emotionally. In the afterward, Wilkins states that this story is a prequel to a fantasy epic in progress, and the worldbuilding in this indicates that the novel could be something really special.

“Wild Dreams of Blood”, also a reprint, intertwines the life of a modern-day woman, Sara (named in memory of Sara Douglass, a fact which brought a tear to my eye when I read the afterward), with Norse mythology. Wilkins renders Sara, and her violent tendencies and strength, so vividly that the appearance of a Norse god feels just as real. One of my favourites from this collection.

“Dindrana’s Lover” is another reprint, slightly reworked, in the Arthurian mythos, telling the story of Percival’s sister, and what happens to her after she is left in a sinister castle by her brother and Galahad. Dindrana herself lives and breathes, bringing real life to her tragic story. Creepy, gorgeous and heartwrenching.

The last story in the collection is the original “The Lark and the River”, which juxtaposes Christian mythology with the pagan/heathen worship which Christianity replaced. There is a real reverence for both kinds of religion in this piece, and Wilkins’ beautiful prose highlights the emotion of the protagonist Merewyn as she confronts her fate.

Overall, this is a collection well worth owning, even if you own the books in which the reprinted stories first appeared. “The Year of Ancient Ghosts” alone is worth the price of the book, I think. If you’re a fan of Wilkins, then buying this one is going to be a no brainer. And if you’ve never read her before, this could be a very good place to start.

 

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

pricklemoon

Prickle Moon is a collection of Juliet Marillier’s best short fiction. It contains eleven previously published stores and five new ones. Included are the Sevenwaters novella, ’Twixt Firelight and Water, the epic Nordic story, Otherling, and In Coed Celyddon, a tale of the young man who would one day become King Arthur.

The title story, especially written for the collection, concerns an old Scottish wise woman facing an impossible moral dilemma. Other new stories in the book include By Bone-Light, a contemporary retelling of the Russian fairy tale Vasilissa the Wise, and The Angel of Death, a dark story about a puppy mill rescue.

 

 

 

Note: I happily purchased the signed limited edition hardcover of “Prickle Moon”. For one, Marillier is one of my favourite authors, and an instant-buy. And for two, the cover was illustrated by my friend Pia Ravenari, and is just utterly gorgeous. So, yes, I have a bias for this book. But even without that bias, I always feel that Ticonderoga limited edition copies are always worth the outlay – they are beautiful objects, and “Prickle Moon” is no different.

Marillier is an author who clearly prefers to write novels instead of short stories, and this does show a little in this collection. There are a few amazing stories included (which are well worth the cover price of any version), but some of the others are a little uneven. There is, however, true beauty and wonder in all of them, even in some of the most wrenching ones to read.

The titular story, “Prickle Moon”, begins the collection and is new in print. The voice in this piece is just amazing, and you can feel the love that Marillier has for her subject matter in every line. “Otherling” is a reprint, but pairs well with “Prickle Moon”, with both heavily featuring nature and nature magic, with a good dose of historical feel.

Some pure fairy tale follows, with “Let Down Your Hair”, a gorgeous retelling of Rapunzel, and “Poppy Seeds”. There is Arthurian mythos in “In Coed Cellydon”, and a story of hope in “Juggling Silver”.

The longest story in the book is “‘Twixt Firelight and Water”, which fills in part of Marillier’s epic historical Sevenwaters series. Like the Sevenwaters books, this draws on myth and magic and history to create something amazing.

The next stories that follow are where some of the unevenness of the collection shows. It’s not that any of the stories are bad – and reading through Marillier’s afterward which explains the target of some of these stories, it’s understandable that they don’t fit quite perfectly into the magic of the other stories in the collection. Overall, they feel more like they were written for a specific publication, and didn’t spark from some deep magic, as the other tales do.

At the end of the collection, however, come some of the best stories. “Back and Beyond” perhaps filters some of Marillier’s own experiences with cancer, and is beautiful and hopeful and heart-wrenching at the same time. “Angel of Death” takes place in a puppy mill, and Marillier’s love of animals (and for her own rescue dogs) shines clear.

For me, the best story in “Prickle Moon” is the last, “By Bone-Light”, a retelling of Vasilissa the Fair, complete with Baba Yaga lurking in the basement of an apartment building. Everything in this story lives and breathes pure magic, and highlights Marillier at her mythic best. This story is original to the collection.

Overall, “Prickle Moon” is highly recommended, if you’re a fan of Marillier in general, if you love fairy tales, if you love myth and truly amazing storytelling. And if you haven’t read Marillier before, then this is a great place to start before diving into her larger books.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

17283570

Dortchen Wild fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm the first time she saw him.

Growing up in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in early Nineteenth century, Dortchen Wild is irresistibly drawn to the boy next door, the young and handsome fairy tale scholar Wilhelm Grimm. 

It is a time of War, tyranny and terror. Napoleon Bonaparte wants to conquer all of Europe, and Hessen-Cassel is one of the first kingdoms to fall. Forced to live under oppressive French rule, the Grimm brothers decide to save old tales that had once been told by the firesides of houses grand and small all over the land.

Dortchen knows many beautiful old stories, such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Frog King’ and ‘Six Swans’. As she tells them to Wilhelm, their love blossoms. Yet the Grimm family is desperately poor, and Dortchen’s father has other plans for his daughter. Marriage is an impossible dream.

Dortchen can only hope that happy endings are not just the stuff of fairy tales.

Kate Forsyth once again delves into the world of fairy tales, The Wild Girl following on from the retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, Bitter Greens. This time, Forsyth focuses not so much on the fairy tales, but those who famously collected the old tales – the Brothers Grimm. More specifically, this story is focused around a woman whom history has shadowed, Henriette Dorothea Wild, known as Dortchen Wild.

Dortchen Wild grew up next to the Grimm family in the German kingdom of Hessen-Kassel, the kingdom itself subject to the rise and fall of the Napoleonic wars. Wild herself was the source of many of the tales that the Grimm brothers collected, and went on to marry Wilhelm.

In The Wild Girl, Forsyth gives Dortchen Wild the life that history leaves out. Dortchen is the wild girl, headstrong by nature, and happiest in the gardens and wild places. From the first, she finds herself drawn to Wilhelm, though she knows that her father would never allow them to marry, for the Grimms are too poor.

As Dortchen’s life progresses, the lightness and wildness of her youth are thrown into shadow. And a fair warning needs to go here – there is physical and sexual abuse in this book, which may be triggering for some readers. But there is also much redemption – Dortchen herself speaks about the redemptive power of story, and the novel itself is a fine example of how powerfully a story can redeem and bring light.

The prose in this novel is utterly beautiful. At times, it is pared back so much that it seems almost plain (though always serviceable), but then Forsyth inserts an almost painfully beautiful phrase or image. Everything feels real – the huge events of history that pass around Dortchen’s life, seen only in fragments by her are nonetheless full of impact. Forsyth manages to convey perfectly how an event like a war affects people on the individual level as Dortchen and her family live and grow (and sometimes fall).

There is a lot of darkness in this novel, just as there is darkness in so many of the fairy tales gathered by the Grimm brothers (and the parts of the tales that are woven into this story do a fabulous job of reflecting that). But just as in the fairy tales, even in darkness there is always hope.

An absolutely beautiful and much recommended read. An extremely worthy follow-up to Bitter Greens.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

11544476

My name is Tegan Oglietti, and on the last day of my first lifetime, I was so, so happy.

Sixteen-year-old Tegan is just like every other girl living in 2027–she’s happiest when playing the guitar, she’s falling in love for the first time, and she’s joining her friends to protest the wrongs of the world: environmental collapse, social discrimination, and political injustice.

But on what should have been the best day of Tegan’s life, she dies–and wakes up a hundred years in the future, locked in a government facility with no idea what happened.

Tegan is the first government guinea pig to be cryonically frozen and successfully revived, which makes her an instant celebrity–even though all she wants to do is try to rebuild some semblance of a normal life. But the future isn’t all she hoped it would be, and when appalling secrets come to light, Tegan must make a choice: Does she keep her head down and survive, or fight for a better future?

Award-winning author Karen Healey has created a haunting, cautionary tale of an inspiring protagonist living in a not-so-distant future that could easily be our own.

 

Tegan Oglietti is sixteen and on her way to an environmental protest with her best friend Alex and boyfriend of one day, Dalmar. She is happy and ready to take on the world. Then a sniper attempts to assassinate the Prime Minister and hits Tegan instead.

The next thing Tegan knows, she is waking up to her “second life”. It is a hundred years later, and Tegan has been cryogenically frozen, a volunteer by stint of a form she signed allowing her body to be left to science. Everyone she knew and loved is dead.

The world has changed. Climate change has occurred: the seas have risen, temperatures have increased, meat eating is a rare thing, seen as earth hating.

From the beginning, Tegan fights. For information, for a computer, for freedom. She manages to get her way: moved to a house (mostly located belowground for coolness) with Marie, the head of the cryogenic revival project, and allowed to attend school. There she meets Bethari, Joph and Abdi, the boy who she mistakes at first for Dalmar.

Tegan is a believable and likeable protagonist. From the first page her voice is clear and true, and it is easy to always be on her side, even when she makes decisions that put her in danger. Healey writes her with a good balance of being scared and intrigued by the world she is reborn into. She sees the positive things – a world which is more ecologically aware, where gender, sexuality and race are more accepted in all of their variations. And she also sees the negatives immediately – Australia’s no immigration policy, and the attitude towards people from the third world.

Each of the other teenage characters is written as well as Tegan. All of them are believable and all have their own voices and personality – this isn’t a book where you find yourself having to figure out which character is which (as often happens in a lot of YA, I’ve found).

The pacing of the book is great, too, aided by a technique where Healey intersperses Tegan telling her story in the present (and inserting little nuggets of information to keep the reader interested) and in the past. Tegan is a fan of the Beatles, a fact that is used well to ground the reader and make Tegan more relatable in world foreign to the reader (but one that is all too easily imagined as a future of this world).

There is definitely a lot more to be explored in this future world, and in the conspiracies that Tegan and her friends have only begun to uncover.

Absolutely worth the read. I’ll be looking forward to the next book.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

13411999

 

Madeleine Cost is working to become the youngest person ever to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Her elusive cousin Tyler is the perfect subject: androgynous, beautiful, and famous. All she needs to do is pin him down for the sittings.

None of her plans factored in the Spires: featureless, impossible, spearing into the hearts of cities across the world – and spraying clouds of sparkling dust into the wind.

Is it an alien invasion? Germ warfare? They are questions everyone on Earth would like answered, but Madeleine has a more immediate problem. At Ground Zero of the Sydney Spire, beneath the collapsed ruin of St James Station, she must make it to the surface before she can hope to find out if the world is ending.

 

I was drawn to this book initially because of the cover, which is dead set gorgeous. Also, because the dystopia/post-apocalyptic genre is still one that draws me, despite the market in YA being somewhat saturated.

There is a lot to praise about this book. The sense of setting is very well grounded – even in the midst of the world falling apart after an alien invasion, it’s very recognisably Australian. Sexuality and gender are presented in all of their facets and without ever being an “issue”. The protagonist, Madeleine, is well-rounded and feels very real from the moment she steps onto the page.

I did have some issues, however. There are a handful of scenes that feel very rushed – many of the action scenes, in particular – and could have benefited from clearer editing. At times, I didn’t quite feel the emotional impact of the events – it felt as though the teens were taking things far too easily, when most people would have been melting down.

I did like the juxtaposition of some of the normal teenage feelings and activities with the apocalyptic scenario – it made total sense to me that teens would be fighting for their world, while still doing the normal things like developing crushes and navigating their first relationships.

I did feel like the book ended far too quickly, and honestly found that the epilogue was extraneous. I would have preferred for everything to be left hanging a bit, rather than everyone essentially getting their happily ever afters.

Definitely worth a read, especially if you’re interested in what’s happening in self publishing.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

1983756

 

This classic Australian novel was written by Miles Franklin, and details her life being born of the bush in Australia. A fantastic, well-written book with lively descriptions of a girl’s life that can’t be passed up by anybody who is drawn by good stories with captivating details. This novel should be required reading by anyone interested in Australia or important female writers and novelists in history.

 

 

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this book.

For its time, and the fact that it was written by Franklin when she was a teenager (!), it is a brilliant novel. The writing ability that Franklin had so young is amazing – she manages to capture so much of Australia, and her protagonist, Sybylla, lives and breathes from the first moment she steps onto the page.

I did find Sybylla to be a frustrating protagonist, due to her general inability to decide on what she wants (or who she wants), but that frustrating nature is part of what makes her feel real. Even when she was annoying me with her indecision and mood swings, I found myself wishing fervently that she would get what she wanted (if she could only decide what it was!).

I’m really glad that I picked this up as part of the Australian Women’s Writer’s Challenge, since I’d shamefully not read any of Franklin’s work before. I find myself awed by her talent, and deeply impressed with how much she worked to change the face of Australian literature.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

17313898

“The thing with psychosis is that when I’m sick I believe the delusional stuff to the same degree that you might know the sky is above and the earth below. And if someone were to say to me that the delusional thinking is, in fact, delusional, well that’s the same as if I assure you now that we walk on the sky. Of course you wouldn’t believe me, and that’s why it’s sometimes so hard for people who are sick like this to know that they need treatment. Psychosis and severe depression have a huge effect on how you relate to other people and how you see the world. It’s a bit like being in a vacuum, or behind a wall of really thick glass . . . you lose any sense of connectedness. You’re cast adrift from everyone and everything that matters.

I’ve lived with acute psychosis and depression for the best part of twenty years. This is the story of my journey from chaos to balance, and from limbo to meaning.”

Kate Richards is a trained medical doctor who works in medical research. She is also, to paraphrase her in this book, “mad”.

This book takes the reader on a journey through her episodes of psychosis and self harm, through mania and a quest to find a useful psychologist and psychiatrist, as well as the medication and skills Richards needs in order to manage her illness.

This is one of the most beautiful, heart wrenching and painful memoirs of mental illness I have read.

Richards is a beautiful writer, and uses her skill to describe her illness in sometimes gut churning detail, especially in regards to the periods of self harm she goes through (the book, for example, opens as she tries to amputate her own arm in a period of psychosis).

My main thoughts upon finishing this book are these:

As a society, we are not looking after those who are mentally ill the way we should. Richards describes mentally ill people being refused treatment at a hospital after they have self injured (or sub-standard care being provided as “punishment” by emergency room doctors). There is help there, but the patient almost needs to be an advocate for themselves to get it, which many people in the depths of psychosis are unable to do.

How much difference a good psychologist or psychiatrist can make to a patient. I think it takes a very particular type of person to be able to work well in these fields, and it’s clear that if Richards hadn’t found a psychologist she could work well with (which seems to basically be a matter of chancing upon the right one, after going through the wrong ones, who can be damaging), she very likely wouldn’t be alive today.

I don’t know if there are answers to these issues, and Richards herself doesn’t begin to try to find any. But the issues are there, and it makes me wonder how many people are suffering in silence with mental illness, or are made sicker by medical professionals.

Truly an amazing book. I’d recommend anyone who has an interest in mental health to give it a read.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

13154548

Trudy and Bruce Harrison have a happy marriage, a successful business, and three teenage children. One fateful day they take the winding coastal route home, and visit the Ocean View Gallery, perched on the cliff edge. It’s not listed in any tourist pamphlet. The artist runs the gallery alone. There are no other visitors. Within the maze of rooms the lone couple begin to feel uneasy – and with good reason.

Trudy and Bruce will be ripped from the safe, secure fabric of their life and will have their world turned upside down and shaken. Attacked, trapped and brutalised, they barely escape the gallery with their lives – only to find there’s no real getting away.

***Mild spoilers below***

I picked up this book based on reviews by people I follow (and generally have similar taste to) on GoodReads.  I read the kindle version – no problems with formatting in electronic version, though there were a few minor typos which may or may not be present in the print version.

This is primarily a psychological thriller, with some horror leanings.  The story is told from Trudy Harrison’s point of view, opening on Trudy and her husband on holiday.  Their marriage is happy, and while they have some problems, they are the normal problems of a couple raising three teenage children.  While driving, they stumble across a strange art gallery; when they enter, they encounter the artist and his strange work.  Here, everything changes.

The bulk of the book is concerned with the events that follow the drugging and assault of Trudy and Bruce, and the choices they make in how they deal with it.  It’s refreshing to see a book where the sexual assault happens to a man, and Brown does a good job of presenting how difficult it is for male victims of sexual assault to speak out and get the help they need.  Even when Bruce’s actions don’t quite ring true, they are always in the realm of the believable for someone who has suffered a brutal assault and is most likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The fact that the worst of the assault (and Bruce’s sexual assault) happen “off stage” is an effective technique to make the brutality of the events even more stark.  Trudy (and the reader) only gets to see the injuries and the fallout, and is left, along with the reader, to imagine the worst of it.

This book is a study of the darkness in all humans, and how even the best of people, when exposed to   traumatic events, can find that own darkness within themselves.  Even when Trudy and Bruce spiral down and down, their actions are always, in some way, rational.

The interesting thing about this book is that, finishing it, I felt as though there wasn’t a resolution, even though there was.  It took me a few days to realise that fiction, in general, teaches us that generally, if people perform evil acts, they should, at some stage, pay for those acts.  This doesn’t necessarily happen in After the Darkness, and of course, rarely happens in real life.  It’s a bold move of Brown’s, and will no doubt leave some readers cold.  But for others, it will make them think, and reflect on the fact that real life doesn’t always reflect fiction.

The prose in this book is effortlessly transparent, and all of the characterisation is believable. Brown writes characters who feel like anyone you’d know: their problems are everyday, their lives could be those of your neighbours.  Which makes you wonder – what secrets could those everyday neighbours be hiding?

After the Darkness is a taut psychological thriller which explores the darkness that lies in ordinary people.  Highly recommended.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

awwbadge_2013

I honestly wasn’t going to do any reading or reviewing challenges this year.  And last year I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW) and kind of dropped the ball halfway through.

But then I saw people talking about the AWW for 2013, and I had a quick look through my to-be-read mountain and pretty much immediately found ten books that I’ve been wanting to read.  And so I’m going to have a go at it again, I think.

I’m going to aim for the Franklin level (reading 10, reviewing at least 6).  I have ten books lined up already, most speculative fiction, but I will possibly shuffle my list around a bit, depending on what books catch my eye this year.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

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