azhure: (me phoenix)

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.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

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Alex Caine is a martial artist fighting in illegal cage matches. His powerful secret weapon is an unnatural vision that allows him to see his opponents’ moves before they know their intentions themselves.
An enigmatic Englishman, Patrick Welby, approaches Alex after a fight and reveals, ‘I know your secret.’ Welby shows Alex how to unleash a breathtaking realm of magic and power, drawing him into a mind-bending adventure beyond his control. And control is something Alex values above all else…
A cursed grimoire binds Alex to Uthentia, a chaotic Fey godling, who leads him towards chaos and murder, an urge Alex finds harder and harder to resist. Befriended by Silhouette, a monstrous Kin beauty, Alex sets out to recover the only things that will free him – the shards of the Darak. But that powerful stone also has the potential to unleash a catastrophe which could mean the end of the world as we know it.

Alan Baxter begins a new urban fantasy series with Bound, the first of the Alex Caine books.

Alex Caine is a professional fighter who has some odd talents – a kind of magical intuition is one of them, which he uses at the opening of this book to win a fight. This win, and the use of his talents, bring him to the attention of Webley, and Englishman who shows Alex that his talents are part of a bigger magical world.

Cue a fast-paced trip around the world, with Alex discovering more and more about the world that is hidden beneath the mundane world. This is no pleasure cruise for Alex – tough as he is, even he finds it difficult to deal with some of the darkness that he finds.

It’s really quite refreshing to see urban fantasy/dark horror written very much in the style of a thriller – this works especially well with Baxter’s writing, which often evokes a very cinematic feel (and I am so with reviewer Sean the Bookonaut in that I could so see Jason Statham playing Alex). It’s also very clear that Baxter has spent a lot of time building up this world – of which we only skim the surface (and of which I hope we delve deeper in the two subsequent books in the trilogy).

Some readers should be warned that there is a decent amount of sex (consensual) in this book, as well as lashings of violence. Especial note needs to be made of how damn good Baxter’s fight scenes are – quite frequently fight scenes are something that I’ll skip over as a reader, but I found myself sunk into each one in Bound (see the cinematic comment above).

Alex is always a very human character – he really struggles with the powers that he acquires, even as he takes a fighter’s joy in them (which is a really refreshing change to a lot of urban fantasy). Even the minor characters live and breathe on the page, and always seem to act in a fashion that makes sense (even if it is sometimes a warped kind of sense!).

Hat tip to the naming of the characters Hood and Sparks (references to friends of the author and prominent people in the Aussie SF field), which I think just reflects the absolute joy that Baxter takes in his writing and his community.

An extremely promising start to a new urban fantasy series, which is highly recommended. I’m looking forward to the next two books. And dammit, someone make a movie out of this, please, because it is begging for it.

Cross-posted to Goodreads and Amazon.  eARC provided by Netgalley in return for a fair review, but I also nabbed my own copy (as should you, because the ebook is free throughout the month of July!)

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

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In 1806, William Thornhill is an impoverished boatman struggling to feed his family. After being caught stealing wood, he is sentenced to be transported to the penal colony of New South Wales. His wife, Sal, accompanies him, along with their first child; when they make land in the colony, her husband becomes her slave.

The two of them and their growing family eke out an existence in this strange new land, their eyes always on the eventual goal of returning home to England. Thornhill eventually earns his pardon, and discovers a stretch of land along the Hawkesbury River, which he becomes determined to settle.

As any Australian should know, the colonists and convicts were not the first people to settle this area, and Thornhill and his family become aware of the indigenous people (or “savages”, or simply the “blacks” as the colonists call them). The colonists are erecting fences and clearing fields on lands the Aboriginal people have roamed through and lived with for generations, and it is inevitable that some conflict will occur.

This novel conveys the horrific events of that conflict in brutal honesty, and juxtaposes it beautifully against the absolute poverty that drove men like Thornhill to thieve (often small amounts) in an effort to try to feed their families.

The ending of the book feels a little rushed and almost unbelievable after the events that preceded it (trying to avoid spoilers here, though one wonders how much you can actively spoil something based on historical events) – but the horrific truth is that it absolutely reflects reality. A wealthy nation was founded, in part, on blood and secrets and brutality, and Grenville does not shy away from that. I can only imagine how difficult parts of this book must have been for Grenville to write, since she drew on her own family history as inspiration.

Highly recommended.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

(I had decided to only post my AWW reviews on Goodreads, but have decided to cross-post here as well.  Adding reviews to date.)

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The Swan Book is set in the future, with Aboriginals still living under the Intervention in the north, in an environment fundamentally altered by climate change. It follows the life of a mute young woman called Oblivia, the victim of gang-rape by petrol-sniffing youths, from the displaced community where she lives in a hulk, in a swamp filled with rusting boats, and thousands of black swans, to her marriage to Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia, and her elevation to the position of First Lady, confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city. The Swan Book has all the qualities which made Wright’s previous novel, Carpentaria, a prize-winning best-seller. It offers an intimate awareness of the realities facing Aboriginal people; the energy and humour in her writing finds hope in the bleakest situations; and the remarkable combination of storytelling elements, drawn from myth and legend and fairy tale, has Oblivia Ethylene in the company of amazing characters like Aunty Bella Donna of the Champions, the Harbour Master, Big Red and the Mechanic, a talking monkey called Rigoletto, three genies with doctorates, and throughout, the guiding presence of swans.

Every once in a while you pick up a book that you immediately want to buy copies of for half (or all) of your friends. This is one of those books.

“The Swan Book” is set in a future Australia, where much of the world has been devastated by global warming and subsequent climate change. Whole nations have been swallowed by the sea, and entire peoples made refugees. Australian Aboriginals are living underneath the Intervention, essentially locked into camps in the north of the country.

Obilivia Ethyl(ene) lives in one of these camps, a collection of people eking out a life around a polluted lake. Gang-raped by petrol-sniffing youths, she reduces her life to myth. She walks through a strange life surrounded by swans, brolgas and owls, where people are not always people, and her path can just as easily be a poem or a song.

This book may not be for everyone: the prose is often poetic, slipping into colloquialisms and stream-of-consciousness and back again, often within the span of one sentence. If you want your story told in a straightforward manner, then you should look elsewhere. But if you are willing to enter a world where myth walks beside reality, and there can be beauty even in the most horrible of things, then “The Swan Book” is for you.

Absolutely incredible, and I am not surprised at all that this has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

(I had decided to only post my AWW reviews on Goodreads, but have decided to cross-post here as well.  Adding reviews to date.)

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When an imaginary animal from her troubled teenage years reappears, Virgin takes it to mean one of two things: a breakdown (hers!) or a warning. Dead bodies start piling up around her, so she decides on the latter. Something terrible is about to happen in the park and Virgin and her new partner, U.S. Marshall Nate Sixkiller, are standing in its path…

Virgin Jackson is the senior ranger in Birrimun Park – the world’s last natural landscape, overshadowed though it is by a sprawling coastal megacity. She maintains public safety and order in the park, but her bosses have brought out a hotshot cowboy to help her catch some drug runners who are affecting tourism. She senses the company is holding something back from her, and she’s not keen on working with an outsider like Nate Sixkiller

(eARC provided by Netgalley in exchange for a fair review)

In the future, Earth’s wildernesses have been decimated, the landscape dominated by megacities. Only one natural place remains – Birrimun Park. Its senior ranger is Virgin Jackson, a tough-talking, stubborn woman who loves the park, though she is not overly fond of the American West themes inflicted on the Australian park in order to feed the tourist trade.

The park is supposed to be inviolate, a fact that Virgin believes until she witnesses a murder within its boundaries. At the time time, she begins to see Aquila, an “imaginary” eagle that she has seen since she was a child, and relegated to a product of her tempestuous teenage years.

Virgin becomes a target, though she has no idea who is targeting her, and is forced to delve into her own past as well as the mysteries of what happened in the park in order to guarantee her own safety.

Peacemaker sets a hectic pace, with Virgin and Nate stumbling from one dangerous situation to the next. de Pierres manages to balance this tumult of action with calmer scenes, all of which work to develop the world and Virgin herself.

Virgin Jackson is a heroine that science fiction needs to see more of. She is real – she hesitates sometimes, and other times she tumbles head over heels into situations that the reader will fairly be screaming at her to run away from. She gets beaten up a lot, and yet she always gets up again. She breaks gender roles in a multitude of ways, and yet de Pierres hasn’t fallen back on any tropes in making her strong in this sense. She can stand with any of them men in this world, and yet she also possesses a softness and vulnerability that the reader is allowed glimpses of.

Readers will also find the romance in this refreshing – after the first few chapters, I had feared that things were being set up for a love triangle. Nothing of the sort ensues, though the romance is by no means easy or simple.

It is clear that de Pierres has developed a wonderful world here, and it feels very much like this book only skims the surface of it. There are many tantalising hints of depths, especially in terms of the spiritual side of the world, and of Nate Sixkiller.

I am very glad to see that at least one sequel to this book will be coming out, and I hope to see many more after it, de Pierres willing to write more. de Pierres is an extremely talented author who has produced an exceptional variety of works, and if you haven’t read any of her work before, Peacemaker is a great place to start.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

(I had decided to only post my AWW reviews on Goodreads, but have decided to cross-post here as well.  Adding reviews to date.)

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It’s been four years since Chris Arlin graduated with a degree that most people think she made up, and she’s still no closer to scraping up funding for her research into rare plants. Instead, she’s stacking shelves at the campus library, until a suspiciously well-dressed man offers her a lucrative position on a scientific expedition.

For Chris, the problem isn’t the fact that they’re searching for the Biblical Tree of Life. Nor is it the fact that most of the individuals on the expedition seem to be fashionably lethal mercenaries. The problem is that the mission is being backed by SinaCorp, the corporation responsible for a similar, failed expedition on which her mother died eleven years ago.

However, when Chris’s father is unexpectedly diagnosed with inoperable cancer, Chris sees only one solution. Vowing to find the Tree of Life before SinaCorp’s mercenaries, Chris recruits Luke, an antisocial campus priest undergoing a crisis of faith. Together, they embark on a desperate race to find Eden. However, as the hunt intensifies, Chris discovers growing evidence of her mother’s strange behaviour before her death, and she begins to realise that SinaCorp isn’t the only one with secrets they want to stay buried.

(eARC provided by Netgalley in exchange for a fair review)

“The Other Tree” is Australian author D.K. Mok’s debut novel. Caught somewhere between fantasy and thriller with religious overtones, this books is inevitably going to be compared to blockbusters like “The DaVinci Code”. The bonus here is that Mok’s writing is almost flawless, and her characters live and breathe (and snark at refreshing intervals) and actually act like real human beings.

Chris Arlin is a cryptobotanist who is approached by the company SinaCorp (who seem to be involved in pretty much anything and everything scientific and technical) to search for the real Bibical Tree of Life. Not only does Chris not trust SinaCorp’s motives for searching for the Tree, but she blames the company for her mother’s death, and, naturally, rejects their offer. Instead, she becomes determined to discover the Tree on her own, enlisting the help of conflicted priest Luke, on her quest.

Both Chris and Luke are complex, but extremely believable characters. There are several tropes that I feared would occur during this book – a romance between the two, for example – that Mok, thankfully never goes near. Chris and Luke always act within the bounds of their own beliefs and knowledge, and I never got the impression that either they, or the events of the book, were being forced into situations simply to serve the plot.

Chris, in particular, is a fabulous character. She never wavers from her interests and beliefs, and is more than strong enough to carry the story, even without Luke. Together, they give a fascinating perspective into this Indiana Jones-like quest for the Tree of Life. It would be very easy for an author to lose any character development against the background of such an enormous plot, and Mok never does – these characters remain vivid and real the whole way through.

Recommended for anyone who likes adventures and good, character-based fiction.

 

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

(I had decided to only post my AWW reviews on Goodreads, but have decided to cross-post here as well.  Adding reviews to date.)

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The Reckoning destroyed civilisation. Rising from the ashes, some people have developed unique abilities, and society is scared of them. Guided by the ancient spirits of the land, Ashala Wolf will do anything to keep them safe.

When Ashala is captured, she realises she has been betrayed by someone she trusted. When her interrogator starts digging in her memories for information, she doubts she can protect her people forever. Will the Tribe survive the interrogation of Ashala Wolf?

 

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is the first book in Ambelin Kwaymullina’s post-apocalyptic/dystopian series, The Tribe. The series itself is marketed as YA fantasy, and while this book does technically fit into that category, I believe it would miss a lot of readers who would otherwise enjoy it.

There’s a lot to like about this book. There’s an originality to the world that Kwaymullina creates, even though she uses often standard tropes in its creation. An ecological disaster – never fully defined, but implied to have come about because of mankind pillaging the world through greed, and upsetting the Balance – has changed the face of the world. People, too, have changed, with many developing powers – some can cause earthquakes, others can shape the sky to forms they wish, others can read thoughts, to name just a few examples. Those who have powers are tightly controlled by the government (where control equals living in a detention centre), lest they upset the Balance and cause another apocalypse. Those who flee are Illegals, and hunted.

Ashala Wolf is the leader of the group of Illegals who live as the Tribe. This is the story of her interrogation in a detention centre.

It is a fantastic story: Ashala is a fascinating character, as are the other characters we see over the course of the book. What we see of the world is intriguing: we see the giant lizard saurs, and pieces of the Firstwood. And while this isn’t like to bother many of the YA target audience, sometimes, reading this as an adult reader, I found it frustrating that we *only* get to see these hints. I feel as though Kwaymullin has actually developed this world (which does feel very much like a post-apocalyptic Australia, though Australia itself in this future does not exist), but we don’t get to see *enough* of it. I do hope that more of the worldbuilding will be revealed over the course of the series.

The structure also didn’t quite work for me. It feels very much the debut novel it is, as Kwaymullin reaches to peel back the layers of story and truth in a fashion that *almost* works. I actually found myself having to check several times over the first third of the book that this was indeed the first book in the series, since so much was referred to but not explained. It’s nice not to see huge infodumps, but there could have been some more backstory explained.

Overall, this is a start to a very promising series by an Australian author, and an extremely accomplished debut. I’ve really only deducted a star for the structure that didn’t quite work for me, and I would recommend this whole-heartedly. I know that if I’d read this as a fifteen-year-old, I would have been dreaming of running away to join the Tribe.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

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)

Bloodstones, the anthology which features my story, The Skin of the World, got a lovely review from Andrew J McKiernan at Thirteen O’Clock.

In particular, McKiernan said this about my story (which is probably the best review anything I’ve written has gotten to date):

Stephanie Gunn’s ‘The Skin of the World’ takes us deeper yet, away from the suburbs and those who’d ply their coastal fringes, peeling away the layers to reveal a darker world beneath. ‘The Skin of the World’ was, for me, a perfect end to Bloodstones. Like the places revealed, the story has a depth had that me wanting more, feeling there was more going on in this world than a single story could reveal. Very pleasing then to read in the author’s introduction, that ‘The Skin of the World’ is only a small part of a much larger series of stories and novels, of which I’m certainly keen to read more.

I need to get cracking on Wintersun, the novel which follows on from The Skin of the World, I think.

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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“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)

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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)

 

Guy Salvidge has reviewed Epilogue and has some very favourable things to say about the anthology and about my story, Ghosts:

Stephanie Gunn’s “Ghosts” is another impressive offering in a now-rarely seen SF subgenre: life in an underground shelter after the bomb. Nadya and Mater are teenagers who have the mixed blessing of being fertile in a world where women give birth to genetic monsters and there are no doctors. Nadya’s father insists that she produce an offspring with Mater, but she has a different goal in mind. Visceral and concrete, like the bunker featured herein, “Ghosts” is among my favourite stories in Epilogue.

I am stupidly happy to be in this anthology, and totally chuffed that Guy enjoyed my story.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (me phoenix)

She could hear that laughter again, and for a moment Velody was confused, not sure which dead man was mocking her. Velody now holds the leadership of the Creature Court. The unsteady alliances within the Court are beginning to fracture, as a series of murders and disappearances throw suspicion on one of their own. A shiol finds Aufleur’s many festivals frivolous, until a major one is cancelled. Unease grows. It seems nothing can save the city from a massacre … nothing but the ultimate sacrifice from one of the Creature Kings.

 

 

 

 

The Shattered City is book two of Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Creature Court trilogy, following on from book one, Power and Majesty. I know that there are some mixed opinions on the covers of the books, but I still think that they’re gorgeous.  Possibly they don’t do a good job of indicating just how blood- and sex-soaked the books can get, but I still think they’re lovely.  These books could easily have been illustrated with scantily-clad women or men (which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, given how gorgeous the characters are) but I’m glad that we get something classier.  Doubly glad that we get Velody dressed, and that the artist chose not to portray her as some stick-thin waif. Returning to Aufleur in this book feels like returning to a home, in a way.  There is less of a sense of Aufleur as a living, breathing entity in this book than in the first, but the city itself is still vivid and real.  Personally, I like the fact that we get to delve deeper into some of the characters and their lives. Despite the fabulous men who populate the Creature Court, the plot of this book, and of the trilogy to date, is shaped very firmly by Velody, our protagonist, and her friends Delphine and Rhian.  Both Delphine and Rhian are more fully formed in this book than the first, as both find their places in the world.  Delphine, in particular, shines, finding strength even as she is tortured by her own shortcomings. I am absolutely and completely in love with all three of the main female characters – Velody, Delphine and Rhian.  Each of them is real and three-dimensional, and even in the depth of pain, they are very, very human.  I think that the humanity that Roberts gives her characters acts very much to ground the more fantastical elements of the world, and make it feel very much like a real place. Roberts has a particular talent for making even the most minor characters live and breathe, which in turn makes the reader empathise with even the most minor of characters.  Her dialogue, as always, remains incredible, with each character given their own unique voice. My only complaint is that things end on somewhat of a cliffhanger, which was slightly irritating the first time I read this book, because the third book was still to be released.  On a reread, it’s much better, since I had the third book ready to go! The Shattered City is now available internationally for Kindle.     Things become clearer, as we delve more into the mythology of Aufleur and the Creature Court, but there’s still much to be learned.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

azhure: (Default)

Chuck McKenzie gives Grant’s Pass a great review on Horrorscope.

Squee!

I am still so stoked to be in this anthology - hell, I’m sharing a table of contents with Cherie Priest and Jay Lake.    I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy so I can read the rest of the stories.

Mirrored from Stephanie Gunn.

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