The January Illusions

I am a sucker for the new page, be it the blank white sheet of a notebook or the empty squares of a new calendar. You can argue that all beginnings are illusory because calendars are something humanity invented to make time less scary, but isn’t it beautiful, that as a species we gave ourselves so much space to hang hopes on? Of course, you can make resolutions any time, but somehow I find it easier to make good intentions stick with the formality and tradition of New Year. Consider this to be a somewhat unreliable contents page for 2016.

With the conclusion of last year’s Sharazad Project, I am starting something new. A childhood inhaling my local library’s mythology section gave me a half-remembered back catalogue of queens and sorceresses and this year I intend to share their stories in a monthly series called Ladies of Legend. That will kick off this coming Tuesday with Fair Janet, who stole fairy roses and rescued a knight in distress. My second blog project of 2016 will be rewatching and reviewing each of the seven Star Wars films, starting with The Phantom Menace in February. (I saw The Force Awakens a few weeks ago and have SUCH FEELINGS.) I won’t be signing up to this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge – I have a lot of international authors on my list for 2016, and not enough time for everything – but I’m hoping to read and review at least six, which fits with the Miles level of the Challenge.

As always, if you want to know how to find my published stories, just check the Publications page on this blog. You can look under Extras for free content, such as the Chandler & Musgrave series, or under Fairy Tale Meta for previous blog projects, including Fairy Tale Tuesdays and the Sharazad Project. I’m also on Tumblr, and have the worst attendance rate ever on Goodreads. Feel free to contact me or leave comments, I write what I love and I love to talk about it.

Happy new year, everyone! Let’s see what 2016 is made of.

A Splash of Silver in the Wild Wood

I’m not sure I really have a norm in my reading any more. I do prefer fantasy or science fiction but I’ve been reading more mainstream fiction and recently rediscovered my love of historical novels through Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins War series. While I might find it hard to articulate my comfort zone, however, I definitely have one and I know when I’m stepping outside it. That’s happened a few times this year, to mixed results.

In 2015, my third year signed up to the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I committed to reading and reviewing at least twelve books written by Australian women. I ended up reading fifteen, with a leaning towards historical fiction. Goddess, The First Man in Rome and Just a Girl are all based on the lives of real – and extraordinary – people, while Currawong Manor is a mystery set half in the 1940’s and half in the 1990s. Wild Wood has a similar mix (1300s and 1980s) with a fantasy element. Genre fantasy reads for this year were Splashdance Silver, Sourdough and Other Stories, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Dreamer’s Pool and its sequel Tower of Thorns. Representing science fiction were the first two books in the Starbound series, These Broken Stars and This Shattered World, though I also finished reading Tansy Rayner Roberts’ delightful blog serial Musketeer Space, which started last year and concluded in July. Under the name Livia Day, she also wrote the cosy mysteries A Trifle Dead and Drowned Vanilla, both set in contemporary Hobart. The one and only mainstream Australian fiction novel for this year is Kate Forsyth’s Dancing on Knives.

It’s actually interesting, looking back, to see only a third of these books were set in Australia. Six had Australian characters. From Tudor England to ancient Rome, to fantasy realms and other planets, the settings could hardly be more varied.

Though I can’t review them, thanks to a rather obvious bias, I’m honoured to be a part of several anthologies edited and published this year by Australian women. Tehani Wessely and Tansy Rayner Roberts produced Cranky Ladies of History, about female rebels and rulers. Tehani also edited Focus 2014: highlights of Australian short fiction. Liz Grzyb pulled together a collection of stories about powerful fictional women for Hear Me Roar and, together with Talie Helene, released Ticonderoga Publications’ 2014 edition of The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror. It is always a delight and a privilege to work with so many talented women and in such a vibrant corner of the Australian publishing scene!

Not all the books I’ve read for the Challenge this year worked for me. It’s also how I found three of my favourite books of 2015. The point of this project has never been to read only Australian women, and I certainly haven’t – the point, for me, has always been to be more mindful of what I’m reading. Since I started participating in the Challenge, I’ve noticed the works of Australian writers more and have made space for them on my reading list. That’s something I intend to continue. Australian women have fantastic stories to share. And I have so much reading to do.

Review – Wild Wood

Wild Wood – Posie Graeme-Evans

Simon & Schuster, 2015

Of late life has become a series of unwelcome revelations for Jesse Marley. Discovering in her mid-twenties that she was adopted, she travels to Britain hoping for answers, only to get knocked down in a traffic accident and stumble into the lives of two complete strangers – but strangers who are linked to her in ways none of them quite understand. Jesse, right-handed and without an artistic bone in her body, is suddenly drawing detailed images of the keep at Hundredfield, ancestral home of the Donne family on the border between England and Scotland, where bloody battles were once fought and many secrets buried in a vicious cycle. And it’s not over yet.

This historical fantasy is split into two interconnected stories, one in the eighties with Jesse and the other in the 14th century with Bayard Dieudonné. Bayard’s sections was uncompromisingly brutal; as a co-protagonist, I could not warm to him in any way or in fact to most of the characters in his chapters, with the exception of Margaretta. This is a period of history I’m not particularly familiar with so that was interesting, if disquieting. Jesse’s parts of the book had a very different mood but an ominous undercurrent. While the conclusion was thematically consistent with that tone, there were serious issues that I felt needed a bit more exploration. Still, if you like Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth and Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper this one is definitely worth a look.

Review – A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists – Jane Rawson

Transit Lounge Publishing, 2013

The world is falling apart at the seams. Ever since her apartment blew up in a freak accident, taking her husband, pet cat and illusions of normalcy with it, Caddy has lived day-to-day in a broken-down city where shanty towns line the flood-prone river and trains are turning into an urban myth. It’s hardly even a surprise when her friend Ray walks through the cracks of a map into a place where dead people’s shadows are stored and a catalogue of daydreams have been abandoned. Reality, it turns out, is a blurry concept – particularly when the people you’ve imagined appear to be more real than you.

This is a very strange book, deliberately so. It is a surrealistic dark fantasy, most of which takes place in an ambiguous dystopian Melbourne, and it is incredibly – if quite good-naturedly – bleak. The four main characters are not unpleasant but are all a little off-kilter, not really fitting in their worlds. Of them all, I found Ray the most interesting.

Review – Tower of Thorns

Tower of Thorns (Blackthorn & Grim No.2) – Juliet Marillier

Macmillan, 2015

In the quiet village of Winterfalls, ex-convict Blackthorn is waiting out the terms of her fey benefactor’s bargain, desperate to be freed so that she can return home to wring some justice out of her erstwhile captor, but not wanting to risk a return to the lock-up where she met her loyal companion Grim. One of the terms demands she aid all those who ask for help, so when the prince’s wife requests her company at court Blackthorn is compelled to go. There she encounters an unexpectedly familiar face and hears strange rumours of a monster in a tower, a community in fear and one chance at hope. Blackthorn knows all too well that even the strangest things are often true, but that doesn’t mean she wants to play any part in the tale. Only she may not have much choice…

Juliet Marillier’s historical fantasy is often dark, but this book was particularly bleak. I found Geléis’s part of the story frustrating and very dissatisfying, and as I’m not very engaged by Blackthorn, her plot thread didn’t pull me in much either. Grim, however, really comes into his own in Tower of Thorns. He’s a complex but lovable character and I was really interested to find out more about his past. The next Blackthorn & Grim novel will be Den of Wolves.

Review – Just a Girl

Just A Girl – Jane Caro

University of Queensland Press, 2011

The daughter of England’s beloved King Henry VIII, it would seem Princess Elizabeth is destined for greatness. Yet life at court is a chancy one, and before the age of four she has lost both mother and title, declared a bastard like her older sister Mary before her. The best she can hope for from her father is to be remembered. She is, after all, just a girl, and the king is obsessed with siring a male heir. But a time of change is coming, and whether she wishes it or not, Elizabeth will be at the centre of a new age.

It’s no secret I am a passionate Elizabeth fan and I don’t entirely agree with Caro’s perception of the princess, painting her as more insecure and less politically adept than I believe she really was. The structure of the novel didn’t always work well for me either, particularly at the beginning, shifting about from one time period to another without letting the reader take in the setting. Just a Girl does cover a large part of Elizabeth’s life, from childhood to coronation, and I really appreciated the focus Caro paid to the incredibly complex relationship between Elizabeth and Mary. From no queens to three – it’s a fascinating period of history. Elizabeth’s story continues in Just a Queen.

Review – Drowned Vanilla

Drowned Vanilla (Café La Femme No.2) – Livia Day

Deadlines, 2014

Tabitha Darling did not go looking for intrigue. Being hunted through the Botanic Gardens by a gunman you thought was a friend kind of sapped the fun out of detective work. She has enough to do, anyway, trying to run a crime-free café, not-exactly-date a policeman and single-handedly convince the world to give up vanilla. Investigating an internet celebrity’s disappearing act is entirely her friend’s Xanthippe’s idea – chasing the story to a sleepy rural town can be safely blamed on Stewart. Then a corpse shows up in the local lake. There are a lot of people who want answers, and a lot of people telling lies. But feeding people until they spill their secrets? That’s all Tabitha.

The sequel to Tasmanian cosy mystery A Trifle Dead, this is the same cheerful, frothy fun – I was given a copy for my birthday and it was exactly what I needed. Tabitha Darling is vibrant, irrepressible and just the right amount of grumpy. The story is very light and playful overall but has an edge of seriousness when necessary. The third Café La Femme novel is Keep Calm and Kill the Chef, scheduled for release next year. There’s also an e-book only mini-mystery set between the first and second books, The Blackmail Blend.

Review – This Shattered World

This Shattered World (Starbound No.2) – Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner

Allen & Unwin, 2014

The planet Avon is of little importance on the galactic scale, a poorly terraformed young colony not yet self-sufficient enough to claim independence. Rebelling colonists demand greater freedoms, waging guerrilla warfare from the endless swamp; meanwhile, the military struggles to keep order as a mystery sickness drives its soldiers to terrible acts. Captain Jubilee Chase is the only one who seems to be immune. She knows there is something wrong with her, but it’s not until the rebel Flynn Cormac crashes into her life that she realises there may be something wrong with the whole of Avon.

This is the sequel to These Broken Stars but follows a different pair of main characters, with the previous protagonists taking cameo roles. I found this plot much weaker. Several key points were underdeveloped and the climax felt much too simplistic. The book’s best strength was in world building, expanding on the growth of colonies and the transference of Earth culture into a new world. The third book of the trilogy, Their Fractured Light, is slated for release in December.

Review – Goddess

Goddess – Kelly Gardiner

Fourth Estate, 2014

Julie d’Aubigny is born in the shadow of greatness. Growing up in Versailles, her father the chevalier gives her the only upbringing he knows: training her to fight and shoot and ride, unintentionally ensuring that she will never live by the boundaries other women unquestioningly obey. As she grows older, Julie fixes her sights beyond the Sun King’s palace to a life in the opera. Her determination will lead her across France, into duels and love affairs, glory and heartbreak. Paris won’t know what’s hit it.

The fact that Julie d’Aubigny actually lived and the events of this book are based on her actual life is a fact that I now treasure. A more or less openly bisexual and possibly genderqueer 17th century hell-raiser with a wicked sword-arm and a goddess’s voice, she is the definition of an action heroine – not always kind, not always likeable, but fiercely independent, incredibly talented and deeply, fascinatingly flawed. The structure Gardiner chose is quite episodic and some sections could have used fleshing out; I’d have loved more detail about Julie’s experiences and the glittering, vicious world she inhabited. The story is well woven, however, making the extraordinary events consistent and believable. Someone needs to write Julie into an episode of Doctor Who, she’d make an amazing companion.

Review – Dancing on Knives

Dancing on Knives – Kate Forsyth

Vintage Books, 2014

What was meant to be a fresh chance for the Sanchez family has become a nightmare. Having recently returned to painting, turbulent patriarch Augusto was forging a masterwork that would have eased their financial woes and granted his devoted daughter Sara a reprieve from his wild moods – but when he suffers a terrible accident, the family are left reeling with shock and suspicion. Augusto spent so long cultivating his own myth he ignored his own children’s lies. Now they are forced to see each other’s ugly secrets and face the question none of them want to ask: what if Augusto’s fall was not an accident at all?

There’s quite the story behind this book, which is a reworked and republished version of a novel Kate Forsyth published ten years ago under the name Kate Humphrey. The title implies it’s part of her not-exactly-a-series of loose fairy tale retellings, but though there are many references to ‘The Little Mermaid’ this is very much a separate book and not a retelling. It’s not really a mystery either, because no one will acknowledge whether or not there’s actually a crime until a good way through the book, and not much active detecting takes place. Dancing on Knives is really a family drama focusing on Sara, Augusto’s older daughter. Not a dynamic protagonist at the best of times, she’s done a disservice when big chunks of the book drift away from the main plot to explore events in her family’s past. While these certainly explain how she got to be the way she is, they don’t help the reader engage with her life, and there are a few clichés in the Sanchez family that made me a bit uncomfortable. The plot felt too slow and indirect but I should add, the contemplative, almost stream of consciousness style of the book is not a structure that usually appeals to me. I’d have liked Dancing on Knives better if it had capitalised on the tightening sense of claustrophobia and taken a more traditional mystery format.