The lovely folks at The Writers Bloc — great name for a collective! — asked me to tell them about ‘the book that …’ and of course I had to wax lyrical about Dracula. You’re about 16, there’s a storm outside your bedroom window, and the vampire is creeping down the castle wall … You can read more here, and see what these creative folks are up to in furthering the writers’ cause.
I enjoyed both of South African writer Lauren Beukes previous novels, Zoo City and her debut Moxyland – they pretty much put her on my ‘buy automatically’ list. Shining Girls (HarperCollins Australia, 2013) is her tightest yet.
In it, she leaves South Africa behind, instead trawling through Chicago’s history since the Depression era, as a serial killer uses a most unusual house to track and kill his victims – his shining girls.
The blurb makes no secret of the fact the house enables Harper Curtis to spread his carnage across a 60-odd year span.
His evil is well drawn, leaving us in no doubt this guy needs to be stopped.
Harper has never limited his appetites to one particular kind of woman or another. Some men prefer girls with wasp waists or red hair or heavy buttocks you can dig your fingers into, but he has always taken whatever he could get, whenever he could get it, paying for it most of the time. The House demands more. It wants italic potential – to claim the fire in their eyes and snuff it out. Harper knows how to do that. He will need to buy a knife. Sharp as a bayonet.
The damage done is portrayed through a survivor, Kirby, who dedicates herself to the seemingly impossible task of finding her attacker. She teams up with burnt-out journo Dan, a crime writer now on the sports round, using his knowledge and newspaper resources to make her case file.
Adding to the sense of waste caused by the senseless murder spree are glimpses into the lives and deaths of the shining girls, sometimes in their point of view, sometimes Harper’s, as well as that of an addict whose character is well realised but whose presence in the book is of minor assistance.
And in keeping with the story’s time-travelling conceit, the episodes are presented in non-linear fashion. It’s a bit of a head spin, but it works.
Time travel brings a raft of headaches, not least the idea of if at first you don’t succeed …, but Beukes has answered the conundrums with smooth skill.
Her vignettes of Chicago are wonderfully realised, her characterisation spot on, her story enthralling. When the writing’s this good, I can accept with perfect faith the chicken and egg scenarios that come with time travel. My only regret is that the book was such a joy to read, it took no time at all.
A quick plug to say today is the day for Australia’s newest spec fic magazine: the free, digital Dimension6. It’s available here and includes yarns by Richard Harland, Charlotte Nash and yours truly. You can get a taste of what each of us (and editor Keith Stevenson) is about thanks to an interview series conducted by Angela Slatter — just click those links. Or just read the magazine!
Dimenion6 runs three issues a year, so stick around!
In the future portrayed in The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (Walker Books, 2012) by Ambelin Kwaymullina, a new order arises: the world reduced to one continent, the people decimated past the point of racism. The new order follows a decree of Balance, handed down by a Noah-like figure, Hoffman, and a series of decrees are implemented to attempt to avoid such global catastrophe again. Technology is restricted, for instance; no nuclear power of genetic modification, few cars, a limited number of laser-like weapons for the security force. The full extent of just what tech is available to whom is is sketchily drawn, with just enough details provided to allow the story to unfold.
Several hundred years after the Reckoning, humanity has found its own genetic modification – the development of powers, restricted one per person, a little like the X-Men: one chap can move air to cause effects such as flight and telekinesis; a girl can interfere with memories; our titular heroine can sleepwalk into a dream state where the rules of physics do not apply, but the results are enacted in the real world. It’s exciting stuff, especially when one adds in sentient trees and telepathic dinosaurs, and creation spirits who have helped breathe new life into the devastated planet.
These powers are the source of conflict for the story, with government enforcers testing children for special abilities and decreeing them either useful or detrimental to society. Using those powers is not without its risks, which helps to make them more convincing, and offers balance to what can be a simplistic ‘technology=bad nature=good’ argument.
Ashala heads a band of child runaways who live in the sentient forest, hunted and feared by society at large, but not without supporters: there is a rebel movement of families tired of giving up their talented children, of free thinkers who don’t like to see the gifted persecuted and locked away.
The story opens with Ashala a prisoner, her Mengele-like persecutors seeking to identify an imminent threat to their program, and Ashala harbouring more secrets than even they, or she, might suspect.
While ill-defined ‘advanced technology’ is seen as the key cause of the end of the world, and spirit the tool of the natural world’s rebirth, it is not technology alone that is to blame, but rather, as Hoffman is quoted as saying, ‘advances in technology could never compensate for failures in empathy’. Reading current headlines, it’s a point worth making.
In this action story with its underlying and competently drawn romance subplot, the theme of the strength of the pack – of mutual care and concern – gives the book its heart. There are echoes of the colonial devastation of Indigenous Australia subtly vibrating through the story as Ashala draws strength from the memory and inspiration of her friends.
The ending is perhaps too neat, but love will out, and the story is wrapped up so that one is left wondering where to from here, given this is the first of The Tribe series. The answer lies in the synopsis for book 2, The Disappearance of Ember Crow , which came out in November last year, and begins a new plot set in the same world, with a new challenge for Ashala to overcome. No doubt this will see further exploration of intriguing elements of the world to come, such as the totem animals the children of the Firstwood embrace, and the structure of the broader world with its delicate balance of nature and technology.
Western Australian Kwaymullina, of the Palyku people, has written several picture books, with this her first novel; it’s a quick and engaging read with clear appeal for young adult readers.
The covers are off Dimension6, Couer de Lion‘s free digital spec fic mag hitting the interwebs on April 4. It’s a pleasure to be sharing pixels with Richard Harland and Charlotte Nash, who has not only hit the shelves with some rural medical romance but is a dab hand in the fantastic, too — see her ‘The Ship’s Doctor‘ for a taste. And obviously D6, for more.
She started life in a short story, received a comic book treatment, and now Virgin Jackson rides tall in her own novel. The heroine of Marianne de Pierres’s Peacemaker (Angry Robot) is, not surprisingly for followers of de Pierres, an opinionated and feisty character.
Jackson is continuing her father’s legacy as a ranger in a rather unusual park: this slice of outback Australia occupies a restricted space in a conurbation that takes up most of the east coast, has hi-tech protection against interlopers — no camping, no eco stays, and definitely no people smuggling! — and sports, uneasily, a thin veneer of the American wild west.
This attempt to woo international tourism with stetsons and chaps is the one element of the novel that rests uncomfortably in the saddle, as the park provides the hub for a quasi dude tourism industry that doesn’t quite spark on the page. Also uncomfortable is that the review copy of this Australian story published by a British publisher sports US English, making self-fulfilling the book’s prediction of further cultural crumble, in street gangers who’ve watched plenty of US telly: lots of ‘you feel me?’ going on. At least Jackson kicks arse, not ass! You go, girl ;)
So that’s the beef out of the way — a minor cut compared to the repast that’s on offer here.
The book opens a little like a rodeo: there’s the rider entering the chute, now she’s checking out the arena, and then the door flies open at the end of chapter one and we’re away on a bucking, wheeling, snorting adventure that races all the way to the buzzer.
There are elements of de Pierres’ Parrish Plessis books here, in the cyberpunkish inner-urban decay shot through with a thread of voodoo, and a heroine trying to work out just what the hell is going on with all these people trying to kill her. She’s even got a murder rap hanging over her head, just to keep the pressure on.
Few folks are who or what they seem; trust is a precious commodity in this near-anarchic world where the haves have and the have nots can be damned.
Jackson works her way through the mire of intrigue with the help of an enigmatic US Marshall, complete with six-shooters, who has a grasp on the spiritual world that edges her reality. Spirit animals are a charming feature of the story, giving us a glimpse into a dystopian future where belief and cynicism ride side by side.
By the end of the story, we are primed for book two as Virgin finds herself involved in a global battle to save, if not the world, then reality as we know it. Bring on the second ride!
There’s a paddock of calf-high brown grass bent with breeze stretching past gum trees to the horizon. Houses there are lost in haze, too distant to be a concern; Mt Ida pokes a leafy head over the top. Sheep work their way across the paddock, and Eddy the emu may be seen prowling the fence, waiting for Stephen to open the gate and let him back into the facing paddock where black angus graze, so he can scribe his circular route around the property once more.
Among the other birds spied here are lorikeets and galahs, magpies, willy wagtails, sparrows; hawks, Stephen says, and occasionally even wedge-tailed eagles. But we don’t see the raptors. The farm has chooks, too: can’t miss that cock crowing, far enough away at the house to be rustic charm rather than a trigger for a throttling.
At day, glowing in the sun; at night, gilded by moonlight: the grass is mesmerising. That space, that quiet … what an ideal getaway this place is.
Farmers Stephen and his wife Cally run Cranford Cottage at Heathcote, barely 90 minutes’ drive from Melbourne, a B&B where they’ve done everything right. Set at the back of the homestead’s house paddock, the cabin has two bedrooms with en suites flanking the central kitchen, dining and lounge area, with a porch looking towards the sheep and a full-length deck facing the creek and cattle.
Corrugated iron and undressed timber feature outside; the living area has timber floor, wood heater and air conditioning, while the bedroom has a ceiling fan and carpet so new you can smell it. TV, DVD, an iPad of music, Scrabble, wifi, battery-operated tea-light candles are provided; there’s a dishwasher, microwave and gas stove.
The cottage has one of the best provisioned kitchens I’ve encountered at a B&B — even flour and raw sugar, cling wrap, cooking oil, a generous jar of instant Moccona coffee to supplement the espresso. The only absence come brekkie time is egg rings … meh. The provided breakfast is (scrambled) eggs, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, bread from the local bakery, avocado, juice. There are bananas, microwave popcorn, muesli, numerous teas, hot chocolate … excellent stuff.
As the custom wine label on our complimentary bottle of red tells us, there’s plenty of wine in Heathcote, a shiraz heartland, and the cottage is mere minutes from town, which has four cellar doors in the main street and around 40 wineries in the region. As it turns out, we don’t get past the main street’s offerings. Heathcote Winery is very good, but it’s Heathcote Estate (they also run Mornington Peninsula’s Yabby Lake) that takes my fancy with their Barossa-style, attention-grabbing shiraz, and Peregrine Ridge at the farmers’ market is a pleasant find. Owner-operator Graeme steers us to a purveyor of pork that is sensational.
Stephen and Cally booked us in for Friday night dinner at the Willow Room in town, a superb, intimate restaurant and B&B run by a couple Stephen tells us have not long ago moved from Melbourne. A fortunate tree change, if my taste buds are any judge: the food is sensational. You know you’re in a wine region when you ask the origin of the house red — a most excellent drop — and you’re told the names of the people who made it, not their winery.
Gentle Saturday morning rain makes the grass glisten, washes the bushfire smoke haze from the air.
‘It’ll keep us going,’ Stephen says of the drizzle as we return from the market just after lunch time (dim sum, pork sausage on a slice of bread, coffee), but the rain was barely enough to wet our hair. We take short showers (there is no bath tub): the water is solely drawn from rainwater tanks. And my god, it tastes so good out of the tap.
We while away the remainder of the weekend, playing cards, picking at nibbles from the local IGA washed down by local red. The mountain bikes go unused, the four-hole just-for-fun golf course in the back yard remains untested.
When we reluctantly leave on the Sunday, the boot filled with bottles of vinegar and oil, preserves and — ahem — wine, Stephen waves from a small set of vines planted down at the lagoon, where a platform juts out over the parched rim. He’s got guests so we don’t pull up, just wave: we left a note to say we’d be back.