In which Lady Helen leads us on a merry dance

Lady Helen and the Dark Days ClubLady Helen and the Dark Days Club (Angus & Robertson, 2016), the first volume in a new series by Alison Goodman, is due for publication next year*, but the author kindly threw a launch party in time for Christmas. For those eager for her next work following the New York Times best-sellers Eon and Eona, it was a fine present indeed.

Having covered science fiction, crime (with a slight SFnal twist) and fantasy with equal aplomb in previous works, Goodman now turns to the paranormal with her Dark Days Club.

There is perhaps slightly more explanatory text here – summaries of events, an almost telepathy to show the meaning behind the body language – than I remember from previous outings, but the story, more than 400 pages of it, speeds by at an easy pace, driven by the spark of quick-witted Lady Heroine and the deepening dilemmas in which she finds herself.

How clever to set it in the Regency, for this story is all about veneer and the monsters behind the facade, duty and passion, control and denial. The painting of this period of English history is sensationally wrought, the minutiae of daily life for the Quality (and their window on the lesser classes) effectively grounding the world without dominating it, referencing historical events, people and places, then braiding in the supernatural story.

Australian women writers challenge 2015Lady Helen, our titular heroine, is 18, her parents lost under despairing circumstances, the ward of her uncle and aunt who are devoted to her social climb, that is, marriage. She has some of her mother’s infamous adventurous streak, however, sneaking into the library to read books, so very unladylike. Of course, she has more than that in common with her mother, and soon her fabulous nature as a potential member of the mysterious Dark Days Club is uncovered.

The tension between her attraction to adventure, both romantic and physical, and the pressure to conform to social propriety is deft, perhaps best mirrored in the two suitors for her attention, if not affection, in a socially respectable duke and a lord of some infamy.

This presents the most obvious theme of the story, that “sometimes there is no good choice”. And Lady Helen has some serious choices to make as a demonic world is revealed to her, that and her special place in the fight to contain it. Dark days indeed!

I’m particularly taken with the humour of sidekick and maid Darby, who had me chuckling with an almost Pink Panther scene in which she tests her mistress’s reflexes with thrown objects.

Another element I especially appreciate is the slow reveal, allowing us to know Helen and her Regency world, the privilege and the constraints, as mysteries are bled into the opening chapters and then revealed in line with her growing understanding of the secret war of the Dark Days Club.

This is a world where every choice, every benefit, comes at a cost, and it is this grim reality that helps makes Lady Helen’s story such an enjoyable read.

* addendum: December 14 in Australia, January 16 UK and January 26 US.

  • This review completes my four-book commitment to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Others were Cherry Crow Children by Deborah Kalin, The Dagger’s Path by Glenda Larke, and The Dangerous Bride by Lee Kofman.
  • Aussie Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror announced

    years best australian fantasy and horror 2014Ticonderoga Publications has announced the line-up of its latest Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror28 stories from 2014, curated again by Talie Helene and Liz Grzyb, to wrap your eyes around and fire your imagination. Or something like that.

    I’m thrilled and giddily surprised to find ‘The Preservation Society’, originally published in the first issue of Dimension6, among the selections. Vampires in Cairns, an exploration into one of the minor characters in my novel Blood and Dust. Hell yes, I’m chuffed.

    There’s some great reading in this volume — I’m particularly pleased to see ‘Shedding Skin‘ by Angie Rega in this line-up, one of those yarns that ticked all my boxes. The collection is due out in late October — OOH, HALLOWEEN! — but can be pre-ordered right now.
     

    Sunshine, darkness and the people we meet

    in sunshine bright and darkness deepThis book arrived in the post yesterday. In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep: An Anthology of Australian Horror collects short stories from 14 members of the Australian Horror Writers Association. “If you are unfamiliar with Australian horror, let this book be just the first step on a long voyage of dark discovery,” the blurb says.

    The anthology contains a reprint of my story ‘Triage’, from 2005 — the only reprint in the book. I offered ‘Triage’ because it’s a special story to me, and it had only a limited airing on first printing, in sf-envision, a magazine printed by Fantastic Queensland that came out of the EnVision writers workshop run in 2003 and 2004 in Brisbane.

    It was at this workshop that I largely met the people who would form the Writers on the Edge critique group, who remain good friends even though my departure from Brisbane spelled the ultimate end of the critique meetings. Some of us still share stories online.

    It was also where I got to know the tutors, and these industry contacts have become friends over the years: like minds, generous spirits.

    The message here: go to workshops, improve your craft, never stop learning, meet people. Be kind to one another. Pay it forward.

    sf-envision‘Triage’ is also important because it mined the death of a close friend; it tried to give him, on some ultimately inadequate level, what the story’s hero, Nosplentyn, tries to do for the dying patient: a memorial of the heart and mind. Nosplentyn, a name coined by one of my roleplaying game mates and used with his blessing, is a prototype for the Needle in my Vampires in the Sunshine State books. He has changed much, as have we all.

    We in the Edge Writers have since lost one of our own. Nea has a story in sf-envision, an excerpt of her then work in progress that, sadly, never saw publication. We hold them in our memories, these ageless loves, and the words take us back to them and the times we shared.

    So ‘Triage’ is both sunshine and darkness, a touchstone for bright memories and dark ones. It seemed to fit for the AHWA’s book. Bon voyage.

  • In Sunshine Bright and Darkness Deep is available* from Amazon.
    * ADDENDUM: the book is officially launched 18 September. Its appearance on Amazon beforehand was to allow contributor copies to be sent out. But, y’know, wishlist away!
     

  • A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: a worthwhile stroll

    girl walks home alone at nightIt doesn’t surprise that director Ana Lily Ampour, a Britain-born Iranian, grew up in the US: this debut feature film is steeped in Western celluloid, to the extent of a laugh-out-loud use of Leone-like soundtrack at one point.

    A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) might be set in Iran, or it might be set in Detroit (based on Ampour’s graphic novel, it was shot in California): its desolate streets and industrial backdrops and urban decay, a single crowded drug-fucked nightclub, bring to mind Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (reviewed here).

    The hero (Arash Marandi), or at least the protagonist — it’s hard to find heroism in a drug dealer — is a James Dean lookalike, though this rebel has a cause: to get out of ‘Bad City’, where his father is an addict and his horizon is strictly limited.

    Enter the titular heroine (Sheila Vand) — her hajib used to effect in one of the black-and-white flick’s best set pieces, skateboarding down a night-lit street, cloth flying cape-like. There’s a degree of feminist bent to our vampire; also loneliness and likely boredom, enlivened by pop music and the occasional murder.

    Part of the joy here is in the interaction: the actors convey much with little conversation; the quiet here is engrossing. The performances of the leads in particular are quite wonderful. Combined with the cinematography, that’s plenty of reason to check this out right there.

    The movie lacks the subtext of Lovers, the narrative cohesiveness, but it’s a stylish genre-clash and an affecting movie, well worth visiting for some arty pastiche of east meets west.

    Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet: what a sweet prince this is, or, the award for best use of condoms in a Shakespearean play goes to:

    Hamlet-webOh my bard! I caught the two-and-a-half-hour epic that is Bell Shakespeare‘s Hamlet at the Melbourne Arts Centre last night, and I’m still reeling.

    One of the best Shakespearean productions I’ve seen? Without a doubt.

    The set design: a facade of doors and windows, shakily climbable, splits the stage. Behind this lit window, a spy, replaying dialogue just heard behind another, as the new king keeps an ear on his fellows. Behind this one, the boudoir. Look, the bed becomes a grave, Yorick! With dirt for the shovelling, a pit for fair Ophelia, complete with toe tag after she is wheeled in in a wheelbarrow. And see here, how the theatre bunting can lose some letters and have others changed to present a far more telling dramatic title! Best use of condoms in a Shakespearean play!

    The lighting, used to highlight the areas of the drama, whether by spotlight or torchlight or flickering wall lights, was sensational. One dramatic front-lit Dracula-like moment still blazes in my mind. Underpinning that, the music, just touches of thriller bass or gay song to enhance the mood, or the sound of rain, or the sound of fighter jets doing a flypast.

    Here a mobile phone captures a moment; there, an electronic listening device is disabled or revealed. And here, it’s halberds and foils, and the ensemble sharing a king’s joke as he dons a player’s crown.

    And here’s the thing of it, the thing that really elevated this production: the acting. Not just in delivery and emotion, and there was plenty of emotion, but in the interplay. In the interpretation of the lines. Bawdiness. Cheekiness. The use of repetition to telling effect. The use of props to add context to the lines, to illuminate character — the play with said condoms between Ophelia and Laertes as he prepares to leave at the airport (with Rosencrantz and Guildernstern hailed over the PA in the background!), the sister-brother relationship anchored around their doomed father. The physicality: Ophelia (Matilda Ridgway, divine), only days in to the play’s run, already sports scrapes and bruises revealed by her dishevelled night dress.

    They play them well (better than well; I love that to be fit to receive a guest still in her a nightrobe, Doris Younane’s Gertrude first slips on her shoes, then transforms her hair), but it is Hamlet’s show, and Josh McConville is amazing, physically and emotionally, seamlessly switching from rude imp to avenger to distraught son. Bravo!

    Hamlet plays at the Arts Centre till July 25.

    Vampires on the radio

    the big smoke by jason nahrungEarlier today I chatted with ABC Ballarat 107.9’s Prue Bentley about Australian vampires, fast cars — and how freakin’ cold it is!

    Producer Gav McGrath has posted a (stammer-free!) summary of the radio broadcast here.

    It’s taking two of the things I love – the Australian landscape, and vampires and the gothic more broadly – and trying to make them fit together

    Day Boy by Trent Jamieson: this is vampire fiction

    day boy vampire novel by trent jamiesonThis is Day Boy (Text, 2015), by Brisbane writer Trent Jamieson. Hot off the press. A hot read, too.

    Set in an isolated Australian country town, the story is told by adolescent Mark, entering his final period as Day Boy to the vampire Master Dain. This is in the time after the war, when the vampires rule what’s left of humanity: the Council of Teeth lurks in the bowels of a mountain fortress, casting a long, terrible shadow over Masters and humans alike. There are elements of Trent’s Roil in this, in the flitting, elemental vampires, the evocative descriptions of this place of light and dark and intrigue. Against this backdrop, what comes next for Mark as his tenure as Day Boy approaches its end?

    (T)ime is running down. There’s a city calling me, and I’ll see it if I’m lucky but I’m feeling my luck run thin, feeling old too. Choices heaped ahead of me, and I feel so ill-equipped to make them.

    From these eternal power brokers to their worship of the Sun to their love of music, the culture is beautifully realised. So too is the town of Midfield, modelled we’re told in the acknowledgement’s on Jamieson’s former rural home town of Gunnedah. Life in the dust and heat and storms goes on, despite the toll of blood and obedience.

    But it is Mark’s relationship with Dain that is key here, a paternal exploration, a coming of age story. It is affecting stuff. There are women here, but a few, primarily Mary and her daughter Anne, but this a book about boys and men, their rivalries and cruelties, and the love of fathers and sons. (As the Wheeler Centre on Monday night, Jamieson said he had an idea for a story showing this side of this world. Fingers crossed it might one day see the light.)

    The Night Train comes and goes, its cargo unladen, its whistle calling out, and I’m still awake. Still thinking. Thinking. Thinking.

    When I tumble to sleep, it’s a lean sort of thing, no meat or fat to the bones, just a gristle of drinks not drunk, of girls not kissed, and a tall man, with a taste for civility who’s disappointed with what he raised.

    The larger story unfolds through episodic chapters — ‘nothing happening until it does’ — with some events feeling almost as asides, others showing Mark’s maturation, all illustrating life under vampire rule, the wildness outside of town, that favourite Aussie trope of dangers lurking in the bush.

    The structure and format are intriguing: three sections, short chapters, folios restricted to page numbering and even then not on the opening pages of chapters. As though the typography is kept as dry and spare as the land around Midfield.

    The story is interrupted by five excerpts, each in the voice of a Midfield Day Boy talking about his Master, just short drops of back story and character, bolstered by equally short and pointed italicised drop-ins from Mark, adding texture to the world.

    Jamieson’s prose is not so spartan; it is considered, poetical but not verbose or purple. It is a joy. Day Boy is a joy.