Archive for the review Category

The Shining Girls … very bright indeed

Posted in books, gothic, horror, review with tags , , , on April 9, 2014 by jason nahrung

the shining girls by lauren beukesI 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.

  • Beukes says on her website she will be touring Australia in August to promote her latest novel, Broken Monsters (in Detroit, with more killings, another journo, a daughter … ooh!), due for release later this year.
  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf: a spirited first novel

    Posted in books, fantasy, review, science fiction with tags , , , on March 21, 2014 by jason nahrung

    the interrogation of ashala wolf by ambelin kwaymullina

     

    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.

    australian women writers challenge logoThis is a story of community, of mutual care and understanding, as well as a plea to respect the planet and the beliefs that have formed it.

    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.

  • This is the second of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • Peacemaker: the west comes to town

    Posted in books, fantasy, review, science fiction with tags , , , , on February 26, 2014 by jason nahrung

    peacemaker by marianne de pierresShe 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.

    australian women writers challenge logoJackson 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!

  • This is the first of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

    Posted in books, review with tags , on February 6, 2014 by jason nahrung

    australian women writers challenge logoIt’s February, and I’ve only just got around to finally signing up for this year’s Australian Women Writers Challenge, which seeks to enhance the profile of — you guessed it — Australian women writers. Since it is the second month of the year already, I’m going to set a low bar, and commit to reviewing four titles this year. I’ve got no idea what they’ll be yet (although I reckon two of these will probably figure), but I intend for them to be diverse. And thin. Thin-ish. Yes, that will probably help. Whatever your feelings about gender bias in reviewing and commentary, you’ll find this project has created a rather useful resource for those looking for a suggested reading list. Check it out!

    Six months of music

    Posted in music, review with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2013 by jason nahrung


     
    Christmas already, and there have been a few additions to the music collection since mid-year’s round-up. Certainly enough to get through the summer!


    black snake by wendy ruleThe latest album from Melbourne’s Wendy Rule was funded through Pozible and is now available. It’s well worth the listen, harking back as it does to her World Within Worlds album — meditative and moody, mixing pagan themes and love songs and not being shy about topping the five-minute mark. Plucked guitar, steel guitar, cello, flute set the scenes, with occasional tribal percussion breakouts such as on ‘Black Snake’ and ‘After the Storm’, and electro carnival on ‘From the Great Above to the Great Below’. ‘Home’ is another standout for its sheer yearning for a place that’s ‘more than a suitcase, a room’; Rewind wishes to undo the mistakes of the past ‘when I was fucked up and blind’; and ‘Ereshkigal’ — almost nine glorious minutes of it — shows entrancing layered vocals with tribal influences. Ideal for a winter’s night in or a lethargic summer’s arvo.

    gary numan splinterBy contrast, Gary Numan‘s Splinter: Songs from a Broken Mind (Machine Music, 2013) is a full electro-industrial assault, harking back to the brilliant Jagged album. ‘I Am Dust’ opens in winning fashion while ‘Here in the Black’ brings in orchestral elements worthy of a soundtrack, a space explorer alone in the black, or perhaps drifting through their own inner void. Thematically, the album offers the usual touchstones: love gone awry, aloneness, lost faith. ‘Love Hurt Bleed’ is an EBM standout, while Numan varies the terrain with Arabesque elements on ‘Splinte’r, gorgeous percussion on ‘Where I Can Never Be’, piano on farewell tune ‘My Last Day’. As with Black Snake, there’s familiar material here, an artist playing to their strengths, but engaging highpoints making it a worthy of addition to the collection.

    mona mur and en esch 120 tageMona Mur and En Esch swagger with menace on 120 Tage: The Fine Art of Beauty and Violence (Pale Music, 2009), a switchblade-packing duo stalking the city alleys and nightclubs in knee highs and combat boots. Half sung in German, half in English, the songs range from dance fuzz joy of ‘Visions and Lies’ to the grungy back-street feel of ‘The Thin Red Line’ to poppy ’120 Tage’, all headlined by Mur’s cabaret sex-and-dare vocals. A touch of oom pah pah (‘Mon Amour’), elsewhere circus (‘Der Song von Mandelay’), some spoken word (eight-minute story of ‘Surabaya Johnny’), add texture — and introduce three Bertholdt Brecht/Kurt Weill covers as well. ‘I want to crawl in the mud with you and drag you underground,’ Mur sings on opener ‘Candy Cane’ — it’s an offer hard to resist, with the rest of the album dragging the listener down into a world of, as promised, beauty and violence. On ‘Eintagsfliegen’, ‘this is my rifle, this is my gun, one is for killing, the other is for fun’ gives the idea. ‘Snake’ is a sultry winner. The only annoyance is three minutes of noise tacked onto the end of chugging closing track ‘The Wound’. If this was a nightclub, it’d have a warning sign on the front door.

    Mentioned previously, but must be mentioned again, just how superb is the latest Nine Inch Nails album, Hesitation Marks. Welcome to middle-age doubt, with all the studio genius Trent Reznor has to offer. Such superb songcraft …

    Also on the playlist:

  • Tycho Brahe finish 2013 on a high with a new EP, Triplex Part 1. Cracking synth pop with ‘Castaway’, funky dancefloor bass on ‘Loveless’, instrumental ‘Arizona’ and, on ‘Lullaby’, a less characteristic touch of gloomier, moodier music.
  • Adalita, All Day Venus (Liberation, 2013): Second solo album from the Aussie rocker, delivers plenty of guitar-driven heartbreak and lonely nights. Highlight: ‘Warm Like You’, on which she sings ‘I was born cold, I’ll never be warm like you’. Adalita also plays bass on the enticing EP Let Yourself Be Free, by duo Dark Fair; the b-side is rockin’, too.
  • Finally got around to snaffling albums The Birthing Pyre and Somewhere Under the Rainbow by the Jane Austen Argument, another Aussie duo with a winning way with tunes set against an emotional, hip urban landscape. Tom’s high range — see ‘Bad Wine and Lemon Cake‘ — is worth the price of admission.

     

  • Treating space travel with Gravity

    Posted in movies, review with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2013 by jason nahrung

    gravity movie poster
    Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and written by him and Jonás Cuarón, is a visually stunning examination of working in space. I suspect this movie would be one of the rare beasts that rewards viewing in 3D.

    But it’s not just gorgeous and exhiliarating to watch — at its centre is a human story, a tense, captivating physical and emotional journey dealing with both outer and inner space. And thankfully, character exposition is minimal and natural, and melodrama absent.

    Sandra Bullock plays a doctor, Ryan, recently attached to NASA to conduct an experiment. She and veteran team leader Matt (George Clooney, reliable with humour and dependability) are marooned in space when bad things happen to their transport. Again and again. Their mission becomes one to get back to Earth.

    The physics of space is beautifully, strikingly, rendered on the big screen — thrust and counter-thrust, in an environment with no resistance. Propelling through the confined sections of a space station littered with floating debris — not as much fun as you might expect. Think space walks are genteel? Think again — velocity matters.

    Particularly impressive is the way sound travels only in intense POV scenes, transmitted through spacesuits, while broad scenes are conducted in the silence of space — only the occasionally intrusive score to be heard.

    Bullock is ideal as the doc who has to dig deep — not action-movie deep, just humanly — reading instruction manuals, thinking laterally, using wit and dry humour and sheer tenacity in the struggle to survive. Her journey is intense, and well worth strapping in for.


    The Year of Ancient Ghosts: haunting stuff

    Posted in fantasy, gothic, review with tags , , , , , , on September 25, 2013 by jason nahrung

    year of ancient ghosts by kim wilkinsThe Year of Ancient Ghosts (Ticonderoga Publications, 2013) is the first collection for Brisbane writer Kim Wilkins, who has more than 20 books to her credit.

    Her work spans children’s, YA, adult dark fantasy and horror, and women’s lit, but this collection of five novellas — two previously unpublished — is firmly rooted in fantasy. It’s damned impressive, too.

    It opens with the titular story, a touching tale in which a wife and mother takes her young daughter to a remote Scottish locale, there to discover more about her husband’s past and the supernatural traditions of his home.

    The other new story in this collection is the final one, ‘The Lark and the River’, a beautifully rendered description, inspired by an actual place, of the collision between Norman monotheism and Celtic paganism, with our heroine caught in the middle.

    australian women writers review challenge logoIn the middle, one novella presages a long-awaited and yet-to-arrive traditional fantasy story in which illicit love threatens a realm; another revisits Arthurian myth, again with a focus on the heroine in Bathory-hot water; and the third also happens in the contemporary world, but with Norse gods involved — the Kiwi television show The Almighty Johnsons came to mind when reading this one.

    Character is queen in these stories, the fears and ambitions of the heroines pulling us through the realistically rendered worlds. Wilkins’s love of Norse and Celtic history comes to the fore in the small details so unobtrusively but effectively used in the setting, opening a window into the life of her societies and the challenges her characters face.

    The two new stories are perhaps the most emotive, dealing as they do with heartfelt loss, and the emotional world as dutifully, smoothly rendered as the physical one.

    I can only hope Wilkins gets to that high fantasy novel sooner rather than later.

  • This is my sixth review as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge — the first was Glenda Larke’s Havenstar; the second, Krissy Kneen’s Steeplechase; the third, Christine Bongers’ Dust; the fourth, Alison Croggon’s Black Spring; and the fifth, Courtney Collins’s The Burial.

  • NIN: nailing it on the return

    Posted in music, review with tags , , on September 5, 2013 by jason nahrung

    hesitation marks by nine inch nailsI finally got my download of the new Nine Inch Nails album, Hesitation Marks, on Wednesday night, and it was on high rotation all day yesterday. It’s a smooth little number, so damn grooveable: it wears its angst on the inside. A quick perusal of the song titles will show you what I mean: ‘All Time Low’, ‘Disappointed’, the cracking ‘Came Back Haunted’ …

    Trent Reznor is clever enough, old enough, to know he can’t play the Downward Spiral or — my fave — Pretty Hate Machine card. So he’s moved on, but not abandoned the sound that marks a NIN album. Nor the atmosphere, really.

    I love the construction of the songs, the way various influences come through without losing that NIN sensibility. There’s no hesitation here at all: it’s a big exclamation mark from these ears, oh yes.

    Here’s an awesome interview with Reznor in Spin, about the making of the album, where he’s at musically; and here’s a grand review at the Guardian and another at AMG, just to give you some better-considered reviews to be going on with. Of course, the proof is in the listening. You can stream the album here.

    The Burial: uncovering some natural talent

    Posted in books, review with tags , , on August 15, 2013 by jason nahrung

    the burial by courtney collinsThe Burial is the debut novel from Courtney Collins, and it has been received well enough – short listings for the Stella Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, a long-listing for the Dobbie – to earn her a place in Australia’s literary delegation to the UK.

    The voice is a large part of its appeal, one suspects. Narrated by a dead baby who’s been buried in the earth, it might not surprise that a large part of the story concerns relationships with the earth: a part-Aboriginal stockman cum tracker, a city-trained policeman with his own destructive obsessions, and the heroine of the piece: outlaw Jessie Hickman.

    Jessie is based on a real person, one who had a vague legendary status in the area of NSW where Collins grew up. Few details of her life were available, but there were police records and a mug shot.

    Jessie was a circus rider, a wild child, a horse thief.

    Her life in 1920s Australia, as imagined by Collins and recounted by Jessie’s dead child, is one of displacement and discomfort, of trying to find one’s place. For Jessie, that happiest place seems to be on horseback.

    Backgrounding the tale is life in the rural back blocks, still a frontier post-World War I, with broken soldier settlers eking out their livings in the wild country, the law mistrusted by all, and women – those hardy few – getting the rough end of the stick.

    It a place where Jessie is indentured to Fitz, whose brutal hold on Jessie sets up the core of the story: a protracted pursuit that gathers pace as the tracker and the copper get their act together, drawn together by their mutual history with Jessie, who wants only to be free — even if she isn’t entirely certain what that freedom might entail.

    australian women writers review challenge logoThe story of Jessie’s flight into the high country is interspersed with flashbacks of her journey to these straits, and insights into why these two men pursue with such persistence.

    But it is the bush that is the major backdrop and a key character, shaping these lives on the edge of civilisation, offering both threat and succour.

    Collins’s prose has a cadence, with drawn-out sentences clopping along with conjunctions to offer a folkloric, lyrical atmosphere. The sense of the tale being narrated in an otherworldly fashion is enhanced by the use of italics for dialogue, rather that punctuation marks. The story could have afforded to lose a few extraneous scenes, but overall it draws the reader on as pursuers and pursued head to their inevitable resolution.

    There is, however, no historical conclusion to The Burial; with the focus on the environment and adapting to it, its conclusion possibly owes a debt to Picnic at Hanging Rock and that fascination with civilisation vs nature, that throwing off of social binds and embracing the environment. Certainly, The Burial is a worthy companion to that section of Australian literature that examines our place in this environment. I wonder what the Poms will make of it.

    A most Delicate Truth from John le Carre

    Posted in books, review with tags , on July 26, 2013 by jason nahrung

    delicate truth by john le carreJohn le Carre‘s spy novels were always a cut above for me; him and Frederick Forsyth ruled my thriller firmament in my teens, when the second-hand book stores were raided for the Colin Forbes, Len Deightons, Adam Halls, the Bond books, and soforth.

    It was le Carre’s mood that won me, the sheer honesty of his tales in which grey was the colour de rigeur and the good guys, if you could find them, were never guaranteed of victory. As with the Cold War, everyone was playing for a draw.

    In A Delicate Truth, his latest, he examines matters of conscience and political expediency, as a former British diplomat and a serving public servant find an incident on Gibraltar has not so much a delicate truth but a damned inconvenient one for Her Maj’s government. Against the backdrop of terrorism and rendition, mercenaries and dirty tricks, it’s a fraught tale of men unable to sleep easily with guilt and the ways in which the system seeks to silence them.

    The characters are stoic, suitably reserved, in their dealings, and the dialogue is brilliantly esoteric, with echoes of phrases used to at times Yes Minister levels of cutting effect within the overall atmosphere of growing malevolence. Le Carre knows when to be sparse and when to use his astute descriptions of setting, a wonderful example of crafted world building.

    While the end note was superb, the actual climax felt a little convenient, just a touch, but in no way undermined the story or the carefully presented character arcs that brought it about.

    It’s been a long time since I devoured The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy — the Tomas Alfredson movie was beautifully realised — but A Delicate Truth takes me right back to the joy of those masterpieces. Le Carre is as foxy as he ever was.

    Follow

    Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

    Join 1,416 other followers