Steeplechase, by Krissy Kneen — that’s quite a ride

steeplechase by krissy kneenBrisbane writer Krissy Kneen has a deft touch with prose; her character’s voice in Steeplechase (Text, 2013) flows off the page, captivating and intriguing and thoroughly believable. And what a tale she tells, of her and her sister, her mother and Oma, all locked up in a history of mental illness where reality and truth are stretched to breaking point, not unlike a painter’s canvas stretched on a rack.

For Emily Reich is a painter of renown, having left her sister Bec — our narrator — in the shade.

Life for the sisters has been insular, to say the least, with their grandmother running the house, father gone, mother herself locked away inside a mental breakdown of sorts, a haunting presence that dominates the rural homestead. Stern Oma restores paintings for a living; she sequesters the girls, perhaps fearful of them falling prey to their mother’s sickness. For naught, as it happens.

Emily, having had her turn with illness, is in China, living large on her renown, while Bec, still very much in her shadow and more than a little fragile herself, ekes out a living as an art teacher and painter of less renown.

There’s that student Bec’s bonking — how wrong, but yet, so occasionally right — and there’s the imaginary boy who teased her and her sister so magnificently; the neighbour’s horse of childhood distractions, the games of steeplechase in the back yard, sisterly dynamics and a past disaster that hangs over them both.

I’ve read the word ‘claustrophobic’ used to describe the first section of this two-parter, and it’s a good choice, the past infusing the present, Bec locked between the two. And in her future, inducing yet further unease, that invitation from her sister to attend an exhibition in China — the second part, less claustrophobic but no less unsettling as Bec flounders in the foreign streets, trying to work through to the truth of the past and forge an understanding with her brilliant, troubled sister.

My only hesitation of the course was in the denouement: a little too much too soon for me, but I can’t argue that Bec earned her just rewards.

Identity, mental illness, art and, yes, horses — though equestrians might not find much to please them, here — form this delicious miasma, with the weather — sub-tropical Brisbane, I belatedly realised; and confronting, bird-less Beijing, Kneen drawing on her time there to invoke smells and sights fit to alienate our heroine — used superbly to enhance the mood.

Kneen debuted sensationally with her gorgeously rendered erotic memoir Affection and followed that with thoughtfully pornographic Triptych (which I have yet to read), both through Text; this, her first foray into less salacious fiction, confirms she’s a writer who deserves to go the distance.

  • This is my second review as part of the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge. The first was Glenda Larke’s Havenstar.
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  • Hungarian Chimney Cakes … nom, nom, nom

    hungarian chimney cakeFor six months, the sign tantalised: there on the side of the highway on Ballarat’s eastern approach, “Hungarian Chimney Cakes’.

    Oh, the mystery! The exotic appeal — why Hungarian? What chimney? Just … what?!
    Well, the answer is tasty indeed, with the pastries being dispensed at Ozzie Creations, right next to the remarkable Mill Markets.

    The cylindrical pastries, harking from Transylvania and baked on a rod, have the texture of doughnut under a hard crust. Sayest the blurb: ‘a handmade pastry with a crunchy caramel coating wrapped in sweet spices and nuts’. They unroll in a long tendril that’s not only noms but damn fun to munch. They take 6-7 minutes to bake, but there’s enough pretty — gem stones and gewgaws and clothes, personalised jigsaws made from photographs — in the shop to occupy your attention, as well as tables and chairs if you can’t wait to get home to tuck in. They make other snacks, and coffee, too.

    The adjacent Ballarat branch of the Mill Markets is well worth a visit for antique hunters and gift buyers: the sprawling complex is divided into bays where shops range from artisans selling glassware, handmade soaps and paintings, to business offshoots hocking old toys, antique and funky furniture, and all manner of stuff — even suits of armour. If you’re into old stuff, allow two hours at least to peruse, and take heart that there are clean loos and a cafe on site … plus a seriously large fireplace with sofas.

    Yes, it’s getting cold in Ballaratia, with the morning mists a’lingering. Thank goodness for the chimney (cakes)!


    Mill Markets, Ballarat

    Note the mobile rocket launcher, one of two we’ve seen around Ballaratia. Something to do with the Great Bendigo Putsch of ’03, we believe… NEVER AGAIN!

    Caution: Contains Small Parts, by Kirstyn McDermott — we have launch!

    caution contains small parts by kirstyn mcdermottIt’s a little over two weeks until the launch of Kirstyn’s Caution: Contains Small Parts. Why, yes, I have had a preview read, and yes, it rocks in that unsettling McDermott mode that recently snared an Australian Shadows and an Aurealis Award for best horror novel. The collection is a sharp, four-story title in the ongoing, and quite stunning, Twelfth Planet Press Twelve Planets series.

    Also at the launch, we’ll be lifting a belated glass to Kirstyn’s award-winning Perfections and my award-not-wining Blood and Dust, both of which came out very late last year.

    Caution: Contains Small Parts launch: Sunday, 9 June, at 6pm, as part of Continuum 9 @ Ether, lower level, 285 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne.

    The collection is available for pre-order, or you can get a Twelve Planets subscription deal. The book will be on sale at the launch, naturally, where the author will happily sign copies.

    Aurealis Award winners for 2012

    perfections by kirstyn mcdermottThere is new shiny on the bookshelf: Kirstyn snared the Aurealis Award for best horror novel with Perfections. The novel previously won the Shadows, too. Yup, pipped me (and others) again, she did, and rightly so. Perfections is one of those novels where every word is in its place, every concept beautifully revealed, and the story lingers long after the cover is closed.

    If you run an eye down this list of winners, announced in Sydney on Saturday night, you’ll see Margo Lanagan is still riding the wave with her novel Sea Hearts (psst: Coeur de Lion is working on releasing a digital version of X6, in which the original novella from which the novel sprang first appeared, along with the remarkable ‘Wives’ by Paul Haines), and also kicking goals with her most excellent Cracklescape collection.

    Cat Sparks pictures from the night are here

    Kaaron Warren‘s ‘Sky’, from her Through Splintered Walls collection, is again in the winner’s circle. Here’s a heads up: Kirstyn’s collection in the same Twelve Planets series is to be launched at Continuum next month.

    The awards are always a great event, with lots of catching up, and meeting new people, too. Highly recommended if you want a peep at what’s happening in the Australian spec fic scene: the finalists make a damn fine reading list.

    In accepting the Peter Mac for her awesome contribution to Australian writing through roles in such events and organisations as the Queensland Writers Centre (and now Brisbane Writers Festival), Fantastic Queensland and Clarion South, Kate Eltham spoke about the tribe that is the spec fic community and it supports and nurtures its own. The awards are the perfect example of inclusivity, respect and support. Next year they’re in Canberra, probably around March. Looking forward to it already!

    Aurealis Awards winners 2012

    BEST CHILDREN’S FICTION (TOLD PRIMARILY THROUGH WORDS)
    Brotherband: The Hunters (Random House) by John Flanagan

    BEST CHILDREN’S FICTION (TOLD PRIMARILY THROUGH PICTURES)
    Little Elephants (Penguin) by Graeme Base

    BEST YOUNG ADULT SHORT STORY
    ‘The Wisdom of the Ants’ (Clarkesworld) by Thoraiya Dyer

    BEST YOUNG ADULT NOVEL
    (Joint winners)
    Dead, Actually (Allen and Unwin) by Kaz Delaney
    Sea Hearts (Allen and Unwin) by Margo Lanagan

    BEST ILLUSTRATED BOOK/GRAPHIC NOVEL
    Blue (Giramondo) by Pat Grant

    BEST COLLECTION
    That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote (self-published) by KJ Bishop

    BEST ANTHOLOGY
    The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Six (Night Shade Books) edited by Jonathan Strahan

    BEST HORROR SHORT STORY
    ‘Sky’ (Through Splintered Walls, Twelfth Planet Press) by Kaaron Warren

    BEST HORROR NOVEL
    Perfections (Xoum) by Kirstyn McDermott

    BEST FANTASY SHORT STORY
    ‘Bajazzle’ by Margo Lanagan (Cracklescape, Twelfth Planet Press)

    BEST FANTASY NOVEL
    Sea Hearts (Allen and Unwin) by Margo Lanagan

    BEST SCIENCE FICTION SHORT STORY
    ‘Significant Dust’ (Cracklescape, Twelfth Planet Press) by Margo Lanagan

    BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL
    The Rook (HarperCollins) by Daniel O’Malley

    PETER MCNAMARA CONVENORS’ AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE
    Kate Eltham
    KRIS HEMBURY ENCOURAGEMENT AWARD
    Laura Goodin

    Aurealis Awards head to Canberra

    aurealis awards logoThe organising committee of Canberra’s annual Conflux convention will be running the Aurealis Awards in 2014 and 2015. The awards have gained such stature as a standalone event on the Australian speculative fiction calendar, it’s great to see a group as proficient as Conflux taking up the reins.

    This year’s awards are to be announced at a gala event in Sydney on May 18 — everyone’s welcome to join the celebration. Sydney’s SpecFaction have done a stirling job over the past three years; they’ve earned a rest.

    The awards are also calling for judges for this year. It’s a great way to get a finger on the pulse of Aussie spec fic and be involved in the community.

    Canberra to Clunes: books,books,books

    booktown in clunes 2013Clunes, a mere 20 minutes outside of Ballarat, has turned on its Booktown charm this weekend. Book shops and stalls are replete with all manner of reading material, from $2 paperbacks to rather more expensive collectibles. Newspapers of yore, magazines, a couple of volumes listing Irish coppers by name and year … all manner of quirk and taste was on offer.

    It was elbow room only in some book shops when we visited yesterday. There were comments such as, ‘this one’s cheaper here’, or, ‘it’s rare, but it doesn’t have the slipcase’.

    We didn’t catch any of the talks, but were content to browse and sup coffee and score tucker from the food vans.

    What a cute town; what a lot of books!

    Indeed, it has been a week of books, for only last weekend we were in Canberra for Conflux (various reports on the con are here), the national spec fic convention.

    It was a hoot, with much catching up and some doozy panels too.

    Angry Robot honcho Marc Gascoigne was a guest, and it was a little sad to hear him, and others, say that stories could be *too* Australian for the international market. Look forward to further US hegemony or more universal voices? Let’s hope not. Marc also painted a picture of Angry Robot that had many of us lining up with our CVs — their building has CAVES!

    And how good was it to see the marvellous Nalo Hopkinson back in Australia? Very bloody good!

    Great to see Russell B Farr land the A Bertram Chandler award for his career in publishing to date, awarded at one of the best Ditmar award presentations ever, overseen by Deborah Biancotti and ably supported by Lego and a cock-block clock (of which I am now the proud recipient due to lottery, and hope becomes an institution for future awards). Kirstyn won an award for her Writer and the Critic podcast with Ian Mond, which was a lovely nod, and as expected, Margo Lanagan’s wonderful Sea Hearts took out the best novel award. The full list of winners can be found here.

    the bride price by cat sparksAnd there were book launches … so many book launches! One standout — and an alliterative one, too! — was that for Cat Sparks, rolling out her collection The Bride Price with Ticonderoga — it sold out! Before I got a copy! But there are many more, and you should check them out, too.

    In between Canberra and Clunes, there was mileage: about 2500km worth, which included selling off a portion of my comic collection in Maitland, my first visit to Echuca and picking up some Campbells wines (home of Empire Port) in Rutherglen. Ah, road trips … gotta love’em. Especially when you get home with wine and books!