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.
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  • The Dagger’s Path, by Glenda Larke: the journey continues

    daggers path by glenda larkeThe globe trotting continues in The Dagger’s Path (Orbit, 2015), the second volume of the The Forsaken Lands trilogy by Glenda Larke: a year sails by as our heroes reach the Va-forskaen Lands – a conglomerate of island states, lumped together geopolitically by culturally ignorant colonial powers interested only in the spices and, lately, the magic that they have to offer.

    The witan spy Saker accompanies Sorrel, and the babe in arms for which she cares, Piper, and disgraced Chanderawasi Ardhi on a mission to the spice isles, on board a privateer captained by the dashing Juster. All find themselves under the sway of a magically enforced imperative, embodied in a magical dagger, to return sacred plumes from very special birds.

    But more than their lives are at stake: back in the Va-cherished lands, evil is on the rise, and those righteous few who see its emergence – the pontifact, her lawyer spy and a gifted orphan – will need all the help they can get to prevent it.

    Further muddying the waters are the imperial interests of homicidally pragmatic Mathilda, Ardronese wife of the Lowmian king, the dabbling of the Ardronese heir, Prince Ryce, and the various merchant interests and clandestine forces arraying against the order of things.

    It is, as my sketchy summary suggests, an epic tale, and told through a plethora of viewpoints – a couple rate merely a few scenes here, but where this ploy usually drives me to distraction, they passed relatively smoothly, perhaps because of the recurring nature of the characters in the third person. While the story spans a hemisphere and considerable time, the pace is consistent, thanks to the machinations and discoveries at play, the well-rounded lead characters and, as always with a Larke book, the superb world building.

    The twitcher writer’s avian interests continue to be at the fore as Saker learns more of his power to communicate with and influence birds, while other familiar Larke themes of colonialism, extremism and blind faith continue to anchor the narrative.

    Australian women writers challenge 2015A flash forward at chapter 31, about three quarters of the way through, felt unwarranted given the overall clip of the yarn – there’s a bit of biffo and plenty of intrigue driving this middle book, which ends with cards firmly on the table and relationships overshadowed by the looming battle to keep the corrupt and self-serving Fox out of the big chair.

    Australian Larke has drawn on her life in Malaysia for her depictions of the islands and the descriptions are well spiced.

    Plain sailing, this one, with sails unfurled and gun ports open for the grand finale.

  • The Lascar’s Dagger, the first of the series (reviewed here), recently tied for the best novel Ditmar Award and also won a Tin Duck, and was a finalist for best fantasy novel in the Aurealis Awards.
  • This is my first review as part of the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
  • Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015

    Australian women writers challenge 2015February already, so I’m behind! This year I’m signing up again for the Australian Womens Writers Challenge, in which a whole bunch of readers seek to ensure Australian women writers are in their to be read piles, and report back. I’ve chosen the Stella level — read four, review three — which I only just managed to exceed last year (on the review front). And this year, I’ve got a whole bunch of first-year PhD reading to compete with the leisure reading as well, so wish me luck.

    Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil: fertile ground indeed

    foreign soil by maxine beneba clarkeI still can’t decide which of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s short stories I found more affecting: ‘David’, the lyrically told story of two women whose pasts and futures meet on the simple yet potent device of a bicycle; or ‘Shu Yi’, one of the most powerful examinations of racism running downhill I’ve encountered.

    Those two stories are the heart-punching standouts in Foreign Soil (Hachette Australia, 2014), an extremely strong debut collection from the Australia poet of Afro-Caribbean descent, who comes to publishing through the portal of poetry.

    Certainly, the quality of the prose suggests a writer who is concerned with language and its evocative potentials, whether writing in first person or third, common English or dialect. It’s a tour of the world — Africa, the Caribbean, the US, Sri Lanka, the UK, Australia. Two of my favourite destinations was the bleak view of the 2011 Tottenham riots in ‘Harlem Jones’, the Southern atmosphere of ‘Gaps in the Hickory’, but all show a tangible sense of place.

    Clarke inhabits her characters, whether a Sudanese refugee, a Louisiana family, militants on the edge, a hairdresser isolated and out of her depth. Most of the protagonists are people of colour.

    I was prepared to say it was the first-person tales that carried the greatest emotional impact, but then I hit ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’: a boy flees the Tamil Tigers, psychologically and emotionally scarred by his forced indenture with the rebel group, only to end up in Villawood detention centre. It’s a timely, telling portrait of the inept bureaucracy and general heartlessness of Australia’s failed refugee policy, delivered with all the tenderness that policy lacks.

    While the stories are diverse, they are linked through empathy and understanding, an ear for dialogue, stirling prose.

    Clarke won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award of 2013 for this collection. The last story, ‘The Sukiyaki Book Club’, opens a window on to her career through its clear meta content as a writer receives rejection letters for stories remarkably similar to those here.

    ‘We feel Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these,’ reads one rejection.

    What a sad indictment of those readers, or the publisher’s perception of them; what a victory that Clarke held the line, that — hopefully — this collection proves that naysayer wrong.

    Read more about the collection and Clarke’s writing in this SMH article and more about the collection at Sydney Review of Books.

    australian women writers challenge logoThis is the sixth and last of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.
    Previous reviews:

    Cherry Bomb: Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ pop

    cherry bomb by jenny valentishHa! See what I did there? Doesn’t matter, I’m sure Nina Dall would still roll her eyes at such a naff header (and damn you, unsmart quotes).The fact remains, her ‘autobiography’ makes for a compelling read.

    Nina Dall is one half of punk-pop duo The Dolls, the other half held down by her somewhat more brightly clad cousin, Rose. Their rise to fame from suburban Sydney pub band to international touring act is the subject of Cherry Bomb (Allen & Unwin), as told by Jenny Valentish.

    Claim to fame: I worked with Jenny when I pulled a stint at J Mag, and she now holds the fort at Time Off in Melbourne. She’s been interviewing musos since she was 16, and has knocked around in front of a few Marshall amps in her time as well. All that experience is put to good use in Cherry Bomb, where the world of the band on the rise is brought to realistic life — ambition, stress, creativity, publicity. Sex. Drugs. Spats.

    The story is told in Nina’s first-person point of view, in retrospect, so she can throw in the occasional tease about something that was to happen, or a dollop of background, or an aside. Sometimes those little asides break the flow, especially early on when they pop up in the middle of dialogue and a dinosaur like me has to go back to remember what the conversation was about. But mostly, it works — Nina’s voice is engaging and authentic, her vocab showing she’s not as dumb as everyone thinks.

    Sure, she’s got issues. Both the cousins do. Family secrets and questions of self-esteem run thick and acidic through their co-dependency, but maybe that’s what makes them a winning team, even if maybe you don’t want to share a taxi with them.

    Circling the pair is their aunt, a faded rock star who offers an in to the industry when they need it, and the producers and love interests and hangers-on all looking for their cut.

    I got a chuckle that Jenny was able to take her love of utes and country music muster experiences, as outlined on one of her blogs, and put it to good use here.

    Jenny’s got a great turn of phrase and an eye for detail that inform Nina’s observations.

    I pictured Kane’s wife as nagging him frequently, in a dithery voice. She’d be wearing one of those satiny dresses that women buy in provincial boutiques, with the pattern of a seventies casino carpet. Thin blonde hair, spindly wrists. You couldn’t even hate her.

    The text is broken up with artefacts: a faux review of Nina’s parents’ separation; record reviews; lists. It gives Cherry Bomb almost a scrapbook feel. Each chapter — check the heads for song titles — is introduced by a salient quote from aunty Alannah’s autobiography Pour Me Another. They make you want to read that book.

    australian women writers challenge logoIn the back, Jenny provides a soundtrack for each chapter. And yep, Cherry Bomb is in there. It’s no surprise the Runaways are mentioned, either, although now I’m doubting myself for thinking Kristen Stewart did a job in the movie. Damn you, Jenny, and your acerbic ways!

    This book — Jenny’s first fiction title — totally rocks. Read it loud!

  • Jenny is appearing at Bendigo Writers Festival August 8-10.
     

  • More reviews linked to the Australian Women Writers Challenge
     

  • Intruder: a dog can be a girl’s best friend

    Intruder by Chris BongersBrisbane writer Chris Bongers has the knack of keeping it down to earth, even when it’s something as horrifying as waking to find a home invader in your room.

    In Intruder (Random House), Bongers uses the terrifying incident to unveil and transform the secluded life of 14-year-old Kat.

    Kat lives at home with her piano-playing, bakery-working father, with both of them haunted by the death of her mother.

    The shadow of the child welfare department hangs over them after an earlier incident, and next door lurks the ‘witch’, the best friend of her mother who has given Kat reason to distrust her.

    The intruder is a catalyst for Kat to examine her family and her beliefs and to take charge of a life lived on autopilot. Along the way, she finds new allies: a good-looking lad at the dog park, and her new defender, an ugly but endearing mutt called Hercules.

    Bongers does a wonderful job of bringing her characters to life with all their foibles; her descriptions of Herc and his interaction with Kat are priceless.

    There’s a lot of charm in this yarn, mixing humour and tension in a believable scenario that unearths home truths and serves up a warning about the dangers of jumping to conclusions. It also contains a message of the power of family and trust to overcome even the most dire of situations.

    Kat and dog might not be superheroes, but they make a winning pair.


    australian women writers challenge logoThis is the fourth of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. signed on for four, but it’s only June, so let’s push on and see what else I come across …
    Previous reviews:

  • The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke
  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina
  • Peacemaker, by Marianne de Pierres
  • The Lascar’s Dagger: sharp, pointed fantasy

    lascars dagger by glenda larkeThe Lascar’s Dagger (Orbit, 2014), the first of The Forsaken Lands trilogy, will not disappoint fans of Glenda Larke‘s previous fantasies. Here you will find the exquisite world building and conflicted characters as well as familiar themes that inform her work.

    The dagger of the title is a magical artefact, one with the ability to shape the actions of those around it, and it can be capricious as it seeks to right a wrong. It harks from the spice islands, now being opened up by an essentially European seafaring civilisation for trade and plunder. The titular lascar, Ardhi, has journeyed to these technologically more advanced Va-cherished lands to retrieve his people’s stolen treasure.

    Here he crosses paths with our primary antagonist, Saker, a spy-priest, who quickly finds himself in a whole world of hurt: he’s fallen in inappropriate love with the wrong woman, there’s a strange disease inflicting the land (and driving up the price of ‘medicinal’ spice), his religion is under threat – and people keep trying to kill him. And on top of that, there’s this dagger that has plans for him.

    The novel highlights Saker’s ignorance of the Va-forsaken Lands and their peoples — not quite the savages they seem, nor even a single tribal group — and pits commercial greed against environmental balance and moral compass. It touches on the danger of judging people by appearance. It objects to gender stereotyping and misogyny. It opposes religious fanaticism and bigotry. Oh yes, this is a Larke book!

    Read an excerpt here

    And it has birds. Larke by name and somewhat by nature, the twitcher author has given birds a special perch of importance here.

    There are a few downdrafts to mildly ruffle the feathers: an unusual, for Larke, if memory serves, surrender to the technique of dropping us into minor characters’ points of view for the expediency of showing details that the prime POV characters cannot relate — a distracting peccadillo, but certainly not fatal to the flow; and another in the apparent failure of the Regal’s desire to keep a certain theft secret, the truth of it not long after common knowledge on the streets. Book 2, due in January, might reveal more on both scores.

    australian women writers challenge logoJust the once I felt Saker was a little dim, but I guess even an experienced spy can be a little slow to realise his network has been compromised. And on odd occasion the creative vernacular felt, again unusually in a Larke book where language is as much part of the world building as the landscape, a little forced in places: ‘Va preserve me from idle-headed dewberries’? In other places, the vernacular shines, adding to the sense that this is a real world of politics, economics, social tension, linguistic diversity; one with history.

    I’m also not a big fan of direct thoughts on the page — I’d rather see stronger interaction and action than be told what a character is thinking — but that’s a taste thing, and the technique is not abused.

    What does soothe these minor ruffles is the combination of aforementioned strengths in world and character, the mysteries still to be solved, the thematic underpinnings. Perhaps not quite as smooth sailing as some of her previous works (The Aware is one of my favourite fantasies), but nonetheless well worth going aboard for. My fingers are crossed for some serious piracy, err, privateering, in the next book!

  • This is the third of my reviews in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.
    Previous reviews:

  • The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, by Ambelin Kwaymullina
  • Peacemaker, by Marianne de Pierres