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.
  • 2013: we have lift off, with a little help from Tycho Brahe

    Welcome to 2013! To get in the mood, here’s a shiny new clip from Brisbane band Tycho Brahe, courtesy of cool Lego clip maker Forlorn Creature:


    Now I’m sure there’s a little Depeche Mode in there …


    In other recent-ish news:

  • Talie Helene as produced possibly the most memorable quote of the Next Big Thing blog posts: ‘I heard the harpsichord DIE.’
  • NBT the second: Glenda Larke re-releases her debut novel, Havenstar, in digital format! One for my Australian Women Writers review challenge!
  • NBT the third: Charlotte Nash has (non-spec fic) debut Ryders Ridge on the way. First draft written in three weeks. You’d like to hate her, but … that’s just freaking awesome!
  • Graeme Hague has been giving away tunes with his ebooks — what a generous man!
  • Three new Aussie anthologies are showing off their tables of contents: Dreaming of Djinn, Next and A Killer Among Demons. [Make that four: this just popped out of my inbox: Nicole Murphy’s In Fabula-Divino]
  • And huzzah, a new review of Salvage (this one by voracious bookworm Tsana)! I love the way most reviewers have been able to get the idea across without going for the reveal.
  • Way to kick off a new year or what?!

    AWWNYRC#5: Burn Bright, indeed!

    This is the fifth book I’m reading as part of my list of 10 for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge.

    Burn Bright

    by Marianne de Pierres
    Random House, 2011, ISBN: 978 1 86471 988 8

    burn bright by marianne de pierres

    THERE’S a lot to enjoy in Burn Bright, the first of a YA dystopian series by Marianne de Pierres. Mdp has scored avid followings with her previous series — the cyberpunk dystopia of Parrish Plessis, the sprawling space opera of Sentients of Orion and her Tara Sharp crime series — and this has tapped the fanatical YA market with even more gusto: a soundtrack song, online campaigns … whoa.

    It’s no surprise, as MdP knows how to put a story together, and this one comes in some truly cool trappings: a nocturnal, youthful party world watched over by vampire-like sentinels, and lots of secrets in the dark. Her heroine, Retra, has quite the journey too, right down to a name change, though by story’s end, one wonders if Naif is really so accurate. Clearly, she’s still got some learning to do, but she’s well on her way to adulthood. Yes, this book packs some powerful metaphors.

    This first volume introduces Inoxia, a hilly realm of constant night in which the pursuit of pleasure is paramount for its young population who are runaways from other surrounding realms of various fantastic, and not so fantastic, proportions. In one, a hunter-gatherer society can trap bat-like creatures for mounts. In Retra’s, it’s Puritanism 101, right down to child abuse dressed up as moral policing.

    Inoxia is a fantasy land, reached through a kind of vortex beset by pirates. If this sounds a little like Alice sliding down a rabbit hole, it’s a far updated version, and the lost boys and girls don’t so much stay young, as disappear once they reach a certain point in their early 20s. While the pirates are the nemesis of the land, the faires are also fearsome. Called Ripers, the vampire-like overlords police the young party animals, dolling out drugs, food and clothing as required. Of course there is no free lunch, and Retra discovers the true dark side of Inoxia’s society. Freedom, or at least escape, comes at a price.

    australian women writers challenge 2012Mdp has created a distinctive and believable world and her character work is a delight as Retra, through a transformative experience key to adolescent maturity, grows into a new individual. While the second half suffers from annoying, but perhaps unavoidable repetition of recent events, it charges towards its climax and the jumping off point – a new bright day – for book 2.

    With Burn Bright, we’ve been given a strong starting point and an enticing look into a world where colonisation has taken some bizarre avenues. Quite the delight.


    Previous Challenge reviews:

  • The Courier’s New Bicycle, by Kim Westwood, fantasy.
  • The Road, by Catherine Jinks, horror
  • The Shattered City, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, fantasy.
  • Frantic, by Katherine Howell, crime.
  • AWWNYRC Review #1: Frantic, by Katherine Howell

    I joined up with the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge and have started on my list of 10 books by, you guessed it, Australian women writers to read this year, the national year of reading. Here’s the first review:

    Frantic

    Katherine Howell
    Pan Macmillan, 2007, ISBN: 978 1 4050 3797 6

    frantic by katherine howell


    FRANTIC by name, frantic by nature. And intriguing, too.

    This is the debut novel from Katherine Howell, who drew on her experience as a paramedic in telling the story of heroine Sophie, a Sydney paramedic. Sophie’s husband, Chris, is shot at the door of their house and their baby, Lachlan, is kidnapped. Every parent’s nightmare, right?

    Add in a vicious bunch of bank robbers who might be coppers and a relationship going through a rough patch, and you’ve got a compelling thriller anchored in the world of the emergency services.

    Also starring is police detective Ella Marconi, whose career has stalled due to her run-in with a boss.

    It’s not hard to see why the novel has brought Howell kudos, a series and a following. The medical and police procedural rings true, without the bells and whistles of a Hollywood performance. The law is not so much an ass as a mule that we trust to plod its way across the legal terrain, getting there in the end. But of course, Lachlan doesn’t have time for plodding: Sophie is prepared to do anything to get him back. Howell’s portrayal of the mother’s anxiety is spot-on. Frantic, indeed.

    australian women writers challenge 2012The story puts the reader in an interesting seat. Certain medical emergencies attended by Sophie have varying degrees of import with the core storyline, and the reader must decide which are relevant, and how. The event that triggers the story — the shooting of Sophie’s policeman husband Chris — is clearly not what the police, a little mysteriously, seem to believe it is. Why isn’t Chris dead? Why is Lachlan missing? Why the note? It just doesn’t add up.

    And then Chris gets his own point of view, so his role, while murky, is largely understood. And then, perhaps halfway through the book, the villain is revealed, and the reader is no longer left in the position of a whodunit but, rather, the position of an observer watching the web being woven, and why, and wondering who will be ultimately trapped.

    It’s a methodical tale, competently told, with attention to detail — leaves in drains, the smell of food — and no grandstanding. Marconi is neither Sherlock Holmes nor Dirty Harry. Sophie is not an action hero. Chris is not Chuck Norris. No one gets out unscathed or unaffected, not even Marconi.

    That down-to-earth approach is perhaps the novel’s most endearing feature. The resolution leaves the questions satisfactorily answered. It’s no surprise that Marconi is still going strong, five books later.

    Writerly round-up: D Publishing still doesn’t quite get it, and the quest for quality and equality

    [Update, 18 December: Steve Rossiter reports (in the comments section here) a third version of the D Pub contract is promised [Dec 24: Rossiter still finds holes in the new Dymocks’ contract, calling it a wasted opportunity]. Meanwhile, Writers Beware has posted this succinct summary of some of the concerns sparked by the original contract, which presumably will be addressed in the amended agreement for those wanting to use Dymocks’ distribution.]

    [Dec 24: Crikey has interviewed Rossiter, and also provided a handy synopsis of the D Pub issue including links to the various criticisms levelled at the original contract.]

    Dymocks’ D Publishing has been doing the PR rounds trying to hose down the criticism of their contracts — the ones you have to dig through their help menu to find — for those who want to use the service to not only print their work, but have it distributed. Those two arms of service do seem to have blurred in commentary, perhaps because D Publishing isn’t staking out that division strongly enough. It’s something they’re trying to address with PR, rather than website design or clarity. Still, early days…

    Steve Rossiter, who issued a warning about the terms and conditions when first announced, and wasn’t wholly convinced by the second pass, has since had a chat with D Pub and seems somewhat mollified.

    And over at Bookseller + Publisher, Dymocks has played serve and volley with contracts expert Alex Adsett, and has done a fairly good job of avoiding the actual issues she raises about Dymocks’ rights policy while playing the line that Dymocks is there to serve the author. In which case, they’d put their terms and conditions up front and centre for those considering publishing with them (as opposed to merely printing), and remove the ambiguity that Adsett has identified. But, you know, as I said, early days…

    As always, it’s a case of ‘let the buyer beware’: shop around for the service that offers the quality, product and cost-effectiveness that best suits your needs, and mind the small print. One thing you can’t argue about: being publisher, distributor and sales outlet is a great example of vertical integration.

  • Meanwhile, Zena Shapter has been searching for what makes a good anthology or collection. I’m judging the Aurealis Awards in that very category this year, my second year in a row (which means I really should be doing some reading right now!), so I was included in her survey of editors and judges to see what they looked for from within three criteria — quality writing was pretty much the unanimous pic. The message here: love that talented editor and don’t let them go!
  • Kevin Powe — I’m catching up a bit here — recently blogged about sexism in the tech industry (he was also catching up, on Ada Lovelace Day) and, in the wake of the announcement of the Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge, it’s worth a read. Also, neat to see him namecheck one of the editors who’s published my non-newspaper work.