Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Permutation City by Greg Egan

Permutation City by Greg Egan is the first book I've read by the author, although I've been meaning to pick up one of his books for some time. I have to admit, left to base my decision only on blurbs this probably wouldn't have been the one I chose to read first, but it was the book that came up as a review copy from the (new reprint) publisher. Que sera sera and I certainly don't regret reading it. I have definite plans to read more Egan in the future.
A life in Permutation City is unlike any life to which you’re accustomed. You have Eternal Life, the power to live forever. Immortality is a real thing, just not the thing you’d expect.

Life is just electronic code. You have been digitized, scanned, and downloaded into a virtual reality program. A Copy of a Copy. For Paul Durham, he keeps making Copies of himself, but the issue is that his Copies keep changing their minds and shutting themselves down.

You also have Maria Deluca, who is nothing but an Autoverse addict. She spends every waking minute with the cellular automaton known as the Autoverse, a world that lives by the mathematical “laws of physics.” Paul makes Maria an offer to design and drop a seed into the Autoverse that will allow her to indulge in her obsession. There is, however, one catch: you can no longer terminate, bail out, and remove yourself. You will never be your normal flesh-and-blood life again. The question then becomes: Is this what she really wants? Is this what we really want?

From the brilliant mind of Greg Egan, Permutation City, first published in 1994, comes a world of wonder that makes you ask if you are you, or is the Copy of you the real you?
The blurb is a bit misleading, I think, because more of the story takes place in the real world than is implied. The first two thirds or so of the book alternate between a few characters, most of whom, admittedly, are Copies (computer simulations of the original people), who mostly function if not in the real world, then as close to it as Copies can get. The two most central characters are: Paul Durham, whose point of view scenes are set about six years earlier than the rest of the story and whose story we see from the point of view of an experimental Copy (most "living" Copies are of deceased people); and Maria, a programmer who compulsively spends her free time and spare money on modelling a bacterium in a virtual world with slightly different laws of physics (and consequently chemistry and biochemistry).

My favourite sections, all the way through, turned out to be the bits from Maria's point of view. Superficially these sounded like they should be the most boring: a thought experiment featuring the molecular biochemistry of imaginary compounds does not seem like it should be interesting. But it really was. From an intellectual point of view I found those sections engaging and the idea of the Autoverse (the simulated universe) fascinating. I could very much relate to Maria's compulsive toying with it. Honestly, there doesn't seem to be much difference between that and real science simulations apart from the complexity of the models (the story is set in 2051 so computers are more sophisticated). And as for not being applicable, it didn't feel that much more abstract than modelling stars does.

Conversely, I was least engaged with the early Paul-as-Copy story. Well, not at the very start, I mean in the first half/two thirds. It starts of entertainingly enough with a missing bailout option, but it quickly shifts to a lot of philosophising on the nature of consciousness, existence and identity. Which was interesting in principle, but which I found generally less engaging. Most of the time when I put the book down to go do something else (eat, go to the shop, etc) it was during one of these sections. That said, Paul's story is certainly the driver of the plot and the story would be much poorer without it.

There are also some peripheral characters whose stories add to the general tapestry of the world and ideas being explored, but who weren't important to the overall plot (or, more accurately, had minimal impact on anyone else). I won't go into more details because a) I'm not sure I can without spoiling a major plot point and b) even if I could, it's surely more exciting to just read the book, no?

This is the first (that I can think of right now) hard/technical science fiction novel I've read by an Australian. I've read other SF novels which have been scientifically accurate and I've read hard/technical short stories/novellas, but I really can't think of another novel right now*. I'll definitely be reading more Egan in the future and I look forward to more enjoyable technical SF.

*Update: I thought of some! Many of Sean Williams' novels (including with Shane Dix) are hard SF. But that's still not a LOT of examples.

If you're a fan of hard SF definitely pick up Permutation City. I would also recommend it to fans of philosophy and computer-centred stories. For a book written 20 years ago, I have to say the computer stuff was shockingly on point. I mean, it wasn't the world we currently live in, but it is set about 35 years in our future. The only slight discrepancy was some aspects of computing having progressed further than others relative to where we are right now but it was barely noticeable. (I don't think this edition has been updated or anything, and there was one instance of sync spelt with an h, against current fashions.) Anyway, read Permutation City! Especially if you like science fiction!

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 1994, this edition published December 2014, New South Books
Series: Standalone but apparently part of the "Subjective Cosmology Cycle" (book 2 of 3)
Format read: eARC
Source: Courtesy of the publisher
Challenges: Australian Science Fiction Reading Challenge

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins

Rebel Belle by Rachel Hawkins is the first book in a new series by the author of the Hex Hall books. I grabbed it partly because I enjoyed the earlier (and unrelated) books and partly because the blurb sounded pretty great. Who doesn't want to read about a cheerleader (/future valedictorian) who gets Buffy-like superpowers and has to protect the weird kid?
Harper Price, peerless Southern belle, was born ready for a Homecoming tiara. But after a strange run-in at the dance imbues her with incredible abilities, Harper's destiny takes a turn for the seriously weird. She becomes a Paladin, one of an ancient line of guardians with agility, super strength and lethal fighting instincts.

Just when life can't get any more disastrously crazy, Harper finds out who she's charged to protect: David Stark, school reporter, subject of a mysterious prophecy and possibly Harper's least favorite person. But things get complicated when Harper starts falling for him—and discovers that David's own fate could very well be to destroy Earth.

With snappy banter, cotillion dresses, non-stop action and a touch of magic, this new young adult series from bestseller Rachel Hawkins is going to make y'all beg for more.
This book was a lot of fun to read. I got through it very quickly, almost in one sitting (but there was sleep required). It's exactly the sort of fun popcorn book I like to relax and unwind with, which does not require a great amount of thought. And really, what's not to like about a girl who kills an attacker with a pink high heel?

What I found interesting was the way in which Southern stereotypes are presented as though they are self-evident. It gave me the impression that perhaps they are more widely know within the US than outside of it. Cotillion, for example, was a mystery until there was sufficient context for me to realise it was basically a déb(utante ball). Another example is that "y'all" doesn't automatically conjure up Southern Belle for me and the general emphasis on manners was unexpected. I mean, it could just be my experiences rather than a general thing. And it's true that the only non-movie thing I can think of set in the South is True Blood, take from that what you will.

Moving on to another cultural note, my impression before I started reading was that this was going to be "cheerleader has to protect nerd" but it's more like "all-round overachiever girl has to protect hipster boy who's almost as smart as her". I was bemused at her deep hatred of his hipster clothing, but I suppose it's understandable on some level.

I suppose I should talk about the story as well. There's a lot of running around trying not to get anyone killed while as trying to balance the million things Harper has going on in her life. Her perfect grades and her perfect boyfriend become a bit challenging to hold on to, which is understandable, obviously, but not for Harper who doesn't want to give up anything. I might have had (wildly) different priorities in high school, but I found her very easy to relate to.

Rebel Belle was a very fun read and I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series when it comes out in April. I highly recommend it to fans of YA and Buffy looking for a non-taxing and entertaining read.I think I'd go so far as to say I enjoyed it more than the Hex Hall books.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2014, Putman (Penguin)
Series: Yes, book 1 of 3?
Format read: Hardcover, gasp!
Source: Purchased from a non-Amazon-owned online book shop

Monday, 29 December 2014

Once We Were by Kat Zhang

Once We Were by Kat Zhang is the second book in the Hybrid Chronicles trilogy. I read the first book a couple of years ago with the gap resulting from US and Australian release dates not being aligned and generalised confusion/lack of release date tracking on my part.
Eva was never supposed to have survived this long. As the recessive soul, she should have faded away years ago. Instead, she lingers in the body she shares with her sister soul, Addie. When the government discovered the truth, they tried to “cure” the girls, but Eva and Addie escaped before the doctors could strip Eva’s soul away.

Now fugitives, Eva and Addie find shelter with a group of hybrids who run an underground resistance. Surrounded by others like them, the girls learn how to temporarily disappear to give each soul some much-needed privacy. Eva is thrilled at the chance to be alone with Ryan, the boy she’s falling for, but troubled by the growing chasm between her and Addie. Despite clashes over their shared body, both girls are eager to join the rebellion.

Yet as they are drawn deeper into the escalating violence, they start to wonder: How far are they willing to go to fight for hybrid freedom? Faced with uncertainty and incredible danger, their answers may tear them apart forever.
After the long gap (in number of books read, even if you're not willing to agree that two years is that long in actual time) since book one, I mainly remembered the worldbuilding — still my favourite aspect of this series — and the ending of the first book. Luckily, there was enough recapping near the start to bring me up to speed quickly. I found it useful, but I suppose someone picking up Once We Were with What's Left of Me fresh in their minds might find it a little tedious. But it only lasted about one short chapter, promise!

As I said, the worldbuilding remains my favourite aspect of this series. The story continues to support the exploration of the two people in one body aspect, even as the plot deals with more immediate external concerns. The dystopian pan-American society wants to eradicate all hybrids — people who don't "settle" into just one soul per body — which puts the main characters in permanent danger. But while dealing with that they're also grappling with the issue of how to have a boyfriend when your body is not solely your own. Really, it continues to be an interesting exploration of such issues.

The main action of the plot is less creative but still written interestingly enough. At the end of the first book I was a bit uncertain about where the series was going; or more accurately, I was disappointed that it seemed to be following the dystopian formula. It does seem to be continuing in that vein with this instalment focussing on acts of rebellion. However, the framing of the worldbuilding is sufficiently interesting that I'm invested in the story and definitely want to know how it ends. (I'm also kicking myself that I didn't buy book 3 at the same time as book 2, sigh and curses at pricier hard covers.) I should also add that this is a dystopian series that remembers the Rest of the World exists and, in this volume, even touches on why they aren't doing anything about the Americas. There are also some nice titbits about world history and how it both differs from and parallels our world (to clarify, two people being born in one body was something that always happened, not a new development or anything).

Once We Were was an engaging read that I pretty much read in a day. I have enjoyed this series a lot and I am looking forward to reading the last book. It explores a science fictional concept in an interesting way, albeit in a YA dystopian framework. I highly recommend this series to YA fans and also to SF fans who find the central "What If" interesting.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2013, Harper Teen (US, the Australian release was later but still with HC)
Series: Hybrid Chronicles book 2 of 3
Format read: Paper, gasp!
Source: Purchased from a non-Amazon-owned online book shop

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Australian Fantasy Books read in 2014

Not a challenge per se, but I've been keeping track of the Australian fantasy books I've read over the past year. The time has now come to blog the list and go through them all. Because Australian-authored fantasy is the best fantasy (true story). And more people should read it.

I seem to have made it to twenty books, which is a nice round number I wasn't particularly aiming for, but cool. As I said, this isn't a challenge, but in terms of shifting my reading habits to where I'd like them to be, I want to aim to read more BFF books next year (big fat fantasy). It's a genre I like, particularly when written by my favourite Australian authors, and I have a few books sitting around waiting to be read while I go off and get distracted by review books. So. More reading those. (This also ties in with trying to not overburden myself with review books so I can enjoy other books. These are the other books.)

Anyway, my list follows with short extracts from my reviews of the books.

Stained Glass Monsters by Andrea K Höst (review)
You know what I've just noticed about Höst's books? It came up when I was reviewing Hunting as well. I start writing my review thinking "well, I enjoyed that but I'm not sure how much I have to say about it" and then I start writing it and, in the course of reflecting on the book, end up finding added depths that I didn't necessarily notice while I was actually reading. Thumbs up. There's also the fact that almost all the key players in Stained Glass Monsters were women, apart from Rennyn's brother and her love interest. Which makes me happy.
The Other Tree by DK Mok (review)
I would recommend The Other Tree to fans of contemporary-set fantasy looking for something different to most urban fantasy or paranormal romance books. At it's heart it's an adventure story, following two adventuring laypeople in their quest to find the Tree of Life (or, well, on their quest to find out what happened to Chris's mother and also to see what happens next). A fairly enjoyable read.
Wall of Spears by Duncan Lay (review)
The level of intrigue and machinations was probably my second favourite thing in Wall of Spears. Everyone has hidden (to most of the other characters) motivations and everyone is lying to everyone else about them (well, the Velsh less so). It makes for a complex read and no dull moments.
Bespelled by Dani Kristoff (review)
I liked Elena, the main character. I found her relationships with people in her life, particularly her family, to be believable. She was abandoned by her mother and spent the first thirteen years of her life raised by humans, until her aunt found her. Then, as a half-witch, she doesn't fully immerse herself in coven life. She has a pro-human activist streak in her, but it wasn't exaggerated or very prominent to the story, which I liked.
The Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke (review)
Larke has written an excellent book that I highly recommend to all fantasy fans, especially those who like their fantasy serious, long, and with complex characters and motivations. I am very keen to read the next book in the series and I hope it's not too long a wait. For readers who have not read any Glenda Larke books before, this is a good a place to start as any book one.

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan (review)
The "rules" described by the protagonist start of fairly innocuously like "Never eat the last olive at a party" but become darker and more worrying as the story progresses. Although the narrative is told in sparse sentences, a large amount of the story is conveyed in the gorgeous artwork.
North Star Guide Me Home by Jo Spurrier (review)
If you've read and enjoyed the earlier books in the Children of the Black Sun trilogy, you absolutely have to read North Star Guide Me Home. If you haven't read the series, but got this far in my review anyway, then I can't recommend it enough. All fans of BFF (/epic/high/grimdark fantasy) should give it a go. I look forward to seeing what Spurrier writes next.
Innocence Lost by Patty Jansen (review)
This was an enjoyable read. It's brevity and style made it an easy read, which was exactly what I felt like at the time. It did end on a bit of a cliffhanger, however, so fair warning for those that don't like 'em. The second book, Willow Witch, is already out, if that helps, however I suggest not reading the blurb since it does rather spoil the end of Innocence Lost.
Chasing the Valley: Borderlands by Skye Melki-Wegner (review)
Borderlands has everything I loved about Chasing the Valley, including things I had forgotten I loved. Five(ish) teenagers continue their difficult and high-stakes journey from their home city to the mythical Valley where they hope to seek asylum. They're still being chased by the King's ruthless hunters (and one in particular who has it out for them) and, even without that, the going is tough.

Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier (review)
Razorhurst follows two main characters, both of whom can see ghosts: Kelpie, a street urchin and Dymphna, the most expensive prostitute in the city. Kelpie has survived on the streets in large part thanks to some ghost who have taken her under their wings, helped her find food and taught her general survival skills. Dymphna has survived mostly by being good at what she does and having the right appearance and upbringing to impress higher society types.
Chasing the Valley: Skyfire by Skye Melki-Wegner (review)
The personal stakes were already pretty high (death if they didn't flee in book one), but by the third book new revelations up the ante to the point of them needing to save the world. But the thing is, it was all actually foreshadowed from the start. So although some elements seemed to me to come from left field, they didn't, not really. I have no doubt that the author had planned out the entire series before book one was done.
Dagger of Dresnia by Satima Flavell (review)
The Dagger of Dresnia was a reasonable read. It was a little shaky at times, but that's not unusual in a début. Flavell shows promise and I'm interested to see how this develops in future books. The first book finishes with a lot of unresolved badness, so there's definitely a lot of hook to hang further plots off.
Guardian by Jo Anderton (review)
Guardian was an unusual book, more so, I think, than the first two which at least shared a common setting. I'd seen a lot of people compare the Veiled Worlds series to anime aesthetics but I didn't really see the resemblance until Guardian. A large part of the story takes place in a different world with little in common with the world of Movoc-under-Keeper. In some ways that world is more similar to our own — mostly in the way that people don't control pions with their minds to build stuff — but it's a pretty extreme post-apocalyptic type of a world.
Prickle Moon by Juliet Marillier (review)
This collection is a mix of longer, intricate and fantastical tales and shorter tales which were no less serious (but of necessity less intricate). My favourites were "'Twixt Firelight and Water", a novella set in the same universe as the Sevenwaters books, and "Back and Beyond". I also quite liked the two Ditmar-shortlistees, "Prickle Moon" and "By Bone Light". Interestingly, although I enjoyed the latter more, I've found it's "Prickle Moon" that's lodged more firmly in my brain. I hark back to it every time hedgehogs come up (which has been more often than usual in the past month).
Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson (review)
I really enjoyed the story but there were times when the brutality got a bit much for me. Mainly this was towards the end of part one where Salinda, our first main character, is being brutally tortured. It's not that it's not relevant to the plot, but it wasn't fun to read (nor, I think, should it have been). Then, in part two, I was probably a bit over-invested in a new main character, Laidan, not being raped and it was a nail-biter for a while there. (I won't spoil which way it went.)

Small Shen by Kylie Chan and illustrated by Queenie Chan (review)
Small Shen follows Gold, a minor deity who featured in Kylie Chan's Dark Heavens and Journey to Wudang trilgies. I've read the Dark Heavens trilogy and the first book of Journey to Wudang and I have to admit I never paid a huge amount of attention to Gold. But Small Shen endeared him to me significantly. He's a bisexual, gender-swapping rock in human form. What's not to like?
Phantazein edited by Tehani Wessely (review)
My favourite stories, in the order they appear, were: "Kneaded" by SG Larner, which really grabbed me when I got up to it; "Scales of Time" by Foz Meadows and Moni, an illustrated poem, which was predictably sad but gorgeous; and "Love Letters of Swans" by Tansy Rayner Roberts, about Helen and Paris and Helen's slave girl, was probably my favourite story of the lot. I suspect leaning heavily towards the mythological rather than fairytalesque added to that, but however you want to classify it, it was an excellent story. Other stories I liked, again in the order they appear, were "Twelfth" by Faith Mudge, "Bahamut" by Thoraiya Dyer, and "A Cold Day" by Nicole Murphy.
How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier (review)
I really enjoyed How to Ditch Your Fairy. I would recommend it to younger readers who maybe haven't yet gotten into the slew of darker YA with older main characters which is popular at the moment. Unlike some younger readers' books I've read, I didn't feel How to Ditch Your Fairy was talking down to its audience or was unnecessarily simplified. For those reasons I would also recommend it to adults looking for a fun read (especially those that don't mind reading lots of teenage slang).
The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins (review)
I highly recommend The Autumn Castle to fans of character-driven fantasy books. I think readers who usually don't read much fantasy would also enjoy it since, although the fantasy element is inextricable from the plot, the character-driven narrative is the more complex aspect. Assuming you like that sort of thing, anyway. There are some dark elements, so be warned: vicious murder and light torture within (but no rape, if that helps).
City of Masks by Ashley Capes (review)
I tend to approach fantasy books by new authors (and new to me authors) with some degree of trepidation. I'm very particular about what kind of fantasy I enjoy and there are a lot of ways in which a fantasy book can disappoint me. Luckily, I need not have worried when it came to City of Masks. It's an entertaining read which kept me interested and turning pages. I would go so far as to say that it's the best début fantasy I read this year.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

City of Masks by Ashley Capes

City of Masks by Ashley Capes is the first in an epic fantasy series and the author's debut novel. Before I get to the review part, I'd like to draw your attention to the cover. I did not notice the city in the eye and nose holes until just now. How cool does that look? It's also more pertinent to the story since the skull (/mask) by itself struck me as horror or dark fantasy, which is not what the book is, in my opinion.
Waking in Anaskar Prison, covered in blood and accused of murder, nobody will listen to Notch’s claims of innocence until he meets the future Protector of the Monarchy, Sofia Falco.

But Sofia has her own burdens. The first female Protector in a hundred years, her House is under threat from enemies within, the prince has made it clear he does not want her services and worst of all, she cannot communicate with her father’s sentient mask of bone, the centuries-old Argeon. Without the bone mask she cannot help anyone — not herself, and certainly not a mercenary with no powerful House to protect him.

Meanwhile, far across the western desert, Ain, a young Pathfinder, is thrust into the role of Seeker. Before winter storms close the way, he must leave his home on a quest to locate the Sea Shrine and take revenge on the people who drove his ancestors from Anaskar, the city ruled by the prince Sofia and Notch are sworn to protect, whether he wants their help or not.
I tend to approach fantasy books by new authors (and new to me authors) with some degree of trepidation. I'm very particular about what kind of fantasy I enjoy and there are a lot of ways in which a fantasy book can disappoint me. Luckily, I need not have worried when it came to City of Masks. It's an entertaining read which kept me interested and turning pages. I would go so far as to say that it's the best début fantasy I read this year.

There are two and a half storylines running through City of Masks. There are the events in the titular city including a youngish noblewoman on the run after a coup and a group of (ex-) mercenaries (sort of). Sofia, the noblewoman, was a strong character who kept fighting back as much as she could and didn't make any stupid mistakes (a pet peeve of mine). Notch and Flir, two of the mercenary types were enjoyable to read about. Flir particularly struck me as a good character. I suspect we're going to learn more about her in future books, but for now an almost inhumanly strong female character was sufficiently interesting to really add something to the group dynamic of the mercenaries. For example, she was always the one to do the heavy lifting etc. There are other elements of city life which are a bit unusual, like monsters appearing in the sewers, and which are only partially addressed in this first book. Again, I think this is something which will be explored further in sequels which I look forward to reading.

The other, almost entirely separate, storyline is about the desert people and, specifically, Ain a "Pathfinder" who can sense paths where other people have been before (a useful skill in the desert with shifting sands). He is sent on a mission to find a sacred temple outside of the desert. His story is quite separate from the other characters' until the very end when they converge amusingly and a bit unusually. Quite where his story is going in future books I'm not sure, but I look forward to finding out.

City of Masks was an entertaining read that I would recommend to all fantasy readers. Unfortunately it's only available in paper and Kindle formats from Amazon at the moment (the author sent me a special version for review), but if that doesn't present a problem to you, I would definitely recommend giving it a go. Hopefully this will change soon and, in any case, I look forward to reading the second book when it becomes available.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2014, Snapping Turtle Books
Series: The Bone Mask Trilogy book 1
Format read: ebook
Source: Courtesy of the author
Disclaimer: The author is a friend, but I have, as always, endeavoured to write an unbiased review

Friday, 26 December 2014

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014 Wrap-up

As the year draws inexorably to a close, it's time for me to admit that I'm not going to finish any more AWW books this year. I'm still halfway(ish) through one, but it's an audiobook, and I won't be commuting anywhere until January. So. The time has come (the Walrus said) to speak of bookish things. And for my Australian Women Writers Challenge wrap-up post for 2014.

I read a bunch of books, where "bunch" can be defined as 32, assuming I didn't accidentally miss any (and depending on how you count). In the past I've put a little blurb/mini review with these posts, but all of these books will or have been covered by one of my Australian genre round-ups (horror, SF, fantasy), so I'm jut going to leave you with the list and a genre descriptor for each book.

  1. The Dreaming Volume 1 by Queenie Chan (review) horror manga
  2. The Dreaming Volumes 2 & 2 by Queenie Chan (review) horror manga
  3. Stained Glass Monsters by Andrea K Höst (review) stand-alone fantasy
  4. The Other Tree by DK Mok (review) contemporary fantasy with religious supernatural themes
  5. Carrier by Vanessa Garden (review) post-apocalyptic set in Australian outback
  6. Bespelled by Dani Kristoff (review) paranormal romance
  7. Peacemaker by Marianne de Pierres (review) outback-themed SF
  8. The Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke (review) epic fantasy, book 1
  9. North Star Guide Me Home by Jo Spurrier (review) epic fantasy, book 3
  10. The Bride Price by Cat Sparks (review) short story collection, mostly fantasy and horror
  11. The Year of Ancient Ghosts by Kim Wilkins (review) novella collection, horror and fantasy
  12. Innocence Lost by Patty Jansen (review) short fantasy, Dutch-inspired setting, book 1
  13. Chasing the Valley: Borderlands by Skye Melki-Wegner (review), YA gaslamp fantasy, book 2
  14. Razorhurst by Justine Larbalestier (review) YA historical with ghosts set in 1930s Sydney
  15. Chasing the Valley: Skyfire by Skye Melki-Wegner (review), YA gaslamp fantasy, book 3
  16. Dagger of Dresnia by Satima Flavell (review) epic fantasy book 1
  17. Guardian by Jo Anderton (review) the kind of fantasy some people think is science fiction, book 3
  18. Prickle Moon by Juliet Marillier (review) short story collection, fantasy
  19. Shatterwing by Donna Maree Hanson (review) dark fantasy, book 1
  20. Langue[dot]doc 1305 by Gillian Polack (review) time travel SF
  21. The Ark by Annabel Smith (review) near future epistemological SF
  22. Secret Lives of Books by Rosaleen Love (review) short story collection, mix of fantasy and SF
  23. Loving the Prince by Nicole Murphy (review) SF romance
  24. Zac & Mia by A J Betts (review) YA contemporary
  25. Small Shen by Kylie Chan and illustrated by Queenie Chan (review) mix of manga and prose fantasy, part contemporary Hong Kong, part historical China
  26. Phantazein edited by Tehani Wessely (review) short story collection of folkloric fantasy
  27. Drowned Vanilla by Livia Day (review) cosy crime with food
  28. This Shattered World by Amie Kaufmann and Meagan Spooner (review) YA SF
  29. How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier (review) younger readers fantasy dystopia
  30. No Need to Reply by Jodi Cleghorn (review) contemporary flash story collection
  31. The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins (review) contemporary (sort of portal) fantasy
  32. Clockwork Gold by Jenny Schwartz (review) Australian steampunk
And those are my books for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I will be continuing on with the challenge in 2015 — and indeed will continue contributing to the AWW blog. Roll on 2015 and a bunch more excellent Australian fiction!

Monday, 22 December 2014

Reading Aussie Horror in 2014

For the second year, I decided to focus on Aussie horror — that is horror written by Australians, not necessarily set in Australia. I challenged myself to read at least five books and hoped for ten after managing eleven last year. I didn't quite do as well this year, reaching only nine or seven books (depending on how you count), but at least I exceeded my rather modest goal.

Why do I say it's seven or nine depending on how you count? Well it's because the first three books horror books I read this year were the three volumes of The Dreaming, a manga written and illustrated by Queenie Chan. They make up a complete story, which could just be thought of as split into three. Whichever way you count it, though, it was an engaging and creepy read. Highly recommended. See my full reviews of volumes 1, 2 and 3.

The remaining books I read are less related than the first three.

The Memory of Death by Trent Jamieson (review) is a novella following on from his Deathworks trilogy, of which there are more books yet to come. As I said in my review:
I don't know much about the upcoming sequel — other than the title, The Carnival of Death — but The Memory of Death reads a bit like it might be a bridging novella between the trilogy and the next story. It has it's own story, of course, but it's mostly the story of How Steve Gets Out Of The Mess Of Book Three's Conclusion. It's the set-up for something more, which I look forward to reading and which I suspect won't make as much sense without the bridge that is The Memory of Death.

Turns out there were quite a lot of short stories in my horror reading this year. Mostly short stories, actually. Only one book was a novel.

Dead Americans and Other Stories by Ben Peek (review) was the first thing I've read of Peek's. His short stories were interesting and largely unusual. For example, here's what I said about the first story in my review:
"There Is Something So Quiet and Empty Inside of You That It Must Be Precious" — OK, the title of this story makes it even creepier; I had forgotten it while I read. I also went back and read through the chapter/section headings and they were eerie. A story whose creepiness creeps up on you (heh). The kind of horror with a drab and mundane setting that puts the fear in the commonplace.

The Bride Price by Cat Sparks (review) is another collection of short stories. I picked this one up because it was shortlisted for a Ditmar (which it won, as did one of the included stories) and an Aurealis award. It's a bleak collection, bleak and artfully written. The story that has stuck most in my mind was the first. From my review:
My favourite story was the first in the collection, "A Lady of Adestan". It was poignant and gut-wrenchingly awful, increasingly so as we learnt more about the setting. "The Bride Price" was also a favourite. Perhaps, now I think about it, I liked these stories best because they did not end as bleakly as most of the others.

The Year of Ancient Ghosts by Kim Wilkins (review) is a collection of novellas, all of which were excellent, and my first exposure to her writing. This was one of only thirteen books this year that I gave five stars to, so you can be sure I loved it. From my review:
Wilkins' writing is masterful. She has the knack of using the right words to tell the story without being unnecessarily flowery in language nor too dull. I'm not sure there was a bad sentence in the entire collection. The details, historical and otherwise, are also meticulously researched so that every detail rings true. I first noted it in the main character's reaction to having to go to a foreign supermarket in "The Year of Ancient Ghosts", but it persisted throughout.
Bound by Alan Baxter (review) is a novel. Gasp! It's more action and hellish adventure than the other horror I read this year.
Bound was an action-packed and fast-paced read with elements of moral ambiguity and horror. You could also call it a dark urban fantasy, if you were so inclined. If you are looking for a darkish and violent read, then Bound is the book for you. It's also self-contained if sequels aren't your thing.
I haven't gotten around to reading the sequels, but they are both out now as ebooks, if you missed the announcement.

Last Year, When We Were Young by Andrew McKiernan (review) is another collection of short stories. Andrew and I were in the same critique group (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away) and so I had read early drafts of a couple of the stories. It was fascinating to see how they'd come. The collection itself was a mixed bag of stories, strong overall but a range of style/subgenres.
I found I most enjoyed the more contemplative stories. My favourites were "The Memory of Water", "White Lines, White Crosses" and the titular "Last Year, When We Were Young", although the latter is perhaps less contemplative per se. The former two stories deal with loss and death in a poignant way.

I'm going to continue keeping track of my horror reads next year. At this stage in my main interest is in keeping up with authors I've already discovered and picking up a few new ones along the way. In particular, I haven't read any Paul Haines yet, and that's something I really need to rectify.

What were some of your favourite Aussie horror reads of the past year? Anything you'd recommend in the coming year?

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Best reads of 2015 and some reflection

Last time I did one of these (two years ago) I tried to branch out beyond just five star books to also highlight other books that had done something great. This year, looking back over my spreadsheet, it really is mainly the five star-rated books. Have I become more jaded? Have books been doing less interesting things?

Actually, I think the biggest factor is my shift in reading since I started blogging. 2012 was the year I started blogging and only about 30% of the books I read in that year were sent to me for review. That means most of the books I read I chose to read because I (mostly) knew they would be interesting to me. In the two years since, more than half of the books I've read have been review books. While most of my review books are books I genuinely want to read and would probably read anyway, I probably wouldn't read them quite so promptly without the reviewer obligation. And that invariably means that some books that I want to read but that aren't review books get pushed back (and put off and pushed back some more), which tends to narrow my reading. You may note that all my favourite 2014 reads were published in 2014 except for one, which is starkly indicative of the fraction of 2014 publications that made up my reading (67% of all the books I read were published in 2014, a further 20% in 2013 meaning that recent releases came close to making up 90% of my reading).

This bothers me and I really, really want to reduce the number of review books I take on next year. It's going to be a busy year for me outside of book blogging, so I'd rather feel more relaxed about my reading. In the end, what's the point if I'm not enjoying the whole process? I don't need an additional source of stress in my life.

All that doesn't mean that I didn't absolutely love some of the books I read this year. Here are the highlights in the order I read them:

  • Carrier by Vanessa Garden was the first stand-out book I read in 2014. It's a short novel in the post-apocalyptic Australian outback, a setting I don't think we see enough of in plainly-written novels. (The only other examples I can think of employ somewhat experimental/literary writing styles that just aren't as accessible.)
  • The Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke is the first in a new fantasy series by one of my favourite authors. My loving it is hardly surprising. Any fantasy fans who haven't read any Glenda Larke really should, and this is as good a place to start as any.
  • North Star Guide Me Home by Jo Spurrier was the conclusion to the Children of the Black Sun trilogy. All three books were excellent, but this was my favourite. It was less violent, making it more palatable and relaxing (and happier-ending) than the prequels.
  • Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld surprised me with it's unputdownability. I picked it up on a whim long before the release date and accidentally read it all in two days. Told in chapters alternating between a young writer with an exciting YA book contract and her actual spec fic YA book, it's a very meta examination of the YA genre.
  • The Year of Ancient Ghosts was the first thing I read by Kim Wilkins and it made me fall in love with her writing. Not for nothing did the titular story win the Aurealis for Best Horror Short Fiction.
  • The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne came out of nowhere for me, and is a perfect example of an excellent book that I would not otherwise have been exposed to were it not for reviewing. It's a near-future book that unapologetically drags you into its world and forces you to experience a different perspective.
  • Razurhurst by Justine Larbalestier is set in 1930s Sydney, not an era I knew a huge amount about before reading. As well as being an engaging story, it struck me as a very well researched setting with a lot of local flavour. Also ghosts.
  • Kaleidoscope edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios is an anthology of diverse YA speculative fiction. Most anthologies are a mixed bag with a range of good and less good stories, but Kaleidoscope somehow manges to take "consistently good" to the next level.
  • Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis first drew my eye because of certain diversity aspects and because I read a couple of the author's short stories and they were pretty great. This is a very excellent book, split between our world and a very different fantasy world, that I urge all fantasy fans to read.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Tsana's December Status (pre-Xmas)

This state of my reading post comes to you after I ordered a pile of books for vaguely Christmas-related reasons (more like Dragon Age graphics card related reasons, but, well, long story). But said pile of books has yet to arrive so they will go into a future post. Looking at LibraryThing (which is the most accurate rendition of my book collection), I still got quite a few new booksies this past month. Oops?

I also discovered (well, got around to setting up) digital library loans, particularly of audiobooks. Those don't count as books bought/received, obviously, but they have contributed to books read.

And while there'll be more "looking back on the year" type posts in the following couple of weeks, I have already posted by Anticipated 2015 Reads list. I am also hoping that laying out what month those books come out in will help me curtail review books. I don't want to fall as behind as I have been for the last few months again.

Finally, in writing news, I had a flash story in Antipodean SF this month. You can read it for free here.

What Have I Read?

Currently Reading

City of Masks by Ashley Capes. I haven't gotten very far in, but I am enjoying it more than I expected (always a level of trepidation picking up a new fantasy author).

I am partway through some other books, but I haven't picked them up in a while. I should probably mention Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, which I've only recently started in audiobook form.

New Booksies

New books were very batchy this past month, so I shall list them as such. Purchased because I could:
  • Judgement Day (Science of Discworld 4) by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen
  • Mrs Bradshaw's Handbook by Terry Pratchett — also came with a special edition ticket thingy

Review books from Clan Destine Press:
  • The Blood She Betrayed by Cheryse Durrant
  • Arrabella Candellarbra & the Questy Thing to End All Questy Things by A.K. Wrox
  • AKA Fudgepuddle by Fin J Ross

 Purchased because it came out and/or I saw it:
  • Symbiont by Mira Grant
  • How Green This Land How Blue This Sea by Mira Grant (novella in the Newsflesh universe, set in Australia)

More review books, the first two from the author and the last from the publisher via NetGalley:
  • Clockwork Gold by Jenny Schwartz (already reviewed)
  • Curses and Confetti by Jenny Schwartz (third in the Bustlepunk Chronicles)
  • Rebels by Accident by Patricia Dunn