Friday, October 28, 2005

ROMANITAS by Sophia McDougall

I'm claustrophobic. I'd just started a new job and the training was taking place in a tiny little room on the second floor, so I was rather stressed and desperate to escape. The other trainees had headed out to lunch together but, feeling rather shy, I wandered off by myself down the Murray St Mall. I had an hour to kill, so Angus and Robertson seemed the likeliest destination. I hadn't even entered the store when a new release caught my eye. Or rather, the cover did. Three crucifixes took the front view with a modern city-scape in the background.
This is the Roman Empire. Now.

The title and bi-line hooked me. A scan of the blurb reeled me in. I gave the woman my credit cared and two minutes later the book was mine.

I spent the next 45 minutes reading. After that any space in my schedule gave me an excuse to open the book and lose myself in the modern Roman Empire.
Murder, slavery, intrigue and death. They're all here in this alternative history that asks the question, "What if the Roman Empire hadn't fallen?"

Here's the premise.

Alternative History usually hinges on one central point being different. In Romanitas that point occurred in the years 945-957 AUC (192-204 CE).

Apparently, in our reality, there was a plot to kill Emperor Publius Helvius Pertinax. The plot succeeded, one thing led to another and after a while the Senate was stripped of its authority by one Septimus Severus. Corruption infiltrated the army and, hey presto, the whole Empire becane unstable and fell.

In McDougall's vision, however, the plot is discovered and the Empire strengthened by a newer, bolder, more loyal Praetorian Guard.

Fast forward a couple of millenia to the year 2758 AUC (Ab Urb Condita). All our mod-cons exist and the world is generally an okay place.
The first character we meet is Marcus Novius, heir apparent to the Empire. His parents have just been killed in a car accident and he's trying not to display his grief to the watching world.

Cut to London. On a prison barge in the middle of the Thames, Una is attempting to save her brother from a sentence of crucifixion. They succeed and the slaves are able to make their escape.

As expected in any novel, the fugitives and the heir meet and their fates entwine. They go on a road trip together and so the story really begins.

So, that's the nuts and bolts of the plot. Girl meets boy. Girl is empathic, boy owns 1/3 of the world. Boy is target of political plot. Girl helps him. They fall in love. Empire threatens to collapse.

Did I enjoy the story? The reader in me loved it. It was fast-paced and full of action, yet also took the time to enjoy the minutiae of life. It was, however, flawed and could have done with a technical re-write. Many of the sentences were clumsily written and unclear in their intent. The author was rather reliant upon adjectives and adverbs, the hallmark of a novice writer.

Romanitas was McDougalls' debut novel and it shows as the solid story line was often let down by poor execution. As an editor I constantly found myself reaching for a blue pen as I zeroed in on the small problems. This, as you can imagine, led to a rather disjointed read.
On the whole, however, I did enjoy the easiness of the novel (especially after a week of proofing phat phantasies) and would recommed Romanitas to anyone looking for a summer read or for those travelling interstate or overseas.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

This is the first book I'll be reviewing from the 31 Battboy and I managed to obtain through ebay recently. I chose it for two simple reasons. It was on the top of the pile and it seemed relatively short.

Hands up all those who believed that Darren Stephens was a male chauvinist for not allowing his wife to use witchcraft? I did. I hated Darren. As far as I could tell, Samantha had a gift and should have been able to use it as she saw fit. Darren married Sam knowing she was a witch and should have accepted her as such.

When I read Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber I quickly came to the same conclusion.

Here's the basic story line. Norman Saylor, professor at a small American college, finds out his wife is a witch. He, a logical male, can't believe his normally level-headed wife has been taken in by such superstitious nonsense. Rather than letting it go as a harmless hobby, he is appalled by this discovery and forbids her from practicing it again. He then orders her to bring him her various bits and pieces and then destroys them.

And she thanks him for it!

Life, naturally, starts to darken for our 'hero' as the forces of magic begin to attack. At first these attacks take on the forms of rumour and innuendo, aimed directly at Norman, but then they turn sinister in their intent. I'm not going to tell you what happens from there, but be assured, it's creepy.

As I closed the final page tonight, I mentally flicked back through the story and looked at its strengths and shortfalls. It's a good, strong story, it can't be denied, and a good story always dates well. Yes, the attitudes are rather old fashioned (it's set in the first half of the 20th Century) but the story itself still carries fresh ideas.
The editor in me riled against the 'dreaded ly' words and the over-use of adjectives, but I was able to overlook them because I found the plot so engaging.
Norman's habit of ignoring his wife's own intellectual capabilities annoyed me. I might have looked past them as being of the era, if it wasn't for the fact that he (and the author) kept extolling the virtues of free-love (remembering this is pre-60's). It was a liberal mind that accepted pre-marital sex in that age, and yet, Norman's world view did not encompass his wife. Every time he ran into trouble, he decided against telling his wife because he didn't want to bother her. I wanted to slap him for this attitude.

On the whole though, I enjoyed this story. It was well told and the fear factor came, not from gore or special effects, but by clever use of suspense and the unknown. I would encourage everyone to go back and read some of the older stuff, to see how stories were crafted before CGI became so commonplace. The author had to rely upon reaching into and tapping the fears of the audience in order to scare them. When it comes to horror, that's all you need.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Shadowed Realms 3 ed by Shane Jaraiya Cummings and Angela Challis

This is the second magazine I've reviewed, but this time it's a webzine. I decided to review Shadowed Realms for two reasons.
1. I like to draw attention to local products
2. Lee has a story appearing in it and I always encourage readers to look at my husband's work.

So what is it?
Shadowed Realms is a webzine produced by two newcomers to the scene, Shane Jaraiya Cummings and his partner Angela Challis.

What does it do?
Basically it fills two publishing holes in the Australian market. Not only does it pay (5c per word) for flash fiction up to 1,000 words, it publishes short horror.

Is it any good?
Visually, the site is beautiful. The art work is pleasing to the senses as are the sound effects. The site is easy to navigate and the submission guidelines are logical given the editorial intent. So, yes, on the whole, it's very good.

But what about the fiction content?
Seven stories are dished up to us in this issue. I'll give them to you in order of appearance, along with my impressions.

Pater Familias by Lee Battersby
My own beloved husband wrote this. I saw it as it developed from the idea stage to being sent off. I thought that any problems I had with it were ironed out. Then I read it again today and I have to ask, what happened to the boy babies. Don't ask the author. He doesn't know. Anyway, it's still a solid, well-crafted and rather icky story and one of my two favourite that appear here.

Faith by Bruce Golden
Another solid piece and one that socked me with its twist. I thought the last paragraph could have been handled a little better as it let the pacing down with a too-pat ending.

Live Report by Kurt Newton
Hmmm. Not a lot to say about this one, one way or another. I think this was one that didn't make the Zeppelin Anthology (review coming up in a future edition of IMHO) and after reading some of those that didn't make it, I can understand why. Not because there's anything wrong with it. Just that living zeps had already been covered. My one real nit-pick is an editorial one. I felt some of the words used were rather passive and made the story feel rather ho-hum.

Fault Lines by Craig Wolf
My other favourite story. This story was shocking in its structure and its craft. I loved this piece and would have snapped it up for TicOn if it had passed our desk. Well done, Shane and Ange for recognising this one.

Phone Call by S Char
I always find something positive in everything I read, and the positive thing I find here is that it didn't contain a closed plot-line. The story could have gone anywhere. Unfortunately, it went right where an amateur would take it. I saw the ending from a mile off. The crafting was a little weak, being rather heavy on adjectives and 'said-bookisms' and unnecessary information. I really didn't think we needed to know about the past and present history of the Spencer Building. It just felt like padding. I don't know the author so don't know how established they are in the scene, but I do feel they need to work on their delivery a little more. Having said that, she does show a lot of promise.

Accidental Art by Eric Marin
Nice use of first person narrative and description. The protagonist's state of mind is nicely set up, and their distraction is believable.
This piece was both overwritten (although only slightly) and predictable. The title alone leads the mind down an obvious track which is then backed up by the first paragraph.

Mean Street by Josh Rountree
This was beautifully crafted and well executed: as an excerpt for something longer.
Mean Street didn't strike me as a story, so much as the idea behind a story. Put simply, nothing happens. It is all description and set up. The character is the city, which can work, but doesn't here because we're not given enough to work with. I feel this piece is a bit of a waste as it stands and should be given a more thorough treatment.


Final impression time. I think Shane and Angela have a fine vision and a good eye for what works in a magazine. I like my fiction dark and this site certainly contains that. All in all, I'd say 'well done guys. Keep up the good work.'

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Borderlands ed. Stephen Dedman et al

Okay, so it's been closer to a month than the week promised between reviews, but be glad, I'm finally committing thought to screen.

I'm sick. I have, it seems, tonsillitis, even though my tonsils were removed from their resting place about 27 years ago. So, I'm confined to bed while we wait for the antibiotics to take effect. I've slept, I've dreamed (one dream in particular being about Rob Hood who turned into Nicko about half way through) and I've read.

Today I managed to get through the entire issue of Borderlands 5. Now, I haven't read issue 4 yet, mainly because there seemed to be a fair amount of discussion as to the identity of the worst story in the issue. Battboy hasn't opened this particular issue, so I thought I'd get my impressions off the ground before listening to his. During the recent Swancon, the people at Borderlands put out an appeal for happier endings and after closing the final page on this issue, I can see why. With one exception, there’s not a happy ending amongst them (I’m not going to tell you which one ends nicely). Personally, I don’t have a problem with this. I could cut off three fingers from each hand and still count the number of happy endings Battboy and I have written between us. Yes, we’re more about cooking kittens than writing about them.

The first thing I do, with anything I plan to read (eat, drink) is scan the back cover. Borderlands, I was pleased to note, is pretty balanced with authors I’ve heard of and those I haven’t. I devoured the stories of the authors I knew, because I pretty much knew what to expect, and gracefully tasted the authors I didn’t in the hope of discovering something wonderful.

Of those I know (and I’m talking about fiction here, I’ll leave the non-fiction well enough alone) my favourite is Martin Livings. I’ve published him several times in both ASIM and TiconderogaOnline. Martin has a way of making me giggle over the dark side comparable to Simon Oxwell’s ability to make me giggle over sexually-driven words. There is something unique about Martin’s voice that keeps me listening. His story “Hooked” took an old tale and made it contemporary. The only problem with it, I felt, is that it reached a point where it seemed to bludgeon you into understanding the subtext. I realised the story’s intent about two pages in and felt quite smug for doing so. When I write, I like to feed bits and pieces, to make my reader work for the story. Martin appeared to do this. After a while, however, it seems he wavered in his belief of the audience. This was when subtlety flew out the window.I love Martin Livings. I make no secret of the fact that I’m his biggest fan (well, apart from Dr Iz). I think he has amazing ideas and executes them well. I do think he’d do well to enlist the help of an editor (I flinched over the heavy use of the ‘dreaded ly’s’ ) but this comes down to my own personal taste (yes, I’m an adjective Nazi). Of all the stories in this issue of Borderlands, “Hooked” is my favourite.

Now, onto some others.

Another author I’m familiar with is Kyla Ward. I loved “Kijin Tea” (Agog! Terrific Tales ed. Cat Sparks) and was really looking forward to getting into her story “The Oracle of Brick and Bone”. I have to say, I was a little disappointed. I don’t want to sound critical of a fellow author, but I felt that Kyla couldn’t quite grasp whether the piece was meant to be Speculative Fiction or a murder mystery. Neither element was particularly strong and I couldn’t really respond to the plot on either level. I didn’t really care about any of the characters, including the little girl in the suitcase. The protagonist spends much of the story saying “why?” but in the end he doesn’t really seem to care either.
Another weakness lies in the main character himself. Murray Barter is, obviously, a man. I know this because the text tells me so. The dialogue, however, betrays him as having a feminine voice. There’s one line in particular that pulled me out of the story. “They’re saying it might have been her father,” he said, “and that’s horrible.”
Murray spends most of the story fretting over the death of a four year old girl and the worst he can come up with is ‘horrible’?I’m sorry, I just don’t believe a tough man of the streets would say it like that. It’s too contrived, too passive. Don’t get me wrong. There were elements within the story I really enjoyed. The interplay of word and sense for instance. Murray basically follows graffiti scratchings through a maze of streets whereupon he comes across the bodies. I loved this. Kyla relies upon her audience’s senses to garner impressions such as “The clouds were white hot. Opposite him, two identical apartment blocks rose from the landscape. They swam in the milky haze…” This worked for me, because I could relate to the non-reality of the set scenery. My favourite line in the whole issue came from this story: “Insomnia had never been so much a disorder as a habit with Murray.”
Okay, I think the line is a little clumsy, but it works. As an insomniac I get this.

And onwards I continue. Bob Franklin is an author I haven’t read before, but whom I will be looking for in the future. “Other” is a tale simple and ordinary in its intent. Don’t do drugs. It’s that obvious. And yet the delivery is very powerful. I’m still thinking about the ramifications as I write this.

As I mentioned I felt the issue as a whole worked well. Paul Haines’ "The Light in Autumn’s Leaves” was both clever and beautiful. I published Paul’s “Hamlyn” in ASIM 11 and so was expecting a morose piece at the very least. This story wasn’t at all like “Hamlyn” except that it was very well written. Paul is an accomplished writer and clever at his craft.

The last story I’m going to comment upon is “Degrees of Separation” by Richard Kerslake. I started this story last Monday. I was spending a day of my ‘honeymoon’ in hospital due to a second degree burn obtained while making up Connor’s bottle. I was NOT in a good frame of mind. Yet, this story was enough to momentarily distract me from the pain of the burn and the inadequacy of the WA Health System. I loved the plot, centred around the premise that we are all separated from everyone else in the world by a mere six degrees.
This story hooked me so well that I found the lack of mobility of my right hand to be a total encumbrance. Normally I would have waited until better circumstances to read the story, but this time I couldn’t. I resolutely held the magazine in my left hand and turned the pages with my teeth. Finally Battboy noticed my ordeal and turned the pages for me as necessary. I loved this story, for the most part, but I have to say, I felt the ending was a little rushed. Somewhere in the final few paragraphs I stopped caring about the main character and his situation.

To me, a good story is one that I’m still thinking about after I’ve put the book down. The ones I’ve listed are the ones that stood out for me hours after I finished reading Borderlands 5. They’re the reason I rose from my bed and tapped out this review. All in all I say “well done” to the team at Borderlands and to the authors they published.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

This week I've decided not to review a science fiction novel. Instead I've chosen to talk about The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom.

When I started to review books, I decided to add a personal element to my musings, to give a glimpse into my life so as to allow readers to understand the mood I'm in when I reflect on what I've read. I started reading this novel on Sunday and finished it about 2 hours ago so my insights and the experience I brought into my reading are still very fresh.

On Saturday, Battboy decided it was time to go through his former wife's belongings and sort them into piles, those which will go to Erin in the future and those that hadn't really served any particular significance in his life and therefore could be discarded. We talked about it and decided to make it a family affair, so the Triffitt children could understand the life of the woman who influences their life and yet is missing from it. The trunk was pulled out of the shed and the trip to the past began.

I'm not going to go into the full experience of watching my beloved go through old Christmas cards, love letters, hair ties and diaries, but I will say that I found it rather more distressing than expected. Needing to distact myself from collision of Lee's past with my future, I picked up The Five People You Meet in Heaven and began to read.

Five People begins at the end of Eddie's life. He is about to die and we're treated to a countdown of his last few hours on earth and his beginning of his life in Heaven. Once in Heaven we met five people who influenced Eddie's life and helped him become the man he did.

At first glance, Eddie seems an Ordinary Joe, nobody special, the sort of bloke who lives and then dies with no discernible evidence of actually being here. As he meets up with his acquaintances in Heaven, however, you begin to realise that Eddie did matter, and influenced the lives (and deaths) of those around him.

Five People is, of course, the author's view of what happens to us when we die. At times it borders on being didactic, but this didn't stop it from being enjoyable. The story itself wasn't earth-shattering in its assumptions, but it did make me think about my own beliefs about death and what happens after we die. It left me feeling calm and more at peace with who I am and my place in the world.

Both depressing and uplifting, Five People helped me look at my own life in a renewed light. If I had to point to 5 people's lives I'd affected I could pick out Erin (my mothering skills she wouldn't have experienced if I hadn't pursued my relationship with Lee), Jon (as much as he resents me, I know I helped him become a more affectionate person), my grandmother (very unhappy and abused life, but she knew I adored her and that she was the centre of my universe until she died), my best-friend Sharon (for being everything a sister is) and of course, Battboy (anyone who knows us doesn't need it explained).

What was my favourite part of the book? The third person Eddie meets helps him gain an understanding of his father and the neglect (and at times down right abuse) suffered at his hands. The section that made the greatest impression on me begins with:

"All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the print of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair."

Having had the shattered type of childhood, I took this on board. Erin woke up about 6:30 and was, as usual, rather grizzly with it. Rather than sending her back to bed, I brought her into our bed and encouraged her to snuggle down in between us. I cuddled her, played with her and told her heaps how much I love her. She immediately rewarded us by cheering up.

So who would read this? Well, I guess anyone who loves books from the "Chicken Soup" stables will love this, but really, anybody looking for a quiet, happy read will enjoy it.
Any against remarks? It could have done with another edit. It was rather full of 'suddenly' and 'finally' and 'with that' type of sentences which I find irritating. It also presupposes a belief in God. Yes, I do believe, but not everyone does and I think a lot of people would be put off the first time they come across the "G" word.

Final remarks? Enjoyable, easy to read, thoughtful. What I needed at the time.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Angel of Ruin by Kim Wilkins

Last night Battboy and I were watching Simon Schama's History of Britain. A segment about The Great Fire of London came on. I turned to Lee and announced: "I know who started it. Kim Wilkins told me." I was smiling, I wasn't serious, but the way Kim handles the subject in her book Angel of Ruin, made it seem a plausible answer.

Not a book I read this week, but one I picked up while on holiday in Brisbane early last year. As many of you are aware, I started to miscarry the Battbaby at that time and was pretty much laid up in bed as a result. I had bought Angel of Ruin on a whim as I'd heard of Kim Wilkins but hadn't, at that point, read anything by her. It was thick and yes, I liked the cover, so I handed over Battboy's cold hard cash and took the book to bed.

And I'm so glad I did. This book saved my sanity.

I'm a person who likes to keep busy while being passive. I'll fold clothes while watching tv, read a magazine while feeding the baby or make a bolognese sauce for tomorrow night's dinner, while cooking tonight's roast. So for me to lie still, in bed, all hours of the day and night is very difficult. The book has to be really gripping for me to stay put.

Angel of Ruin accomplished this. From the outset I was hooked and couldn't let go. It was only due to Battboy's pestering that I managed to put it down in order to nap.

Set in 17th Century London, the story blurs the lines between fact and fiction, past and present, good and evil. At the plot's heart stand Mary, Deborah and Anne Milton, the daughters of John Milton (of Paradise Lost fame). Faced with exile from the family home, the three girls call upon an angel for help. Their saviour arrives in the form of Lazodeus, an angel of the Fifth Order, aka a guardian angel.

At first a caring benefactor, the angel quickly shows his true face, a face that is both beautiful and terrifying by turns.

I'm not normally a reader of horror, but Wilkins' tale kept me glued from beginning to end. Her usage of real people was so believable that I actually felt as if it could have been history I was reading rather than fiction. The plotting was logical and coherent and at no point did I feel "yeah, right."

As an editor, I often find that my need to 'proof' the story interrupts my enjoyment of it. Fortunately, this story was so good, I never felt compelled to edit it.

So, who would read it? Well, if you like your horror to be full of blood and guts and gore, this novel isn't for you. However, if you like the sort of horror that messes with your mind or features supernatural elements, you'll love this (the scene with the spiders gave my skin crawl).

If I had a rating system in place I'd give it 4 and a 1/2 stars. I take off half a star because I think that at times the present day story felt a little contrived.

Go, read, enjoy.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Truth About Magic by Dave Luckett

I’d like to thank Dave Luckett for allowing his novel to be the ‘guinea pig’ review on IMHO.

Dragons, broom stick races, rubbish collectors visited by bearded mages who inform them that they’re the dethroned prince of some backward parallel universe west of Hogs Breath upon Tyne. You’ll find none of these in Dave Luckett’s The Truth About Magic.

What you will find are two elves, Mr Tipkins and Rathalorn, the first as lowly as the other is highborn. Both elves are gift-givers, that is, they bestow personality gifts upon newborn babies. Neither elf relishes their job. It’s a thankless task and they have their sights set upon something better. Circumstances ensure they attain it.

Both are admitted as students of the Collegium Magica where they study the craft of wizardry. They are soon joined by Alain and Dink, two human children. What follows isn’t a perilous quest into the lands depicted on some map, but rather a battle of wills between the talented Tipkins and the connected Rathalorn. This book isn’t so much about good versus evil as intelligence and perseverance versus deception.

I love to read, but as a mother of five, a uni student, an author and an editor, I have to make good use of the small portion of free time I receive. If I’m not happy with a book, I’ll put it down and move on. Not only did I finish this book, I did so in two days.

The tale is a simple one, but not simplistic. The good guys are likable and the bad worthy of our contempt. Both are capable of having a bad day and losing their temper. Many of the tropes are instantly recognisable (magic wands and flying carpets) and many are new (the writing of Faery being made up of colours rather than letters). The human element is represented, yet this is not really their story. The main characters are Tipkins and Rathalorn and the enmity that exists between them. I found this a refreshing change as all too often authors rely upon some callow youth to save the day. Tipkins, for the most part, is the hero of the piece who works with his human wards to make things right.

So, the big question, who would read this book? I would place this fairly in the 7-10 age bracket. Okay, it’s not Le Guin but it’s not Blyton either. The characters are not sugar and spice and they don’t learn some life-changing moral lesson at the end. If you’re looking for a book to entertain your young ones over the holidays, this would be it.