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.