Saturday, 2 February 2019

ASF Book Review #4 'If I Wake'

Welcome to my first Australian Speculative Fiction book review of 2019. Honestly I'm rather excited about all the great books I'm planning to read this year, and there's so many exciting books on their way too.

The book I'm reviewing today is 'If I Wake' by Nikki Moyes. 'If I Wake' was her debut novel, released in 2016, and it's a really impressive debut. Here is the cover:

'If I Wake' is a powerful tale of a bullied teen in High School, Lucy. Her favourite class at school is History, but even there she isn't safe from being ridiculed and bullied by the other students. Lucy gets little sympathy or support from her stressed single mother, who herself is lonely and is fighting her own battles.

Lucy's only happy place in her dreams. Every year since the disaster of her eleventh birthday party, Lucy's dreams have taken her to the past. Each time a different location, a different century, but there is always one constant. Will. Actually, there are two constants. She only wakes up in the real world after she dies in her dreams. Despite the constant dangers in these dreams, because of her constant and unquestioned friendship with Will, her acceptance by his family, she much prefers the dreams over her lonely and friendless life.

Things go from bad to worse for Lucy when her mum gets a new boyfriend, Frank. Not only has the bullying at school got worse, but now she feels unwelcome in her own home. It seems like an unendurable eternity before her upcoming seventeenth birthday, her next chance to visit Will. Something has to break, and in the end, it's Lucy. Against all these struggles, without a friend in the world, her thought turn to suicide. But she doesn't want to leave without seeing Will one last time.

There's a lot of really good things about this book, it's powerful, it's accessible, it's written well. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of time travel stories where the characters go back in time. This is because they are very predictable, people meet Napoleon, kill Hitler, help some American president. blah blah blah. But this book handles it differently. Lucy finds different incarnations of Will; Wu, Walker, Villius, Wilhelm, William, Billy and Willis. They are regular people, struggling with the dangers of their time, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it.

As previously mentioned, each of Lucy's dreams ends when she dies in the dream. In one of those dreams, Lucy was killed when a military base was attacked in an air raid, and after that dream, Lucy became afraid of aeroplanes. I really liked that element, yet at the same time I was disappointed, because that hadn't happened before. In a previous dream, Lucy died after being bitten by a snake, but there wasn't any mention of her becoming afraid of snakes after that. It's only a minor criticism, but I would have liked it if she brought something like that back from each dream.

All in all though, I really enjoyed 'If I Wake' and thing it's a really good debut! I am looking forward to reading Moyes' upcoming novel 'The Destroyer' - hopefully that will be released soon!

To find out more about what Nikki is up to, find her on twitter @NikkiNovelist, or her FB author page here.

For other Aussie Spec Fic book reviews, have a look at the Aussie Speculative Fiction website.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

A Brief History of my Favourite Authors Part 1

As an author, one thing that I get asked a lot it "who inspired you?" and I haven't been able to give a decent answer.

The assumption, of course, is that there's an author whose books left such an impression on me that I (at least on some level) was inspired to copy them.  Well not copy them, but do what they do.

And that's not how it went at all.  I have loved reading from a very young age.  Books, puzzles and model aeroplanes were my life as a kid.  I don't know when it dawned on me that writing books was an actual option.  But by then I'd read such amazing books that I was over-awed.  I knew that there was no way I could write anything nearly as good as my heroes, so why bother?

The first authors whose worlds I fell in love with were Asimov and Clarke.  I pretty much only read science fiction at that point.  After  staying up after my bedtime, reading them by torchlight under my covers in our Wandiligong home, Asimov's short stories and novels kept me up at night, on my bunk sometimes in fear, sometimes in wonder, but mostly giddy with the absolute genius behind it.  Despite a lot of his works being 'hard' sci-fi, it was written in such an accessible manner that even an eleven-year-old understood it.  The worlds he dreamt up, the future histories of humanity, the perfect mysteries, the bizarre and humorous, and the deep characters.  Any writer would consider themselves lucky to come up with one idea as good as any of his, and he had hundreds.  He is probably most famous for the Foundation series, but if I had to choose just one Asimov piece to take with me to a desert island, it would be Nightfall.  I usually try promote Australian authors here, but if you haven't read Nightfall, do yourself a favour.

Like Asimov, Clarke is an author who wrote hard sci-fi, and is probably most famous for writing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood's end.  The book by Arthur C. Clarke that to this day astounds me is Rendezvous with Rama.  I used to read it with my mum and  liked it so much that as soon as I finished reading it I went right back to the start.  It was so well written, the mystery, the fear, the adventure.  Having a great first line is amazing.  But ending a book with a final sentence that gives you that 'oh my God' moment, there's nothing better.  I'm not going to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't read it, because if you haven't, you're going to get yourself a copy now. 


Amongst others, Asimov and Clarke wrote pieces that challenged so many of my preconceptions of the world, the origin and nature of humanity, and the origin and nature of the universe.  And between them, what questions about the Earth, about the solar system, about the universe, did they not ask?  If I wanted to be a science-fiction writer, what could I do that they had not already done?  Not only were they sci-fi writers, but they were also scientists.  I knew I wasn't smart enough to be a scientist, and if you had to be a scientist to write science fiction, there wasn't much hope for me.  That's a idea that kinda stuck with me, that you have to be a scientist to write science fiction.  From a twelve-year-old's perspective, you think that makes sense. And you have to admit, there's a certain logic to it.  It's funny how having these little ideas in your head, unchallenged, almost too small to notice, can make a difference to someone's life.   

From Sci-Fi I turned to Fantasy, and the cycle continues.  Stay tuned for Part 2 when I talk about the fantasy books that changed my life.


Sunday, 23 December 2018

2018: A New Hope

Here we are.  The obligatory year in review blog.

2018 will go down in history as an awful year, a year where the American, UK and Australian governments moved even further to the right, made even more unconscionable decisions, and were responsible for even more suffering and deaths.  

Everyone who survived the year will take something different away from it.  For me - and I suspect a lot of us - the most enduring aspect of 2018 was the way that we responded.  The clearest example of this is the March For Our Lives movement, the massive nationwide protests demanding gun reform in America, inspired by yet another mass school shooting.  Unfortunately Trump's government didn't listen, and made no effort to make guns harder to get, so by the time the schools were out for winter, 113 people (mostly students between 6 and seventeen years old) had been killed or injured in 93 incidents of gun violence in American schools.  The survivors of those shootings, the hundreds of thousands of kids who took to the street honestly give me hope for America's future - hope that I hadn't had for the last twenty years.  

On a local level, without the threat of being murdered in their classrooms bringing them together, it was great to see the Australian school children also protest against the Morrison's government's inaction on climate change.

The overall feeling is that people are getting more politically active, and that our schoolchildren are more politically aware than they have been over the last twenty years.  That gives me hope.  

And personally it's been a year of unexpectedly positive results as well.  I mean, I'm still writing this blog.  This is number 21 for the year.  I like that I have begun reviewing Australian Speculative Fiction books on my blog, and am supporting the Australian Spec Fic community in that way, so you can expect more of that next year. 

I received my first acceptance of a piece into an anthology this year - 'Flash Fiction Addiction' by Zombie Pirate Publishing - which shall be published next year.  And through my involvement in the Australian Speculative Fiction group I've helped put together a collection of speculative fiction short stories, 'Beginnings' which I reviewed here, and which features my first ever published story, 'The Teacup' which I am still excited about.

At the start of the year, I wasn't sure if I'd keep at this whole writing and blogging thing.  And it's fair to say I surpassed my expectations.  My first ever short story has been accepted (after first being rejected for another anthology), and the third short story I ever wrote has already been published.  I'm excited to see what 2019 brings!

Thanks to everyone who has read, commented and shared my blog posts.  I hope I've kept you somewhat entertained, and I hope all make it through the holiday period!  See you next year.      



Saturday, 15 December 2018

ASF Book Review #3 - 'Beginnings'

My last Australian Speculative Fiction book review of the year will be something a little different, for two reasons. Instead of a novel, the book is an anthology of short stories.  And it's an anthology that not only features one of my own short stories, but 'Beginnings: Australian Speculative Fiction Anthology Vol. 1' is something that I helped put together as well.

In the middle of 2018 there was a post in a Facebook writing group asking if other Australian authors who wrote speculative fiction would want to create their own group for supporting each other, for sharing writing advice. And so the Australian Speculative Fiction group was formed.  From there, it was only a short while before we had the idea to create our own anthology.  Six months later, we released 'Beginnings' - which makes it sound easy. It was not easy. But we did it. And here it is - isn't that cover amazing, by the way?

Firstly, what I love about this collection of short stories is the diversity.  While there may be a few sci-fi or fantasy stories, each is unique and takes you on a very different journey.  One of the benefits of this is that it exposes the reader to different genres than they would normally read - personally I've never been interested in the paranormal/supernatural genres (witches, werewolves and vampires), two of my favourite stories in 'Beginnings' are about witches - 'The Morrigan' by Maddie Jensen and 'Dealt in Sin' by Sasha Hanton.

Between stories set amongst the stars are tales set in our own backyard.  Stephen Herczeg's 'Bus Trip' is about a student taking the bus home from Canberra to Adelaide for the Christmas holidays. Belinda Brady's 'Break the Spell' gives me the familiar imagery of Melbourne's Royal Arcade. 'When the Lights Went Out' (Lachlan Walter) is an intriguing sci-fi piece set in the Victorian countryside, and Rebecca Dale's 'Bugles Bred & Bugles Born' centres around the unbelievable events at one of Sydney's Westfield shopping centres.  'Bugles Bred & Bugles Born' is one of the most unique stories in the anthology, and honestly I don't know how to define or describe it, but the ending still sends shivers up my spine it's that good.

The theme of 'Beginnings' is explored in a variety of ways, from starting life over in a new city ('The Teacup' - Austin P. Sheehan) from starting over alone on a brand new world ('Portals' - A. A. Warne) and from the transition from life to the afterlife ('Next Journey' by Chris Foley and 'The Beginning of the End' by Carolyn Young).

Amongst a collection so diverse, it should be hard to pick a favourite. But 'The Inheritance Experiment' by Kel E. Fox is an absolute standout. It's the story of an Austrian girl, stolen from her family home and subjected to horrible experiments, before being flung into the carnage of World War One. It's a compelling story, and - like every good short story should - it leaves the reader wanting more.

In conclusion, this is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of diverse short stories. There's something in there for everyone, and many of the stories are so good they're worth re-reading.

Here's a link to the Aussie Speculative Fiction website, for information about the group, where you can read more reviews of books by Australian Speculative Fiction authors, and see exclusive flash fiction pieces and author interviews.

Here's a link where you can buy the 'Beginnings' Anthology where it's currently being sold exclusively through Amazon.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

An Investigation of Dragons

Back in August I wrote 'A Critique of Dragons' where - as part of my research into Dragons for my NaNoWriMo project 'Dragons of Bern' - I discussed the way dragons were presented in various works of literature; 'THE GREAT ZOO OF CHINA' by Matthew Reilly , 'DRAGON HEART' by Cecelia Holland, 'DRAGON KEEPER' by Robin Hobb and the 'EARTHSEA' cycle by Le Guin.

Continuing the exploration of the portrayal of dragons, I've since read 'TALON' by Julie Kagawa, 'TOOTH AND CLAW' by Jo Walton, 'SERAPHINA' by Rachel Hartman and McCaffrey's 'DRAGONFLIGHT' - some very wonderful and diverse books.  Of course, I am not reviewing the books themselves, just the dragons themselves.

Let's start with 'TALON' (by Julie Kagawa).  Shapeshifting dragons.  Dragons in human form, in our world, pretending to be human, living their whole lives out as human beings.  Being hunted down by an elite, top-secret military organisation - the Order of St. George.  Ember and Dante Hill are two hatchlings who - in human form - are sixteen-year-old siblings, being introduced into the human population for the first time. The existence of their dragon community is the greatest secret on the planet, and they must restrain their natural impulses, and never transform into their dragon selves under any circumstances.

There are some very clever things in this book, and I like the way that the protagonist Ember has two selves, her 'human' self and her 'dragon' self, which both have conflicting ideas about certain other humans and certain other dragons.  How were the dragons portrayed though?  They were a more instinctive, much larger and scarier version of the character's human selves.  The whole concept of shapeshifting from human form into dragon form is too much of a stretch for me, though.  There's just such a massive size discrepancy, where does all that mass come from/go when they transform?

Next is 'SERAPHINA' which is Rachel Hartman's debut novel.  It's an outstanding debut, and I really enjoyed it.  But we're here for the dragons.  This novel is set on a different world, in the Kingdom of Goredd, which it about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the truce between draonkind and their Kingdom. Seraphina, the protagonist, is the music mistress at the royal court, herself under the tutelage of Orma, who is a dragon in human form living amongst the human population.  Shapeshifting dragons again?  Yes indeed.  Disaster strikes the Kingdom when Prince Rufus is murdered prior to the arrival of the Ardmagar, the leader of the Dragons.

Despite the shapeshifting element of the dragons - again a stretch too far - the dragons in Hartman's novel are very interesting.  They are generally emotionless, supremely logical beings with their own political structures. Throughout the story it's shown that throughout their conflicts and wars with humanity, they've learned from us, and there's been a significant cultural change where instead of hoarding gold they now hoard other values like intelligence.  I especially like this because it brings them to life even more - ideas values, and ways of thinking do change over time, and it speaks of the depth and complexity of their species.

'TOOTH AND CLAW' by Jo Walton really took me by surprise.  I didn't know what to expect when I picked it up, but I fell in love with it really quickly.  It's a regency romance (think Pride and Prejudice) but all the characters are dragons.  Throughout the country, there live common servant dragons and dragons of noble rank, such as Exalted, August, Majestic, Illustrious, Dignified and Respected. This story focuses on the family of Dignified Bon Agornin, who begins the story on his deathbed, and what becomes of Respected Avan, Blessed Penn and the sisters Respected Selendra and Haner.  While they have titles, they have very little in terms of wealth and size. 

These dragons are portrayed so well; they sleep on beds of gold coins, the bigger and stronger can develop the ability to breathe fire, the Blessed (the priests) bind their wings and do not fly, the servants have their wings bound and are not permitted to fly.  The society is so well divided into the haves and have-nots, and as you may have suspected, a lot of the story revolves around finding acceptable partners of noble rank.  They're intelligent, they're all unique individuals with their own values - greed, love, equality, honour, for example.

And finally, 'DRAGONFLIGHT: THE FIRST CHRONICLE OF PERN' by Anne McCaffrey which some may say is an even more iconic Dragon series than Le Guin's 'Earthsea.'  Well, it's got a lot more dragons in it.  Pern is a planet, colonised by humans, and highly empathetic humans with an innate telepathic ability have the ability to bond with and fly the Dragons.  Over hundreds of years, the reason for the existence of these Dragonriders has been forgotten, and only one of their Weyrs remain inhabited. But soon they're going to be needed more than ever.

The dragons in this tale are certainly the more traditional type of dragon.  They are divided into classes by their colours, gold dragons are queens, the large brown dragons are the ones best suited for combat, and there are also smaller green dragons and so on.  It is only the queens, the golden dragons, that can lay eggs.  And a dragon will only bond with one human in it's lifetime.  It's a complicated system that works.  The dragons can communicate with each other telepathically, and with their bonded rider.  They have their own intelligence and wisdom - and this is the thing that irked me about the book, that the humans made all the decisions, all the plans without consulting their dragons.  Those dragons may have a wealth of helpful ideas and abilities that aren't being used because the humans are too pig-headed to ask.

So what is there to learn from these stories?  None of the dragons really came across as terrifying deadly monsters - the scariest were in 'Talon,' and given the protagonist is a dragon herself, it was kind of hard to be afraid of them.  A common theme amongst these four stories were the communities the dragons lived in, the way their societies were structured.  The dragons in 'Talon' were part of a secretive organisation, with clear ranks and roles assigned.  In 'Tooth and Claw' dragons had a complex system of nobility, birthright and marriage, as well as legal and political structures.  In 'Seraphina' the actual political system wasn't thoroughly explored, but they certainly had a complex society with a ruler, ambassadors to the human Kingdoms, as well as a rigid system of punishment for dragons who broke the law.  The Dragons of 'Pern' had a really interesting almost symbiotic relationship with their human riders, and the riders of the dragon queen and her mate were given the positions of the leaders of the Weyrs.  It was really interesting to explore these different political and social structures during the reading of these books.  I've learned that the old saying "no man is an island" applies equally to dragons.  They too have families, peers, leaders and social and political structures.   

Over the next few months I shall read Novik's 'HIS MAJESTY's DRAGON,' Goodman's 'EON,' Pratchett's 'GUARDS! GUARDS!' and 'THE DRAGON DIARY' by Steer. Of course, feel free to suggest your favourite dragon novels as well!


Saturday, 17 November 2018

ASF Book Review #2 - 'What the Woods Keep'

Welcome to my second review of Australian Speculative Fiction novels. 

Today I'm reviewing What the Woods Keep, a spellbinding debut by Katya De Becerra. And here it it's gorgeous cover!

Katya has lived in and explored Russia, America and Peru before migrating to Australia and studying cultural anthropology. Her love of science and anthropological studies are apparent throughout this novel, which add a sense of realism to the piece. I also got the impression that the story combines the myths and folklore of her European roots with the locations she might have lived in or explored while in America.

The story focuses on Hayden, an eighteen year old girl whose life has only just started approaching normal after the loss of her mother near the woods of their Promise home ten years ago. On her eighteenth birthday the lawyer managing the estate of her mother calls her, there's something that her mother wanted her to have - the family home in Promise. And a handwritten card with a creepy message, for good measure. It turns out there a secrets her parents kept from her, questions that can only be answered about her family, and about herself, by returning to Promise.

But What the Woods Keep is about more than revealing a family's secrets, but about accepting yourself, accepting change, about reconciling the known and the unknowable, the mysteries of the universe. It's so good, and I really don't want to spoil it for anyone! The mysterious, eerie build-up is superb, and the last ten chapters are an intoxicating, unpredictable thrill-ride, and up 'til the end you won't know how it ends.

There's a lot that I love about What the Woods Keep. I love how dark and creepy it is, I love that it's about the friendship between Hayden and Delphine. I love the scientific angle the MC takes to rationalise unexplainable phenomena, to explain the complexities of life, it's all really cleverly done and engaging. One thing I really loved was the German / European mythology, with the Nibelungenlied a recurring theme. Another thing that was done well was the inclusion of documentation providing more background on what's happening - from Hayden's psychologist, her father's work journals, and her own diaries.

I've long thought that one of the marks of a good book is how long it stays with you after you've read it. And this book does that - it's been a week since finishing it, and I haven't been able to move on, I'm still thinking about the book and the questions it has left me with - about time travel, about Hayden's mother, about what has been left in the woods, but - most pressingly - if there might be a sequel!

Criticisms. It's a book that's hard to criticise, to be honest. It struck me as odd that in this book where Hayden's searching for her long-lost, long-dead mother, that it's her living father who is undoubtedly there that's strangely absent. The other thing was the secret research facility in Promise. I felt from the outset that they would be a key antagonist, that they'd capture Hayden and reveal their nefarious intent, or at least more actively oppose Hayden's actions, but... It could be a really clever red herring too - who wants really predictable books anyway?

Ultimately, What the Woods Keep is a really clever, really engaging read and I'm already looking forward to De Becerra's next book!

Here's a link to Katya's own blog where you can find out more about her and buy a copy of What the Woods Keep, though you'll likely find a copy in your nearest bookshop too!

Here's a link to a new Aussie Speculative Fiction website too!

Follow me or stay tuned fro more book reviews!

As for me, it's the middle of November and I'm about a third of the way into my NaNoWriMo project! The dragons are dragony, and the humans - well they're not turning out quite how I anticipated, which just adds to the fun! 

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

NaNoWriMo 2018 - Here We Go

So November is upon us, bring with it the end of Spring, hot days and sweat-drenched nights. And the National Novel Writing Month. It's a special time of year for writers to be even more isolated, stressed and sleep deprived than usual, for a lot of us have challenged ourselves to write 50,000 words in thirty days. 

It's hectic. 

Last November I competed in NaNoWriMo for the very first time, after finishing the first draft of 'Emma and the Madhouse Kids' on the 28th of October, leaving me no time to prepare. I jumped right into it with a half-formed idea, based on a question about strange lights in the sky, and wrote 50k words towards a Sci-Fi story I've tentatively titled 'The Rings of the Earth'.

And you know what? I still don't know how that one's going to end, let alone if it'll ever see the light of day. I originally hoped to work on it again this November, but it's a rather complex story and will take an awful lot of editing and revising after the first draft is complete. When I started, I had no idea what I was getting into, and at least half of my writing time I was using to research NASA, JAXA, ESA and ROSCOM, as well as the ISS, details of existing space probes and a whole lot of other sciency stuff..

So as discussed in this blog post, I'm focusing on something simpler that I'll hopefully be able to self-publish within 12 months. It's something I've tentatively titled 'Dragons of Bern' and focuses on a family living in an alternate-history Germany, so the Kingdom of Bavaria, Prussia, Hessia etc. It's a YA story, featuring German mythological creatures including Dragons (the title should have given that away). And yes - I know Bern is in Switzerland, not Germany. Basically, I'm a lot better prepared this year than last year, I'm excited about this new novel, and can't wait to get started.   

But of course, November isn't just NaNo, I still have to go to my day job, be a husband and father of our Rescued Greyhounds, November also happens to be backed with work, family and social commitments, plus a book launch near the end of the month I'm going to be involved with. Finding time to write isn't going to be easy. I guess some of you are asking, "why do it if it's going to be so crazy? If it's going to cause extra stress and take up so much of your time?"

And you know what? I have an answer. Aside from the odd short story, I've literally done nothing but edit 'Emma and the Madhouse Kids' for almost a year now. I need a break from it. And without NaNo chances are I would just keep editing it for the next 12 to 48 months too. And as much as I love that story and those characters, I don't want to do that. I have other great stories bubbling away in my head that I want to write, and this is the perfect opportunity to start a new project.

Also, the writing community on both Twitter and Facebook are always great, always supportive, and that's taken up another notch for NaNo because we know how draining and exhausting it can be.

But it's also fun. We know it's mad, but we're writers. Mad is our normal.