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Kaaron Warren

Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (2005)

ISBN: 0-958139-03-2

Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was first published in November 2005)

The Grinding House is a collection of stories by Canberra-writer Kaaron Warren. Most of the stories are reprints, but there is some new material, including the story “The Grinding House” itself. Several of the reprinted stories have been nominated for awards or have received awards, including the Aurealis. Warren is known for her horror writing, and all of the stories in The Grinding House have a strong element of horror. The volume itself has been published by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild with the assistance of an ArtsAct grant. It is the first CSFG Publishing anthology to focus on one author, reflecting the status Warren has earned as a short story writer.

Short story collections are often a worry. You know they’re going to be a mixed bag, but what you won’t know until you reach the end is how many of the stories are good, outstanding, or should have been left out entirely. There’s also the rule of averages – you tell yourself things like “Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice has miraculous writing. There won’t be another decent anthology for ten years.”

Kaaron Warren’s The Grinding House actually defeats that expectation. It is good. A large portion of it is outstanding. Published so soon after Black Juice, it beats that law of averages. It is not, however, everyone’s cup of tea. Warren gets billed as a horror writer, and certainly her stories creep under the skin. She does not write a classic horror story, though, and is far more an interstitial writer. She writes each story both close to home (presenting us with situations that we recognize as kin to our own), and in entirely alien environments, ones which we are thankful we are so far from. Read the rest of this entry »

Lucy Sussex

MirrorDanse Editions (2005)

ISBN: 0-975785-20-6

Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was first published in January 2006)

What I love about A Tour Guide in Utopia is the control that Lucy Sussex shows. Whether she is writing on a large scale or a small scale, she has a maturity to her style which few Australian speculative fiction authors can claim. If you like short stories; if you like thoughtful prose; if you like seeing a writer grow then this book is worth looking at. If you want fun reading on the train to work then this book is a must. If you want a book you can dip into from time to time and pull out a plum, then this book is for you.

It is unpretentiously intellectual. The more history and literature you know, the more you will enjoy the cross-references, but understanding them is not crucial to enjoying most of the stories. This in itself is somewhat of a tour-de-force.

This anthology is extraordinarily well-balanced. The individual stories each made their ripples or waves when they were initially published, but the selection and tone of the collection is satisfying. Each story stands on its own and helps the one before and after it stand out. Read the rest of this entry »

edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt

MirrorDanse Books (2005)

ISBN: 0975773607

Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was first published in September 2006)

Year’s Best volumes always have significant introductions. I am an evil person who reads the stories then goes back and thinks “Should I read the introduction?” Yes. Read the introduction. Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquadt give an overview of how current Australian speculative fiction fits into an historical trail. There is a kangaroo story told in snatches throughout. Not my kind of story, but it solves the problem of a technical introduction to a book of short stories. The interlacing of story and explanation eases the transition between a formal introduction and short stories and puts the stories in perspective. As some of the stories date (as some stories always date in anthologies) the introduction will be there to remind readers of the particular environment in which they were created.

The first story is the best in the volume. ”’Singing my Sister Down” is as close to perfect as a short story can be. The narrator’s sister is punished for a crime by drowning in a tar pit. The story is about her death. Such a slim narrative for such a big story, and yet it works. Margo Lanagan’s gift of bringing the reader into the emotional moment is amazing and this story is the outstanding example of her gift. Read the rest of this entry »

Damien Broderick (ed.)

Angus and Robertson (1988)

ISBN: 0-207157-34-0

Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was first published in December 2005)

Matilda at the Speed of Light has a rather large reputation to live up to. When new writers appear, clutching their short stories and turning up to workshops with hope in their eyes, they are told, “These are the special writers: Greg Egan and Terry Dowling, Lucy Sussex and Damien Broderick.” These names and the name of this classic anthology are engraved on our minds because today, we are told, there are so many magazines and so many anthologies that the bar to being published is much lower. Because of all this baggage, I approached a re-reading of Matilda very cautiously. It doesn’t really matter that it is one of the great collections in the minds of a number of people more expert than me. What matters is that I have it in front of me now, and that I am reviewing it. Yes, it is far better than most speculative fiction anthologies Australia has produced, and Broderick’s selection of stories has amply demonstrated his ability to identify talent, but it is still worthwhile revisiting and rethinking and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. Having done this, I would strongly recommend that anyone who enjoys speculative fiction short stories get hold of a copy of this anthology (which is, alas, out of print). It is as close to the gold standard as Australia has gone.

Broderick’s introduction was very odd to read. It has a host of handy insights about what science is as opposed to what science thinks it is. Broderick talks about the failing of the assumption that science is perfect and holds all answers. He describes the parallels between scientific processes and writing. When he points out the uncertain basis on which science may be founded Broderick is, in fact, the small boy commenting on the Emperor’s nudity. He does so with grace and erudition. His main point, however, is less to question the realities created by science than to lead into his discussion of scientists as narrators. I have my opinions on the first, but had not actually considered the procedures and articles and lectures that spatter science with language, as narrative. It was worth re-reading Matilda just for that insight. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiona McIntosh

The Quickening trilogy

Myrren’s Gift, Voyager (2003) 

ISBN: 0-732278-66-X

Blood and Memory, Voyager (2004)

ISBN: 0-732278-67-8

Bridge of Souls, Voyager (2004)

ISBN: 0-732278-68-6

Reviewed by Gillian Polack (these reviews were first published in January 2006)

Myrren’s Gift

The judicial murder of a young magic-wielder, Myrren, plotted by Cerimus (heir to the throne of Morgravia), changes the future of three countries. The execution of Myrren and how her final legacy to unwilling observer Wil Thirsk plays out is the main subject of Myrren’s Gift. We are introduced to the main characters, including Wil (who receives Myrren’s gift of inhabiting the body of whoever kills him) and his family, and the various royal families of the region.

There is a great deal of action in the set-up volume for the trilogy and this book ought to be fast-paced, but it is actually quite slow. The reason for this lies mainly in McIntosh’s style. Her sentences tend to determine the pace, and her explanations and backgrounds are sometimes guilty of being longer than the action they describe.

It is worth pushing past the slowness. While this is not a great work of literature, it is a fantasy trilogy that relies more on politics and plotting than on a quest. It is all about personal ambitions and their effects on other people. The consequences of actions are clear and comprehensible and the world and its people are interesting and well enough drawn to make it enjoyable to read. The women are more interesting than the men, in fact, because McIntosh gives most of them far more capacity for independent action than is traditional. Even victims are capable of actions with vast consequences. Read the rest of this entry »

Edited by Nikki Alfar and Kate Osias

Literature of the Fantastic

ISBN: 97897193443059

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

The name Philippine Speculative Fiction explains this collection. It’s part of a series and that series is carefully selected covering the best stories by Filipino writers from 2010. Very few of these writers have yet come to international attention, which makes this volume particularly interesting. It reminds me very much of what Australian speculative fiction looked like prior to 1999: some international-standard writers, and a very inwards gaze. This is reflected in the introduction, which assumes a fair amount of prior understanding of the field. It sums up awards received and who made it into print or online publication, who gave public presentations and, of course, acknowledgements. What was missing, however, was an overview that analysed the state of the genre in the Philippines, where it came from, where it is likely to go, who needs to be watched and what makes Filipino work distinctive. The stories give some of this picture, of course, but not all of it.

The variety in this anthology is fascinating, and it provides a handy insight into how Filipino writers see themselves and see the genre. It doesn’t have the feel of a volume ‑ it’s more a collection of stories than a collection that tells its own story. The high points, though, are worth reading for and, as I’ve said, even the lesser stories give insights into writing that ought to be better known.

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Rosaleen Love

Aqueduct press (2005)

ISBN: 0-9746559-9-6

Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review was originally published in September 2006)

This book is the fifth volume of a series called “Conversation Pieces” – Conversation pieces is a perfect description. It is a small paperback, barely a hundred pages. It contains seven short works by Love. Is this slim volume science fiction/fantasy because several of the pieces are? Is it satire? Is it a tribute to Bridie King and emails home? I’m not sure that it’s any of these. I found myself in dialogue with the book trying to ascertain its identity and seek its meanings. It’s a lovely little volume and I would very much like to see what happens with other Australian writers when they produce Conversation Pieces.

In Love’s case I found this book lifted a veil and I was able to see a bit further into the writer at work. My favourite piece was “In Tribulation and with Jubilee: On Pilgrimage with Bridie King”. Its structure was a little ad hoc, but I wanted to know more about the places Love and King were visiting and the people they were meeting. But I am out of order. Let me talk about the pieces as they appear. Read the rest of this entry »

Kim Wilkins

Arrow (1997)

ISBN: 0091834171

Reviewed by Gillian Polack (this review first published August 2007)

Kim Wilkins is a reliably entertaining writer. She knows the tropes for horror and her backgrounds feel secure and are detailed to the exact level they need to be. Nothing I’ve read by her is less than good, and at her best she is an outstanding genre writer. This makes her quite difficult to review, because I want to say all the same things I have always said when asked about her: that she’s a fine craftswoman with a natural flow of language; that she knows her stuff and uses it well; that her books are enjoyable.

The Infernal does all of these things, and occasionally just a little bit more. It’s not a book to read at night alone in mid-winter. Which is exactly what I did. Just don’t ask me about my dreams for a bit, please.

What’s The Infernal about (besides dreams)?

Lisa is a musician who is successful enough to make a (bare) living, but not so successful that she and her band aren’t looking for that major breakthrough. She starts worrying when one of her fans turns up dead in a forest and when she starts dreaming vivid memories of the past. She does all the right things: tells the police everything she knows about the murder; explores her dreams to find out what has triggered them and why they are coming to her and how she can diminish them. Then the one thing that ought to be going right (her best friend’s marriage to a surprisingly normal accountant) goes all awry. Lisa does what she can, and has to face demons on all sorts of levels. Read the rest of this entry »

Dean Francis Alfar

Anvil (2007)

ISBN: 9789712719554

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

Dean Francis Alfar’s stories are fabulous. To be precise, they are mostly somewhere between the fable and the fairytale, ranging in tone from the lyrical (“L’Aquilone du Estrellas” – “The Kite of the Stars”) to the modern (“MaMachine”). They are also memorable. This slim volume of short stories is still making me think and smile, hours after I finished reading it. I want to sit and think about the stories, not explain them, or write about them, or review them. The very best of them touched somewhere deep inside and took me beyond words.

Alfar makes his cultural background work for him – the stories are quite specifically Filipino. The food, the mixed cultures, the comfort in more than one language and the capacity to write shards of other languages without worrying “Will monolingual English-speaking readers understand?” (I understood enough – the stories still worked, and the lack of language embarrassment from the author’s end was refreshing), the shape of the universe: all of these enriched the stories, sometimes in a startling way. One of my Philipino friends once told me that their island relatives would eat anything, and Dean Francis Alfar plays with this notion, just as he plays with time and space and love and questing.

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Stories of fantasy and horror

Ian Rosales Casocot

Anvil

ISBN: 9789712725302

Reviewed by Gillian Polack

Casocot’s slender volume contains eight short stories. Not many. In a perfect world, there would be two volumes, each bigger. One of these volumes would be of horror and science fiction, and one would be fantasy and horror concerning the people and town of Dumaguete.

The Dumaguete of Casocot’s stories is a place of danger and whimsy, of magic and oddness. It shares with Alfar’s stories a sense of the tales of Marcel Aymé, where a small change in the local world can lead to interesting consequences. The people of Dumaguete remind me of the people of the stories of Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer ‑ people who live complete and rich lives in a tiny world. These tales have such a strong sense of place that I wanted to hear more of this fairy-town, where such interesting events can happen.

Read the rest of this entry »

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