Collection of Australian speculative fiction short stories
Last year I attended my first ever Conflux, the annual Canberra speculative fiction conference. I was thrilled to present on three panels: From Paper to Screen, Sentient Flora and Fauna and Write What You Know. It was a great event and I got to see some incredible speakers including Shelley Parker-Chan. There was also a market which included a lot of secondhand books available, and this is one I picked up. I was looking for my next book in my Short Stack Reading Challenge and this was it.
“Encounters: an Anthology of Australian Speculative Fiction” edited by Maxine McArthur and Donna Maree Hanson is a collection of 22 short stories ranging across science fiction, fantasy, horror and everything in between.
While overall the stories were pretty good, there were some standouts. Although I don’t often go for vampire stories, there was something about The Flatmate from Hell by Dirk Flintheart that was very enjoyable. Una, the One by Frankie Seymour was an interesting take on the question about whether or not it is ever possible to have environmental harmony with humans. Sleeping With Monsters by Michael Barry had quickfire twist after quickfire twist, challenging our assumptions at every turn. I also really liked Guarding the Mound by Kaaron Warren, which dealt with questions of legacy and the connection between past and future. Finally, I really liked Happy Faces for Happy Families by Gillian Polack which used time travel to unpack complex issues about childhood illness.
While there were quite a few stories I enjoyed, like any anthology, there are often going to be some that don’t resonate. I think that perhaps a clear theme might have made the anthology feel a bit more united. Also, there were a few moments where I had to remember that the book published in 2004, because some of the language, including around race, is a bit out of date.
An interesting and diverse collection of short stories.
I like the consistency in the cover design, with variations on an optical illusion theme.
“New Australian Fiction 2020” and “New Australian Fiction 2021” are collections of short stories by Australian authors. As with my previous review of “Going Down Swinging No. 30“, I won’t go through all the stories but I’ll highlight some of my favourites. I will say though that while there were some stories I liked much better than others, I did think that the overall curation of both issues was very strong. The editors put a lot of thought into arranging these stories and they had a really nice thematic flow.
New Australian Fiction 2020
So Many Ways by Mirandi Riwoe was a slice-of-life story about diaspora, job insecurity and unlikely friendships. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but Madeline Watts’ story Floodwaters was an uncomfortable and all-too-relatable consideration of being stuck in a relationship and how much of a disaster it takes to leave. After the Stampede by Jack Vening was another challenging story, one of those ones where you go over it again and again because the pieces don’t quite fit until you realise that there is something very wrong with the narrator. I really liked Self-Portrait After Panic by Laura McPhee-Browne, an intimate story about art, friendship and anxiety. I also really liked the vibrancy and sex positivity of Maame Blue’s Howl. Holy Water by Jack Kirne was delightfully dark and ambiguous. Long Road: Becoming by Mykaela Saunders was a excellent story about ritual and family and trying to make a new life following incarceration.
New Australian Fiction 2021
I really liked Flash and Glow by Ben Walter, a dark intersection between tourism and pollution with subheadings of metal contaminants. The semi-autobiographical Tunnels by Bryant Apolonio was a compelling story about the legacies our parents leave us. Resource Management, another one by Mykaela Saunders, used original and creative form to show how cultural misunderstanding has played out in Aboriginal communities in the past as well as in the present. James Noonan’s story Morningside hit very close to home about living overseas while bushfires rage back in Australia. I was disturbed by yet hooked on Flaring Out by Scott Limbrick, a conceptual story about a peculiar and inexplicable phenomenon wiping out humanity one by one. I absolutely loved Takatāpui by Daley Rangi, a beautifully written, real-life, first person narrative about queer and Māori identity and everyday violence. Georgia White’s story Ceasefire brought to life the reality of when a family member does the unthinkable.
There were plenty of cutting edge, relevant pieces in this collection and I look forward to seeing the results of this upcoming year.
Anthology of short fiction, poetry, comic art, graphic novella and spoken word
Last year, I was thrilled to win a micro-microfiction contest with this journal. I was so inspired I decided to buy one of their annual anthologies. I was looking through the store on the website trying to decide which one and I could not go past this one. The cover design is so striking (by Katrina Rhodes) and I was intrigued by the two spoken word CDs included with it, the design of which matches the Fabergé egg-shaped hot air balloons on the covers. I knew that I had to pick this for my Short Stack Reading Challenge back in December.
“Going Down Swinging No. 30” is a special 30th anniversary anthology of short fiction, poetry, comic art, graphic novellas and two spoken word CDs. Although there is an extensive contents page at the beginning, this was a surprisingly quick read. It has a really immersive feel with a very high quality selection of works. Given the number of pieces it is going to be impossible for me to review each or even most, so I will try to highlight some of my favourites.
The Clockwork Children by Felicity Bloomfield was an absolutely chilling horror short story about wanting to fit in with other children that reminded me a bit of “Slade House” or perhaps “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman. Procession by Paddy O’Reilly was a disturbing exploration of what a society with dogs who gained some sentience might be like and the humans who decide to worship them. Rhianna Boyle’s little comic Dirty Joke was a pure and humorous story about making the most of a difficult situation and reconnecting with family. Salvatore Ciliento’s ink illustrations were a beautiful and calming interlude among the written pieces. Shit Brooches by Oslo Davis was a hilarious, punchy little comic that really resonated with me given how popular brooches seem to be over the last couple of years. I thought that Retro Ryder by Robert Caporale was a really interesting take on the trauma of losing a friend when young with a bit of ambiguity thrown in to keep it edgy. I also really liked the realism of Gutted, for Carl Solomon by Luke Johnson which had a intoxicatingly urban setting and examined the ethics of thinking about violence as compared to acting on it. Midlife by Andy Murdoch was an excellent look at intimacy, queer identity and turning 30.
It was a bit hard for me to separate each piece of spoken word on the CDs (let alone find something in my house that would play them!) but the effect of voice over music and ambient noise was very compelling and they definitely added to the overall experience of this book.
A really enjoyable collection and I am keen to get my hands on some more issues of Going Down Swinging.
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher, and I was really excited to read it. I have read the first book in this author’s trilogy previously, and have been meaning to read more of his work, so this is the perfect interlude.
“To Hold Up the Sky” by Cixin Liu and translated by multiple translators is a collection of science fiction stories set primarily in China. There are 11 stories in the collection set in the past, present, future, on earth and in the furthermost reaches of outer space.
Liu is a very creative writer who is contributing significantly to the genre of hard science fiction. Using quite a classic science fiction style, he explores fascinating ideas about maths, science and humanity through a Chinese lens. Science fiction is a genre dominated by Western-, and particularly American-, centric ideas and reading stories about alien encounters, time travel and the future of humanity from a non-Western perspective is unbelievably refreshing. Although all the stories contained in this collection are vastly different in subject-matter, I felt that they were all connected by the theme of trying to reconcile the macro with the micro. Liu also explores a number of real-world issues in his books such as industrialism, government surveillance and control, poverty, war and environmental issues. He writes confidently and creatively about physics and mathematical concepts, assisted significantly by his background in computer engineering.
I really enjoyed the first story The Village Teacher which was about the difference a small piece of information and fortuitous timing can make to the survival of an entire race. I also enjoyed The Time Migration, a new take on the idea of remaining in stasis to re-emerge in a new era, and The Thinker which was as much about platonic love as it was about finding a pattern in the stars. However, I think Contraction was the one that really stuck with me in a brilliant yet disturbing way.
Although I enjoyed a lot of the stories, there were some that felt a little slower than others. Even though it had some interesting concepts around humans being raised as farm animals for an alien race, Cloud of Poems didn’t really capture me overall. Full-Spectrum Barrage Jamming was very heavy on military tactics, something that I find a bit hard in sci-fi, and even though it had some fascinating ideas about the impact of predicting the future on society, Mirror took a really long time to get there.
A thought-provoking collection that is a must for sci-fi fans.
Short story spin-off from fantasy novel Neverwhere
The end of 2019 was drawing nigh, I only had a few books left to go, so I thought I’d better read some of the shortest ones I could find. I had really enjoyed the original novel, which was unusually an adaptation of a TV series, and had picked up this little book at not a great some time ago. Although I, like many others, have been waiting for a proper sequel to the original novel, a short story set in the same world would have to tide me over for now.
“How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” by Neil Gaiman is a short story about the Marquis de Carabas, a resident of the parallel universe known as London Below that exists alongside its namesake with some permeability between the two. The resourceful, enigmatic and charismatic Marquis finds himself at somewhat of a disadvantage when his signature coat is lost after he was mostly murdered. Missing its style, comfort and countless pockets dreadfully, the Marquis embarks on a journey through London Below through fungi, shepherds and attempts on his life to get his coat back.
This is a fun little story that explores some other corners of the London Below so many readers fell in love with in “Neverwhere”. It is always enjoyable to get inside the psyche of characters that seem so confident on the outside, and Gaiman does a fantastic job unpicking what confidence actually is. I thought that his exploration of the tension between searching for unique, inspiring role models and wanting to be unique and inspiring oneself was particularly clever.
I think that if you wanted to dip your toe into the world of London Below, you could start here, but I think you would enjoy it better if you started with “Neverwhere”. The world is meant to be eclectic, overly literal and utterly lawless, but I suspect it might be a bit more tolerable if you were to view it through the eyes of Richard rather than the Marquis.
A quick read as dark as it is full of sparks of brilliance, and an enjoyable return to a fascinating premise.
Illustrated retelling of seven European fairy-tales
As I mentioned recently, it was December and I was struggling to meet my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 80 books. I attended my book club‘s Christmas party, we played a small but savage game of Dirty Santa where the prizes were books (of course) and this was the one that I won. Obviously I was thrilled because it is Kate Forsyth, who is incidentally the author of the second book I ever reviewed on this blog. It was also, fortuitously, very short which meant that I had a reasonable chance of squeezing it in before the end of the year.
“Vasilisa the Wise and Other Tales of Brave Young Women” by Kate Forsyth and illustrated by Lorena Carrington is a collection of European fairy-tale retellings. There are seven stories, each of them featuring a resilient, courageous and ingenious woman who must overcome adversity in her own way.
This is a really enjoyable collection of stories, not least of which because they are all lesser-known stories. Forsyth has chosen tales from the UK, France, Germany, Norway and Russia and despite considering myself relatively well-read when it comes to fairy-tales each of these was brand new to me. Forsyth preserves traditional themes and settings, including romance, but imbues her heroines with rather more agency and gumption than was often seen. I really liked the sisters in Katie Crackernuts, the snake story of A Bride for Me Before a Bride forYou, and the unusual kingdom in The Toy Princess.
Carrington brings a unique illustrative style using silhouettes and layers to help the reader visualise the interplay between light and dark which is so prevalent a theme in fairy-tales. I particularly enjoyed the objects on shelves in The Toy Princess.
A beautiful, original collection of stories suitable for all ages and especially for collectors of fairy-tales.
Graphic novel of dragon stories inspired by Jim Henson’s The Storyteller
I really enjoy graphic novels, and knowing this, my partner bought me this book quite a while ago. I’m going to be honest with you right though, there was a very particular reason why I picked up this book to read towards the end of last year. It was December, I had one month left to reach my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 80 books, and I was in big trouble. Whenever I find myself in this situation, there is really only one option: to read the shortest books on my to-read pile.
I took this at The Copper Dragon, a fantasy-themed bar in Tuggeranong, ACT. Unfortunately it wasn’t open, but I really want to visit!
“Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Dragons” is a graphic novel with stories and art by Daniel Bayliss, Nathan Pride, Hannah Christenson and Jorge Corona with some script and colours by Fabian Rangel Jr., Cassie Kelly and Jen Hickman. There are four stories told in the style of the television series: Son of the Serpent, The Worm of Lambton, Albina and Samurai’s Sacrifice. Each explores the well-known theme of dragon and hero in different cultural and gender contexts.
Also speak of dragons, my city currently has a fire right next to it and I took this immediately after taking the photo above
I think my favourite of the stories is the first, Son of the Serpent. Daniel Bayliss, a graphic novelist and artist from Mexico, draws on mythology and graphic art from native cultures of North America, and his bold, colourful designs are breathtaking.
Probably one thing that made this book a little hard for me was that I actually had never watched Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. Each of the stories is clearly inspired by the format of the television show, with the dog interjecting while the Storyteller tells a tale, and it felt like there were quite a few in-jokes that went over my head. The art on the front cover is gorgeous, but unfortunately it didn’t reflect any of the stories within, and I wasn’t as captivated by the other three as I was the first.
A fun graphic novel for nostalgic fans of the TV show (or of dragons) but might miss the mark for graphic novel aficionados.
A couple of years ago, I was juggling (arguably) too many book clubs. Membership of one particular book club was made up of colleagues, and when one particular meeting fell around Indigenous Literacy Day, I thought it would be a good idea to run a bit of a Great Book Swap. The idea is pretty straightforward: bring books and gold coins, and for every gold coin you pay, you get a book and the coins go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. I ended up picking this book, but unfortunately the attendee who “donated” it didn’t realise that it was a permanent donation. I agreed to return it once I’d finished it, but unfortunately it fell a bit by the wayside. After introducing a new “system” where all my unread books are in a stack looming threateningly over me, I managed to finally get to it.
“The Moth: This is a True Story” edited by Catherine Burns is a collection of 50 true short stories adapted from spoken word performances. I hadn’t heard of The Moth prior to reading this book. Essentially, The Moth is a particular type of live event where storytellers with a really good story about something true from their own lives tell it to a live audience. The stories are loosely arranged by theme and range in topic from travel, medicine, parentage, medicine and just about everything in between.
Needless to say, there are some very compelling stories in this collection. I think my favourite, and the one that stayed with me the most, was A View of the Earth by astronaut Michael Massimino. I also really enjoyed Mission to India by infectious disease specialist Dr George Lombardi, Notes on an Exorcism by Andrew Solomon about a particular experience with depression, and LOL by delightfully well-meaning father Adam Gopnik. Some were heartbreaking, like Bicycle Safety on Essex by journalist Richard Price who witnesses racism in action and Angel by Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels who finds out the truth of his identity. Still others were downright illuminating like Impeachment Day by Joe Lockhart, Elevator ER by Jon Levin and The Prince and I by Jillian Lauren.
I think like every collection of stories, there are always going to be some that speak to you more than others. While most were pretty enjoyable, interesting or illuminating there were a couple that irked me. One in particular was by a man who trained monkeys in a laboratory, and just about every single part of the premise of his story I disagreed with.
A fascinating and diverse collection of stories made all the more engaging because they are all true.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“Time Crawlers” by Varun Sayal is a collection of six science fiction short stories. The stories cover a range of themes from a subtle alien invasion (Eclipse), suicide for entertainment (Death by Crowd), a bureaucracy-obsessed magical being (Genie), time-bending beings (Time Crawlers), a powerful telekinetic (The Cave) and a super-weapon (Nark-Astra).
Sayal is a clear, engaging writer with a tongue-in-cheek style. Science fiction is often a very America-centric genre, and I really enjoyed reading another science fiction author writing from a non-European cultural perspective. I love the way Sayal weaves science and Indian culture together and peppers his stories with references to internet culture.
While I found Sayal’s stories very creative, several of them had a very similar ‘interview’ format with one person explaining a concept or idea to another person. I think that the ideas and the characters are definitely there, but I would like to see a bit more plot.
A fun and cheeky collection of stories that freshen up the science fiction genre.
If you listen to my podcast Lost the Plot, you might remember me speaking to this particular author back in Episode 25 about short stories. More recently, I helped to launch his latest collection of short stories in a live podcast event. While I had read quite a few, and listened to more on his podcast, I thought it was high time that I finished reading both collections and sat down to review them.
“Capital Yarns Volume 1” and “Capital Yarns Volume 2” by Sean Costello are two collections of shorts stories based in and around Canberra. Each story is constructed around three objects nominated by friends, family and members of the public which are highlighted in bold text. The stories range in theme, some more playful, some darker, some tackling modern social issues. In the second volume, printed in a slightly different format, the stories are arranged by age group and grow progressively more serious as the book goes on.
A Canberran born and bred, Costello’s love for the city permeates the pages of each book. Clearly a keen people-watcher, Costello brings to life stories of ordinary Canberrans in some well-known and not-so-well-known parts of Australia’s often derided but increasingly cosmopolitan capital city. Costello pokes fun at some of the stereotypes of Canberra including its politicians and its hipsters, but importantly his satire is always aimed at privilege and he never punches down. Costello makes a clear effort to showcase the diversity of Canberrans and some of my favourite stories are decoding the opposite sex and how i met your grandfather in Volume 1 and hey sister and delusions of grandeur in Volume 2.
Like many authors, I think Costello starts to hit his stride a little more in Volume 2 and I felt that the arrangement by age group lent an overall cohesiveness to the book that wasn’t quite there with Volume 1. I also felt that the stories in Volume 2 were a bit stronger overall and were perhaps a little less about issues, places and things were instead more driven by plot and characters.
Two lovely collections of heartfelt stories filled with Canberra pride that you can experience for yourself in written or audio format on Costello’s website.