Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan
This is only the second Margo Lanagan book I’ve read and the first containing short stories (the other was Tender Morsels). Although there were only four stories in Cracklescape, I really felt like I got a feeling for the sort of stories Lanagan writes. The general feeling actually reminded me a bit of Ekaterina Sedia’s stories, but with an Australian flavour rather than a Russian one (and a bit less depressing).
A few words on the stories in Cracklescape:
The Duchess Dresser is about a dresser (presumably the one on the front cover) with a mysteriously stuck drawer and the man who acquires it and puts it in his bedroom. Suffice to say the drawer isn’t stuck here because the key cannot be found.
The Isles of the Sun was a strange story and perhaps my favourite in the collection. It’s a somewhat modern world fairytale with a bit of a twist: as well as being told from the main child’s point of view, it’s also partly told from his mother’s point of view. I appreciated the look at the other side of the coin. It’s easy to write about the kids that go on an incredible, magical adventure, but what about the parents? Nice to see it addressed in a short story.
Bajazzle was strange. Oddly enough, the references the title evoked for me ended up having more relevance to the story that I expected. Other than that, it’s an open-to-interpretation piece and I don’t think I can say more about it without saying too much. That and I suspect my reaction to it says as much about me as about the story itself. Heh.
Significant Dust was two stories really. The foreground events in the main character’s life — themselves told in two time lines — and the story with the dust and the possible aliens. I think I will need to reread this one when I’m less busy and stressed. I have a feeling there’s a bit more to the background story than I picked up on the first time through.
All in all, this is a strong collection which fans of Lanagan will enjoy. For those who haven’t encountered her work before, I recommend it to fans of magical realism, fairy tales sneaking into the real world and magic in everyday places. I’m not the biggest fan of short stories, particularly not in large doses (a definite upside of the slim Twelve Planets series), but Cracklescape has made me mentally bump White Time, another Lanagan collection waiting on one of my shelves, up my TBR.
4 / 5 stars
Showtime by Narrelle M Harris
Showtime by Narrelle M Harris is another of Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets collections. The stories in it are thematically linked — supernatural creatures such as vampires, zombies and ghosts feature — but there isn’t a linking setting or common characters as in Nightsiders, Bad Power or Love and Romanpunk.
The general theme throughout the four stories is of subverting some of the tropes associated with the aforementioned supernatural creatures. There’s either a bit of a twist or something upfront that’s a bit unusual in each of them. They’re also all ultimately about families in different ways. I really enjoyed all of the stories and I would highly recommend this collection to anyone with even a passing interest in vampires, zombies or ghosts. The fact that two of the stories were also set in Australia only added to my enjoyment (of the other two, if you’re wondering, one’s set in a kitchen which could be almost anywhere and the other is set in Hungary).
Stalemate is the story set in a kitchen. It’s a story about family and about family fights and how the same fight can feel never-ending.
Thrall is the story set in Hungary. It’s about an ancient vampire that hasn’t quite gotten with the modern times (and has discovered that YouTube videos have no problem capturing his likeness, unlike good old silver nitrate film). A story about how the old isn’t always compatible with the new.
The Truth About Brains
The truth about brains is that one day your little brother can accidentally get turned into a zombie. And then you don’t necessarily want him around when he’s getting increasingly smelly in the Australian summer. That doesn’t stop your mum from making you take him with you every time you go out, though…
The titular story is about a (human) librarian and a vampire going to the Melbourne Show. If you’ve read Narrelle M Harris’s The Opposite of Life (I haven’t yet), then you might recognise the two main characters.
Overall, it’s hard to pick a favourite story as there are different nice things to recommend about each of them. As I said, I very much enjoyed this collection and I highly recommend it.
4.5 / 5 stars
Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti
This book is part of Twelfth Planet Press’s “Twelve Planets” series. It is a collection of five short stories all set in a common world. I bought the ebook version and it’s also available in paperback and for Kindle.
Bad Power is set (mostly) in modern Sydney in a world where some people have an inexplicable power: talking to dead people, seeing the future, immortality, and a few less common powers. And, although most of the protagonists have super powers, none of them are heroes (well, with one possible exception).
A few words about each of the stories:
Shades of Grey
The first thing that struck me about Biancotti’s writing when I started reading this story was the cinematic quality of the mental images it conjured up. The opening story grabbed me from the first paragraph and thrust me into the collection.
In “Shades of Grey” we meet Esser Grey, a wealthy businessman who recently discovered his power and is testing the limits (and not really finding any). We also meet detective Palmer, a recurring character throughout the collection who keeps being given the weird cases. (I enjoyed the continuity of seeing Palmer in later stories and also the mentions of Grey later on.) This story really sets the scene for the rest of the collection.
Palming the Lady
In this story, a young medical student, Matthew Webb, goes to the police and is directed to detective Palmer. He is being stalked by a homeless woman who knows where he’s going to be and gets there before he does. But his future isn’t he only future she sees.
Web of Lies
We meet Matthew again, this time just after his father’s death when he and his mother and discovering how to live again, free from the old man’s dictatorship. They both struggle with it in different ways and both learn there is more power in their family than they had realised.
As a side note, Matthew is mentioned in passing the last two stories. After the tumultuous stories in which he played a central role, it was nice to read that he had a slightly more stable future ahead of him. A neat way of letting us know that it was all OK in the end.
This is the only story not set in modern Sydney and also the only one written in first person. It also stood out for me as being the one story with a less thoroughly described setting — I was slightly confused about the time period it was set in, but turns out my first instinct was correct.
It’s a story about someone with a self-described “bad” power and about the horrible things people do to each other. This was easily the most horrific story in the collection and, for that reason, my least favourite. However, the link the previous and subsequent stories made it a relevant and integral part of the collection. I think without this story, the whole collection would have felt slightly more bland. (And it does make a good title for the collection as a whole.)
Cross That Bridge
This was the story that, when I heard a brief description on Galactic Suburbia, made me want to read the whole collection. Max works for the police. His power is the ability to find lost children, even when there is no discernible trail. As one might imagine, people find his talent creepy and he is constantly under suspicion.
It’s hard to choose a favourite story in this collection. Aside from “Bad Power”, they read almost like chapters from the same book (except with resolutions and different protagonists). The idea of normal people discovering superpowers isn’t a new one (cf Heroes), nor is the idea of an organisation such as the Grey Institute hinted at in the background throughout the collection (cf X-Men, Union Dues, etc). However, Biancotti pulls the world off uniquely and fascinatingly.
I really enjoyed the exploration of human nature and the wildly different coping mechanisms the powered characters employ. My favourite take home message? Power is not always empowerment.
4.5 / 5 stars
Nightsiders by Sue Isle
Nightsiders by Sue Isle is a collection of four short stories set in the same world. It is part of Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets series, twelve collections which are showcasing the work of twelve Australian female authors. I believe it’s the only one so far to be entirely science fictional (that said, the only other I’ve read is Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts — an excellent blend of Roman mythology, the past and the future — and I’m not sure what’s planned for the rest of the series).
Nightsiders is set in Western Australia, in and around Perth. I want to say it’s post-apocalyptic, but that’s not quite true. It seems part local apocalypse, part generalised catastrophic climate change. The Australian climate has changed so that the west coast is no longer particularly habitable, with hints at the start that things are better in the east. The former city of Perth is now generally referred to as Nightside, because the people living there have turned nocturnal, seeking shelter during the heat of the day and going about their business in the marginally cooler nights.
A few words on each of the stories:
The Painted Girl
13 year old girl has been with walking with an older woman (who isn’t her mother) as long as she remembers. One day, her life abruptly changes and she learns there’s more to it than she’d realised.
The Nation of the Night
Ash, 17 year old a trans boy, goes east for an operation. The story is mostly about the stark differences between the parched west and the drowning east. He quickly learns that life is far from perfect in Melbourne, even if they still have hospitals and infrastructure. In Nightside (aka Perth), everyone helps their neighbours, in Melbourne, the infrastructure is overcrowded and they’re trying to keep out as many surplus people as they can manage.
Some of the kids in Nightside put on a play based on some old TV scripts they found in an abandoned home. Turns out it’s a soap about the trivialities of teenage life as in our time. Nightside’s entire population of old folk (who remember life before the bombings and the evacuation) turn out to watch.
The Schoolteacher’s Tale
This was my favourite story. Mostly, I think, because it filled in some of the gaps left by the other stories with teenage protagonists who didn’t know life before Nightside. The titular schoolteacher is a 70 year old woman who had been mentioned as a key figure in the lives of the characters in the previous two stories. We are exposed to some of her reminiscences of how much the world has changed and, through the story, we learn a bit of where Nightside is headed in the future.
It sort of feels strange that I can summarise each of the stories in a few sentences but barely even touch on what the stories are really about. Partly this is avoiding spoilers, and partly because there are some themes and ideas that run through all four stories which are hard to pin down to just one of them.
An idea that runs through all the stories (though features the most in the first one) is that of the Drainers. They are a group of people with a genetic mutation that gives them a tolerance for the harsh sun and helps them go a bit longer between sips of water. They come out during the day when everyone else is sleeping, and hide in caves and drains (hence the name, I suppose) at night. There are stories of them eating people or draining their blood and, because they move about when everyone else is sleeping, they’re regarded almost as reverse vampires, a notion which appealed to me.
All the children protagonists have adapted better to life in Nightside than the adults. They have good night vision (and poor day vision) and, of course, they are used to the only life they have ever known. One theme that ran heavily through the first three stories is that of abandonment. In the two middle stories, the children were abandoned by parents who went east during the evacuation. There’s a heavy implication that this happened to almost all of the children of Nightside, with some of the remaining adults acting as foster parents to many of them. It sort of felt a bit much. Of course, the children that weren’t abandoned when their parents went east wouldn’t have still been around. But really, children are pretty much top of the list of things parents take with them when leaving a war zone. Where are the parents that stayed behind with children? Where are the children whose parents were killed rather than left? I appreciate that the theme of abandonment fits in with the greater theme of Nightside being abandoned by its former inhabitants and the rest of the country, but it felt a little bit lopsided by the time I got to the end.
On a happier note, this was a collection full of strong and well drawn female characters. With the exception of Ash (trans) in the second story, all the protagonists were female. There was also a good balance of male and female secondary/background characters, which is always nice to see.
To a small degree, the setting put me in mind of Daughters of Moab by Kim Westwood, but the writing style was very different and thematically the setting and the idea of adaptation to a hostile environment were the only things the two have in common.
Overall, I found Nightsiders an interesting read.
Rating 4 / 5 stars