Category Archives: Ramblings

Festivus Book Pimping: Dark Edges by Catherine Lee

Next in the Festivus of the Pimping of Books we’re going to hit some crime. Death and drugs and deception, oh my!  Catherine Lee is an Aussie crime writer, and her Cooper & Quinn Dark Series is really starting to gain some well-deserved traction. Combining murder mystery and police procedural, and set in the heart of Sydney, I was hooked from the first book.

Lee’s narrative is sharp, and the crimes she ‒ or rather Detectives Cooper and Quinn ‒ tackle, could almost be ripped straight from the headlines. That’s the thing with Lee’s books, the crimes committed (and investigated) mirror the society we live in, and while not a didactic narrative on the world’s state-of-play, it does make you think.

Dark Edges is the fifth novel in the series (there are two novellas), and the twists and turns in this story don’t let up. Just when you think you have a handle on it… bam! But that’s what I like in a crime/mystery novel – you discover as the detectives do. And Lee seems to be ramping up the tension and odds with each book.

Dark-Edges

Here’s the back-cover blurb for Dark Edges:

A football player in the prime of his life is found dead from an apparent drug overdose. Was it an accident, suicide, or something more sinister?
Detective Charlie Cooper is struggling just to keep awake after some upheaval on the home front. But life is busy for everyone, and Cooper is intrigued from the start with this baffling case. Jimmy Dallas was a rising star with everything to live for – would he really have stuck a needle in his arm the week before the biggest match of his career?
Joel Maguire, for one, does not believe his best mate would have knowingly injected himself with anything. Reeling from the shock loss, and dealing with some issues of his own, the Rangers’ star player struggles to put one foot in front of the other, let alone play finals football.
Australian rugby league takes centre stage in the fifth book of Catherine Lee’s page-turning Dark Series. Strap yourself in as Cooper and Quinn tackle the controversial issue of drugs in sport.

Each of the book works as a standalone, so you don’t necessarily need to read them all, but with over-arching character development for both of the detectives, and some secondary characters popping up now and then throughout the other books… well, BOOKS! Who doesn’t love to read books?

I can’t recommend this series enough. Cooper and Quinn are well-developed, well-rounded characters, each with their own flaws and quirks. Having the setting pretty much in my own backyard is a such a welcome change to the generic US-based books that flood the market.

Recommended for those who love crime, murder mystery, police procedural, stabby-stabby, shooty-shooty (yeah, that sounded way better in my head). Look, just buy the book… hell, buy the whole series.

Available in all formats.

Festivus Book Pimping: Primordial by David Wood and Alan Baxter

All right, who wants monsters? And here I’m talking monsters-of-the-deep variety. You do? Excellent! Well, have I the pimp for you! Book pimp, I mean, not… moving on. So, this monster thing I was talking about before you all fell into the gutter, is of the ancient ilk. Primordial, in fact (see what I did there?). And it’s of the big bitey kind.

Primordial by David Wood and Alan Baxter is a ‘creature feature’ novel with the search for a monster purportedly living in a Finnish lake. The book follows Australian marine biologist Sam Ashton, who take on the job of scientific sceptic for billionaire-come-batshit-crazy-dude, Ellis Holloway. Along for the ride is a documentary team, led by Joanne Slater; Holloway’s bodyguard, and a local fisherman. On shore, (yes, they get to shore), is local historian Old Mo, who keeps the legend of Lake Kaarme alive.

This book contains myths and legends, nods to Hollow Earth, Jurassic Park, and a little bit of Jaws thrown in to get the pulse racing in those underwater scenes (swim faster, you fools!).  There’s a lot going on in this story, and the authors take the readers on quite the ride… swim… boat… (shut up). There’s horror, suspense, some gore, a little bit of bow-chicka-wow-wow, but this is a slick novel that will have your pulse racing.

Back-cover blurb below:

Sometimes, the legends are true. When eccentric billionaire, Ellis Holloway, hires renegade marine biologist, Sam Aston, to investigate the legend of a monster in a remote Finnish lake, Aston envisions an easy paycheck and a chance to clear his gambling debts. But he gets much more. There is something terrible living beneath the dark waters of Lake Kaarme and it is hungry. As the death toll mounts, Aston faces superstitious locals, a power-hungry police chief, and a benefactor’s descent into madness as he races to find the legendary beast of the lake.

Primordial-full

(Killer cover by the uber-talented Dean Samed of Neostock.)

Buy this book for someone you love, or don’t love, or like a lot or just a wee bit. Look, this is an excellent read with a tight plot, excellent characters, and a monster that will make you wet your pants*. You can’t go wrong.

Recommended for lovers of horror, suspense, creature-feature stories, big-bitey things, legendary creatures, cryptozoology.

 

* No pants were soiled in the reading of this book.  

Writers, Retreats, and Insane Asylums

It’s been just over a week since I returned from a Writer’s Retreat held at Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum at Beechworth. Yep, you read right – a writer’s retreat held at an old insane asylum. It was as awesome as it sounds. Five days sequestered with other writers in a hauntingly (and quite possibly haunted) beautiful asylum is the stuff of inspiration. And personing. I did a whole lot of personing.

What made this doubly excellent was the other writers in attendance, all but one of whom were very close friends, so it was a catch-up of epic proportions. This also meant that we were all comfortable throwing around ideas and points of view, and engaging in general shenanigans. But we were there to write, to have that uninterrupted time some of us seldom get when at home. And it was glorious.

Writing is often a solitary endeavour where you live in your created worlds among created people. But put a bunch of writers together, and it’s a whirlwind of book discussions, plot summaries, story ideas, and why synopsis writing is the tenth circle of Hell. There’s joy in this cacophony; the rise and fall of voices, the quirks and strange paths conversations take that would make no sense to non-writerly folk but which feeds the soul and the muse of those who bleed ink. They will tell you why your story necessitates the killing of a character (beloved or otherwise) then offer a plethora of options on how to do so that would land them on any federal watchlist.

Just being among fellow scribes is enough to invigorate, enough to drown out that writer-imposteritis but we were also fortunate enough to have the wonderful pocket-rocket Kylie Chan providing workshops all through Saturday, which were fantastic, but always there was time to write. There’s not a lot better than sitting in a nicely heated room listening to the clack of keys in the silence as worlds and people are created – individual galaxies within a shared universe. It’s kinda cool.

But when we weren’t writing, there were historical tours of the asylum, and one very late night there was also a paranormal investigation. As much as I would have liked to go on the paranormal investigation, when it’s -4˚ outside… well, I’m staying where the heat is. Those that took up the challenge had a great time despite the sub-zero temps.

We ate, slept and created together… wait, let me rephrase. Look, we bunked down in the same room, wore pretty much all the clothes we’d brought with us when it was time to venture outside – hell, I even wore my slippers out to dinner because damn it was cold. We took the piss out of each other, we laughed, and we revelled in our own and each other’s weirdness.

And the location was everything. The asylum has a melancholic beauty about it.  The history is both shocking and sad, with desolate and worn-down buildings that hold memories that are like scars. For my mind, pain and suffering has a tendency to linger, to echo long after people are gone, and I don’t doubt there is fear and horror etched into some of the walls, the cells of the asylum.

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Too soon the time was over, and I had to take a tiny plane home, but those five days were like manna from heaven. I came away with so much more than just a honed story premise and structural architecture (and glow-in-the-dark skeletal gloves), but a renewed vigour for writing. I can’t wait to go again next year. And I can’t thank all the people involved enough, but let me try.

To Geoff and Dawn for organising and running the reatreat – you two work immensely hard not only on Asylum Ghost Tours but Cohesion Press as well. You two rock. (Special shout out to Mandy and Leah for all they did over the five days as well.)

Now I’m going to list the writers at the retreat – they are an amazing bunch and you really should be reading their work. They’re incredible and diverse storytellers, and there should be something in here for everyone.

Kylie Chan

Devin Madson

Marty Young

Andrew McKiernan

David Schembri

Fiona Shearer.

And for all those writers out there, find a retreat, a place that evokes inspiration and puts you around others who not only share your passion to create, but will encourage and badger you to do so.

Whispers in the Void

A couple of months ago, Mark Lawrence launched this year’s Battle of the Bards competition ‒ write a flash fiction piece (300 words or fewer), for a chance to win signed books from some of the giants in the grimdark/fantasy genre.

My friend, Devin Madson, won that comp with her incredible piece ‒ Between Lanterns and Corpses. It’s a brilliant story, and I was so chuffed she’d won. You can read it here, along with the short-listed entries. For those familiar with Devin’s work, this story is set within her Vengeance trilogy universe, and this post explains the origin of the winning flash piece. You should be reading her work, she’s quite the storyteller!

I, too, gave the competition a whirl, but alas, no free books. While a ‘loss’ in the literal form, it was a win in the time-to-write column. Yes, it’s only 300 words (good words, I think), but it was more the act of creativity that soothed my soul ‒ that’s always a win.

The story I wrote has also brought into sharper focus one of the characters of my WiP, so I’ve gained another win (two ticks in the win column ‒ I’m on a roll!). Writing tight forces those essential traits, the… trueness of a character and lets the world see it.

So, if you’ve read this far, then perhaps you can read another three hundred words.

Whispers in the Void

Wren knew this wasn’t the last of the dead they would stitch beneath her skin. This night the soothsayer would be forged into the finest jewel, and Wren would carry that hateful woman for all time. Already the sickly-sweet scent of roasting flesh clogged her throat.

Anointed in oils, Wren had been left to commune with the souls she carried, but never had their voices been quiet. Never had they let her be. Silence, how she craved it. Nights undisturbed. Days, her thoughts her own. But the people had cut and carved and delivered their dead ‘til she was a shadow within a shell. Infested. Infected. The slow death of self.

Escape was all she had. And freedom meant retribution. With no Journeywoman to replace Wren, the clan’s spirits would be unprotected. Ripe for the Undergod’s pickings.

Beneath the Spirit House, blisters bloomed on her skin as she dragged herself past the furnace where the soothsayer sizzled and spat. May the Undergod never shit you out. Wren stifled a cry; lances of fire a thousand-fold speared through her, the spirit-gems enraged at being so near their creators. Life-eternal they’d been promised, yet prisoners they’d become in an unwilling crypt.

They blazed their fury, but freedom meant pain. They would soon understand.

At the slag pit’s egress, the light of day stung her weeping blisters, and glinted off the jagged spears of metal below. Thousands of spirits she’d been burdened to carry. She would carry no more.

The drop from her perch was steep, and the dead began to beg. Without her, they were just whispers in the void.

Freedom beckoned. Her life her own, however fleeting.

No longer the caged bird she had always been, Wren smiled as she pushed from the edge, and for a moment, she flew.

raven

Art by: Dimitarsizce

Tag, you’re it.

My absolute loathing of the dialogue tag ‘opined’ is no secret. (By all the gods, Baxter, if you start tagging me with that shit again, I will steal your dogs.) If you’re using ‘opined’, or another wankerish dialogue tag to push home to the reader some kind of pretentious point your character is making, then you need to take a look at your character’s dialogue because it should be pretty clear they’re voicing their opinion.

Dialogue tags serve a few purposes. For example, they identify the speaker, they break longer pieces of dialogue, and they can also be used to further enhance emotion. And yes, that third point should be used sparingly – if you can’t convey emotion through dialogue and action, then a dialogue tag telling the reader so, doesn’t really cut it.

Use ‘said’. Almost always use ‘said’. Of course there are going to be exceptions to this ‘rule’, but the beauty of ‘said’ is that it’s invisible. It ensures the emphasis is on the spoken word, on the emotions put forward within those words, and the honesty and/or sub-text behind it.

Dialogue is the voice of your characters, and I’m not just talking accents and inflections here, I’m talking a deeper sense of self. When a character speaks, they reveal a lot about not only themselves but the situation/scene they find themselves in (do not use ‘he/she revealed’, if the characters says it, trust me, it’s revealed). You don’t need a fancy-shmancy dialogue tag, it’s distracting, and removes focus from speech.

Sure, there are times when ‘said’ isn’t going to cut it, but choose words that impact the dialogue, eg. whispered, muttered, shouted, screamed. These dialogue tags up the ante, but use them sparingly or they’ll become repetitive. No, put down that Thesaurus – use ‘said’.

Opine

Same applies with ‘asked’. If there’s a question mark at the end of your dialogue, it’s safe to assume the reader understands a question is being posed – ‘asked’ becomes redundant (don’t use ‘posed’ either, that’s redundant as well).

Look, I understand there are a lot of ‘rules’ to writing and grammar and all that comes with storytelling, but as an editor and a reader, I’m telling you: let the dialogue do the work for you, and let the dialogue tag (if you need one) become invisible. It’s the characters’ voices we want to hear, not the way you tell us they spoke.

Show the reader through dialogue, through action. It falls in line with ‘show don’t tell’. You want the reader to know the character is angry? Don’t use: ‘he/she said angrily’, show us through the narrowing of eyes, the gritting of teeth, or punching a wall, for example. Then use ‘she/he said’. The emotion and/or sense the character is trying to put forward is far more visual, far more visceral, and the reader will be far more engaged than having a character opine at them (you use that, and I’ll cut you).

For a far more polite understanding of the above, check out Devin Madson’s vlog on this very subject: Almost Always Use Said, it has some wonderful insights as to why you shouldn’t fancy up your dialogue attributions.

So, the next time you’re writing dialogue, remember to make that attribution invisible so the voice of your character holds the power it should.

(Seriously, Baxter, I will steal your dogs.)

Movie Review: Train to Busan

It took me longer than it really should have to get around to seeing Train to Busan, and it wasn’t until I finally sat down to watch it that I realised how big a mistake that wait was. I’m a huge fan of zombie apocalypse films and when the first trailer dropped I was hooked. Then as tends to be the case, life happens, and it fell off my radar.

It wasn’t until a friend posted they’d bought a copy that I hunted it down on cable TV. Train to Busan was everything I hoped it would be and more. It hits all the right marks when it comes to horror, action-thriller, and zombies. It’s a slow burn at the beginning, introducing the main characters, setting up the premise and foreshadowing the virus that will come to destroy South Korea, but it soon kicks up the pace and ramps the tension.

SPOILER ALERT IN ALL ITS SPOILERY-NESS. READ ON AT YOUR OWN SPOILERY RISK.

Now before I go on, I’ve said before that I’m no movie aficionado – I just know what I like. So it’s on that alone I’m basing my review. Alrighty then, let’s get this show on the road… or tracks…

train-to-busan

Train to Busan follows the story of Seok-woo, a divorced fund manager who works long hours while trying to raise his daughter, Soo-an. For her birthday, she finally convinces him to take her to see her mother in Busan. He doesn’t want to go, but his mother convinces him he must take her (just an aside, the last phonecall between the two is very cool). On the drive to the station, it’s clear some major shit is going down ­‒ ambulances and fire trucks are screaming past ‒ but the pair seem relatively safe. Once on the train, however, and just as the doors are closing, a young woman stumbles into one of the carriages with a bite wound to her leg.

And so begins the journey.

We’re introduced to the rest of the cast – a married couple expecting their first child, a baseball player and his cheerleader love interest, two elderly sisters (brilliantly played), a rich CEO, and the train driver (minor though his role is, hero he remains).

It doesn’t take long for the infection and the attacks to begin, slowly working their way through the carriages. These zombies are hard-core eating machines that move with speed, and in the confines of a train make survival all the more difficult. It soon becomes clear to those on the train that some bad, bad shit is going down outside, although most are unaware of the infection spreading inside, pretty much until it’s too late.

While most of the film takes place on the train, one pit-stop at a purported safe zone doesn’t end well for a lot of the passengers. Numbers are whittled, and characters are separated­‒ Seok-woo from his daughter, husband and pregnant wife, the sisters, and the baseball player and his new girlfriend. They have to fight through a number of zombie-infested carriages to reach their loved ones.

There’s something about horror set on trains that amps up tension – confined spaces, no way to get off, not in control of your destination. The claustrophobic feel of it lends itself well, and here is no different. It also brings out the true nature of the passengers, and what some will do in their quest for survival. Do you try to save who you can? Or, do you sacrifice others for your own survival? We see both sides of this with the remaining characters, and there are some brilliant scenes that showcase the decisions the characters make.

The two elderly sisters’ relationship is one of the most touching. Grouchy and sarcastic with each other, they are the most fun to watch, which makes the death of one (watched in all its gory glory) so traumatic. It’s here we really see the choices made, and the surviving sister understanding the wrongness of kicking uninfected passengers out of a safe carriage, sets things (almost) right.

TraintoBusan_zombie

Sacrifice is the name of the game here, and it’s not until very close to the end that we understand Seok-woo (and his company) are the harbingers of what is happening. There are no happy endings here. There is survival, but at what cost? And it’s that social commentary, woven expertly through the storyline without it being didactic, that gives Train to Busan its heart.

For those of you who balk at foreign-language films because you think subtitles take away from your viewing pleasure, put that aside and watch this movie. I had (and have) no issues with it, and it in no way lessened my appraisal.  Director Yeon Sang-ho delivered a film that entertains and makes you think, it makes you question: what would I do? The zombies are fast and voracious, single-mindedly focussed on “food”, and damn well everywhere. Excellent stuff.

For me, it’s one of the better zombie movies I’ve seen in a very long time, and if you haven’t got around to seeing it, you really should make the effort.

I give it 9 out of 10.

Book Review: The Wheel of Osheim by Mark Lawrence

I once described Mark Lawrence thus: thief of slumber, time trafficker, broker of the dawn. Many a night I have sacrificed sleep and my ability to function as an adulting adult, so immersed have I been in Lawrence’s worlds. This holds true with his last book in the Red Queen’s War series – The Wheel of Osheim.

It’s taken me longer than I’d have liked to get to this book, but it was damn well worth the wait. The Wheel of Osheim continues the epic tale of Prince Jalan Kendeth of the Red March and gargantuan Viking Snorri Ver Snagason. Fated to stop the ‘Wheel’ and save the world, these two characters are polar opposites but more alike than perhaps Kendeth would care to admit. Snorri? I’m sure he saw the kindred in Jalan early.

While I bought this huge tome in its beautiful print edition, I read it on my Kindle (because I am in love with my Kindle, and that’s a revelation that still hurts sometimes, but what’s one to do?). And while my husband has adjusted to the dim reading glow from my side of the bed, I haven’t quite adjusted to his: “it’s two in the morning… it’s three in the morning… no amount of coffee is going to make you human.” (He’s wrong, so very wrong.)

Ooh, would you look at that. Three paragraphs in, it must be spoiler alert time.

SPOILER WARNING… … SPOILER WARN… … SPOILER… … … FIRE BAD, TREE PRETTY. (Shut up.)

the-wheel-of-osheim

 

So where to begin? Well, with Jalan being spat from Hell (or Hel) and back into a quest he wants nothing to do with. All he wants is to go home and forget about the whole sorry mess – those are the words he speaks, yes, but Jal is the quintessential character of juxtaposition – he is both brave and cowardly, cruel and kind, indifferent and devoted. Human. That’s his appeal; he’s tremendously flawed, but when push comes to shove (and that’s often a literal shove), he surprises himself by doing the right thing, because despite his protestations to the contrary, that sense of righteousness within has grown to a formidable force.

A lot of that, I think, has to do with Snorri and the friendship the two have forged. While Snorri is quite open with his admiration (and remonstration) of Jalan, there’s a vulnerability in the Viking that perfectly balances the violence within. It’s that balance that’s slowly working its way through Jal. Though demonstrably different, the two are cut from the same cloth. Something Snorri sees far more than Jalan.

It’s an intricate world Lawrence has woven, and intricate players he’s put within. We see more of Jalan’s brothers – the two he’s hated most his life. But as with all relationships, it’s complex and we see the contempt Jal has had for his brothers superseded by the familial ties none of us can escape. In The Wheel of Osheim we see the depth and growth of Jalan more than in the previous books – we see the humanity he’s always tried to cover, to shield from the world. It’s achingly brutal.

The same can be said for Snorri’s ventures through Hel to find and rescue his wife and children. This melding of faiths – Jalan’s Christian Hell, and Snorri’s Norse Hel – showcases the layering Lawrence has put into each character. Snorri is a Viking on a mission, and nothing will stand in his way – not demons, not undead, not Hel’s warriors… that battle scene where Snorri finds his son is one of the best I’ve read. It’s bloody, it’s cruel, it’s heart-wrenchingly incapacitating – all that it should have been.

As with any final book in a trilogy, there’s much to tie up – both long game and short. This is a story that needs investing from the reader. You can’t half-arse it through this. The foreshadowing is there, and it’s subtle, but it all comes to play as you head into the final battle – the saving of the world… or rather, the saving of it for just that little bit longer.

Past, present and future all lay their cards on the table in The Wheel of Osheim, and fate, oh what a fickle mistress she is. The gods (whichever you choose them to be) have had their hands in this from the beginning. Which beginning? From the time of The Builders – the gods that never were – the world has been ticking so very quickly down. And magic, she is tearing apart the fabric of this universe faster than anyone realised.

It’s this urgency Lawrence plays to throughout this book, while still taking the time to address all that’s been built into the previous two books: the Red Queen, the Silent Sister, Garyus (by far one of the most interesting and underplayed characters), Lady Blue… it’s quite a cast. And while not everything is concluded (possibly leaving it open for more stories in Jalan’s world), there was enough to make the ending satisfying.

Look, I could go on and on about the different aspects, the plots and sub-plots, the narrative, mechanics, architecture of the book, but I’ve no time to write a dissertation on how good this book is. Yes, sometimes it does fall into cliché (the usurpation of the throne by the Red Queen’s brother, and the subsequent death), but this can be forgiven based on the prose alone. As with The Red Queen’s War, and The Broken Empire series, Lawrence can take and twist words into the most sublime of writing. When the ‘wordsmith’ is used, I’m sure Lawrence is one of the authors meant to wear this moniker.

Overall, The Wheel of Osheim is a dark, gritty, often humorous storytelling of a world in its dying days. Of political machinations, of haunting past deeds and the price one pays. And monsters, oooh, there be monsters. A totally immersive, roller-coaster ride to tie the series off.

On a Goodreads scale, I give it five stars.