Dear readers, I have a confession to make.
I am not such a geek goddess after all. In my haste to entertain you and entice you to read more, I forgot that we keep track of all our reviews using not just the handy dandy list that I usually look at but also a spreadsheet.
And dear readers, you have been good reviewers – there are indeed 43 reviews of short story collections by Australian female authors. And I am a geek noob. Wearing a dunce hat. Sitting in the corner.
And oh my darlings, it does get better. In a move that will astound you, dear readers, and possibly also give you an insight into how my brain as it gets older does have its inane blind spots, it transpires that two of the reviews in the list of 43, are reviews of mine.
That’s right – I reviewed two collections of short stories, early on in January this year. And even when puzzling over the blankness of the short story category I did not recall this fact and check the spreadsheet and went onto, not once but twice, my darlings, try to entice you and enthrall you and coax you to fill that page up for me.
And my darlings, you delivered, it is only I who has come to the party late. So as we shiver our way into the sheer audacity of this 2014 Australian winter, what have you been reading for these last six months?
So who was the most popular? I always yearn to have one standout winner when I do these roundups, if only so I can build up to it with some sort of finals and semifinals knockout tournament (the World Cup is on, didn’t you notice).
But alas, it was not to be. We have several authors who had two reviews each, one of the most intriguing being Letter to George Clooney by Debra Adelaide. Ms Adelaide, you may have hit upon something here so if Mr Clooney responds to you please let us know – some of us could use that tactic.
Angie Holt of the Projected Happiness blog tells us more about this potential celebrity moment:
‘I finished it in a few days, reading the collection chronologically rather than dipping in haphazardly: I would recommend this way as the last two stories are the most profound and will leave you at the close of the book deep in contemplation. Most pieces of the collection are observational in nature, written with a dry wit, particularly those poking gentle fun at the profession of writing, and a few a bit more scathing on the pitfalls and pleasures of modern dating.’
Cate Kennedy‘s Like A House On Fire also got two reviews as did Eleni Konstantine‘s SNOOP (one of the ones I reviewed and somehow forgot that I did). Kirstyn McDermott‘s Caution: Contains Small Parts, Laura McKay‘s Holiday in Cambodia, and Fiona Palmer‘s The Empty Nest also all had double acts.
Hoyden About Town warns against getting too attached to Like A House On Fire:
‘I don’t think any book has ever made me want to scream so much. Not because it was in any way bad but, like a frustrated toddler, because I wanted the stories to go on. Each story, some only a few pages long, describes a domestic scene: a teenager at a part time job saving for a holiday, people dealing with the fall out of an accident, family gatherings. Kennedy effortlessly ratchets up the tension then lets it off slowly or the story ends and you are left with the frustration of not knowing how it all works out. If it works out. There are glimpses of a happy ending, suggestions that just maybe, this time, everything will be all right but maybe, probably, not. But no answers.’
Going through the list, it is clear that variety of experience we get in little short sharp bursts of reading delight makes us all a bit confused as to how to categorise these works further. It speaks to the fluidity of genres when some works clearly crossover and straddle boundaries and others borrow elements shamelessly. In our list of 36 books, a few have been placed in different genres by you all. The short story is generally a great opportunity for writers to experiment so again not that surprising.
But it reminds me of how people mix at a good party so let’s go with that analogy however horrible it might be as I take you through who ended up where, genre wise, at least.
At this party they are trying to form cliques by genre and failing (and flailing) a bit in doing so. There’s the aforementioned SNOOP, first pulled over to hang out with Glitter Rose (Marianne DePierres), Two Birds (Vicki Tyley) and The Great Unknown (Angela Meyers as Ed.) on the balcony as they discuss the probability of ghosts drifting over balconies and killing people over gin and tonics. Because you know Crime Fiction is serious business involving cigarettes, gin and tonics and many a dustup over snagging the best balcony spot before the Romance/Erotica crowd gets at it.
And in this case the paranormal joins in on the crime spree as Whispering Gums points out in her review of The Great Unknown:
‘The invited authors were given the same brief as that for the competition, which was to write a story inspired by the “fifth dimension”, that is, the world found in shows like The Twilight Zone and The X-Files where inexplicable things happen. The result is a collection of stories that vary greatly in setting, voice, subject matter – and even tone. Some are funny, some sad, most are disconcerting and some, of course, are scary.’
This is carried over in Marianne de Pierres’ Glitter Rose as well as I pointed out in my review:
‘There are twists and turns, all of the magical realism variety, almost fantastical in nature throughout the stories. The plotlines weave together and are resolved and the fact that there are many different truths for a single event comes through in each story as you see Tinashi struggle to figure out what is going on, often having to face her fears to do so. As she continues to learn about culture and custom on Carmine Island, you also realise what a great job Marianne de Pierres has done of worldbuilding.’
SNOOP doesn’t disappoint either which is why we see SNOOP get tagged as speculative fiction as well:
‘And so in the space of a few words Eleni sketches out the scene: there are ghouls, goblins and vampires, there are systems & structures in place and that includes private investigators with their own influenced nods to Raymond Chandler. Scandals and twists abound at a rather fast pace but hey if you’re not entirely bound by the limitations of physics on the physical plane then of course breakneck speed is bound to result.’
Back to the party and SNOOP gets shanghaied on the way to get more tonic and dragged into the highly high tech conversation at the bar with all the Speculative Fiction types by the tag team duo of Sea Hearts and Cracklescape (both by Margo Lanagan) to listen to the story being conveyed to Caution: Contains Small Parts who is the mixologist (Kirstyn McDermott) by Midnight and Moonshine while Home and Hearth is pondering snack options (both by Angela Slatter with Lisa L Hannett helping out on the latter). Adding their two cents in bitcoin and making it impossible for anyone to even get near the bar are The Bride Price (Cat Sparks), The Gate Theory (Kaaron Warren), White Christmas (Ros Baxter), Showtime (Narrelle M Harris) while The Year of Ancient Ghosts (Kim Wilkins), The Back of the Back of Beyond (Edwina Harvey) and The Bone Chime and other songs (Joanne Anderton) have taken so long to get ready they had to forgo time travel and walk in a bit late.
Showtime introduces us to the usual suspects in speculative fiction including ghosts (perhaps this party is a Halloween one) but there are other themes as the Subversive Reader’s review tells us:
‘On the surface, Showtime is a fairly light hearted romp alongside some of our favourite speculative fiction creatures. Underneath that, though, it is a collection of stories about families – the families we would do anything for and they families we would do anything to escape. The families we create and the families which are thrust upon us. The families we love – and the very same families which drive us around the bend.’
Cracklescape is about family too but is not that sugar coated about it as Jane’s Reviews’ comment on it states:
‘I love Margo Lanagan’s writing so much. I love her brutal skewering of human failings, and her sympathy for those failings. I love the unflinching way she rolls out a story like Bajazzled, refusing to let you look away until she’s wrung every last drop out of it. I love the way she mingles everyday life and the fantastical.’
And perhaps you should be keeping an eye on what Caution: Contains Small Parts is attempting to pass off as a drink. Tsana of Tsana’s Reads & Reviews tells us what to expect from this little sampling of three stories:
‘For those scared of genre fiction, the stories could all be taken as magical realism, if that’s what you prefer to think you read. All the stories, as I said, deal with the darker side of humanity and none of them are excessively gory (unless you count damaged and dismembered sex dolls as gory; it’s kind of a grey area), though some parts might make you cringe. ‘
This is definitely the Halloween party then.
On the couch and all around it since there are quite a few of them are all the cool kids – your General Fiction types. They are busy draining the contents of the wine cellar in the basement, wearing cardigans, wondering why someone doesn’t put on some good music already and generally discussing the great experiences they have had. Holidays In Cambodia (Laura Jean McKay), The Iron Road (Charlotte Nash) and Foreign Soil (Maxine Beneba Clarke) have been travelling, Letter to George Clooney (Debra Adelaide) is revelling in her popularity at possibly meeting a celebrity, Inherited (Amanda Curtin), Sisters At Heart (Juliet Madison) and Empty Nest (Fiona Palmer) are discussing family issues.
Karen of Karen Has Things to Say tells us this about Amanda Curtin‘s Inherited:
‘These stories, even though they be brief, pack an emotional wallop, each and every one. That’s the skill in short story writing, shown in masterful abundance in Inherited – each story is a lightburst in the dark, illuminating a circumscribed slice of life, but doing so brilliantly and so fiercely it leaves you blinking and contemplating the after-image for quite some time.
The stories are stand-alone tales, tied together under a theme encapsulated neatly in the title “Inherited”. Each explores an aspect, a detail, an existential enquiry into going-on-being, whether that is in the form of material things, stuff, and what it means or stories, or lives or history both personal and public.’
Encore (Margaret Lynn Sharpe) is experiencing deja vu and The Things I Did For Money (Meg Mundell) is having a nostalgic moment with 300 Degree Days and Other Stories (Deborah Sheldon).
ShelleyRae of Book’d Out tells us that we get to see said deja vu moments in Encore from a variety of perspectives which may explain why you might feel a bit dizzy afterwards:
‘Sharp’s characters are a mix of ages and genders, whose stories are told in the first and third person. This results in an interesting variety of perspectives on humanity, relationships and romance.
I particularly liked Dear David, written in an epistolary format, about a rekindled romance, Just the Shot, about a grandfathers gift to his grandson, and The Locket, the story of a secret love.’
Reading Madame Bovary (Amanda Lohary) has brought a book along much to the consternation of Tarcutta Wake (Josephine Rowe), Pelt and Other Stories (Catherine McNamara) and Two Steps Forward (Irma Gold), particularly, who kind of wants to get up and dance but doesn’t want to be the only person doing so.
Consternation and frustration is quite par for the course with the characters in Two Steps Forward though as Kathryn’s review reminds us:
‘Every short story in Gold’s debut short story collection is well crafted. Each story is told in a different voice, without smacking of the experimental, uneven tone of some short story collections. The characters are deftly drawn and believable, from an old man wanting to see his mate to the single parents trying to rebuild relationships, from an aging junkie coming unstuck at the sight of his son to a woman who works at a detention centre, having wanted to “go inside, to help, to see what it’s really like”. Gold’s characters, deep in everyday life, are often struggling with loss and always reaching for connection.’
Empty Nest (Fiona Palmer) is then dragged away to confer with those of the Romance/Erotica crowd near the stereo on how to wrest the balcony back from the clutches of the Crime Fiction crowd. Identity Shift (Mel Teshco) advocates just joining them outright, Paying The Forfeit (SE Gilchrist) is rather annoyed by the whole debacle and Dear Stranger (Elise K Ackers) is a bit confused as to why the rather classy, and therefore usually part of the Classics crowd, Bush Church (Barbara Baynton) and the real Mixed one, Friends Family and Other Strangers from Down Under (Liza Perrat) are both sitting by themselves. Surely they might enjoy each other’s company? A dance perhaps?
Bush Church turns out to be the wolf in sheep’s clothing member of the party, surprising us all with how well crafted it is and the images it conjures up. It’s always the quiet ones sitting in the corner on the couch and Whispering Gums explains what makes this work so interesting:
‘This is not a story with a strong plot, but is, rather, a slice of life, presented with a good deal of humour peppered with bite and irony. Susan Sheridan, in her introduction to my edition, suggests that Baynton’s writing belongs to the naturalist tradition of writers like Zola and Gorky. Naturalism, she says, is a style that “was crafted to express the view that the uncontrollable forces of the natural world had their equivalents in human nature, and that the values of civilisation were a mere crust over an underlying struggle to death among various life forms”. In this style, she suggests, violence and cruelty are expressed in a detached way. That doesn’t mean, I think, that we readers react in a detached way. Rather, the detached tone adds to our feeling of horror.’
If the horror show theme wasn’t evident at the start of the party, it sure is now. Someone is going to break out Michael Jackson’s Thriller at some point I tell you.
36 wonderful collections of short fiction in 6 months with 43 reviews amongst them. We can’t quite always agree on what genres they fit into, what they discuss, or why exactly they are important but each collection is a series of variations on a theme (apparently one of horror for most of this bunch). Like the variations on a jazz classic and the kind of people you run into at really good parties.
So thank you for reading, reviewing and contributing and please, come, we have put the heater on so meander through the party, grab a drink, find a seat and get to know each collection before the night is over.
And don’t worry about the hostess, she’s a little bit flaky at the best of times. And she’s running late to her own party.
Marisa Wikramanayake is a freelance journalist, writer and editor. She published her first book at 17, has lived on three different continents, been in ground zero of a bomb blast twice and is currently hibernating in Perth, Australia. She’s also been freaked out by the Scientologists, helped run a national publishing conference for the Society of Editors (WA) and currently sits on the WA Media Alliance committee. She is dangerous when bored, having terrorised educational institutions to finish an Honours thesis on Archaeology and a Masters thesis on Neuroscience and Science Communication. She penned book reviews for The West and science news and now writes and edits novels and dreams of fun cross platform media projects in the spare time that’s left over after painting, dancing, gaming and mentoring. She contributes her two cents as non-fiction editor at Australian Women Writers and lends her geek goddess expertise to the Guys Read Gals project. Feel free to badger her at her blog at marisa.com.au, onFacebook or tweet at her at @mwikramanayake