Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal – by Anna Whateley

I actually read this book a while ago, but after a run of ‘meh’ stories, I’d rather give the time and effort to talking up a fantastic book rather than go the other way. It doesn’t mean I’ll never give a bad review, but it won’t be something I’ll be doing right away.

But onto Peta Lyre! FYI, this is not a spec fic book, as most of my reads are. So if you’re looking for that kind of review – sorry, will have to wait until next time. But trust me, whatever genre you normally read, this Peta Lyre is worth branching out for.

Peta has her own alphabet. A myriad of diagnoses that are not only invisible to others (SPD, ASD, ADHD, but have hugely impacted her life. Her family, her school, her friends – all her relationships are analysed, studied, and second-guessed by Peta as she rates how she performs each day against the rules that allow her to pass as ‘normal’. Then starts it all again the next day.

Except the combination of a new girl at school, a new crush, and a school ski trip turns all that on its head. Suddenly, passing as ‘normal’ doesn’t cut it, and sticking to all the rules she’d spent years trying to understand just seems to make things more complicated.

Peta Lyre is, in short, an engaging, emotional, and vitally important story. Reading from Peta’s perspective showed the world in a way that most people would not have experienced, and showed just how much effort is put in by Peta just to survive. The flashbacks to Peta’s childhood hit the spot in particular for me – with members of my family sharing some of Peta’s diagnoses, seeing that they have a voice in the world was incredibly reassuring.

There is a plot, a romance, and a finding one’s self element to this book. They are engaging and pull you along as a reader, but very much serve as a backdrop to understanding Peta, and more importantly understanding how she understands herself and and the world. That is the big takeaway from this book. Jeb is delightful, heartbreakingly so the more his explored is explored, Sam is as much an enigma to the reader as she is to Peta (or maybe just to me), and Ant is a fantastic inclusion of a parental figure in a genre more inclined to write them out. Even the minor characters like Kat come in as fully formed and avoid Background Character Trope-iness.

One thing I really should mention is that Peta Lyre is an Own Voices novel as well, and that lived experience really comes through in Peta’s voice. It reads very much as being for and giving representation to communities and voices not often heard in literature, but equally as someone outside the target demographic, I found it emotionally engaging, highly readable and I devoured it (the first time) in one go. It might sound like a cliché to have a character desperately trying to be ‘normal’ only to discover that sometimes ‘normal’ doesn’t necessarily bring happiness or acceptance in and of itself, but Whateley tells that story from a literarily unique viewpoint in a way that is honest and inclusive, with real-world applications. I’m not usually a particularly emotional type, but this book had me on the edge of tears on multiple occasions. Usually happy ones.

I think it’s pretty obvious what I think of this book. If you’re looking specifically for plot or action, maybe it might not be for you. It isn’t what the story aims to be either. But if you want a book that successfully delivers on character and relationships, making for real world impact and reflection, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Five out of five. No gimmicky cartoon stars this time, just five golden stars perfect as they are.

Inhale. Exhale. Survive.

Publication alert!

In all the excitement (?) of rolling into 2021, I nearly forgot to post a celebratory announcement – Unnatural Order, an anthology containing the first story I ever sold, Trench, is now out there in the world! It’s been a weird year already, and celebrating anything feels like its premature, like we’re waiting for the catch, but this one. . .I think . . .is definitely a solid ‘Yay!’ moment for me.

Darkest Timeline | Community Wiki | FandomSome may say we’re in the Darkest Timeline, but at least there’s pizza. . .and publication

Edited by the talented Alis Franklin and Lyss Wickramasinghe (also, go see Lyss’s art on IG here – fantastic and amazing), Unnatural Order is all about the perspective of the monsters. Not all the stories are dark, but there are some fantastic horror stories in there. I’m pretty chuffed not only with getting a story out there, but to be listed among some fantastic authors. Aurealis winner Joanne Anderton leads the list ( Wreck Diving is fantastic, a very deserving winner) , and a myriad of amazing authors including Grace Chan  (highly recommend Jigsaw Children in Clarkesworld 161, and looking forward to Every Version of You coming out in 2022), Leife Shallcross, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Matthew Farrer, and a myriad of other talented authors on the table of contents as well. I’m still in that what the heck is my name doing there?! phase, but hey, I’m happy to be included!

I’m keeping this short, because there’s only so long I can talk about my excitement over this before the overthinking brain decides that its getting a little self-indulgent, but if you’re interesting is rising creatures from the depths of the sea, hive-minds, and dancing, or if you want to (and have the luxury of) reading something other than the news right now, links along with a full list of the authors are below!

CSFG: https://csfg.org.au/product/unnatural-order/

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/au/en/ebook/unnatural-order-2

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com.au/Unnatural-Anthologies-Canberra-Speculative-Fiction-ebook/dp/B08RMKTQSB/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=unnatural+order&qid=1610492693&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

 

 

6 lessons from studying creative writing

2020 has been an interesting year. As in, the Firefly definition of interesting, rather than the the more fun kind. But the last couple of months, on a personal level at least, has started to look up. I commenced a 6 month Write Your Novel course with the Australian Writers’ Centre, finished a contributor chapter focussing on the creation of the US Space Force for a Military Space Ethics book, and got my result back from my Master of Letters (MLitt) dissertation – for which I am relieved to have passed, and still coming down from the disbelief that I managed a distinction.

But this isn’t about the grades – though as someone who has not always done so great at studying, I am going to be pretty ecstatic about this for a while to come – this is about what I actually learned about writing during this creative writing degree. After all, I did this to improve my understanding of writing, so I guess the big question is – did it work?

In short, yes, it if did for me. But to lead nicely into the first lesson. . .

Lesson 1: You don’t need a degree to write

Yep, I went thousands into uni debt to get a fancy piece of paper I don’t need. Or more accurately, a PDF of a fancy bit of paper. I don’t regret it for a second, but neither is it a prerequisite to anything involving writing.

For me, its a way I learn. Distance uni is a nice mix of structure and uni for me. But of the four people I went through the course start to finish with, only one had a Bachelors level qualification in creative writing. All of us were able to write though. All of us entered the Masters with at least some ability in writing and no qualifications behind us. While it worked for us to further our skills this way, it only helped us develop skills we already had, which means that the core skills were already there.

This is perhaps an obvious point that every author learns in their own ways, but its something I wanted to point out as well. Academics are as much a guarantor of success about as any other course – that is they aren’t. They are a way to learn and to practice, and that in itself is a great thing, but its not the sovereign domain of academics.

Lesson 2: All kinds of writing have something to teach

Even bad writing. I did a *lot* of bad writing over the last couple years, and even more in the years before that. Studying other forms of writing outside what I’d usually be exposed to (and reading them, and listening to interviews by authors who write them, and reading articles about them) revealed many of my weaknesses. Romance writing character relationships for example, memoir making the personal relatable, and poetry demanding a succinctness not necessarily inherent in other forms. Having my weaknesses exposed gave me an opportunity to address them and ultimately, gave me the opportunity to improve my writing.

Lesson 3: Even as a Pantser, planning has its place

16 Funny Teacher Memes About School Reopening This Fall

The reason I did this degree was because I’m used to formality and I know that I learn best with a little structure. No idea why. Could be my career or something. But anyway, I love learning and for me, the MLitt program was one that combined my love of writing and my love of massive debt for flimsy pieces of paper. But what I found straight up was that every semester, I had to plan everything I was going to write. I wasn’t the only one a little worried about this. Thankfully, we had a great lecturer who has done this course many times before. Her solution? Encouraging us with the methodology of using the planning requirement to support the writing, not the other way around. The plan – always the first assessment in this case – was a guide for those who needed it, a touchstone for other, or a starting point to an entirely new idea if it didn’t work out.

I ended up using all my plans, despite having the freedom and intent not to, with the exception of my dissertation. Even then though, the plan had its place – it taught me that my first idea had significant holes in it and enabled me to distill what I actually wanted to write about and bring that out into another story, one that I could write entirely off-plan and pants it to my heart’s content. Even without sticking to the plan though, I would never have gotten to this point without making it in the first place.

Lesson 4: There’s no substitute for writing

Another one that probably seems obvious. While each and every author has their own pace, at some point you have to write. I had a couple subjects where I had trouble with starting and got about half way through a semester without a decent word on the page. Sometimes the right thing to do is to think, mull it over, or let the story peculate in your mind. At some point though, you just need a terrifying 90’s warrior screaming at you:

xena mad - You should be Writing!

Lesson 5: Genre can be as much an afterthought as an intent

I’ve always loved fantasy and always wanted to write it. That’s probably not a surprise to anyone who knows me. But what I found was that it wasn’t really the area I was naturally writing in. I didn’t really have a genre for it, and even when I worked in features of the fantastic, it didn’t quite hit what I would expect from fantasy. This troubled me for a bit, but after mulling on it and discussing it with my classmates, the end result was that if I write the story I want to write, and retrofit genre along with the expectations and subversions, it can actually produce a more powerful story. There were some places this couldn’t be done. Creative non-fiction, for example, is difficult to weave into fantasy. That’s not to say its impossible, but it was beyond what I could do with my chosen subject matter. Experimental non-fiction was similar – I had enough trouble getting my head around what it was, so fitting in fantastic elements probably would have gone one step too far in pushing my capability over time equation. But where it really became apparent was the difference in my first piece – which was purely in fantasy – and my dissertation. One was me trying to tell a fantasy story, and it was alright. Nothing special, nothing terrible. The final piece though was a story I wrote and wrapped in a fantasy setting. Again, it isn’t amazing and still needs much improvement if I’m ever going to get it to an agent or publisher, but its vastly better than my first attempt. The story itself could be told (and probably has been told) a hundred different ways in a hundred different genres, and still make the same point and ask the same questions. This wasn’t so much a retrofitted fantasy, but telling the story and then worrying about genre made it better. Genre is just the cloak a story wears. Doesn’t mean you can’t write to genre, but if the story is guided by genre expectations or restricted by them, then maybe try just writing the story and putting the cloak on after.

Lesson 6: There are always more lessons

Related to the first lesson, no matter how much I thought I’d learnt from a course, every avenue of study lead to more questions, more authors, and more subgenres I’d never known and led me down lines of inquiry I would never have considered. I’m doing another course now – the Australian Writers’ Centre Write Your Novel course – which so far has been brilliant. I’m not doing it as a natural progression of partner course or anything like that, nor has the MLitt qualification given me any kind of advantage. Its just that as long as there is a willingness to be taught, there is always something more to learn, and if I’m going to keep improving my writing and one day make a living out of it (fingers crossed), then continually being open to learning more can only help me towards that goal.

~Nathan

Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women – Lee Murray and Geneve Flynn

Okay, so I know I said one a month, but I’m only a day late, right? Would you believe I was reading or writing and got distracted?

Which *segue* is an apt description for Black Cranes. A distracting book that completely distracted me from doing all the other things I should have been doing. Every time I finished a story, I would read just a bit of the next – and down the rabbit hole I went.

So, onto the blurb;

Almond-eyed celestial, the filial daughter, the perfect wife. Quiet, submissive, demure. In Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, Southeast Asian writers of horror both embrace and reject these traditional roles in a unique collection of stories which dissect their experiences of ‘otherness’, be it in the colour of their skin, the angle of their cheekbones, the things they dare to write, or the places they have made for themselves in the world.

Black Cranes is a dark and intimate exploration of what it is to be a perpetual outsider.

Featuring 14 stories by Nadia Bulkin, Grace Chan, Rin Chupeco, Elaine Cuyegkeng, Geneve Flynn, Gabriela Lee, Rena Mason, Lee Murray, Angela Yuriko Smith, and Christina Sng, and a foreword by Alma Katstu.

In short, Black Cranes 100% delivers both in pure entertainment, and on the promises made. Each of the fourteen stories in the anthology contains the three major elements; women of horror, the concept of ‘otherness’, and reaching into the cultures, mythos, and voices of Southeast Asia to create disturbing, immersive, and technically fantastic stories.

To be honest, I tried rating them individually to come out with out with an average, but by the time I got half way through and they were all 4.5-5 stars, I realised there wasn’t any point. There is not a weak story in here, and the range of horror – some disturbing, some creepy, and some as horrifying as they were hilarious – only added to the delight of these stories. Kapre: A Love Story by Rin Chupeca is a heartbreaking tale with a subtle touch firmly grounded in Filipino folklore, and while I’ve read it before, the tension and anticipation of Grace Chan’s disturbing The Mark made the re-read just as enjoyable as it was the first time

I was also trying to pick a favourite I could do a bit of a deep dive into, but again that is almost impossible with Black Cranes. As much as they all stick to the themes, there is a wide variety of stories both in content and execution. To compare them would be to place them all against the same criteria, and with each pushing different boundaries of tropes and expectations, it would do a disservice to the variety that makes the anthology work as a whole. The Truth is Order and Order is Truth by Nadia Bulkin mixes Jakartan mythos with a [NO SPOILERS] mythos that had me completely immersed in the world of Dhani and her followers, for example, and I’m a sucker for a second-person POV executed to near excellent perfection, as in Lee Murray’s Frangipani Wishes. Both of these, like the remainder of the stories, are great stories in their own right, and even better for the company they find themselves in.

I think what I enjoyed the most though is the mix of variety and quality. All were enjoyable (in that weird, disturbing way that good horror always is), and yet despite all sticking very much to the themes, all were vastly different and unique. All centred around what happens when roles are embraced or rejected, all went on to explore facets of the common theme of the ‘Other’, yet in vastly difference ways inspired by different cultures within Southeast Asia.

I’m still getting used to this whole reviewing thing, so I’m really not sure what else I can say aside from that this is a fantastic collection of short stories from some incredibly talented authors, and if you even have the slightest interest in horror, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone!

Unsurprisingly, that gives it five out of five stars (rotting one for horror of course)

The Final Word, with Dr Isobelle Carmody

It was a dark and stormy night. . . It might seem a cliché, but the soft rain and occasional distant thunderclap seemed an apt setting as a haunting solo rendition of The Cranberry’s Zombie by local musician Sophie Maurice set the atmosphere. Newly-awarded Doctor and beloved Australian children’s author Isobelle Carmody is chatting away to attendees while the rest of us get a tea of coffee and wait for the formalities to begin, though ‘formal’ is not the intent or expectations. More a personal night, as Dr Carmody leads the discussion on the connection between the fantastic, and the most mysterious fact of life – the end of it. How the surety of its eventuality makes it the epitome of ‘real’, and yet we cannot know for sure what happened on the other side of it.

Following another musical number, Snake in the Wall – written and lead by another local talent, Monica Engel, joined by Adelaide Stolba, and Sophie – about twenty of us settle in our seats,and Dr Carmody begins.

Famous for the Obernewtyn Chronicles, Little Fur, and a myriad of other stories, Isobelle opens with a personal tale of her own experience with death as a teen. But like many of the other stories that came out from attendees, the personal nature of the story means I won’t be going into details here. It isn’t just Isobelle who shares, and the stories that come out are powerful and cathartic – but they aren’t mine to tell.

The story of that first experience though is what lead Dr Carmody to start writing  Obernewtyn while a teenager, she tells us. Not only was it a window in which she could process her grief, but Obernewtyn was the title that would launch her prolific career as a writer and eventually to the PhD she recently completed.

But why Obernewtyn? Why did such a significant and traumatic event lead to a book about fantasy?

‘I didn’t set out to write fantasy,’ Dr Carmody explains and she discusses the idea of genre. ‘I just wanted to write, and that was how it came out’. Fantasy, it seemed, was the natural direction of the story as she explored the grief, the anger, and injustice associated with her loss. It was a tool to tell a story, as are many other genres, and it was the right tool to express what she needed to at the time. In no way did it restrict the realism of the experience, rather using that experience to strengthen the story.

In that instance, fantasy was the only way to express the ultimate truth – death – because it is the one mystery that we cannot comprehend from this side of the grave.

‘If you nearly died you didn’t die. If you died and were resuscitated, you aren’t dead.’ If we can’t objectively study it and get a detailed understanding, then our understanding of death and what happens after, she argues, is speculative, and intrinsically tied to the Fantastic. So whether a novel is deemed fantasy or not, any dealings with death that portray an experience from the perspective of the deceased, or give an idea of what happens post final moment, is using the Fantastic as a tool. Even when the story is rooted in realism.

Thanks to Dr Carmody for the photo of Adelaide Stolba, who can be found at https://www.youtube.com/user/migirl13

At this point, I’m left wondering if the opposite is true as well. As a fantasy writer, whether the elements of my own reality that I channel for my own stories mean that I, and other fantasy writers, are using the tool of realism to strengthen my/our work. I’m not sure if the answer is a simple yes/no, but perhaps that what the inspiration to write Obernewtyn connected to – using the abstract and the fantastic to process and understand the real.

I get the wanting to write at a time of loss as well. I’ve spoken about it a little before, but my writing journey started amid multiple suicides within my department. Amid other personal issues, the deaths of two colleagues I considered friends as well, even after a relatively short time knowing them, lead to writing as my way of coping. It wasn’t good writing, and at times is was entirely nonsensical, but now, almost a decade later, my writing is still heavily influenced by those events.  

The idea of writing about death comes up among the group as well. Not everyone wants to write about their experiences. Some attendees share their stories of why they can’t write about it, and others speak of how they use personal tragedies to fuel emotionally similar, if not narratively, stories. As the stories continue, we hear about lost parents, lost children, and lost friends, and another question comes up – how do we know when it’s okay to write about death, and when it’s not?

This time an answer comes from the crowd, from a practising psychologist whose name I unfortunately missed.

‘Write from your scars, not your wounds,’ she says. Wait until you are in control, wait until you are a little healed at least, is the gist of it. I’m sure there are some examples of writing while still hurting that have worked, but as a general rule, it seems sage advice.

Thanks to Kaaron Warren keeps a the audience in check

Dr Carmody talks a bit about her recent academic achievement as well. Her PhD was awarded only weeks ago, but it was a seven year journey to get there, motivated by the desire to communicate more precisely and accurately. The ability to learn the language of academia, starting with looking up words that then resulted in looking up words to understand the definition of the first word, to receiving an incredibly flattering report.

‘I assumed they must say nice things to everyone when they finish’, she told me in a break, ‘but my supervisor insisted that this isn’t the case. So I guess I’m in the right place.’ There’s no sarcasm or boasting in the statement, but a mix of excitement, a little bit of disbelief, and even embarrassment. Natural humility and well-earned pride both presenting at the same time, awkwardly trying not to get in each other’s way.

The nature of the thesis though is the reason we are all here. The ‘slipstream’ between realism and fantasy that subjects like death bring together. Dr Carmody talks about what that means, the momentum of a story pulling in a fluttering of realism and the Fantastic along with it. Not in the sense of magical realism, in which the crossing of genres is the base world from which the story grows, and has very specific origins, but the light touch that strengthens the story rather than drives it.

As time seems to fly by, we are soon told that we need to clear the room. There are many more questions, and in a crowd where many have known each other for years, there are many utterings of, ‘I never knew about your story.’ Which in a sense, follows another element of Dr Carmody’s thesis – death as taboo.

We all experience death at least once, and we hold social rituals that follow specific traditions in each case. Yet often we don’t talk about it. We have our traditions, our rituals, and then people are expected to move on with life. In reality, that isn’t so easy, and in her research Isobelle talks about the relief she saw when people were able to talk to her about the death of a loved one. The overwhelming gratefulness for permission to discuss what was not permissible elsewhere. Certainly there is a lightness in the room after people shared their experiences, even the quite horrific ones.

As we leave, it’s a bit of an odd feeling. On one hand, it was a couple of hours with friends, listening to an author I admire and respect both personally and professionally. It was an enjoyable evening that gave some great insight into how to approach death in fiction, and how writing can be a healing experience. On the other hand, it was hearing some of the most traumatic experiences of people’s lives. Not without reason, and not without the catharsis mentioned earlier, but it’s still a lot to take in.

I thank Isobelle and try not to fan-out too much, say goodbye to the people I knew and ruthlessly use the opportunity to recruit (hopefully) a new member to our local writing group. Before driving off though, I go through my phone and set up the music for the way home. There is one song that has been stuck in my head all night, a song that has been one of my favourites for years and simultaneously haunts with its references to the ongoing trauma of war. One that every time I hear it, reminds me of the friends I’ve lost over the years to the ongoing effects of various types of service, especially when it was covered and the lyrics tweaked a little for modernity. I’m always glad to remember them, but it doesn’t make it any less painful that they are gone.

For me, it was the perfect song to begin the night with, so I figured it might as well be the one to close it out.

The Bards of Birchtree Hall – by Amanda Maynard-Schubert

I haven’t really done reviews in the past – my editor brain gets in the way and it ends up being more a report than something useful to readers – but I couldn’t resist this one. Not only am I super excited to see a good friend succeed, but The Bards of Birchtree Hall was also an absolute pleasure to read. And if I can fit it in, I’m hoping to start doing some more a bit more regularly as well.

As a quick disclaimer, I am a judge for Aurealis this year in one of the categories that The Bards of Birchtree Hall has been submitted. This review is my personal opinion and does not reflect the opinion of any judging panel, the judging coordinators, or the Aurealis Awards management team. Plus, I review differnt to how I judge anyway. Different processes for different outcomes.

I do this daily!!! Lol Britta's Judgy Face! | Women, Pregnant women,  Pregnant

But onto the book!

Neala and her mother, Dana, have left a dead farm and dead father/husband behind in Australia to start a new life in the land of Dana’s childhood – Ireland. As soon as they arrive, Neala starts getting weird dreams and visions of music and horses seem to haunt her – but its just the jetlag, right? The stress of it all?

When she’s encouraged to apply for Birchtree, a musical academy so prestigious Neala can barely even find any information about it, all the secrets start to come out. Her new friends tell her of the magic of Bards, and Dana confesses she deliberately kept all knowledge of the magic from Neala, along with the significance of Neala’s birthmark.

Despite her anger at being kept in the dark, an attempt of her life, an unbelievable rescue, and the encouragement of her friends convinces Neala to accept her place at Birchtree. Once there, more questions seem to come than answers. Semi-sentient plants, a little black fox that seem to defy all laws of magic, and Bards disappearing, only to reappear again shortly after, create questions of their own. Even with her friend, Áine’s, strange headaches an old woman entering her dreams, they all seem little more than distractions, although almost overwhelming one, or maybe precursors to something else.*

Something big is coming. Something bigger than the oddities Neala is experiencing, that threatens to break centuries-old protective barriers. And the birthmark, the fox, and the disappearances; they all seem to connect to it. As Neala gets deeper into the world of the Bards, book one of the Stormbringer Chronicles sets up an epic tale of clashing worlds to come, and I am all in for the sequels!

* Oh, and there are boys, which from what I’ve been told are distracting enough, but as anyone who knows me will know, that is not my field of expertise. So, I’m assuming its been done well, and moving on.

Okay, so onto the review bit. First and foremost, It’s a great story, and well told. It is a debut, and some technical aspects of the writing will be ironed out with time (sorry, couldn’t shut down the editor brain entirely), but overall it’s a fantastic entry in to the YA Fantasy world that I thoroughly enjoyed.

For anyone who’s lived in regional Australia, you’ll be able to see Amanda’s lived experience really shines in Neala. All the main characters really get the ‘genuine’ treatment, and I’m a sucker for multi-dimensional characters. Nanna is a blast, as are Torin, Áine, and Finlay. The magic system is quite unique, blending a number of systems to give believably unique skills to each character while giving each a basis from which to work. With Neala as new to this as we the reader are, that author does a great job of giving us a system that can be complex, without diving straight into complexities that confuse.

As far as the plot goes, it really is setting up for something greater. There is a great YA story of a young girl being separated from her parents in one of the harshest ways at the start, and in an entirely foreign way when she attends Birchtree, but where that story ends, the (no spoilers) cliffhanger final chapter successfully achieves the difficult task of closing one story, while simultaneously using the threads from throughout the novel to build a far greater – and more disturbing – mystery.

As an avid fantasy fan, I really enjoyed the world, the magic, and the way all the threads pulled together. Its an immersive, engaging read. I’m very appreciative of getting an early copy for review, and looking forward to the Book 2 come July 2021!

Image result for land before time tree star | Land before time, Cool art  drawings, Movie crafts
Image result for land before time tree star | Land before time, Cool art  drawings, Movie crafts
Image result for land before time tree star | Land before time, Cool art  drawings, Movie crafts
Image result for land before time tree star | Land before time, Cool art  drawings, Movie crafts

Four out of five Tree-Stars, and check out Amanda’s artwork (multi-talented!) below

https://www.facebook.com/AmandaSchubertAuthorIllustrator/