Book Review: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Whenever I visit my GP we talk about books and writing. She once filled an entire appointment telling me about the crime fiction novel she was writing about a GP who murders people. Lucky I’m a crime writer as well or I might have been reticent to accept any more scripts from her. On my last visit she got very animated about Martha Wells’s The Murderbot Diaries so I borrowed the first one to find out what her excitement was about.

All Systems Red is a 2017 science fiction novella and the first in The Murderbot Diaries series. For a simple story, it packs a powerful punch – I listened to the audiobook in one sitting whilst gardening, giggling to myself as I pulled weeds. The premise is simple: Two groups of scientists on an alien plant; something terrible happens to one lot and the others have to work out what, before the terrible thing happens to them as well. So what’s so good about it? …Murderbot…

I could have become a mass murderer after I hacked my governor module, but then I realized I could access the combined feed of entertainment channels carried on the company satellites. It had been well over 35,000 hours or so since then, with still not much murdering, but probably, I don’t know, a little under 35,000 hours of movies, serials, books, plays and music consumed. As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.

Murderbot is a part organic-part robot SecUnit – a security guard of unspecified gender for hire to protect explorers of the universe. Murderbot is a little bit different to the other SecUnits because they have disabled their governing programming unit, giving them agency. The sulky Murderbot keeps this secret, along with their addiction to binge-watching soap operas. They just want to be left alone.

Murderbot is a kind of coming out story because this SecUnit feels like they need to hide an essential part of themselves from everyone else – those who are more powerful than Murderbot and wouldn’t understand.

Wells has given Murderbot, who is essentially a killing machine, extraordinary vulnerability as they struggle with their fears about their robot and human parts. They are trying to work out how to be comfortable in their own skin, and their efforts to hide this from those around them are touchingly hilarious.

The best part? There are five more books in the series.

Environmental crime fiction

I woke up to a startlingly beautiful sky filled with hot air balloons this morning. After doing some writing I set out with the hound on a long walk. It is a stunning Autumn day. Already I have been squawked at by some cheeky galas and said hello to an echidna going about its day.

Now, I have stopped for a moment and I am squatting on a rock looking at the river scene in the the photos include in this blog post as I write it on my phone. The intermittent sound of birds play a tune over the background base of the swollen Yarra River waters spilling across rocks on their way to the city. It is peaceful and soothing and my mind turns to my writing.

My current manuscript is a crime fiction novel with a backdrop of the environmental movement. One of the underlying themes is climate grief and I have taken much inspiration from my local environment as well as from a period living in East Gippsland.

The idea for the story came to me during a writing workshop I attended with Angela Savage, former CEO of Writers Victoria, at the Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival (TARWF) in October 2019 and I commenced work on the manuscript in November that year (TARWF will run again this year in November and I hope to go again as it was a hoot last time – I delivered spoken word piece at their Noir at the Bar event. You can listen to that here.)

The story for my current manuscript is set in 2018, before the Victorian bushfires and the pandemic. Whilst the premise pre-dates our recent disasters, the story has certainly been shaped by them. It is a lament to Victoria’s beautiful disappearing landscapes and humanities seeming collective inability to do what needs to be done to save them from the impacts of climate change. There have been moments when I considered abandoning the endeavour, particularly after the terrible bushfires in Victoria that consumed much of the landscape in which the story is set. Instead I made some changes to include a foreboding of disasters such as the fires and the pandemic so that the story does not seem dated.

I entered the first few chapters into a competition for a Varuna Fellowship last year and was chuffed to be shortlisted. I hope to take up the opportunity for a supported residency later this year.

My writing has been interrupted a bit over the last year, but I have now crossed the half way mark of the first draft at just over 40,000 words and am feeling inspired to forge on into the home stretch so I can set myself to editing.

For now, I must continue on my walk as the hound is getting restless.

Book review: Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Kerry Salter’s girlfriend is in jail and her pop is dying, so she leaves Brisbane and her arrest warrants behind and heads south on a stolen Harley to her hometown of Durrongo – a place she’s been avoiding.

Thing is, you run now, after last night, and it’ll haunt you forever. You can go as far away as you like, but the past always comes along for the ride.

Too Much Lip is Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko’s seventh novel. Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the Stella Prize and winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, it is a dark, funny story about family, home, country, intergenerational trauma, evil property developers, talking animals, life and death.

Kerry knew from long experience that there was no winning an argument with her mother. To Pretty Mary she was and always would be the Great Abandoner. Shame enough to turn out a dyke, but her far greater sin was the empty hole she’d left behind her in the family. Even in the terrible dark shadow cast by Donna’s disappearance, Kerry had still up and left to live among whitefellas and city people. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, blah blah de-fucken-blah.

Bundjalung language words are peppered through a narrative that exposes the impacts of the history of colonisation and dispossession on Australian Aboriginal people. Lucashenko’s voice in the novel is unique and effectively echoes the voices of Australian aboriginal people I have known. I have never read a novel like it – which primarily tells me that there are far too few Indigenous voices in literature.

Kerry looked around the deserted road.

‘Yugam baugal jang! Buiyala galli! Yugam yan moogle Goorie Brisbanyu? You could help instead of sitting up there like a mug liar from the city.

Kerry looked around again. The waark hopped up and down in rage.

Then the second crow chimed in, dripping scorn.

It’s no good to ya, fang face. Can’t talk lingo! Can’t even find its way home! Turned right at the Cal River when it shoulda kept going straight. It’s as moggle as you look.’

On being awarded the Miles Franklin some critics claimed Too Much Lip to be undeserving as Lucashenko’s voice was not ‘literary’. My reading of that criticism is that those critics are pompous, entitled gits – probably in need of empathy training – and most likely educated in posh private schools with little experience of diversity and no understanding or appreciation of its value.

For a moment Kerry thought her mother was talking about killing the old man. Putting him down gently. Her second thought, hard on the heels of the first, was: just as well Ken’s drug of choice isn’t morphine. If the hospital had prescribed malt whisky to ease Pop’s last days they would have been in trouble.

The Salter family are gritty representations of people living in poverty and battling with day-to-day existence in all its joys, sorrows, and frustrations. Their education is primarily in their own culture, and in survival – not academia and privilege. They are flawed, funny survivours who love and hurt the people they care about, and go through life trying to make the best of it.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip is a political novel, which perhaps makes it confronting and challenging for some white Australians to read, but we all should read it because within its pages there is opportunity for greater understanding, and that might help lift our humanity above our turned-up wanker noses.

I’ll definitely be adding more of Lucashenko’s work to my reading list.

image of novels by Margaret Millar

Grand dames of crime: Margaret Millar

I’m delving into the history of women crime writers again this week and celebrating Canadian born literary suspense author Margaret ‘Maggie’ Millar (1915-94). Millar explored complex inner lives, female characters battling frustrated ambition, existential isolation, class issues and changing cultural values. She was known for the depth of characterisation and surprise endings to her novels.

Millar’s writing career began writing in 1941 with The Invisible Worm featuring Paul Prye a cynical psychiatrist detective fond of quoting William Blake. She then turned to writing more conventional mystery novels, though a psychiatric bent remained. Millar’s sixth novel, psychological suspense The Iron Gates featuring Inspector Sands, was bought by Warner Bros for film. Millar worked as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers in Hollywood in the mid-’40s.

Margaret Millar

Millar wrote four non-mystery novels beginning with Experiment in Springtime (1947), a critique of a post-war family. The story features a wife who is miserably married to a man who is psychotically paranoid about her fidelity.

Millar returned to crime fiction with Beast in View, a psychological thriller about spinster Miss Clarvee later adapted for a television episode for Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The novel also won the Edgar Award in 1956. Following the Edgar win, Millar served as president of the Mystery Writers of America 1957-58. In 1982 she was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and also received a Derrick Murdoch Award in 1986, a special achievement award for contributions to the crime genre.

Millar, a passionate bird watcher, was active in the Californian conservation movement in the 1960s. Her observations on wildlife near her home were collected in The Birds and the Beasts Were There (1968). She was named a Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times in 1965 for her service in organisations like the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. The same year The Fiend was nominated for but did not win a second Edgar. In this creepy, dark novel, a nine year old hungers for affection from her divorced, man-hating, self-pitying mother.

Margaret Millar with daughter Linda and Husband Ken

Millar’s personal life included a tumultuous marriage to fellow mystery author Ken Millar who went by the pen name Ross Macdonald. They had a daughter Linda whose life was tragically short. Linda killed a pedestrian in a drink driving hit and run incident when she was sixteen and was plagued by mental health issues before dying in her sleep of an embolism at age thirty-one.

Margaret Millar did not publish any work for six years following her daughters death in 1970. Her next novel Ask for Me Tomorrow (1976) was about a Hispanic lawyer called Tom Aragon on the trial of a wealthy women’s missing first husband, who disappeared with a Mexican girl.

Over her lifetime the prolific author produced more than 25 psychological mystery novels. She died at her home in Santa Barbara aged 79.


Bibliography:

The Invisible Worm, 1941
The Devils Loves Me, 1942
The Weak-Eyed Bat, 1942
Wall of Eyes, 1943
Fire Will Freeze, 1944
The Iron Gates, 1945
Experiment in Springtime, 1947
It’s All in the Family, 1948
The Cannibal Heart, 1949
Do Evil in Return, 1950
Rose’s Last Summer, 1952
Vanish in an Instant, 1952
Wives and Lovers, 1954
Beast in View, 1955
An Air That Kills, 1957
The Listening Walls, 1959
A Stranger in My Grave, 1960
How Like an Angel, 1962
The Fiend, 1964,
Los Angeles Times, 1965
The Birds and the Beasts Were There, 1967
Beyond This Point Are Monsters, 1970
Ask For Me Tomorrow, 1976
The Murder of Miranda, 1979
Mermaid, 1982
Banshee, 1983
Spider Webs, 1986

Photos from the web

Candice Fox, The Chase cover image

Book review: The Chase by Candice Fox

Candice Fox, all-around good guy, champion of emerging writers, writer of creepy thrillers. I’ve been a fan of Candice Fox since reading her first novel, Hades. Her crime novels are fast-paced and brimming with big bold characters doing outrageous things. She takes us to the limits of believability and holds us there, peering over the cliff face.

The Chase is set in the USA and I suspect Americans are the primary audience for the novel, though perhaps American culture simply allows Candice to take things a step further.

Every year Proghorn Correctional Facility had a Christmas softball game between the wardens and the inmates.

The warden’s families come on a bus through the Nevada desert to make a day of it. This year they are held hostage under the gaze of a sniper in order to free the entire prison population, some of the most dangerous in the country. The incident prompts the biggest manhunt in history. The novel takes the reader on a journey with some of them.

Celine Osbourne is in charge of the death row prisoners. She takes her job, and the break out very seriously. She’s also obsessed with one prisoner in particular and makes it her mission to track down and capture John Kradle.

She pinched the tobacco between her thumb and forefinger, flicked out the rolling paper with a touch more flair than she probably needed to, and laid the little caterpillar of brown fibres down in its thin, dry bed. Three boys, all cousins of hers, crowded in to watch her lick and roll the cigarette. Celine put the smoke to her lips and lit up. Their eyes were big and wild with excitement. It was a thrilling display on many levels. They were all farm kids, and lighting a match for any reason in a barn full of hay was like flipping the bird to Jesus Christ.

John Kradle had been on death row for five years after being found guilty of murdering his family.

He didn’t believe in all the ghost stuff. But he showed up anyway. He figured that was what you did when you loved someone. You nodded and laughed and chipped in with a ‘She’s right, you know. I’ve seen it!’ occasionally.

The breakout is Kradle’s one chance to set the record straight, prove his innocence. Trouble is, a serial killer and Celine are on his tail.

Kradle put his hands on the table, stared at them, and felt a wave of relief roll over him. A part of him had known, in all the years that Christine had been missing, that she had left simply because she was broken. That even if an explanation ever came, it wouldn’t be rational or healing to him.

I could feel the heat of the desert, the desperation, rage and grief of the characters as the complexity of their inner worlds drove their choices – good and bad. The Chase kept me turning the pages and sneaking moments in my day to keep reading. And how lovely to get to the end of find that Candice has dedicated the book to those of us unpublished writers who keep plugging away, hoping that our work will one day find a home.

I have dedicated this book to all aspiring authors. It’s not an easy road. Waiting. Trying. Daydreaming. Being rejected. Having your hopes destroyed and trying to rebuild them. It’s lonely, frustrating, and tedious. But whatever you do, my advice is never to let it become hopeless. Only you have control over that.

Book review: Murder in Mt Martha by Janice Simpson

I’m a sucker for a story set in my home town and this one provides some interesting insights into 1950’s Melbourne.

Janice Simpson was inspired to write her debut novel, Murder in Mt Martha, by the 1953 unsolved murder on the Mornington Peninsula of Shirley May Collins. First published in 2016, this fictional story proposes a potential solution to the open ended real life mystery.

It is sixty years after 14 year old Beverly Middleton was murdered. Nick Szabo is working on a thesis about Hungarian defectors from the polo team that come to Melbourne for the 1956 Olympics. Whilst interviewing an old Hungarian man, Arthur Boyle, Nick stumbles across Arthurs connection to the unsolved murder.

The narrative shifts between 2013 and 1953 and the events leading up to and following the murder.

The story sets a good pace, with well drawn characters, and the complex interwoven story lines hold the readers interest.

Online course reviews

Writing courses can be a great way to learn new techniques, think more deeply about your writing, and motivate you to keep putting ink on the page. Here I review a couple I have completed recently.

Kill Your Darlings: Mastering Emotional Honesty with Lee Kofman

One of the main pieces of feedback I’ve had from editors has been ‘put more emotions and/or drama into your work’. I took this online course to focus a bit of energy on that feedback.

Dr Lee Kofman, who delivers the online course, is a Russian-born Israeli-Australian author of five books and editor of two anthologies. Kofman unpacks the complex and hard task of writing with emotional honesty and helps you discover the rewards of making your writing more prolific and productive.

In the introduction to this course, Kofman suggests a writer should be ‘like a firefighter whose job it is, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, to run straight into them.’ Intellectually safe writing is easier to do, but does not engage readers as effectively – if you want to touch their hearts you have to take risks.

The exercises in this course challenge you to tap into personally emotive events to develop and challenge your writing. It covers concepts such as moral outrage, internal contradictions, sentimentality, nostalgia, emotional complexity and creating emotionally rich complex characters.

Example texts identified in the course include fiction works like Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary; Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You; and memoir including Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter.

KYD courses are good value, well structured short courses with a mix of audio/audiovisual, text, and exercises. Once you purchase a course it is available to you in perpetuity. The learning platform is easy to navigate, so if you are a bit of a luddite you shouldn’t have any trouble.

Australian Writers Centre: Anatomy of a Crime: How to Write About Murder with Candice Fox

I’m a big Candice Fox fan and she’s written about fourteen crime fiction novels so she knows a bit about the genre. I love her bold characters and unpredictable, and sometimes outrageous, but still believable plots.

There is a lot of content in this course. The course has eight modules estimated to take eight hours of study time. However, if you go through all the available resources provided you can go a lot deeper and further than the estimated time to complete.

Candice’s great character writing comes to the fore in the course as she explores the psychology of crime, what makes people kill and what happens after they do. Topics covered include premeditation; types of murder crimes; writing crime scenes; looking for suspects and the killer; making the arrest; trials and prison life.

AWC produces quality content using a mix of audio, audio-visual, and practical exercises. Each course is accessible for 12 months from the date of purchase and AWC has regular specials that make them more affordable.

For other online course reviews see here and here and here.



Ode to a red headed man

I was twenty-four when I first met Mo. He was a gawky red head with a kind eye and a spunky attitude. Despite the fact that he threw me to the ground during our first meeting, I fell for him immediately. He was to be a part of my life for the next 30 years.

Of course Mo was a horse, not a man – in case you were wondering. This post is a tribute to that horse who passed away last week at the grand old age of thirty-two, and who I knew for longer than many of by closest human friends.

Mo was short for Mauclair, named after Camille Mauclair, the French poet, novelist, biographer, travel writer, and art critic. I purchased him a while after returning to Australia from Portugal where I had been a working student for a couple of years under the tutelage of Maestro Nuno Oliveira. Oliveira, one of the last great masters of classical dressage, was taught the art by Joaquim Goncalves de Miranda who trained horses for the last king of Portugal.

We had our challenges, the greatest being that at the tender age of two Mo was a failed racehorse. This meant he had been poorly broken in, trained only to go very fast in one direction, and was whip shy. He bore a scar on one flank that I suspect was the result of being beaten in an effort to make him run faster than he was capable of. I purchased him to teach him classical dressage, the polar opposite of what he knew. To begin with he was like riding a broomstick – rigid and inflexible. I worked very hard to help him unlearn his difficult first years, and we achieved a lot, but his early trauma always remained a shadow beneath the surface.

Over a number of years of doing gymnastic exercises Mo transformed from a weedy upside down nag into a muscular athlete capable of all the basic classical exercises as well as flying changes, piaffer and a little passage. There is a sense of both great lightness and great power when riding a classically trained horse in harmony. That you can direct the movement of a half tonne of beast with the slight shifting of weight, the brush of a heel, or the turn of a head and shoulder, feels like magic because the animal is willing and confident in responding to your requests.

When Mo was twelve, there was a fracture in our relationship. I was riding him on top of a hill in a large paddock when he took fright at something. The incident took me completely by surprise so when he suddenly spun to the left and launched himself toward a tree, I lost my balance and landed heavily on my side on ground baked hard by a hot summer. The excruciating pain that seared through my body made it clear something was wrong. I was about a kilometre away from help.

Whilst I lay gulping air, Mo regained his composure and returned to stand by me, dipping his head as if to ask if I was ok, or enquire as to why I was on the ground rather than on his back.

I gingerly got to my knees and then my feet, using his body to steady myself. Holding onto the horse to keep upright and mustering all my resolve I hobbled delicately to the nearby house, Mo treading slowly beside me supporting my weight. Luckily the homeowner was there and helped me into the house where I lay on the floor just inside the front door feeling like I was going to pass out. I stayed there gasping for air until an ambulance arrived. The morphine the ambos administered was a godsend. After a night in emergency I spent six weeks flat on my back whilst my fractured spine healed.

Eventually I was well enough to ride again. I only got one or two in before Mo injured himself terribly in the paddock, tearing his knee open. I spent many weeks dressing the wound, cutting away the proud flesh and changing bandages. The injury healed, but despite my best efforts the scarring interfered with his joints and he could no longer be ridden.

I took him down to a friends farm near Warnambool where he was well cared for in his very long retirement and became a familiar fixture – known for cantering everywhere he went, his affection towards visitors and sticking his nose in to see what was going on. He was active right up until his last day.

His passing marks the end of a significant chapter in my life. I shall go and visit his grave soon and plant a tree in his honour.

Seeing the Light

One of the things I most missed during lockdown was immersion in the arts. Like reading – galleries, sculpture parks, theatre and music all provide fertile ground for inspiration. Art helps us to see the world through different lenses, challenge our perspective on the world and transports us to different places. I have been to four exhibitions in recent weeks and feel creatively refreshed by the experiences.

Looking Glass at Tarrawarra Museum of Modern Art bought together two contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists – Waanyi artist, Judy Watson and Kokatha and Nukunu artist, Yvonne Scarce. The exhibition was a tribute to, and a lament for country. It reflected Aboriginal history from colonial massacres to Stolen Gernations, climate change and the impact of the Maralinga bomb tests.

Flesh after Fifty explored stereotypes of ageing and celebrated the older female form through photos, painting and sculpture. We are so accustomed to the memorialisation of youth and cajoled into drinking from its fountain at any cost through the media. Older women often talk about being ‘invisible’ and ‘overlooked’, and they do, with a few exceptions, for all intents and purposes ‘disappear’ from public view once their bodies start to wrinkle and sag.

To me, in many ways older people have always been beautiful. I see the lines etched on their faces and bodies as stories. Their creases and scars mark the life that has been lived – a rich source of story and inspiration if you take the time to explore them. It was a refreshing balm to go to a show that celebrated the diversity of the older woman’s form, challenging negative stereotypes of ageing.

One day I got lost in the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial exhibition. A celebration of the porosity and cross disciplinary influences of the creative arts. It was an awe inspiring, challenging visual feast, and at times a little nerve wracking when I found myself caught in the buildings maze unable to find my way out without help from the concierge.

My final drink from the creative fountain was Lisa Sewards Short Stories, an exhibition of printmaking and painting inspired from contemporary Australian short stories Lisa read during lockdown. The exhibition was held at Fortyfive Downstairs, a great art space off Flinders Lane, Melbourne.

I climbed down the steep wooden staircase into the bowls of the building to the gallery and found myself alone. Having time to peruse the stunning etchings and paintings brimming with emotion somehow made the experience much more intense.

The stories that inspired the works included A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop; The Flight of Birds: A Novel in Twelve Short Stories by Joshua Lobb; Nova (a raw manuscript) by Laurie Steed. My personal favourite, because it drew so strongly on emotion (and includes a dog), was The Edge of Tears inspired by Bec Yule’s unpublished Dog walking in the time of Corona, with apologies to Gabriell Garcia Marquez.

It was such a privilege to be able to go back out into the world and fill my creative cup from the inspiration of others. I encourage you to get out and support the artistic community who were hit so hard by lockdown and yet kept on creating. We need artists and their works to help us think critically, connect with the world around us in new ways, and nourish our cultural lives.

Main image: Melbourne Laneway

Book review: The Bird of Night by Susan Hill

The great poet Francis Croft was mad. He drifted between exquisite poetic vision and being overtaken by internal daemons that at times drove him to being either homicidal or suicidal. Harvey Lawson, an Egyptologist, met Francis a few years after World War I at a house party. At a subsequent meeting Francis was in a psychotic state, crying and clawing at his face which he claimed was not his own. The two men developed an intense friendship dominated by Francis’s mental illness, and Harvey became Francis’s protector and carer.

And if he is mad, it is because one man’s brain cannot contain all the emotions and ideas and visions that are filling his without sometimes weakening and breaking down. But he will be perfectly well again, his generally well. When his is not he is in despair and when his is fit he dreads the return of his illness. What can that be like to live with?

The Bird of Night is about love and madness. It is a bleak and tender story narrated in the first person in a journal style by Harvey, now an octogenarian, reminiscing about his relationship with Francis to whom he gave himself over. We know from the beginning how the story ends and there is a deep sadness in his narration that explores the space between genius and madness and the minutiae of how it impacted their relationship.

But understanding was not control. If Francis knew what he was, he could not alter it, he had no power at all over the vagaries and eruptions of his own mind. He was helpless in the face of an attack of insanity, no matter which way it went with him, whether he was depressed or violent, whether he was hysterical, agitated or deluded by visions and voices.

Hill’s book is a beautifully written portrayal of the effects of mental illness and the experience and anguish felt by those who care about a person who suffers. She draws a detailed and exquisite portrait of loyalty, tenderness and the intense disquiet of living with mental illness. The novels sense of place is evocative and the descriptions of the countryside and wildlife provide intermittent relief from the poignancy of the story.

But the cycle of Francis’s madness was never a regular or predictable one. I had prepared myself for days, perhaps weeks, spent closeted in that dismal flat by candlelight, having to comfort and support him through his deepest apathy and depression. Certainly, for the next two days he stayed in bed or sat slouched in a chair looking as though he were half drugged, his eyes blank and all his attention turned inward upon himself. He hardly spoke to me and when he did answer a persistent question, it was with a monosyllable. He would not shave or eat or read, but only sat up once in a while and muttered to his own hands. “It’s all wrong, I tell you, it’s all wrong.” Once I caught him staring at himself in a mirror, his face very close to the glass. He looked puzzled. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced,” he said to his reflection. “I do not know your face. Should I know your face? Is this a good party?

The Bird of Night won the Whitbread Award in 1972 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize the same year. It is the first time I have read a novel by Susan Hill, but I will definitely read more of her work.