Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review: Tithe by Holly Black

Title: Tithe
Author: Holly Black
Publisher: Simon Pulse, 2004

Kaye isn’t your average teen. At the age of sixteen, she’s seen the inside of more bars than she can be remembered, and follows her rocker mother around from venue to venue. This is until one night when her mother is attacked, and Kaye finds herself back at her grandmother’s while her parent tries to get her life back on track.

This is when we discover that Kaye is no stranger to the supernatural. She grew up in the company of so-called “imaginary” friends that were no other than faeries, and she is drawn into a world of magic that exists beyond the mundane reality she had taken for granted.

A chance encounter with a wounded warrior in a forest has unexpected repercussions as Kaye uncovers her past and the many layers of deception. She discovers herself in the middle of a power struggle between two faerie courts with her as a lynchpin in an ages-old struggle.

First off, I must say that this novel stands head and shoulders above some of what’s landed on my desk. There is no stereotypical love triangle or wimpy female protagonist at the whim of her alpha male love interest and his beta. Kaye is dreamy yet resilient. She’s not the good girl next door. Even better, she has a malicious edge to her, which is kept in check by her sense of justice.

There is nothing nice about the faeries in this novel. They’re neither good nor bad, which I absolutely adored. Roiben, a somewhat unwilling knight in service to the Unseelie queen, is the main love interest. Yes, his good looks and the slightly insta-desire that springs between him and Kaye is a little on the obvious side but Black handles it well. Not once does it feel forced.

The rather geeky (and human) Cornelius plays second fiddle to Roiben but, for the sake of spoilers, I won’t go into too much detail except to say that I enjoyed the interplay between him and Kaye immensely—the seeds of a genuine friendship are sown here.

The setting is absolutely fantastic. Black truly succeeds in painting a vivid landscape down to the tarnished sequins and rotten apples. If anything, read this novel for the descriptions. The world-building is lush without being heavy-handed.

I can’t find much to fault this novel. There were perhaps one or two scenes where I felt the author rushed a little and some details could have been clarified but it was easy to forgive her for writing fast. This is a lovely story that remains somewhat gritty and scratchy behind the eyes, and is unsentimental.

If faeries are your thing, read this one. I’ll close with my favourite line:

Waves tossed themselves against the shore, dragging grit and sand between their nails as they were slowly pulled back out to sea.

How can one not love prose like that?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

When the Sea is Rising Red release

Today I welcome Cat Hellisen to my world. Her young adult fantasy novel, When the Sea is Rising Red, releases tomorrow and she’s graciously stopped by my blog today to chat about her bats…erm vampires.

Racial and class divisions are rife in your setting. Do you think your upbringing during apartheid-era South Africa had anything to do with this?

Oh, very much so. I remember when were called to a high school assembly and it was explained to us that we were now a model-C school and as from next year there would be black students in our classes. It's insane and horrifying now to think back to that, but privileged children are brought up blind to the hideous truths behind their status. From birth, the culture around you encourages your belief in your superiority thanks to the colour of your skin or your economic class: the haha so funny racist jokes, people putting on black accents when they wanted to show how stupid someone was, the NET BLANKE signs on trains and buses.

With Felicita, the main character in When the Sea is Rising Red, I wanted to show a girl who grew up on that insidious diet of racial (and in this case, magical) superiority and what happens when she's forced to confront those beliefs she has been fed. I also didn't want her to change too easily or too much, because I find that kind of super-fast about-face rather unrealistic after a life time of indoctrination, but to show that she's questioning what she has always believed.

Writing vampires into fiction can cause quite a bit of eye-rolling in some quarters. How did you approach them as a race in When the Sea is Rising Red?

Mention vampires, especially for the YA genre, and outcome the sparkly jokes. I actually applaud Meyer – she took something and made it her own. It might not be to everyone's taste, but writing what she wanted to write has certainly not harmed her (or her bank balance, I might add). I kinda like that she's the poster child for write what you want to read.

But to the actual question, I didn't really approach them. The Hobverse books started as a single scene: A boy watching a vampire burned to death at a stake. Everything that I've written about them since grew from that single concept of watching a "monster" sob for its mother as it waited to die.

Bats are considered second-class citizens in your milieu. What makes then different from the "ordinary" folk?

Without spoiling any future Hobverse books that may come along – in Felicita's world, vampires are not immortal shape-shifters feeding on the life-blood of fainting damsels, they are the lowest of the low.

They are marginalised for looking different, their insularity, their eating habits. They feed on blood – and I took that as another way to approach racism. Food is a huge cultural dividing line. Add to it the concept of cannibalism, and you have a reason for the ruling classes to consider the bats filth.

Bats and magic. What is the connection here?

I'm really going to have to dance around spoilerific stuff here. The bats are magical but they cannot use magic – another reason they're considered less than human. The magical ruling classes use a drug called scriven to access latent powers but the vampires are considered creatures that have been formed because of the fall-out from a magical war.

Are there any contemporary authors you know of who're approaching vampires with a whiff of fresh air? Or do you despair for the genre?

I don't despair for the genre at all – someone is always going to come along and play with the tropes and tweak things – and like it or not, Meyer did just that. *grin* There is so much variety in the scope of the vampire character – whether you're looking for Bram Stoker monsters or Anne Rice fangster wangsters, you've got everything. And everything in-between. We're fascinated by them – there's the appeal of the soulless immortal who sees humanity as food while still missing their own human-ness, I think that's a fun concept to play with. As for me, I'd love to see more non-Eurocentric vampire mythology get pulled into the chaos.

YA fiction is more than tortured teens and love triangles. Tell us of three YA authors who're mavericks in their own right.

My favourite book of last year was YA - Chime, by Franny Billingsley. I love how she played with mythology and witchcraft and social standing in an alternate Victorian England.

Hannah Moskowitz is best known for contemporary but I know she's working on books that could easily fall under magical realism. The way she writes relationships between brother/families is so twisted and achey it makes my chest hurt.

And I just finished The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith that was delightfully fucked up. Parallel words or insanity or both. I love that kind of claustrophobic confusion.

How do you approach the YA secondary world genre and make it shine?

I play with it. I read widely. I force myself to not take the easy options. Well, that's the theory anyway.

Five lashes:
Favourite sin?

Whose lovechild would you bear?
Eh. I think they should bear my love-child.

The one song you'd put on repeat when no one can hear you sing?
Oh god. *hides* The Stars – Patrick Wolf.

Your dream holiday escape?
I'd love to spend a few months in India.

What do you bake when it's payday?

Follow Cat on Twitter @hellioncat

Order your copy of When the Sea is Rising Red.

* Special note: Cape Town readers can order When the Sea is Rising Red directly from the Book Lounge now (they're getting stock in just for us, since we asked) already as the major chain stores will only be getting in stock in May.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

#Friday Flash: Memory Lane

I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a game. It was more of a ritual. Suzanne and I would meet each Halloween at a small restaurant in Kalk Bay. The place had been there for ages—one of those spots that kept their doors open over the years despite the downturn in economic climes.

“You’re looking amazing!” the manager told me when I arrived. He was one of those rare ones, I gathered, with a gift for recalling faces. If he knew what was good for him he wouldn’t remember me the next time. He’d shown me to my table last year, and the year before that. I liked the view. I liked the memories. I came here even if Suzanne couldn’t make it.

“I stay out of the sun,” I told him with a pointed smile. “You have no idea how harmful UV radiation can be.”

I shouldn’t take such risks but the older our kind became, the more prone we were to being creatures of habit. And I was keen to see Suzanne. We hadn’t gotten together in more than a decade because she’d been living overseas with her second husband. Foreign travel understandably posed difficulties for those of us who were night dwellers.

Although I no longer had a pulse, I couldn’t help but feel a small lurch of excitement as I made my way to our usual table—one that overlooked the tidal pool. And, as promised in her last communiqué, Suzanne was there. She had her back to me, so did not see me until I slipped into the seat opposite hers.

“Oh!” Suzanne pressed a hand to her chest. “You startled me.”

“I’m sorry.” I grimaced, partially from giving her a fright but also because of her appearance. Even more lines marred her face and her once nut-brown hair was streaked liberally with grey. “How are you?” I held my hand out to her and she took it, squeezing lightly. Her skin warmed mine. The last time we’d met, she’d thrown herself at me and we’d embraced, squealing like young girls.

“I’m fine,” Suzanne replied. Her eyes glistened and I could smell the sour burst of emotion from her. “You haven’t...” She wanted to complete the sentence with “aged a bit”.

We never discussed my condition or, indeed, the special needs that accompanied it. It was enough that she was aware of it, and that she didn’t judge me.

The skin around her eyes tightened briefly. “Charles was diagnosed with colon cancer last month.”

“That’s terrible,” I said, but I meant the words more for her than for the husband I’d never met.

Suzanne withdrew her hand then waved the waiter over, not quite meeting my gaze. She ordered us both a glass of red wine then waited for the man to get out of hearing. “I’ve filed for divorce. I can’t go through this a second time.” She meant living through the slow death of a loved one. The second husband had eventually died of a series of strokes, but he had been bedridden for almost two years. She’d gone through an almost literal hell.

I inclined my head. “I won’t think ill of you.” I was the last one to pass judgment. Especially since I’d long lost track of how many I’d killed. Some inadvertently. A few not.

Suzanne’s laugh was shallow and bitter. “I thought you’d like to know I went to our school reunion.”

I’d been unable to attend. For obvious reasons.

She dug in her handbag and produced a tablet in a slick leather binder. I watched with interest as she scrolled past icons to bring up a folder of pictures.

“You’ll laugh.” She handed me the thing. “One of the teachers made up a series of before and after pictures. I thought you’d be interested.”

I hardly recognised the faces, even of the photos taken when we’d been younger. A surprised hiss escaped me when I encountered the first images of me. My hair long, straight hair had been almost white. The colour now was more that of burnished gold and it looped in lazy ringlets through its own perverse will. The better to be more beguiling, my dear.

My eyes were wide and innocent in a sun-kissed face, a faint sprinkling of freckles across my nose. I looked like a baby. Not this dead white thing I was now. I paused at a picture taken on our valedictory day. Almost a hundred girls posed on the stands by the hockey field with Table Mountain in the background. Our beige uniforms couldn’t quite detract from the vibrancy of our smiles.

“Remember that day?” Suzanne said. “Mrs De Wet made us all take our jerseys off so we could look the same. We just dropped them in a scattering of discarded knitwear.”

“And I recall telling you they looked like empty skins, like cocoons or something that had hatched.” For some peculiar reason I felt ill. I could feel the ghost of sunlight on my skin, and the salty tang of the sea breaking on the rocks below the window made me think of blood, thick and hot on my tongue.

We shared a silent moment and I couldn’t help but think how we were both victims of time, and how differently things had turned out for each of us.

Suzanne gave a nervous laugh. “None of us were butterflies, were we?”

I shook my head. “And there are no knights in shining armour, either.”

We’d be back next year. I knew it. Suzanne would be a year older. I’d still be the same. She’d never ask to be turned, and I’d never offer.

* * * *

If you liked my vampires, you might want to try out two of my novellas, The Namaqualand Book of the Dead and What Sweet Music They Make.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Today multi-published author Gayla Drummond visits my world. Welcome, Gayla, and tell us more about Discord. Where did she get her name and how did she get into her line of business?

I love Greek mythology, but Eris (the goddess of strife, discord, contention, and rivalry) wasn’t a name choice I liked for a character. So Discord, or rather, Discordia it was. As the series develops, it will become clearer how right that choice for her name was. ;)

As for how she began working at Arcane Solutions, Discord’s mom took her car shopping. Discord had her first retro-cognition vision in a used car. She saw a murder and her father contacted the police. She met Damian, and that meeting led to her job at Arcane Solutions after he mentioned her to Mr. Whitehaven, who recruited her.

Elves? Tell us more about them without dropping spoilers.

I have a crush on movie-Legolas, so there are elves. Gorgeous, arrogant, sneaky snobs of elves with secrets who will lie their butts off at the drop of a hat.

You've got some gorgeous cover art there. Care to tell us more about it.

Thank you! I made it, using a couple of RF stock images and one of my storm-chasing House Hunney’s lightning photos. Did a ‘taste test’ with several people to get it just right. [pets cover]

You say you've got eight books in the series. Do you plot them all out in advance or do you let them grow organically?

(It’ll be nine total, did you mean 8 more?) I plot, but am perfectly willing to change outlines and let the series grow as it will. Well, as long as none of the characters decided to do anything stupid.
I made the mistake of putting out three titles in another series without letting them simmer. Ended up retiring them and now, with three years of world-building, I think I’m ready to start rebooting that one.

You self-publish your novels, which is quite a production. Why did you decide to go this route and what are some of the most important aspects of being a self-published author?

Ebooks and self-publishing were gaining momentum when I decided seriously pursue my dream of being a writer. At 37, I didn’t want to send out subs and wait, wait, wait for a chance to maybe be published. So I didn’t. I learned about Amazon’s KDP program, and that was that.

Quality is the most important aspect. I don’t think anyone should put out work and ask people to buy it unless they’ve had other eyes on it first. I’m speaking from experience, because when I released my first two ebooks, I did everything myself, and predictably, they sucked.

I don’t know why anyone even bought them, because I cringe when I read them now.
Willingness to learn and improve are important. No one is good at something the first time they do it. Practice helps. So does cussing when you’re on the third attempt at formatting and something is still messed up. ;)

How do you challenge yourself to improve your skills? Kinda like an author-gym, if it were. [smiles]

I write a LOT to hone my skills. I pay close attention to what my editors correct in each story. I went crazy with semi-colons in one. There was a threat involving a cast iron skillet suddenly descending upon my skull when I became overly enamored with dialog tags for another.
When they point out a problem, I do my best to break that bad habit immediately.

Now, for some quick questions:

Favourite sin? Lust.

Favourite past time other than writing? Reading.

Best holiday destination? Disneyworld!

All-time favourite novel? Right now, it’s The Silver Wolf by Alice Borchardt.

What song would you play loud and sing to if no one were listening? Wish I had an Angel by Nightwish.

Arcane Solutions is the first in the Discord Jones urban fantasy series (there are 8 more books planned).

It's currently available at Smashwords, AmazonUS, AmazonUK, AmazonDE, AmazonFR, AmazonIT, and AmazonES with more sites to come.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Pearl for Anel

The collection of mudbrick homes encircled by their wattle-and-daub palisade looked dirtier; smaller somehow than when I’d departed. The thorn trees I remembered climbing as a child were but stunted stumps with no sign of the spreading green canopies where laughing doves nested. It seemed like only last season but one glance at the numerous scars standing out in pale streaks on my sun-browned forearms was all reminder I needed that I’d been away for years.

“I’ll be back and I’ll bring you a pearl,” I’d told Anel as we kissed one last time before I followed the recruiter. “The mercenary forces are rich. Wait for me. I’ll return and we can leave this place and buy ourselves a farm in the highlands. We can keep a few cows and raise a family.”

My dreams had been simple then, and had been all that sustained me when one year had become two, then three. A dozen had passed since the callow youth I’d been first gained blisters from wielding a sword.

I’d known other women over the years that I’d been gone; sloe-eyed courtesans in Ashdiri ports and garrulous Delrochian tavern wenches had all shared the pleasures of their flesh, but one woman drew me here. In my mind’s eye Anel was still the dusk-skinned beauty with a fall of mahogany hair she kept in a single braid. I still recall the feel of her small hand in mine and the way she used to twine the wild loves-me-not into flower crowns for us. We’d be the summer king and queen, and the whole world was ours for the taking.

A fierce yammering of hounds started as we began down the ridge and my grey gelding snorted and pricked his ears but held steady. The beast was possibly one of the most phlegmatic I’d owned—a seasoned destrier I’d purchased off a knight who no longer sold his sword to the mercenary captains. Such were the times. A dozen years of warfare and I too was considered an old man, though I was one season shy of thirty summers.

Children’s screams of excitement sounded with the dogs, and a ragged band both four-legged and two burst from the palisade gates to greet me halfway across the hard-baked ground. They were covered in the same ochre dust that rose in puffs with each footfall, so much so that their clothes carried the same yellowish hue as their skin.

Then the youngsters crowded my mount, the tallest among them daring to lay his hand on the stirrup. “Milord! Do you bring coin?”

I laughed and reached into a pocket for a handful of copper bits. This small change would hardly buy a decent meal with a drink at most respectable inns but to these children I must hold a considerable fortune. “Share it with your friends.” I tipped the coins into the lad’s grubby hands. He couldn’t be older than eleven summers and it was sobering to see someone who’d been born and had grown so much in the time I’d been gone.

Momentarily distracted by my generosity, the children fell behind as I continued riding. The gelding quickened his pace, no doubt under the assumption that this outpost promised a meal of soft hay. “You’ll be lucky if you get muddy water, old man,” I muttered beneath my breath.

What had I expected? The sheer poverty of my home struck me with an almost physical blow as I reined the horse in before the well. The thatched roofs were badly in need of repair and numerous walls sagged dangerously. While the palisade had been whole at the entrance, an entire section had been burned down at the back, with three of the homes no more than tumbled ruins--fire-blackened mudbrick and beams that stood up like ribs. I knew the signs well and my heart contracted. Raiders had passed through here too.

A few scrawny chickens clucked about but the place appeared deserted.

“Is there anyone here?” I called. “I mean no ill.”

The children boiled into the compound behind me and I made eye contact with the eldest. “Where’s your mother?”

“Inside, milord.”

“Call her, please.”

Movement at the doorways of several of the huts snagged my attention. Women. They hung back, raggedy shawls pulled tightly around their shoulders. Where were all the men? Uncle Shem with his bushy beard and booming laughter? Dorrick, who could carve horses out of wood that were so lifelike one could almost see them prance about? Experience informed me coldly I should be the last to wonder about their fate.

One by one the womenfolk approached, faces pinched with fear and hunger so that I could see the skull beneath the skin. I thought one was Aunt Shel, but I wasn’t sure. She had lost a lot of weight and favored her right leg. Her hair stuck out in wild white wisps on either side of her face. For some reason my tongue cleaved to my palate and no words formed on my lips.

My gaze darted from one to the other. Seven women remained, and not one of them was Anel. That was until I caught sight of one who hung back. Her belly was distended in the advanced stages of pregnancy. I think I only recognized her because of the way her hair was braided. But those sunken cheeks... Her tremulous toothless smile greeted me and I gripped the reins tighter.

“No,” I whispered then dragged the gelding’s head around. I didn’t care that the horse thirsted. I dug my knees in so that he spun with a squeal of outrage. There had been a small watering hole an hour’s ride back. Once this had been a deep pool shaded by willows. Now there’d be enough water to sustain us on the ride back to Ysul. If I rode hard, I’d meet up with my old mercenary company before they departed for the war in Abdur.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Meet Matthew Tait

Today I welcome Matthew Tait to my blog. He's recently seen the release of Slander Hall through Dark Continent's Publishing Tales of Darkness and Dismay collection. Thank you for stopping by, Matthew. In a recent discussion you and I had, you mentioned your interest in cult groups that are heavily involved in brainwashing--such as the Jonestown Massacre and Heaven's Gate. What, in your opinion, is the special horror attached to these social situations?

I think the core horror attached to these situations – and one of the reasons people find them so fascinating – is that many of us (if given just the right set of circumstances), might be able to envisage ourselves in a similar situation. Millions of years of evolution have taken place, and yet we are all still grappling for answers – the reasons behind our existence and why we are here. There are certain watershed moments in history when particular charismatic individuals seem to give these answers to us in a coherent structure that makes sense at the time … and those answers fill a void we’ve carried since infancy. It’s only in the aftermath after these groups implode that the real eye-opener dawns: that seeking revelation can ultimately lead to a dead end.

Not only that, of course – but I think the fundamental fascination lies in how these cults ultimately self-terminate. Death will always hold its morbid spell. We hope to see (perhaps by catching a glimpse of the bodies) if there are any answers to own mortality etched there… that maybe we’ll even be granted revelations of our own.

How did these two tragedies come together to give rise to Slander Hall? Did you do a lot of research?

I think writing (in particular fiction writing), will always be cathartic to those who practice it. I’ve long held a fascination with this taboo topic and Slander Hall was a short attempt to exorcise some of those niggling demons and unanswered questions that still plague me to this day. Very little research was needed as most of the information still resides in my skull; however, some of the the main encouragement came from a book I bought by one of the sole survivors of the Heaven’s Gate tragedy. This book is very difficult to find and gives an insider's view as to what really went on during the final days. Suffice it to say I’ve been studying it for so long now the spine has rubber bands holding it together …

Can you tell us more about your protagonist, Cedar Jarrell? Why does he go back?

This question goes back to my previous answer for the above one. The main protagonist in Slander Hall is loosely based on the sole survivor and why he left at the eleventh hour just before the suicides took place. Unbelievably, this particular individual didn’t "come to his senses" or expunge the belief system from his psyche (to this day he still holds true to it). In my fictitious version, Cedar Jarrell returns to the ghost town of Slander Hall for some kind of closure … perhaps even revelation. He thinks his deceased friends might still be alive in some capacity – that their energy might still remain. That is, after all, why they died: so that they could live on in another evolutionary level.

What scares you the most in real life?

Interesting question … and one that some people might not like the answer to. In the past I’ve been labelled somewhat of a conspiracy theorist (which I don’t believe), but ultimately what scares me is big government using the general population as sheep or fodder to further their own agendas. Another taboo subject I hope to write about one day is the advents surrounding 9/11. We know now that government’s version of advents cannot possibly be true … and in the face of this information the alternative theories that crop up are terrifying beyond belief. If such things have taken place in the past (innocent people being sacrificed for a greater cause), then there is a total lack of control on our part … and that scares me the most.

And now, for the not-so-serious question: do you have a writing soundtrack of go-to albums/songs that put you into "the zone" when you're creating?

It is no secret among my writing friends how much Clive Barker has influenced me over the years. Not only as a writer but ultimately as a person. His keen insights and philosophies have always been pertinent with my own. When composing, I like nothing more than listening to Danny Elfman’s soundtrack from the film Nightbreed. The opening sequence of music never fails to induce a frisson of pleasure. But I am just enamoured to the music of Lord of Illusions or even Candyman. There is a haunting quality to all of it – an apocalyptic ease I try to imbue into everything I write. When editing, the tune changes somewhat and my heroes from the nighties all get a spin: Nirvana, Bush, Alice in Chains and most of the music featured around that era.

You said you worked in a video store. Are there any of the films you saw that later influenced you to become a writer?

It will always be the books one grows up with that plant the seeds for that particular ambition; however, there are many films that have added to the tide. They might be somewhat self-indulgent, but I’ve always held the same fascination someone like Stephen King holds for the art: stories on celluloid that are actually about writers and the often blurry world they inhabit on a daily basis. (And he’s created quite a few of them). Movies like Secret Window and Misery and The Dark Half. One particular one that I’ve watched too many times to count is David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. To this day I’m still puzzled by what I see up on the screen – but the images did induce me to pick up my pen on more than one occasion. Lastly I have to give another shout-out to Mr. Clive Barker. After seeing the original Hellraiser I sought out his novella The Hellbound Heart immediately. After that, my life changed forever.

Purchase Slander Hall here.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

#FridayFlash: Class Outing

Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance and the air was already syrup thick. We stood at the giant wrought iron gates of Lord Innsworth’s private arboretum and botanical garden, and waited for the stragglers to arrive.

“Indemnity forms in?” Professor Spiggs asked those of us who were already present.

“I don’t see why we need bloody indemnity forms for a botany excursion,” Derren muttered to me.

I shrugged. “I’m just glad we’re not sitting in the laboratory this morning. It’s a good day to be out.”

Derren glanced up at the overcast sky. “It’s going to rain at noon.”

“Better ’n tagging bulbs in the greenhouse.”

Professor Spiggs cleared his throat and gestured for the rest of the students to gather round. “Listen up, please. This is a great privilege. Lord Innsworth the Twelfth Earl of Curriemore hasn’t opened these gates to the university in more than five years. Not after the last, rather unfortunate incident...” The professor mumbled something only he could hear before he brightened and looked about. “Please stay on the demarcated paths. At all costs.”

Derren nudged me in the ribs. “Oi, what’s he talking about?”

“Be buggered if I knew.” I’d only lived in the city of Wynnton for the past two years, and everything was a bit of a novelty to me.

“I see Marcus isn’t here,” Derren said.

“Too bad for him then.” Secretly I was glad the fool hadn’t joined us. I still hadn’t lived down his last practical joke. Funny for him, yes, but intense mortification for me when the stink of fertiliser refused to wash out of my clothing for more than two weeks.

The gates squeaked open and we bunched together as we entered the hallowed grounds, clipboards in hand. There were plenty of oohs and ahs as we meandered down the gravel pathways. Our excursion was well worth chipping in the extra coin, though I wasn’t entirely certain what I’d do for meals the rest of the week.

Lush palms stood cheek by jowl with giant ficus and wild banana. Trembling spider lilies filled entire banks beneath iron woods of great girth, and I noted fifteen cycad species I’d never before had the pleasure of seeing or, indeed touching.

Even Derren, who’d gone on several field excursions to a number of exotic destinations, was impressed. “Good lord, this man’s sitting on more wealth here than the king himself,” he said while scratching at an insect bite.

“And now for the gem of the collection,” Professor Spiggs said once we’d finished goggling at a very rare violet-flowering squamous tree orchid.

Dutifully we trooped after the man, who trotted ahead in a state of agitation. We might find this excursion a highlight of our rather mundane botany degrees, but he frothed with childlike excitement. He led us to a wide expanse of lawn where a portion at its centre had been fenced off. No one could miss the multitude of “Danger” signs that had been posted. These ruined the organic flow of the garden’s layout, and immediately had me wondering what could possibly be so threatening about the bulbous mass of gnarled trunks in the middle of the enclosure. The tree—if it was that—had no leaves. Only short bare branches crowned its top.

“And here we have,” said Professors Spiggs, who was quite out of breath, “The most dangerous caudiciform plant in the world. Behold the balon tree from the Arceneedian Isles. This is a very small specimen. In nature they are at least three times this size.”

We all stared, slack-jawed. This was the botanical equivalent of the unicorn—rare and almost impossible to lay hands on. Lethal too, if it was the flowering season, though few botanists had gone close enough and lived to tell the tale.

“Now we will approach, but with caution,” the professor said. “And keep well away from the tentacles.”

“What tentacles?” Derren asked loudly.

I didn’t have an answer for him because even a bit closer, the tree looked dead. The only sign that it was alive was a white frill with a shocking pink edge at the seams, where some of the branches met. It fluttered slightly in the breeze that stirred and the scent of honey was strong.

“Sorry I’m late,” someone shouted. That someone was Marcus, who managed to turn his scruffy clothing into a fashion statement. He jogged up and wasn’t even out of breath. Bastard.

I sighed and shuffled slightly behind Derren.

Spiggs beamed. “So good of you to join us, old chap.” Then to the rest of us, he said, “There, do make a space for Marcus so he can get a clear view.”

We shuffled so that Marcus got a prime position. Several boots came down on my feet, and I wasn’t certain how many of these were unintentional. The professor then continued to extol the virtues of this plant, his voice dwindling to a nasal drone in my ears while I stared at the balon tree.

Tentacles? What tentacles? Apart from the way the damn tree’s fringe moved in the wind, it was perfectly motionless, its olive-flecked bark shiny in the sun. Because I was at the back, there was no one to see me pick up a pebble from the ground. I bit my lip and debated on the wisdom of what I was about to do. Then I thought, ah fuck it, and threw the pebble, hard.

It hit the trunk with a resounding clop and the damn tree moved—so fast none of us could react in time. A snakelike thing expelled viciously from its crown, coiled around a hapless student’s middle and dragged him screaming into the slimy maw which opened to receive him. We stood staring as the tree writhed while Marcus struggled gamely. Then, with an audible snap, he was gone.

“He didn’t sign his indemnity form, did he?” Trust Derren to be the first to speak up.

My mom’s one of the people I blame for my love of books and writing. She was a school teacher, and some of my earliest memories are of sitting in her classes during the afternoons when I was done with preschool. My favourite class was English, and I’d listen to her teach while I drew on bits of paper. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but often when my mom asked the kids a question I was the only one to put up my hand with a correct answer. I was five at the time. She was teaching Grade 6s.

So, yeah, it would appear that my knack with language is largely thanks to my mom, and we still spend hours chatting about the written word. She’s also the only member of my family with whom I can discuss my writing. Apart from my dad, who also used to be a school teacher, the rest are pretty much functionally illiterate.

When I was little, my parents would often take me on long hikes in the mountains, and one of the ways in which my mom distracted me from the distance or my sore feet was to tell me stories. One such story was about a young boy, about my own age then (six), who got lost in the woods and was looked after by a badger. She remembers wishing she could find that book again but had, sadly, forgotten the title and the author’s name. One of the children at the school where she was teaching loved that story so much he stole the book before she could finish reading it to the class.

My mom and I had also gone to the library in a bid to find the story, and asked the librarian if she could help. She had no idea what the book’s title was and that’s where the matter rested for almost twenty years. Today I received a phonecall from my mom and we spoke about that book. I was at my desk so I suggested we run a few searches online.

My mom gave me what she thought was the author’s surname, and I had some fun with Google and Amazon. Nothing came up. Then I typed in “badgers in fiction”. Lo and behold, www.whatsthatbook.com came up as one of the search results. It’s an online community dedicated to helping people find their long-lost books and the Google search had dug up, “children’s/young adult novel about a young boy who falls into a badger hole, is injured and subsequently cared for by the mother badger inhabiting the hole.”

When I read that blurb out to my mom she yelled with joy. We’d found our book: Incident at Hawk’s Hill by Allan W Eckert. Because I love supporting independent bookshops, I mailed the Book Lounge right away and they’ve put it on order. It’ll be here in two weeks.

This is one of those niggling little life stories that has a happy ending. My mother had remembered the book with such fondness and it really made my day to help her rediscover it. I can’t wait to read the whole story myself. I’d love to know what some of your book mysteries are.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Guest post: Autumn Christian

Today I allow my fellow Tales of Darkness and Dismay author, Autumn Christian, loose on my blog. Welcome, Autumn...

I’ll be honest, I’ve had to rewrite this blog post about four times. I’m nervous about the face I present to the Internet, and as a former closet writer I’m just getting used to talking about my writing to strangers. As a twenty-two year old, I don’t feel inclined to offer writing advice like some kind of pulp war hero, nor am I yet past the phase where I can promote myself without feeling an odd sort of unworthiness. My girlfriend recently took me to her aunt’s house for Christmas dinner. I felt like a strange creature in my doc martens and lace dress, sitting at the dinner table squeezing the tablecloth between my fingers.

“Congratulations on Autumn’s new book!” said this foreign family as they toasted me with wine and I tried to smile but instead hid my face into my shoulder.

“What kind of book is it?”

“Horror fiction,” I said, voice quiet, and the subject was quickly changed.

Nevertheless, I’m pleased to announce the release of my e-novella from Dark Continents, A Gentle Hell, which is part of the Tales of Darkness and Dismay. It can be purchased from amazon here. A Gentle Hell is comprised of four dark fiction short stories. Described as “surreal,” “beautiful and melancholy,” and “The Thinking Person’s horror”:

In They Promised Dreamless Death a salesmen sells sleep with the promise of a better life, but what dreams lurk beneath the substrate of consciousness for those who take it are stranger than they ever imagined.

In Your Demiurge is Dead, while the world adjusts to the death of God and the new reign of the Triple Goddess, Charles hunts for an Oklahoma murderer and is forced to confront his religious ideals when he encounters a new prophet.

The Dog That Bit Her, is the story of a neurotic young woman who gains freedom from her co-dependent marriage with the bite of a rabid dog.

And in the semi-autobiographical The Singing Grass, the artist and the writer converge at a meadow haunted by a carnivorous deer and the burnt monsters that show them the consequences of an artistic life.

If you’d like to follow me around the Interwebs, you can find me at my website autumnchristian.net, on twitter at @autumnxtian or on facebook.

- Autumn

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Link round-up

This week has seen a frenzy of writing on my side. Which is probably why I've been a bit "not quite there" in the real world as I'm currently 23 000 words into my current work in progress, which I started last Sunday. All I can say at this point is that it involves vampires and is set in a secondary world, with a pseudo-Victorian feel to it. The really sucky working title is Heart of a Dhampir. Yes. It sucks my big toe but I don't know what else to call it right now.

Now, for the linkage. First up this week is an interview with Severin, the vampire who features in my most recent Lyrical Press release, What Sweet Music They Make. Xan Marcelles, who needs very little introduction to regulars in my world, is the brainchild of Carrie Clevenger, one of my writing partners. Do stop by and check it out.

It's always lovely when people pick up my older writing. A book blogger over at Heroes and Heartbreakers really enjoyed Khepera Rising, my debut release at Lyrical Press. She made it one of her "best of January" picks. Swing by here and see what she says.

Then, I spent a little time hanging out with fellow Dark Continents author AJ Brown at his blog. It was a riotous interview which provided me with many giggles. Do swing by.

Cathy Olliffe-Webster gives my favourite vampire, Xan, some airtime and Blood and Fire gets a bit of link love. And yes, I find long-haired rockers in tight jeans extremely delicious.

Lastly, if you haven't read my Friday Flash piece yet, here it is. It has a fanged theme this week for all those vampire lovers. Now that I look at it in hindsight, I realise it's a bit of a stab at the Tweelight mythos.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Friday Flash: Kissing the Dawn

“Oh, don’t be dramatic,” I told Sam. “You honestly think she cares that you fry yourself at sunrise?”

Sam sniffed loudly and rubbed at his eyes. His tears stained his cheeks red—a serious downside for a vampire showing strong emotions in a public place. Luckily we were on the roof of Senator Park and no sensible mortal would think to hang out up here an hour before dawn.

“I don’t see any point to this existence,” he wailed. “Everyone I love’s gonna grow old and die, and I’ll be all on my own.”

“I’ve got news for you, old chap. You’ve been all on your own since the day you were born. Being a vampire ain’t gonna change that. You just think you’ve got friends but they’re all back-stabbing little shits in the end.” I glanced toward the east, where the night faded a little lighter on the ridges of the mountains. Not enough to give warning tingles on my exposed flesh but I’d run from enough sunrises to know when it became dangerous for our kind to be out and about. Below us the city still slumbered but the first delivery trucks were already on the road. I could sense the world stirring.

Sam hissed at me then; showed a flash of fang. “Easy for you to say. You’ve got years on me. You’ve had plenty of practice.”

I almost felt sorry for the poor bastard. He sat on the edge, legs dangling into the void, dreadlocks half obscuring his face. Sam was just some tranced-out hippie kid who had turned up undead in my stomping ground a year ago. He had no idea who his sire was and no one laid claim to him, so I had sort of took him under my wing. Not that the ungrateful little wretch showed me any gratitude.

I merely stared at him then lit a cigarette. I had time for a smoke before I vanished back inside. He glared back at me and, to give him some credit, lasted almost two minutes before he looked away first. Sure, I had years on him. A whole five years. Like that made a difference when we were both way beneath the vampire elders’ notice.

“I went home a year after I got turned,” I told him. “My sire told me not to. Told me it was stupid.”

Sam’s head shot up, though he didn’t look at me.

“I went to see if my cherry was still okay. I missed her, you know. She never did find out what happened to me. My supposed ‘death’ was a missing person’s report in the False Bay Echo. I’d gone out for a pint with my mates at The Vic and I’d never come home. They found my car parked by the beach. No sign of my body.

“So, I caught the train out one evening. It was winter so the sun was long down. Figured I could hole up somewhere then catch the train out the following night, or something. I’d make a plan. I just needed to see her. Maybe go on to see if my parents were still around but I really, really wanted to see Marissa...” I had to stop then. I didn’t want to remember.

“What then?” Sam mumbled.

“Oh, she still stayed in the backflat on Seventh Avenue.” I laughed, the sound bitter. “My luck was in. She was home too. I even went so far as to press my nose against the glass and peer in like a regular Peeping Tom. She was there on the couch. A new boyfriend all cuddled with her. They were eating popcorn and watching TV. He had his hand on her breast.” I didn’t add that she looked about eight months pregnant.


“And nothing,” I said while I ground the cigarette butt under my boot. “I’m still here. She’s there. We get on with life. We make new connections. Some of us live for three score and ten years like they say in the Bible. Some of us live until we’re stupid dumb-ass little shits who sit outside and wait for the sunrise.” With that I left him.

Yeah, I reckoned it would bother me if he self-immolated. Kissing the dawn—as we called it—was not uncommon but it sure as hell was a painful way to ensure final death. And, though I’d never admit it to him, I kinda liked the kid’s company. His naïveté perked up my nights. But it wasn’t like I was his boss or anything. Free will.

I shut the door to the roof firmly behind me and trotted down the fire escape stairs until I got to the sixth floor. Senator Park never really slept. Even now my Tanzanian neighbors argued loudly in the apartment next to mine. The ganja smoke hung heavy in the hallway and I slunk into the one-bedroom unit I shared with Sam.

My muscles ached—my body still recovering from me accidentally having partaken of hepatitis-infected blood. Chilling out seemed like a very good idea. I threw myself down on my mattress, checked that the black-out curtains were drawn to firmly and picked up the dog-eared copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein I was trying to read for the nth time.

A key grated in the lock shortly before sunrise proper, and Sam slunk in. He didn’t say much but threw himself down on his mattress, an arm slung over his face.

“Chicken,” I said with a smirk then made a few squawking noises.

“Fuck you.” The tossed copy of Penthouse that came my way fluttered like a dying bird. I was pretty sure Sam and I would be dodging quite a few more dawns in each other’s company.