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Unexpected Tales from the Ends of the Earth – a review

Unexpected Tales from the Ends of the Earth is an anthology of short stories. The ‘ends of the earth’  part of the title is a reference to the diverse countries and cultures of the authors who contributed to the anthology.

The reason I bought Unexpected Tales was because Candy Korman contributed seven stories to the anthology and I was curious to see what Candy’s shorts were like. [No pun intended!]

Those of you who read my reviews will know that I’ve loved, and reviewed, both of Candy’s novella length stories. [My reviews are here and here].

I’m pleased to tell you Candy’s shorts are just as good as her novellas!

Writing in short form requires a great deal of skill. The author has to find a way to compress background, character arc, mood and plot into a very tight space. As with a novel, each short story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Beyond that however, the story has to trigger the reader’s own imagination to fill in the ‘blanks’. The reader has to become a willing, eager participant in the telling because the author does not have the luxury of waffling on. Ok, waffling is not good in any form but you know what I mean!

So, back to the anthology. All seven of Candy’s short stories were a joy. No surprise there because she is a superb writer, imho [in-my-humble-opinion]. Her stories, however, were all surprising. Each one drew me into a different time and place… and then turned my expectations on their heads!

My favourite short story was the one about the residents of a retirement village. As I’m nudging 60 – and a bit scared of getting truly old – I enjoyed the depiction of these older citizens as real people enjoying much the same activities I enjoy right now. Romance, sex, love. Apparently none of those tender emotions atrophy with age. That was good to know. And then Candy started weaving in ‘the twist’. I won’t tell you what it was but I guarantee that readers of any age will appreciate it!

Of the ‘unknown’ authors contributing to the anthology the standout, for me, was Xarina. She wrote quite a long story in a number of parts. Her story, Alliances, was surprising in many ways. It began with a wedding and and it was  soon obvious this wedding was eastern in flavour. I guessed Indian and I was later proved correct. [Thank you Monsoon Wedding. If you haven’t seen this delightful Indian movie then I highly recommend it.]

All my other guesses about ‘Alliances’ proved to be wrong but the story was so enjoyable I hardly even noticed. Bright, colourful, exotic, all are words that spring to mind in describing this story. Yet there is a dark thread beneath its gentle, Bollywood-bright facade. And the ending will make you slap your head in disgust at not seeing the ‘clues’. Trust me, they are there. Xarina [the author] has not short-changed her readers in the slightest. Once you know, the signs are obvious. But of course she doesn’t let you ‘know’ until the very end.

In my humble opinion [there’s that caveat again], Candy Korman and Xarina make this anthology well worth the cost of the ebook. For me, though, the rest of the short stories somehow missed the mark. With some, the problem was me; I simply couldn’t relate to the content. With others, the style annoyed me. I enjoy beautiful prose but I really don’t like self-indulgent prose. Enough said.

The short story that disappointed me the most, however, was one that just… stopped. This particular story was interesting enough but it ended so abruptly I was left feeling baffled. And somewhat cheated.

At first I thought I’d paged past the ending. On a Kindle that’s quite easy to do if you press the page forward button too hard. So I paged back and discovered that I hadn’t missed the ending at all. All the main threads were resolved but the underlying thread, the one that gives you a sense for why the story was written in the first place, was missing. To me it felt like a long, involved joke without a punchline. Now I know that not all short stories have to have a ‘twist’ but I do expect them to give me a sense of… closure. This particular story didn’t.

One of the reasons I swore I would only write reviews of books I loved was that I hate being ‘mean’. I can empathize with other authors too well to want to hurt them, especially when my opinions are so very subjective. Millions of people love Twilight. I don’t. Millions of people love romance novels. As a general rule, I don’t. Still more millions love horror stories.  Surprise, surprise… I don’t. By contrast, I love science fiction, yet I know that an awful lot of people find sci-fi a yawn. So castigating any author for writing something I don’t like just feels wrong to me.

But what do you do with an anthology? Not writing a review of Unexpected Tales from the Ends of the Earth –  because I disliked some of the stories – would have been like throwing the baby out with the bath water. For those young ‘uns who haven’t heard that saying before… just think about it. 🙂

Unexpected Tales from the Ends of the Earth is an anthology with ups and downs, however for me, the ups far outweigh the downs and I can recommend it with a clear conscience, especially as I know you may love the very stories I disliked. That’s what subjective opinions are all about. Read the anthology and then, if you think that I have missed the mark, please tell me so in comments.

Honestly, I’m not just saying that! Life would be very boring without different points of view and, well, I do love a good argument. 😀



Brumby’s Run – more than just a romance novel

Life is full of little surprises. How else can I explain why I would spend most of the weekend reading a romance novel when I don’t even like romance novels? After all, aren’t romance novels all about some gorgeous young thing falling in love with some other gorgeous young thing, having a few ups and downs and then living happily ever after? At 59 I know that is about as likely as winning the lottery.  So how could someone so cynical [and old] find herself unable to put Brumby’s Run down?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Brumby’s Run is what is called a ‘rural romance’ novel. The story is set in country Victoria, the second most southern state in Australia and the state in which I happen to live. That alone would have been enough to pique my interest but the author, Jennifer Scoullar does more than just set the story in a place that I am familiar with, she makes that place come alive. She makes the brumbies come alive as well and I have loved brumbies since I was a child.

For those who are not familiar with our aussie terms, a brumby is a horse that owes its lineage to the intermixing of hundreds if not thousands of feral horses that have roamed the high country since white settlers came to Australia. Brumbies are not purebreds but they are amazingly hardy, intelligent, resourceful horses. They have to be to survive in a landscape that did not evolve with horses in mind. Brumbies can also be incredibly beautiful and it is obvious from her loving descriptions that Jennifer Scoullar knows them well. She loves horses of all kinds and it is her love affair with them and the land in which they live that makes this novel so compelling.

If I’m to be honest I have to admit that the human characters in Brumbies Run are very likable as well. The story centres around identical twins, Sam and Charlie. The names are masculine but the twins are actually eighteen year old girls. Until the beginning of the story they have never met each other because they were separated at birth. Their biological mother Mary had the twins as a teenager and knew she could not raise both of them so in desperation she gave one of the twins – Samantha – up for adoption. Sam was raised by a wealthy family from Melbourne and grew up with all that money could buy. She had her own horse, the best schooling, an elegant home, trips overseas. In short, she had the lot. The only thing Sam did not have was a happy family life.

Charlie, the twin who stayed with Mary, grew up dirt poor on the run down property her mother had inherited and could not manage. Charlie grew up wild with a huge chip on her shoulder but she did have the freedom to do what she wanted to do and that was to work with horses.

The twins might never have met had Charlie not become ill with cancer. Only her identical twin could save her but Sam did not even know she was adopted. And so the scene was set for the development of some very interesting relationships.

Without giving the whole storyline away I’ll just say that I found the relationships between the twins and their two sets of parents very satisfying as Scoullar depicted all of the adults as flawed human beings and that made them seem very real. She made the twins seem very real as well, although there were some things that made me raise an eyebrow. For instance when Sam arrives at her biological mother’s property, Brumby’s Run, she is completely on her own in a run down house with no electricity. She has no light and no way to store fresh food or cook [the stove is electric as well]. Yet this city girl settles in without a qualm and even copes with the outdoor dunny [toilet] and a water-tank full of mosquito ‘wrigglers’.

As a city girl myself I’m pretty sure I would have got in my car and driven to the nearest motel but then again I am a bit of a wimp. In the story though Sam’s make-do attitude seemed right somehow and made her gradual transformation from city girl to country girl more believable.

And now to the romance. There is quite a bit of romance in Brumby’s Run and it did not make me pull a face. The male love interests were recognizably aussie ‘blokes’ and had their strengths and weaknesses, just like the girls. Drew was perhaps just a tiny bit too ‘nice’ at times but even at his nicest he never descended into the perfect man that so many romance novelists create. None of the males in Brumby’s Run were cardboard cut-outs and for that Jennifer Scoullar has my undying gratitude!

Last but not least a word about the craft of writing. I know that the author had a professional editor for Brumby’s Run but, having read an unedited short story she wrote I can say with all honesty that the beauty of the prose is all hers. Crisp, clean, evocative. Brumby’s Run is a rich, layered, well-written story that just happens to be a romance.

I apologize for my very obvious bias and would just like to finish by saying that despite my bias I enjoyed Brumby’s Run immensely and would recommend it to anyone, even guys. 😀



The Sable City – a review

I can’t remember how I found my way to Indies Unlimited but once there I was hooked. One of the features I liked the most was [and is] ‘Ed’s Casual Friday’, a weekly post written by M.Edward McNally. Witty and always beautifully written McNally’s articles made me wonder what kind of a writer he was when he was ‘at home’, slaving over a hot keyboard. After a little diligent searching I discovered that he writes fantasy. Yay! After sci-fi, fantasy is my next favourite genre so buying one of his books was a natural progression.

So which book did I buy and what did I think of it? The book was The Sable City, book 1 of The Norothian Cycle and I was so impressed with it that I will soon be buying book 2!

As a genre, Fantasy is a strange beast; when it’s done well it’s wonderful [think Robin Hobb, Tad Williams etc], however getting it right is not easy. Not only must the author create vivid characters who leap off the page and demand to be loved, or hated, those characters must also live in a world that has depth and a sense of solid reality to it. McNally has achieved both with The Sable City. The characters are well written and each has a past and little quirks that make them immediately recognizable. One of my favourites is a devil named Balan. Despite being one of the ‘villains’ of the piece his wit and sartorial elegance make his every appearance a joy to read. Tilda, the main character in the book is strong, honourable and tenacious yet at the same time believably female, a rarity amongst male authors. She grows as a person in response to the events of the book, as do the two male characters – Dugan and Zebulon – but the growth never seems forced, rather it is a seamless, natural process that you would expect from ‘real’ people. The less major characters also experience growth. None of them remain static and that is one of the things that makes the book such a pleasure to read.

A good story however, requires more than just good characters. A good story also requires a believable world for those characters to inhabit. That world has to have geography. It has to have climate. It has to have varied and interesting cultures. And it has to have history. In the real world everyone has a sense of the past, even those who have no interest in formal History. The past is where we came from. It not only tells us where we have been as a people or a race, it informs our present. In many ways history is what motivates a whole people so a story without history is like a painting with only the main features coloured in. McNally knows this and his world is rich in references to the past, making the reader feel that the present is just an extension of what came before. As it should be.

But what is The Sable City about? What is the story that pulls us along?

In essence The Sable City is the story of a quest. The quest begins in the island state of Miilark where the trader family of Deskata suddenly finds itself without a direct blood heir. The only Deskata left who could save the family was exiled years before so Captain Block is sent on a mission to try and find the exile and bring him home. Block chooses only a Guilder apprentice by the name of Matilda Lanai to help him as secrecy is paramount. And so the quest to find John Deskata begins. They do not have much to go on. They know that Deskata has brilliant green eyes, a family trait, but not much else. Along the way they meet a deserter from the Legionnaires called Dugan who seems to know where Deskata may have gone but he has his own agenda and the plot soon thickens with deceptions large and small that add an interesting element of  ‘who dunnit’ to the story. As the plot unfolds we are introduced to a colourful array of characters that includes a samurai from the Far West,  a bored Circle Mage, a Duchess incognito and a mysterious woman called Nesha Tarii who has a seductive effect on all the men she comes in contact with… but she is not what she seems. And then of course there are the dragons.

I could say more but that would be giving too much away so I will content myself with saying that all these strange characters are brought together by fate and their own personal quests in a mysterious city of black stone called Vod’ Adia but the ending is not something you will be able to predict. That is one of the things I liked most about the book. I like being surprised and I think you will too.

The only small criticism I have of The Sable City is that at times the dialogue feels too… modern. Or to be more exact, too familiar, as if the banter was happening between two people in present day New York or some other large city. It did not happen often but when it did I would lose that sense of being elsewhere, just for a moment or two. I know many people will consider this criticism to be nit-picking but for me it was a little disconcerting. Other than that The Sable City did not jar with typos or poor grammar or awkward phrasing. It was well written and well edited and the story flowed just the way a good story should.

I think I can honestly say that this is the first fantasy book I have read in a while that I enjoyed and it is definitely the first indie fantasy that I have finished with a warm sense of satisfaction. The Sable City is a good story and I am looking forward to returning to the world to learn more.  I recommend it to anyone who wants more from fantasy than just magic and battles.  There is magic and there are battles but there is also much, much more. You will not be disappointed.

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