Sarah Todman

Sarah Todman is a contemporary fiction writer who lives in Brisbane. She loves books that deliver a gritty punch of realism. And ones that make her cry. Sarah blogs at sayanythingsare.

Mather-Refuge Official Coverrefuge

noun

A place that provides shelter or protection.

Twelve year-old Nell McLellan’s world is in turmoil. At school she’s suddenly got the attention of the most popular girl in the class but it has alienated her safe and steady best friend Josie; at home her work-obsessed parents appear to be on the verge of divorce.

When Nell is shunted off to North Queensland and the care of her rarely seen Grandfather for the holidays her problems seem magnified. Doesn’t anyone care that she’s struggling?

Well, someone does…some ‘place’ actually: Nell just doesn’t know it yet. Stumbling around the grounds of the local high school in search of the holiday drama class her parents insisted she attend Nell finds herself following a series of curiously worded signs. Feeling lost? one beckons. Follow the stairs, instructs another. Before she knows it Nell has turned the handle on an old wooden door and stepped straight into a world she could never have imagined: Refuge.

This rapidly paced fantasy novel targets middle grade (8-12 year-old) readers and is written in full-colour and high definition. The beguiling cast of characters who inhabit Refuge — a world created as a safe haven for lost souls — take Nell on a twisting, turning journey of self-discovery (and manage to give young readers some sumptuous but ever so subtle historical insights in the process).

There is the Doctor, Refuge’s mad scientist-style creator who hails from early 1700s London; then we have tortured Gideon, an English ‘wharf rat’ from the late 1700s still ruled by his past; there’s shape-shifting 1920s aristocrat Fox, as charming and cunning as his name suggests; the frightening Deuce, straight from America’s Deep South in the 50s; and Janus, probably the most mysterious and hard-to-pinpoint of the bunch (I won’t ruin it for you by revealing too much about her). Each of them pull Nell (and us) deeper into a riddle that seems impossible to solve.  

Stranded in Refuge, our lost girl Nell finds out she has just three days to choose her future: stay in this strange, supposedly ‘safe’ haven forever or return to the life where she felt lost?

Refuge is the debut novel of former scenic artist and teacher A.V. Mather and it is clear she is a writer who is very much at home in the realms of fantasy. Refuge is a world well imagined. The city-scape with its era-hopping evolution feels rich and enchanting — I really enjoyed spending time there.

And Nell’s journey kept me guessing in lots of good ways. However, I did feel her character’s growth, which was realised at the end of the book, could perhaps have been built more incrementally as the story progressed. I love a character with chutzpah and while I know that isn’t who Nell was at the beginning of her journey, there were junctures along the way when I was frustrated by her willingness to be led rather than make her own decisions.

Perhaps this is all part of the author’s plan, though. When I turned the last page of Refuge I was ready to dive into book two…Nell’s adventures don’t feel finished yet. I hope A.V. Mather is planning to send Nell back to Refuge with another book in the series because I see her returning and this time as a very different girl.

A. V Mather

A. V. Mather is a Brisbane-based speculative fiction writer. You can follow her on Twitter @AVMather

atwood-stone mattress‘In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland…’ states the dust jacket for Stone Mattress, her latest collection of short stories. Let me start by saying that they are not kidding around…

In this collection, Atwood presents a cautionary assortment of lives lived and loves lost. They are tales of the doomed, both virtuous and unredeemable, of nasty scheming and back stabbing, of people whose lives have been shattered through carelessness or animosity. They are catalogues of hurts, small and large, and examples of the character that might be built from such events.

Three of the nine tales are interlinked, offering different perspectives on a shared chapter in the lives of the same group of people. The events of their time together have affected the course of each life and preoccupy their thoughts in the present day.

The six remaining works range in subject matter from the macabre to the melancholic. The fourth presents the case of a young woman who is a medical anomaly, living in a small village amongst people who view her as a monster. In the fifth, a recently divorced and opportunistic man seeks adventure.  The sixth tells of a trio of friends who believe that a violent and charismatic woman from their past has reincarnated as one of the group’s pet dog. The seventh is a Poe-like tale of an impulsive contract between student housemates which restricts the success of one. And in the final tale, a group of senior citizens living in an aged care home become the focus of a terrorist group. As can be clearly seen here, dark subject matter and dark humour abound.

As a group, these stories deal with themes of ageing, frailty, social stigmas, isolation – chosen and imposed – and small worlds. A common thread lies in the motif of imminent or sudden death. All of the characters are facing death in some form: their own mortality, the death of a friend or loved one, the end of love, putting to death old grievances, or even murder.

Another theme underpinning the action lies in the character’s motivation. They have all reached some sort of crisis point –either inevitable or beyond their control. For some, this is due to an imposed condition like disease, impairment, or the effects of time, which then affects their actions. For others, their own characters have led them to a moment of action which defines the framework of their lives. Some view their situation with self-pity, while others are stoic in the extreme, but all are very self-focussed and inward-looking.

Each tale has that atmosphere of danger, the slightly skewed vision and fatalistic creepiness that makes for a true dark tale. Surprisingly, there are also moments of bright optimism and the sort of ‘blinkers-off’ humour that develops when life is stripped of all its romantic trappings. A sense of seeing things as they really are, through the illusions that people conjure. Examples of this may be found in the characters’ observations of life and their own situation, or of the foibles and actions of others.

So, why has Atwood chosen to call them ‘tales’ rather than ‘stories’? In her Acknowledgements, she refers to this collection as evoking ‘the world of the folk tale’ as opposed to a story, which implies that the events take place ‘within the boundaries of social realism.’ To me, her delineation between the two terms best describes the overall allegorical flavour of these dark sagas, peopled by narcissists, braggarts, and plotters of nefarious deeds.

I’m ashamed to admit that this is the first of Margaret Atwood’s books that I have read, and I feel horribly unqualified to review it. So look no further than the praise on the back cover from Germaine Greer, Michael Ondaatje, and John Updike for an idea of her milieu.

But if, like me, you are coming to this book from purely a punter’s perspective, what I can say with certainty is this: Margaret Atwood writes exceptionally well. Her prose is economical and yet it reads like the most intricate lace. How she manages to weave in so many details and still make it seem uncluttered was both a mystery and a joy to me. The wonderful and varied atmosphere of tension throughout showcases her deft control of the pacing.

I would place Stone Mattress as being accessible to any reader with the exception of younger teens, for whom the subject matter may be beyond their experience of life.

As parables of age and loss, these tales work extremely well. They force you to consider the ‘stuffing’ of life – the petty, often pointless views and opinions that fill up lives and amount to nothing in the end. Stone Mattress confronts the reader with the sad truth that by the time most people realise this it is usually too late. Most wisdom is learned in hindsight, which can be either blessing or curse.

 

Awards

davitt-award  aurealis-award   logo-curtin-university

Peacemaker - Aurealis Award
Best Science Fiction Novel 2014

Curtin University Distinguished Alumni Award 2014

Transformation Space - Aurealis Award
 Best Science Fiction Novel 2010

Sharp Shooter - Davitt Award
Best Crime Novel 2009 (Sisters in Crime Australia) 

 

 

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