Sam van Zweden




Review: After the Snow, by S.D Crockett

Check out that cover artwork. It’s pretty nice, huh? Unfortunately I’ve been seeing an alternative cover floating around that’s nowhere near as pretty, but here’s hoping that we get this pretty thing in Australia.

After the Snow by S.D Crockett is a work of young adult fiction, set in an ice-age some time in the not too distant future. The main character, Willo, is left alone in the mountains when his parents are forced out of their family home, and the book follows Willo’s search for his parents and his growth from a boy to an insightful young man.

The story is told in first person from Willo’s point of view. Willo’s voice is really distinctive – his vocabulary is limited (think Jack from Room), and his worldview is very particular to his rural life as a “straggler”. He’s a skilled hunter and craftsman, and a brave young man. Willo has a lot of peculiarities that make him utterly endearing and relatable character. For example, Willo has saved a dog’s skull and fashioned it into a hat. When he wears this hat he is influenced by “the spirit of the dog”, and this spirit guides him throughout the book.

This kind of imagination on Crockett’s part is really refreshing. While I’m not an expert on YA fiction by any stretch of the imagination, I think my lack of general enthusiasm for the genre comes from the tendency for YA authors to sell their audience short: having a young audience does not mean you need to dumb down your narrative or emotional content. Crockett shows faith in her readers by presenting them with Willo’s difficult voice, and his complex emotional journey. This respect for the audience’s maturity and insight is the crux of what’s so exciting about this novel for me. It also makes the novel really enjoyable not only for young adults, but for readers of all ages.

The other lovely thing about this book is the language. It’s a strange and brilliant feat to make less language seem more. Despite Willo’s limited and peculiar voice, Crockett makes it fresh with language that jumps off the page with its poetry. There was a lot of stopping to write lovely bits in my notebook as I read.

I’m looking forward to the release of this one so I can spruik it to everyone. Starting here. The book’s due out mid-February, which is almost upon us, so keep an eye out.

Hit Me

Hit Me

Tom sits heavy at the table, so heavy that his bum muscles start going numb.

“Hit me,” he says.

Perfectly tuned machines ping around him, he cannot see outside, and pretty soon his arse will lose feeling altogether. Tom sits even heavier.

He says, “Hit me.”

A clock flies across the room, “YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT FUCKING TIME IT IS,” Anna screams, and Tom quickly shuts the door behind him, falling on unsteady feet toward his wife.

He sees his kids sitting in their pyjamas at the kitchen table. Their faces are filled with sleep and they both hold teddy bears.

“Oh, hey guys!” The kids don’t smile. One of them starts crying.

Anna’s picking up her car keys, saying “I’ve had enough of this, Tom. I’m done with this shit.”

She’s picking up already-packed bags and moving towards the door, telling the kids to follow her. Tom steps into the doorway ahead of Anna.

“Put the bags down, sweetness,” to Anna.
“Go back to bed, guys” to the kids, with a confident smile. They stay where they are.
“You’re not going fuckin’ anywhere,” to Anna.

She looks into his eyes with a hard expression, none of the softness she had when Tom married her. The clock’s still ticking, but the second hand’s shuddering in the one place, like time stands still.

“I was out with the boys,” Tom tells his wife, “Time got away from us. No matter. Let’s go to bed, my love.”

Anna shakes her head, glances quickly towards the kids.

“I told you to choose, Tom. We’ll lose the house. There’s no savings. It’s all gone! I can’t stick around for this.”

She moves toward the door again but Tom grabs her by the arm, hard.

“And take my fuckin’ children, woman? No no,” he shoves her back against the fridge, his hands around her throat before he realises what he’s doing.

As Anna’s whole body strains against Tom’s strength, he comes to himself and lets go. He falls back across the room, hits the wall, and slides to the floor. There are tears.

“You piece of shit,” chokes Anna, grabbing their children by the wrists and pulling them behind her to the door.

“Hit me,” begs Tom, “I’m done. I’m sorry. I won’t go back, just don’t leave. You can’t leave! Go on, hit me!”

She’s out the door, and Tom moves after her. The car engine starts, and Tom watches the headlights grow smaller into the night, away from the house.

He screams into the night.


He can’t go home. There’s nothing there, just piles of microwave food baked onto plates from three weeks ago, and bills shoved under the door, spilling across the kitchen floor. There’s no dial tone anymore, and even if there was he wouldn’t know where to call. They’ve disappeared. Pretty soon the house will go too.

“Eighteen,” says the dealer.

Tom nods slowly.

“Hit me.”

“Twenty-five,” says the dealer, scooping up the cards, “Bust.”

“Hit me,” says Tom.

The dealer just stares.

Tom says, “Hit me.”

This piece appeared in Ex Calamus ezine, issue number seven, which can be downloaded here. Support local emerging writers, read Ex Calamus!

Teaser Tuesday #5

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB at Should Be Reading.

  • Grab your current read.
  • Let the book fall open to a random page.
  • Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page.
  • You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

“It’s dark outside, but Tom can’t see the time on the clock of his phone because the glass face cracked, presumably at the same time as his head. He rings the landline at the flat, but is warned by a recorded message that he’s almost out of credit, so he hangs up before the answering machine sucks up what’s left.”
            -From “The Piper’s Son” by Melina Marchetta.

Review: Smoke and Mirrors by Kel Robertson

For a novel called “Smoke and Mirrors”, I must say, I was a tad disappointed by the lack of smoke and mirrors in Kel Robertson’s novel.

Now, I’ve never really read any crime fiction. When I was handed this novel, I thought “Why not? Give it a go!”

I did – maybe crime fiction just isn’t my thing. Or maybe Kel Robertson’s written a lacklustre book.

The majority of “Smoke and Mirrors” felt like preamble. There’s a bunch of sub-plots which contribute nothing to the story, and which have no conclusions. There’s some humour, which on its own merit is somewhat amusing, but in the context of the story just feels strained. There’s a kidnapping – which is the most action there is until the last ten pages. The most active thing the narrator does is have himself kidnapped.

I’ll give it this – it was a quick read. In between a busy week this thing only took me a few hours to knock over. The only problem was that I didn’t really care what happened. All that preamble put me into a lull, so that when the action finally came (which the “hero” had very little to do with, other than the fact that he showed up), I didn’t actually care what happened to anyone.

The best thing I can say about it is that it finished.

Dead Until Dark

I’ve just finished reading Charlaine Harris’ “Dead Until Dark” – the first novel in the series that the brilliant HBO series “TRUE BLOOD” is based on. Being such a fan of the show, I was excited to read the book… However, I came out a little traumatized, and very very confused.

“Dead Until Dark” introduces us to Sookie Stackhouse – a telepathic waitress living in a small town in Louisiana. Apart from being a bit of a loser because of what she calls “her disability”, life for Sookie is pretty normal. The world of the novel is one where vampires and humans live side-by-side. It’s not all peaceful; there’s a lot of prejudice and a fair bit of violence, but it’s like society’s relationship with any minority group.

Sookie gets involved with “Vampire Bill”, who is attempting to “mainstream” – to live among humans in peace, drinking synthetic blood to survive. As their romance gets more involved, Sookie being drawn further into the vampire community, the discord between people and vampire gets to boiling point. Local girls just like Sookie start being murdered, and a pattern starts to emerge… Sookie’s powers and her relationship with Bill come in handy in chasing down the murderer and restoring a little peace in the small town.

Now, there’s so much I can tell you that’s bad about this book… But at the end of the day, I quite enjoyed reading it.

Charlaine Harris seems to have some weird problem with tenses for the first half of the book. It’s narrated mainly in past tense, but then occasionally an “is” will slip in there… It’s so hard to pay attention to what’s happening in a novel when you keep getting snagged on something as dumb as a lack of “is/was” continuity.

The writer also seems to struggle with instilling a bit of character logic into her story. I can suspend my disbelief as far as the book asks me to – OK, there’s vampires. There’s shape-shifters. There’s telepaths… But on a number of occasions in the novel, people hear or see things which they respond to in a totally illogical way. Example: (spoiler here!) – Sookie’s boss Sam is a shapeshifter, which is something he’s been at pains to hide from her for the 5 years they’ve known each other. One day, Sam feels like Sookie’s in danger, so he turns into a dog and goes to her house to protect her, where he falls asleep on her bed. The next morning Sookie wakes up with Sam, naked, in bed next to her. Her reaction?
“Oh, Sam.”

WHAT!? That’s IT!? Just a very calm, “oh, Sam.”   As if.

Harris either has no confidence in her skill as a writer, or grossly underestimates the intelligence of her readers. She feels the need to reiterate simple points over and over…and over, to the point of redundancy. At least three times in the first two chapters, Sookie refers to the fact that her parents died – both of them, when she was seven, in a flash flood, leaving herself and her brother with her Gran. And each time she refers to it in this much detail… We get it, just tell us once

I figure this must be a lack of confidence on Harris’ part, which wouldn’t be entirely unfounded… She seems to have a fondness for adverbs and a strange aversion to the word “said,” forcing her characters to “smile”, say “disgustedly” (what a horrible word!), “notice”, and “observe”. These are just a few of the many horrible modes of speaking that people in the world of Dead Until Dark use when conversing.

…But for all of these faults, Charlaine Harris has written an incredibly fast-paced, no-boredom novel. Right as I was getting pissed off with the B- or C-grade writing, there was SEX! and then BLOOD! and then a CRAZY NEW CHARACTER! Then more sex! More blood! Sexy blood, and bloody sex!

Hence the confusion.

For how terribly written the novel is, for how much it truly insults me as a reader, I enjoyed reading it. And, if someone were to give me the sequels, I’d probably read and enjoy them too.

The Book Thief

For the last two weeks, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief has stolen my undivided attention.


This novel captured my imagination and my empathy, being written in a way that is both imaginative and ruthlessly real – surprising, given that the author’s inspiration comes from stories, and not any personal experience of war or persecution.

The book’s author, Markus Zusak is a 34 year-old Sydney man (bless the occurrance of Aussie bestsellers that don’t belong to Bryce Courtney!), whose parents grew up in WWII Germany. Having heard their horrific stories of what went on during that time, Zusak set out to write an original novel on a much written-about topic, which showed “the other side of Nazi Germany” – that side which was very human, and very heartbreaking.

We all know about Nazi Germany, we’ve all read a book, or seen a film, or been in a history class or two. What The Book Thief does is take us to this place but look at it from a completely different angle – this book is narrated by Death. Death, in Zusak’s imagining, views humanity in a curious way, trying to prove to himself that we’re not so bad.

The novel explores the power of words in that turbulent time in history – both the words of Hitler, and the words that the story’s main character builds a relationship with. This character, Liesel, comes to live with a foster family on a poor street in Munich. She is a generally kind-heated girl, but feels a strong pull toward a life of crime – more specifically, the stealing of books. Her relationship with words grows to be a strong one, and an astounding image in juxtaposition to the power of Hitler’s words at that time.

As the war continues and German citizens feel the pinch, believing they are in the worst state of hardship, Liesel words and her ability to keep secrets help her understand that the hardship felt by German citizens is nothing compared to the Jewish plight.

Throughout the book, Zusak’s language struck me as incredibly tight, with fantastic attention to the narrator’s point-of-view. Zusak’s Death has an  interest in colours, and uses them as a distraction from the horror that humans can create:
“…The town that afternoon was covered in a yellow mist, which stroked the rooftops as if they were pets, and filled up the streets like a bath”

Tiny simple moments and actions are created fully and beautifully through Zusak’s language:
“…Rudy’s voice reached over and handed Liesel the truth. For a while, it sat on her shoulder, but a few thoughts later in made its way to her ear”

While plenty of people have written about Nazi Germany in many a novel, play, and screenplay, Markus Zusak brings something truly original and touching to the subject. He treads a fine line between the magical suspension of reality and the crushing realities of the time.

With the exception of the cliche’d use of dictionary definitions to punctuate one chapter of the novel, Zusak handles mood and tone wonderfully, remembering to pace the depressing episodes nicely so that the book doesn’t ever become tiring. Characters are full and convincing, and all strands in this novel come together in a very satisfying way.

This is the only novel of Zusak’s that I have read, but his artful use of words leaves me keen to read more of his work.

As a book on a tired topic, The Book Thief hits all the right notes – convincing, poignant, consistent and tightly written. One of the best novels I’ve read in a while.

Dressing Down

When the decorative parts of me
Are forced away from the world,
I am little more than
A shrivelled Christmas Tree.


I just submitted a flash fiction piece, Barcodes on his Feet, to UK publication Mslexia. I’m not sure when I’m meant to find out. But it’s another piece out there in the world 🙂

To borrow Ms Yardley’s method:

Pieces out: 3
Goal: 5


On the weekend I went with some friends up to a very cool very abandoned house… when I got back I got to scribbling. And this is what came of it.


It was white once, but that was a long time ago.  There are leaves everywhere. Not just on the path and in the back yard, but in the hallways and staircases too. One whole side is surrounded by a massive balcony, which looks like it’s missing some flappers and cocktails.

It’s not locked. We walk around the back and go straight in, like coming home to this dilapidated old mansion.

Tara thinks it was once a part of Kew Cottages. We all picture disabled kids being tied up and pushed down stairs.

We crunch around on the lino for a while, drifting in and out of rooms. Chandeliers have been stolen and cords hang empty from the ceiling. There are NO SMOKING signs on every bedroom door.

The place is huge. At least 12 bedrooms, two big kitchens, three bathrooms. Hidden walk-in bits – cellars, pantries, something that looks like a jail cell.
“Where they were put when they were naughty,” says Tara. Words that could be a joke, but she’s absolutely serious.

There’s a little door at the end of a living room down stairs, which leads to a cold cement landing. More stairs, into a pointless cold room with a bizarre crevice hidden behind another wall.

The downstairs kitchen reminds me of the way RSLs were before they were replaced by the bright shiny things that flash and swallow pensions, telling us about the brave men who fought hard to give us this life.

In this old demented castle there’s little type-written placards stuck around the place.
“ROOM 12- 3 BEDS”
They must have dormed people in these bedrooms.

There’s something written in an Asian script above a heap of switches, which Ollie flicks a bunch of. They do nothing, of course – electricity left this house years ago.

We wander around downstairs, a weird sort of basement with too many rooms and hidden things nd not many windows.

“Maybe it was a student share house.”
“Wonder what the rent on a place like this would be?”
“That room wasn’t that colour last time I was here. It’s been painted. Maybe someone’s doing it up.”
“But its unlocked”

Something hits the floor upstairs. We all stop talking. I’ve heard that kind of noise few times as we’ve been walking around, but I put it down to wind. I was avoiding creeping myself out.

Tara looks at me, wide-eyed and excited, like she wants some hellish crazy thing to happen and scare the shit out of us all.

We had passed a cop car when we were walking down here.
“That’s always comforting when you’re going to break into a house,” Danny had said.

Maybe it’s the cops, one of the neighbours made a call.

Maybe it’s a squatter.

A Bird?


Ollie creeps up the stairs super-slow, making it lookke a farce, but nobody says a word.

“We should probably go soon,” I mumble, and everyone falls over their agreement as we slide out th nearest door and find an open gate.

When we’re safely back on the road we explode into adrenaline-fuelled rants of how cool and creepy that all was. We feel manly and brave.

That night I dream about it though, about a mean Neanderthal-looking man dragging himself around that dirty art-deco villa with its missing chandeliers a awkward rooms.

When we get home I look the place up. It was an aged-care facility, assisted housing. This makes the place both more and less scary.

Part of me wants to go back there, to chill out in its ancient emptiness. But the rest of me thinks of that Neanderthal dude that my mind invented and I’m just too scared.

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