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Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Visit From The Local Member

Earlier this year, we had a phone call from the office of the local Member of State Parliament, Marsha Thomson,  asking if we were doing the Premier's Reading Challenge.

As it happens, we were. This is the first time I've ever done it and I must say, I regret not having done it before. It's not like Reader's Cup, which is a lot of work and requires a lot of support from the staff. And it doesn't cost anything, just a bit of the librarian's time to set it up, encourage kids to get into it and make sure to verify completed books. The kids get a certificate from the Education Department afterwards. Not a huge prize, but if they're reading anyway, why not? And if not, well, it might get them started, encourage them to challenge themselves. We don't have that many this year, but enough for now. 

Here's how it works: between two set dates, the kids are required to read a minimum of fifteen books. Of those, at least ten must be from the Reading Challenge list, but that's okay - there are plenty to choose from. In fact, two of my books, Wolfborn and Your Cat Could Be A Spy, are on the list. How good is that, eh? I was hoping that there would be more kids finishing the challenge, so far only two and a couple more are just about there, but haven't marked their books online as finished. If I had it to do again, I would make sure everyone chose their own passwords right at the start, so they didn't have  to have troubles logging in. And I'd urge the staff to get it going as part of our literacy program.

Anyway, on to the local member! 

Apparently she was a great enthusiast of the Challenge and of reading and was planning to visit schools doing the Challenge to get kids interested. Would we like a visit? Well, I thought, a writer would be nicer than a politician, but a writer costs money I don't have and it could do no harm to have someone promote the Challenge. So I discussed it with my Principal, who agreed it would be a good thing, and we said yes. 

The lady came this week, on Tuesday. We panicked a little when the whole school had assembled in the library and nobody had arrived yet. I was just hunting for a Challenge book when she arrived with one of her staff members.

And I must admit, she did very well. She began with talking about reading in general, about her own reading and the book club they have in Parliament House. The kids were intrigued by the idea of having a book club in Parliament and what the politicians do up there. She was impressed to learn that there were boys in my book club, and also asked who was doing the Challenge. I did suggest that perhaps not everybody knew what the Challenge was, so she explained to the kids that it started in Victoria in Premier Steve Bracks' time and told them what it involved.

Question time came and there were quite a few hands up to ask questions. One book she mentioned was To Kill A Mockingbird, which I lent to one of my book clubbers next day. She said she was not a great fan of fantasy and that she was never going to read Harry Potter! She pretty much only reads adult books and likes biographies best.

Since then I have signed up another Reading Challenge student. There were other requests, but nobody turned up at lunchtime to do it, so I can only assume it was a case of "it seemed like a good idea at the time, but lunchtime is when I go out and kick a footy around."

Marsha had another school to visit, so we said farewell to her and she had her photo taken with some of the students. I gave her some of my bookmarks, of Wolfborn and Crime Time, telling her she could give it to the kids at her next school or keep it to distribute at her Parliament book club.

It went for just the right length of time; another few minutes and kids would have been fidgeting, but as it was, they enjoyed it.

Thank you, Marsha!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Latest Brother Cadfael Re-Read: The Pilgrim Of Hate by Ellis Peters

Yet again I'm re-reading some of Ellis Peters' classic whodunnits. This one came off my shelves, but some of them are at Mum's place, including one I recently re-read, An Excellent Mystery

They are all set in twelfth century Shrewsbury, a sort of mediaeval Midsomer, where corpses turn up regularly and it's up to herbalist monk Brother Cadfael to use his forensic skills to find out how they died and who killed them. He does this with the help of his friend Hugh Beringar, the Sheriff of Shropshire. Has anyone noticed the trope of the amateur sleuth and his or her buddy the cop? Because really, that's what Hugh is. He may be in charge of the shire, which he holds and defends for King Stephen during the war between Stephen and Empress Maud, but in the end, he is also the local law enforcement officer, a kind of police chief, so it fits, really, doesn't it? Hugh is in this one.

Despite what I said about a mediaeval Midsomer, this author sometimes does something a little different. In one novel, there wasn't actually a murder at all, just a mystery, with a missing character everyone thinks must have been murdered. In The Pilgrim Of Hate, the murder took place offstage, before the story even begins. The victim was a knight of Empress Maud who was killed on the street in Winchester while defending a follower of King Stephen from attackers. Nobody knows who the killer was; he vanished into the dark streets. But Brother Cadfael works it out anyway, or this wouldn't be a mystery. 

Meanwhile, in Shrewsbury, the monks are preparing for a huge festival, the annual celebration of the arrival of the Welsh Saint Winifred, whose coffin was brought there four years ago from Wales during A Morbid Taste For Bones(but not her body, because Brother Cadfaeł did a switch to keep her in her home soil with the villagers who loved her). Pilgrims are flocking there for the party, some in hopes of miracles. Among them are a widow, her crippled nephew Rhun and his sister Melangell, and two young men who are on their way on foot to Wales. There is a mystery here(of course!) about the two men. As usual there is a sweet young couple whose love might not prosper. And Brother Cadfael's son, Olivier De Bretagne, whom we first met in The Virgin In The Ice turns up on a mission. And there's a miracle - actually, two, as far as Cadfael is concerned, the second being his chance to see his son again. 

I love this series! I love its gentleness and its worldbuilding. It brings mediaeval England to life, not to mention a small-town community. The Shrewsbury of the novels is real - I once found I could follow the old streets just by having read the author's descriptions. 

But in the end, people are people and learn from their mistakes - or don't...

If you haven't yet read any of these wonderful books, you've been missing out - go read! 

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Just Finished Reading... The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood

For some reason I thought I had read this before. Well, some of it was familiar, but I suspect I never finished it then. This time I did. Mainly, I decided to read it now because I have been unable to watch the TV series at this stage, even though it's available online at the SBS station web site. I think my OS and browser are out of date and I can't update either till I delete a lot more stuff on my computer. I will wait for the DVD.

My copy is an ebook, a new edition with an intro by the author. The intro alone is a fascinating read. For example, she says she made the decision that her story would have nothing in it that hasn't happened at one time or another in our world. She has simply put it all together in one dystopia. It was written back in the 1980s, before the Internet was more than a bit of an experiment, and even then it was possible to simply switch off credit cards. Imagine how easy it would be today. Even in Australia we are being asked to give up freedoms, give authorities extended rights, all in the name of security. The novel is scary exactly because it is so easy to believe!

The novel starts when the nameless heroine(we only ever know her as "Offred", i.e "Of Fred", her master's name) is already living as a walking womb in the Republic of Gilead. The author tells us in her introduction that it's Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the place where bodies are hung like the heads on London Bridge is the wall of Harvard University. As the novel goes on, we gradually learn in flashback about her earlier life with her husband and child and how one day she is a working woman with an income and the next day her credit/debit card is cancelled and her boss has to sack all his female employees.

Interestingly, the Wife whose baby she is supposed to bear is a woman who used to be a member of a choir on a TV televangelist program when "Offred" was a child. The woman was one of those who declared in public that women should be staying home, in the kitchen, and no doubt regrets it now.

The "history conference " documents at the end were interesting, throwing hints of what might have happened. You needed that, because there was a very abrupt ending to the main story.

I thought there was rather too much flashback and my goodness, didn't those characters smoke! 

Still, an interesting story, one which is unfortunately all too believable, and hopefully I will be able to get hold of the DVD at some stage, and see how much difference there is.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Of Doctors And Regeneration - Some Silly Thoughts!

So, we have a female Doctor, after months of speculation. Well, we have had a female version of the Master, everyone says, so why not a female Doctor? I think if they had given us a male Doctor after all that, there would have been howls of outrage from the fans. Especially after that scene where the Doctor tells Bill that Timelords don't worry about all that gender stuff. If that wasn't a powerful hint, then we needed a big marching band, preferably all female, to announce it. 

Me, I will wait for the stories before judging. All I can say is, if XX or XY Chromosomes don't count among Timelords, then that race is very, very different from ours, and it's a lot more than the two hearts, so it's highly unlikely that the Doctor is half human as suggested in the Paul McGann film. And I say this as a great Spock fan. 

Are all Gallifreyans Timelords? Do you get peasant Timelords like the peasant elves we meet in The Hobbit? There must be someone to grow the food and wash the dishes and so on. And as I recall, there was a barn in one episode. The Day Of The Doctor, I think. So yes, there probably are people on Gallifrey who don't go having adventures in time and space or playing politics on the Council of Timelords. Didn't Leela marry one? It's been a long time since I saw that episode, so don't complain if I got it wrong, just inform me. 

If there are ordinary people on that planet who don't regenerate, are they more like us, apart from the two hearts? With XX and XY chromosomes that don't allow them to change gender except by medical means? When you think about it, regeneration with the option of a new cycle of twelve for everyone could stuff up inheritance and you'd really have to keep the population down. 

Or it might just be those who graduate from the Academy who get that privilege... As I recall, the Master was offered a new round of regenerations in return for helping the Doctor in The Five Doctors, and it has since then been confirmed, so ability to regenerate can't be merely a genetic thing. And if it's not genetic, perhaps they can get around this whole chromosome issue. Problem solved! 

 Do the Timelords perhaps bring in children who have shown certain  abilities for training and give them the ability as part of the deal? 

Certainly, the Master has some amazing abilities. Think of the number of times he has come back from the dead, even in the Paul McGann movie, when the previous Doctor was bringing back his ashes, for heaven's sake! Maybe he/she will come back yet. In fact, I predict they will. Let's face it, we saw the last Dalek in New Who series 1 and we STILL have them! 

We know that there are children on Gallifrey - remember that episode where the Doctor is talking about how they are taken to stare into this abyss(he sensibly ran away)and we see a flashback in which a young boy who will become the Master is taken there and, it's implied, goes crazy as a result? (Talk about child abuse!) And yet, the first Doctor we saw was an old man with a granddaughter - seeing he was the first incarnation, not the first regeneration, surely he grew up and aged this first time. Hell, he must have been a child at some stage! 

There was an article in a fanzine I read years ago, speculating on what a Timelord family picnic might look like - the elderly man might be the youngest family member while the young girl is an aged Timelord on her final regeneration...that would be bizarre! 

One thing that I have always found mildly amusing is the matter of Susan. As far as we know, she is his granddaughter. That implies some sort of family life, or maybe a companion who managed to get into his pants. But as I recall, there was an early novel which told us that Susan was not actually related, she just called him "grandfather". See, someone worked out that having a granddaughter implied that at least once the Doctor must have fooled around - can't have that on a children's show! 

And with that particular silliness I will leave you. Feel free to comment, although if you have seen every last episode and remember the lot, I should explain that this is not the case with me and I would appreciate not being abused for having forgotten something. Let's keep this fun! 

Friday, July 21, 2017

An Interview With Vikki Wakefield

My guest today is Vikki Wakefield, award-winning Aussie YA novelist whose recent novel Ballad For A Mad Girl I discovered in my goody bag at Reading Matters and reviewed here. I first met Vikki when she visited my school along with authors Adrian Stirling and Tim Pegler, courtesy of the Centre For Youth Literature and Adele Walshe, the head honcho. She had only one novel under her belt at the time, All I Ever Wanted, but she impressed our students no end with her talk and computer images of the drawings she does while thinking about her stories. Every copy of All I Ever Wanted was checked out immediately after the talk! She tells me she hasn't done sketches for this one, but sent me a photo of her "mood board" , which I have posted below. It's nice to know that Vikki is a fellow "pantser" in her writing(a plotter is someone who plans out their story meticulously ahead of time, eg J.K Rowling and my friend Alison Goodman, a pantser does it "by the seat of the pants", eg Vikki and me!)

Ballad For A Mad Girl is a lovely piece of Gothic fiction which I have passed on to my Gothic fiction-loving niece Dezzy, and is Vikki's first speculative fiction. I hope her publishers will submit it for next year's Aurealis Award for speculative fiction, where it is likely to make the shortlist. 

Without further ado, here is Vikki! 

Let's start with an obvious question: where did the idea for Ballad For A Mad Girl come from?

It was a very different book in the beginning and it only started to come together when I found several boxes of old research papers. Many years ago I used to save stories based on urban legendsーI would try to trace more modern incarnations back to their origins to see how stories (passed through generations) had changed. I read through the entire box and got lost in them. That was when I first knew I wanted to include supernatural/horror elements and the story began to evolve from straight contemporary into something else.
Each of your books is different. For example, this one is Australian Gothic, the last one was about some characters who fix up an old drive-in cinema, your first one was humorous ... Will you be trying something different each time, or would you like to do a bit more of the same?

Someone once said most writers tell the same story, over and over, and to some extent I think that's trueーmy books are all similar in tone and underlying themes. On the other hand, they're quite separate from each other, too (in plot, character, language and structure). So, while I do attempt to write a unique book each time, when I'm rewriting there's a centrifugal force that pulls my stories in a similar direction regardless of my intentions. (It's probably a combination of instinct and fascination that makes this happen.) I can only promise I'll write many more YA books, but I never know what they are until they're finishedーthankfully, the YA readership is pretty open to writers who work this way.
You have mentioned in our chats on Twitter that the pipe in this novel was based on a real one not far from where you live - and that you had played on it as a child. Were there ever any "pipe challenges" or was that strictly fiction?

Yes, the pipe is real. There were no pipe challenges (as in time trials) but crossing the stormwater pipe was a rite of passage and it did sort the 'brave' from the 'scaredy cats'. I moved away from the suburb I grew up in but I've since moved backーnow I live very close to the old quarry where I used to play as a kid. When the area was developed the landscape changed dramatically and I assumed the pipe was no longer there. I only re-discovered it recently while I was walking my dog, and it reminded me of the foolish things I did to impress my friends (and enemies). I ended up rewriting the first chapter of Ballad for a Mad Girl to include the pipe crossingーit seemed like the perfect scene to begin a story about overcoming fear.

How much, if any, of this novel is inspired by where you grew up?

I grew up in the outer northern suburbs of Adelaide (the setting of All I Ever Wanted). Swanston and Möbius (from Inbetween Days) are inspired by the country towns I've lived in (places where everyone knows everybody's business and old feuds are generational), and my characters are loosely based on people I knew growing up. I have my setting in mind long before I understand my characters well enough to write about them and, because I write about teens on the verge of adulthood, I find my own teen experiences are the greatest source of inspiration.
Small town life is very different from city life. Do you think any of your characters would ever live somewhere else? (At one point, your heroine, Grace, says that her friend Kenzie is likely to succeed outside)

Kenzie is the most determined to succeed, but Grace is the restless oneーshe's more likely to move on than any of her friends. I think she would chase the original dream. I see her leaving Swanston while the others stay. 
This is a murder mystery as much as a supernatural story - did it take a lot of plotting before you got started?

Not so much before I got started (I tend to plan fairly loosely, leaving plenty of room for discovery), but once the first draft was complete it took a while to plug the plot holes I'd created. It meant cutting a few sub-plots and tightening the structure until the threads came together. As someone who doesn't rely heavily on plot, I found it challenging to allow plot to reveal character rather than the other way around. I was also aware there were two distinct reader perspectives in this storyーthat of the believer, and the non-believerーand I wanted to make sure both were validated. It was tough to find that balance; it taught me how to step away from the story and let go of my own convictions.
Actually, what is your writing process - plotter or pantser? Details, please!

I plot in my head (and that can take up to a year of doodling and daydreaming) but once I start writing I make it up as I go. Nothing ever goes to plan. I don't find the essence of a story until I'm well into my second or third draft (I edit as I write, so a draft takes forever), but I've learned to be patient. It comes when it comes. And by essence, I mean the premiseーI think the premise is for the writer, not the reader, because it's the underlying belief that holds the tension in a story. 
Grace has some very loyal friends, even though she scares them for a while. Who, if any, is your favourite? (I have to say, I'd like friends like Kenzie and Gummer!)

Gummer is lovely, and he's based on a real person, so he was easy (well, not easy, but true) to write. Kenzie is the friend who does the best she can, but when she falls in love she can't help but give a piece of herself to someone else. Grace doesn't handle that well (and she knows), but she tries to make up for it. She's a difficult friend to haveーGummer and Kenzie are the antidote, but they're both so grounded they were never potential main characters. They wouldn't have such a compelling story to tell. 
Is there an Australian book you've read recently that you have wished you had written? (Or just admired)

There are so many I admire! The most recent Australian YA book I wish I'd written is The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard. I love all her work, but Alice's voice is particularly enchanting and Glenda's commitment to it is masterful. I also loved The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Lagunaーanother voice I found utterly compelling from start to finish.
Finally, are you working on anything right now?

I always have two or three projects on the go, whether they're in the daydreaming stages or slowly taking shape on the page. I tend to concentrate on whichever story calls loudestーI'm working solidly on a YA novel from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old boy right now, but I have a middle grade novel in the works too. Aside from writing novels, I recently spent a month working with illustrator Dan McGuiness and a group of SA primary school students on a progressive book. It's called 'The Carisbrooke Creek War' (theme: gender equality) and it'll be published in The Advertiser newspaper during  the last week of July.

Vikki's mood board

And here's where you can buy it on line! It is also available from Amazon.

Thanks for dropping in on The Great Raven, Vikki! 

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Laws Of Magic - Steampunk Rules!

The Laws Of Magic is a series of six steampunk novels by Aussie YA novelist Michael Pryor. Michael Pryor is a wonderful writer anyway, but I think these six books are his masterpiece. They are witty and exciting, with barely a stop for breath. And the worldbuilding is amazing. I discovered them several years ago, when the first novel, A Blaze Of Glory, first came out.

How can you not love a book that begins with the sentence,"Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead"? Tell me that doesn't draw the reader right in!

The series is set in an alternative universe Edwardian England, except it's called Albion and the royal family is not the one we know. Magic is a part of everyday life. Even the technology is based on it. In one scene the hero, Aubrey, sneers at going out to see a sleight-of-hand artist on stage, because it's probably just ordinary magic, not sleight-of-hand at all. 

And someone is planning huge-scale death magic for his own benefit, and the best way to get that going is by starting what, in our universe, is known as World War I.

Fortunately the world has Aubrey Fitzwilliam, his friend George and Caroline, the girl Aubrey adores. 

But Aubrey is starting from behind. He's a magical genius, but stuffed up an experiment in death magic he was trying before the novel began and consequently is - well, technically dead. He is having a hard time keeping his soul from leaving his body. 

However, Aubrey, Caroline and George have plenty on their plates while Aubrey is trying to find a way - literally! -  to keep body and soul together. As the series goes on, the Great War begins and they need to focus on stopping the villain. 

I love all the characters in this series. George is the calm and competent one who keeps Aubrey from going overboard. He likes cooking; in one of the novels, when the characters find themselves in a place where they can live their fantasies, George's fantasy is to be cooking for lots of people. Caroline is the kick-ass young woman who manages to fight anything from a villainous human to a dinosaur in her elegant costume. (And yes, there are dinosaurs in the second novel, Heart Of Gold, which is set in Lutetia, this world's version of Paris).

That's another thing. In this Edwardian era, women may not yet have the vote, but they can be scientists or famous artists or explorers or whatever, and nobody thinks it's odd. The women in Aubrey's family are all strong, including his grandmother. No wonder he likes his women - or woman - strong and intelligent. But George too finds a strong, intelligent girlfriend, Sophie, a trainee journalist. 

And the books are funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. I lent a copy of Blaze Of Glory to one of our students, who told me her mother had come running to find out what was going on when she was reading it; it was just the girl laughing out loud. 

One other thing: Aubrey is oddly like Miles Vorkosigan in personality, if you can imagine Miles as tall and more or less healthy(if you don't count the fact that he's technically dead) and living on one planet instead of travelling through space. In fact, I asked the author and he did agree that he is a fan of the Vorkosigan saga. 

So, if you like Miles Vorkosigan and can imagine him in Edwardian England instead of out in space, this series may just be for you! Even if you don't, read these anyway - they will keep you chuckling through the dullest day! 

And here is where you can buy them!

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Matters Arising From The Identification Of The Body by Simon Petrie.Sydney: Peggy Bright, 2017

I bought this from the author as he was staffing the Peggy Bright Books table at this year's Continuum convention. Peggy Bright Books is one of Australia's many small presses that specialise in speculative fiction. Because the big presses in this country are mostly sticking to Fat Fantasy Trilogies, it's up to small press to publish science fiction.

I like hard SF and I like crime fiction. Simon Petrie, a physicist, knows his science and is an enthusiastic reader and writer of crime fiction - in his case, SF crime fiction. Usually it's humorous, but this one is utterly serious. 

Guerline Scarfe is a forensic psychologist living on Titan, where there is a colony. Her latest case: a girl who has gone out into Titan's freezing, lethal atmosphere and pulled off the helmet of her spacesuit. Why would a well-balanced girl with no particular reason for committing suicide do so? And why in that particular manner? As Guerline says, it's a nasty way to die. 

Guerline Scarfe is determined to find out, no matter how many people are trying to stop her, some in lethal ways. That, of course, is a standard trope in crime fiction, but no less enjoyable for it. And it is a very good piece of writing and I will be reading the next one if I get the chance. 

My only two gripes with this are as follows: firstly, the title. I have a copy and kept forgetting it. Something shorter and simpler next time! Please! Secondly, there were some scenes which told us about the heroine's background, but didn't really move the story forward. However, I'm going to assume that these will play a more important role in the next book.

Still, a well-written piece of crime fiction in a believable world. I finished it in about two sittings and I only took that long because I had other commitments. 

Buy it at Amazon, here,  or from the Peggy Bright web site here.  The publisher web site also offers the ebook edition.