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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Before The Storm By Sean McMullen


This is one of the first two books to be published by Ford St Publishing, a new company formed by Australian writer and editor Paul Collins, co-editor of the Quentaris series of children’s fantasies. The company seems to have got off to a good start, with two young adult tales by a couple of Australia’s better writers.

Teenagers Emily and Daniel live with their parents in Melbourne. The year is 1901 and the Australian colonies are about to become one country, with a huge ceremony in the beautiful Exhibition Buildings. They go to their nice middle-class schools and row on the Yarra river on weekends and the last thing they are expecting is a visit from two young refugees from a future in which the world is at war and teenagers like themselves are brought up to fight. Something bad is going to happen at that ceremony which makes Australia one country and if it isn’t stopped, that future world will happen. Emily and Daniel’s help is needed urgently.

The story was huge fun, an entertaining romp with a lot of humour. Emily is a strong character who has been frustrated by not being allowed to do the things she wants because of being female, but there’s a lot of humour in her flirting with the wounded BC, one of the two visitors from the future, especially when she finds out the truth about BC late in the book. Her brother has been doing some not-strictly-legal things with Barry the Bag, a teenager who helps his father at the railway station and sells - er, French postcards, among other things (and in this era, French postcards don’t just mean postcards from France...), but both boys help with the urgent mission to save the future.

In the end, we find that it isn’t necessarily going to be the middle-class characters who save the day - and when Barry does save the day, it isn’t necessarily for the right reasons, but whatever works...

It’s also nice to visit a part of Australian history that isn’t often the subject of historical novels, though it’s sometimes studied at school in Australia. We do forget, in this day and age, that Australia was once just a bunch of different colonies. The author has researched the era carefully, making it believable, and the history is just as important as the science fiction. I happen to live near some of the places described in the book, and it’s fascinating to think of how different they were over a hundred years ago. Even if you live on the other side of the world, though, it is an interesting bit of history.

Sean McMullen is best-known for his adult science fiction; most of his books have become international bestsellers. In his first book for young people, the Quentaris novel Ancient Hero, he showed that he has considerable ability in writing for younger readers. With Before The Storm, he’s confirmed he can do it and it’s to be hoped that he will continue along this route and write some more YA fiction. The universes of his adult books are highly complex and they require a lot of concentration to read, but when writing for children or teens, a writer needs to refine his or her universe and tell a story that the young reader can enjoy without having to worry about complexities. In this one, and the previous story, Mr McMullen has shown he can keep his story simple and keep it going.

I had the feeling, at the end, that there might be a sequel at some stage, but even if there isn’t, it stands well on its own and should entertain readers about twelve to fourteen. Well, someone might have to explain the French postcards for the younger readers, but I suspect most of them have seen worse on the Net...

Friday, October 05, 2007

On seeing a movie of a beloved book

All I can say, after watching the movie supposedly based on Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising is - thank goodness J.K. Rowling had control over what was done to her Harry Potter novels!

I first discovered The Dark Is Rising series in the 1970s. I remember a lot of people were reading it then. I loved the mood, the atmosphere and the British background. I suspect, like a lot of people, that a certain J.K. Rowling got some ideas from these books, though she made them her own.

Anyway, when someone asked me what The Dark Is Rising, the novel, was about, I said it was about a boy who finds, on his 11th birthday, that he's a wizard. Well, a lot more than a wizard - the last of the Old Ones. With the help of other Old Ones, he has to collect a number of Signs, created over the centuries for him, so that they can be used to beat back the Dark in the battle between Light and Dark. His mentor was a gentleman called Merriman Lyon, an Oxford University professor in our time, though you know, through hints, and it's finally confirmed in later books, that he's Merlin. There was a large, loving family who lived in Buckinghamshire, a thrilling night chase with Herne the Hunter, travels through time and a tragic character who betrayed the Light and suffered for it.

So when I heard, recently, that they'd made a movie of it, I got terribly excited. I was impressed to hear that the villainous Rider was Christopher Eccleston (who, in the end, was the only thing that made the film worth bothering with, with a deliciously evil performance, so you could hold down the notion he was going to invite Will into his TARDIS).

This morning I went to see it. Urk! Why did they bother to use Susan Cooper's name? Even if I hadn't read the novels, I wouldn't have cared for it. One kid who's on a quest for the Signs and being nagged by the other Old Ones to get on with it, a final fight with the Rider, in which the Old Ones attack him physically, a scene in which two of them are attacked by the Rider's rooks in a deserted pub - - yeuk!

Will's family has become American, his age upped to fourteen, probably so he can be nearly seduced by the evil Maggie Barnes, his huge, loving family is dysfunctional, his brother Tom is suddenly his twin, being held by the Dark instead of a first baby lost to illness, Miss Greythorne of the Manor is the boss of the Old Ones and Merriman just her not-too-cluey butler (in the novel Merriman was playing the role of butler while her regular one was away, so he could be near enough to help Will)who happens to be an Old One. If this guy is Merlin, no wonder Arthur stuffed up!The tragic Walker, evidence that Merriman once made a huge mistake, is just not there.

I have nothing against American actors as long as they get it right - look at the four wonderful American actors in Lord of the Rings - they were the perfect Aragorn, Arwen, Frodo and Sam - well, Viggo M was probably a few years too young for the role of Aragorn and Elijah Wood way too young for Frodo, but when you saw the movie, you didn't care. But why, oh, why, did the CHARACTERS have to be American? How would they like it if some British film-maker set Huckleberry Finn in England? Or if Tom Sawyer was re-set in the Australian outback? Why do these folk think their audiences are too dumb to be able to handle anything "furrin"? Hadn't they noticed how well Harry Potter did, without being Americanised?

I know that you can't make a movie exactly like the novel, but surely you can avoid making it so different that it's like a different story altogether.

I have been re-reading the series and finding it just as good as the first time around.

I didn't want to comment on this movie, despite all that I had heard, without seeing it, but if they do any of the sequels, I'm not bothering.

Anyone who reads this post - go read the book. And wait for the movie The Golden Compass - despite the change of title, it looks, from the trailers, like a wonderfully faithful adaptation of Northern Lights, well-cast, stunningly beautiful visually.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

New link added - Moira Dahlberg

Moira Dahlberg is a Western Australian teacher, writer and science fiction fan. I met her through Blake's Seven fandom and remember her wonderful fiction. She is also writing some great stuff to support teachers in the classroom and believe me, when you're trying to come up with some ideas that will entertain them and teach them something at the same time, it's always worth checking out books and black line masters by people who know how to do both! We used her writing game as an activity in the children's room at Aussiecon 3, back in 1999. The kids loved it.

When I first knew Moira, she had only a manual typewriter. Now she has a web site, with not only her own stuff, but links to other writiers and artists. Go take a look - all you need to do is click on the side bar.

Fremantle Impressions review

This review is currently awaiting publication by January Magazine. January Magazine has quite a big backlog of my reviews and I have kept the publicity folk at Fremantle Press waiting a while, so I thought I'd publish it first, till JM has the time.

FREMANTLE IMPRESSIONS By Ron Davidson. Published by Fremantle Press

The port of Fremantle in Western Australia is old. Founded in 1829, it's actually older than Melbourne, which didn’t begin until 1835. It has been a centre of whaling, of imports and exports, it has had convicts and Aboriginal rebels and union strikes and has seen the foundation of business dynasties. In the 1980s, it was the site of the America’s Cup. This was the first time in many years that the Cup was won away from the US - won by a millionaire yachtsman who later lost his hero status in Australia when he was arrested for crooked business dealings.

“Impressions” is probably a good description of this book, written by journalist Ron Davidson, who has lived in the city most of his life. Although it begins with the early days of the colony, describing the characters who lived there at the time, and the place itself, this is not a history of Fremantle - not really. A history, even a local history, is usually in some sort of chronological order. This book is more of a stroll through town, from place to place, with comments on what has happened over the years in each spot.

First, the book’s positive aspects: Fremantle is a fascinating place, and this is made clear in the course of the literary wander around town. As well as its long-past history, the author interviews people who have their own memories of the place and what was happening during the historical events. Every second page is a beautiful sepia photo of Fremantle’s past.

Ron Davidson clearly loves his town. If you’re visiting a place as a tourist, it’s always good to learn something about it - and have something to take home, to remind you of your holiday. You don’t need to read about famous historical figures to get a feel for the past of any place. The lives of ordinary people tell you far more than battles and politics ever could. Even the notion of a stroll around town gives you the feeling of being there, with a guide.

The trouble is, if you actually do want to wander around Fremantle by yourself, and learn something about the various buildings and wharfs you pass, this book isn't going to be as helpful as it might be. There are no chapters, no themes and no index. If you want to find your way around, how do you do it if you can’t even look up the information about where you are? If you simply enjoy reading local history, it won’t help much either, as it doesn’t run in chronological order. Even chapter divisions with a theme for each would help - the history of a particular part of Fremantle, for example, or of an industry, or even a family dynasty.

If there is a new edition of this book, it really would be a good idea to give it an index, if nothing else. It’s too dense for a coffee table book - and too small in size anyway - but would come in handy as a self-guided tour book if the tourist could look up information about where he or she was. A current map would also be useful.

This is a good book, but could be better, with a better layout.