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Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Writing and Agents

I write. I haven't got one. An agent, that is. I did have one, sort of, for a short time, a nice lady in Perth, who did try, but didn't get anywhere with selling anything for me and went out of business soon after. Well, she wanted to concentrate on her own writing. among other things. I got her through an introduction from a friend who had already signed up with her.

All I wanted was to have someone to concentrate on doing the business side of things and send my stuff around so I could get on with the writing. For this, I was happy to surrender a percentage of any money they got for me.

Also, publishers even then were announcing that they would not deal with anyone who didn't have an agent. This is a lot more the case now.

Strictly speaking, as I discovered, this wasn't quite true. If they knew of you, they would at least take a look at your MS. And by the time I tried getting an agent I had already sold a couple of books. I had a manuscript for a novel that I felt passionate about. It was a YA werewolf fantasy called Bisclavret, pinched from the story by Marie De France and I still think it's good, having come back to it after years. In fact, I nearly sold it a number of times. Nearly.

But when I tried all the big names - you know, the ones people dedicate their books to, "To my wonderful agent Jane Smith, who believed in this book", etc. - the various Jane Smiths were simply not interested. I guess they were running a business and a business works best with a sure thing and a sure thing is someone who has a much bigger track record than mine. But you'd think they would have had the courtesy to reply, at least, or even look at the MS. Those who did reply said that their books were full, so sorry. One even said, "I know of you, you're a good writer, I just don't have space on my books." At least she gave me a little egoboo.

Then there was the Big Name fantasy writer who, having offered to introduce me to a certain Big Name agent who represented him, never replied to any subsequent emails I sent him about it. So I set out to find her myself.

She was Selwa Anthony, praised by so many writers. I Googled her and tried all my librarian research skills, but she was elusive. I finally managed to contact someone who did know how to get in touch with her and was told that she might at least consider me if I got a couple of referees. I did. One was my friend Natalie Prior. The other was Lucy Sussex, who had been the commissioning editor at Hodder and thought highly of my novel, though Hodder had not taken it for their own reasons, unconnected with the quality. At least Ms Anthony did take a look at the MS, though she wasn't interested. She was the only local agent who did give me a go. From overseas, there was Cherry Weiner, who did read three chapters, but said it would have to be at least 100,000 words long and a trilogy for her to be able to get anywhere with it and from what I have seen in recent years, she is right.

There was the Big Name agent who took a year to reply to my simple query, when I persisted, and then with nothing relevant to my inquiry. This was one of the Jane Smiths whom her Big Name clients so raved about in their introductions. Well, whatever her fine qualities, courtesy wasn't one of them. She couldn't just say no?

I contacted a couple in Melbourne. One said, "We're full." The other said no because while I already had a book contract and just wanted her to negotiate for me, possibly followed by other representation, she explained that it was an education contract and she wouldn't touch one of those with a ten-foot pole. At least she gave me a little free advice on the phone.

After doing the rounds for a couple of years, I simply gave up and have been doing it myself since then. It's not as hard as it seems, as long as you have already got some track record. If you haven't, agents are unlikely to take you on anyway.

Mind you, I have come across some abysmal first novels whose authors have raved about their agents, who must be pretty good to have gotten them through and they obviously had no trouble with agenting first books - but not usually by Australian writers. Maybe I should check those out, if I want an overseas agent.

I'm writing this after having seen yet another request for opinions on agents on the Pass It On e-newsletter. The last time there was such a request, I wrote a reply on why you can manage without one and it turned out the lady didn't really want opinions on the necessity of agents, she wanted an introduction to one. So I'm not going there again in Pass It On.

For anyone starting out and trying to get published, there are still publishers out there who will at least look at your manuscript as long as you send it according to their guidelines and as long as you don't mind waiting a while to hear from them. And they're not all small presses. Allen and Unwin's children's section in Australia will read your MS. So will Penguin. There are others. You need to check out their web sites.

Once you're a Big Name, perhaps the Jane Smiths will even come to you. But for the most part, you can live without them.

Monday, December 21, 2009

MY LOVE LIES BLEEDING By Alyxandra Harvey. London: Bloomsbury, 2010

Lucy and Solange have been friends since childhood. Lucy’s parents are hippyish New Agers who make her eat tofu. Solange has a large number of gorgeous brothers, including the especially yummy Nicholas. Solange’s parents have always been good to Lucy. So far, so teen romance. Only one problem: Solange’s family are vampires.

Hey, it’s a medical thing. You’re born with it, though it doesn’t take effect till your sixteenth birthday, around when you hit puberty (perhaps immortal vampires hit puberty late). If you survive it, you become immortal and lose your ability to go out by day or eat anything but blood and maybe human flesh if you’re a nasty vampire. Otherwise, you just die. And Solange’s sixteenth birthday is fast approaching. As the only girl born in her family in 900 years, she’s the subject of a prophecy, which means any number of bounty hunters have been sent after her, as the vampire queen, Lady Natasha, doesn’t want any threat to her power.

And then there’s a secret society of vampire hunters called the Helios Ra, who might consider breaking their treaty with Solange’s family, who don’t kill humans (and why would they when their pheromones just allow them to seduce people and when there are blood banks for emergencies?)

While this is an entertaining teen romance with a variation, plenty of strong female characters and ass-kicking, I don’t think it’s any threat to Stephenie Meyer, if only because it’s so short. It may be a small snack for fans of the Twilight saga who have run out of reading material. Mind you, what with the number of teen vampire romances out now, they’re unlikely to run out any time soon.

As a grumpy old librarian who reads a lot of spec fic, though, I have to ask: what’s with the sixteenth birthday? In all fairness, this one merely has the bad luck to be the umpteenth novel I have read in which the heroine is in danger because of something that is going to happen on her sixrteenth birthday. A curse, such as the one in the novel Beautiful Creatures, is okay. And I suppose there needed to be a deadline, to move the action along.

However, I think this writer ought to have decided on fantasy or SF and stuck to her choice. Puberty doesn’t turn up on a specific birthday, it just turns up when it feels like it. Unless there’s magic, of course. And wouldn’t immortals be a lot less fertile, to avoid overpopulation? Yes, there are Tolkien’s Elves, such as the Sons of Feanor, but they tend to kill each other a lot, so that’s okay, and Tolkien never pretended it was anything but fantasy anyway. When one of Solange’s uncles, a scientist, explained that it wasn’t quite magic and it wasn’t quite science, I thought: ”Cop-out!” Just as well we never found out the formula for Hypnos, a very convenient spray drug that makes the victim do whatever the caster wants.

That said, I suspect young readers will mostly not notice or worry about it. But the only YA vampire novel I have ever read that has believable science elements was one by Scott Westerfeld in which vampirism is caused by parasites and can be spread by breath and touch. It’s a lot of work to research for science fiction and most people can’t manage it. Alyxandra Harvey, alas, is no exception, at least so far. With a deadline to meet for her next novel she may simply not have time.

I really think the next volume in this series should stick to the fantasy and play down the supposed scientific elements. I just don’t think they work.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SLUSHPILE#2 By a grumpy Andromeda Spaceways slusher

I am still reading slush for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (aka ASIM). I read them as a reader, not as an editor. I ask myself, “What would I want to read in a magazine?”

People are still asking me why I do it, given how many of the submissions are truly awful. And I’m still saying it’s because I’m an optimist and always hope that the next story I open is going to be wonderful. And I have still not found more than a handful of wonderful stories in all the years I have been slushing. Some are good, or very good. But very rarely do I come across one that moves me deeply, or touches me, or makes me laugh for all the right reasons.

Still, you never know - the next one, maybe...

Meanwhile, here are some things I love about slushing and far more that are pet hates. Hopefully, someone thinking of submitting may be reading this and it will perhaps give them food for thought. We do buy good or very good stories, after all; it’s too much to expect that every piece is going to be a potential Ditmar or Hugo winner. There is a blurb on the web site about “what we’re not looking for right now” but there are still people not reading it before sending us their works of genius. Maybe a surf for markets might find this.

Things I Love About Slush Reading:

1. Every now and then, there is a truly wonderful story to read (see above)

2. Sometimes there is a good or very good story and it might even be the next one you open.

3. Once in a while, a story I got in Round 1 slush (we have two rounds - the second is “refined”) wins an award and I know I chose well. Of course, I didn’t select it for the magazine, because I haven’t edited an issue yet,, unless you count #38, which I finished off, with a lot of help. But I know I helped the story get into the slushpool, where it was chosen by someone else. (The slushpool is where we keep the stories that are considered good enough to be published).

Things That Cheese Me Off When I Am Slushing:

1. Non-spec-fic stories that I just know came from some mainstream writing student who has simply fired off the piece to every single market on the list supplied by the writing class, whether it’s appropriate or not, in hopes that one of them will take it.

Come on, guys, didn’t your teachers ever tell you to check your market? I bet they did tell you how much publishers loathe multiple submissions. Okay, there are times when multi-subbing is justified. I’ve never done it myself, but I know the frustration of waiting six months and sending inquiry letters only to get the thing back squashed and not reusable, with a printed slip.

But this is not a problem with ASIM. The very most you will ever wait to hear from us is two months and that’s only if your story made it into the slushpool. Otherwise, you’ll get a reply in a matter of a few days - by email, so you don’t have to buy reply postage (and there are plenty of publishers who still want their submissions by snail mail). And you get it with helpful comments.

Of course, you know all this if you’ve bothered to check us out. Also, I repeat, we are a speculative fiction magazine. Don’t send us your mainstream fiction. We won’t buy it. And don’t multiple submit. Keep that for the markets that make you wait six months.

2. Stories that are full of mistakes in spelling, grammar and/or punctuation. I see red when I get a story that can’t even punctuate dialogue correctly. I reject them automatically, only allowing a couple of mistakes in case they’re typos. If you think I’m nitpicking, I’d like to point out that editing is not about fixing your errors, it’s about making a good story look its best. If you don’t care enough about your work to check it or have a friend check it, I don’t care enough about it to finish reading it, let alone pass it on to the next round.

3. One-joke stories that go for several thousand words. Even if it’s a shaggy dog story, you shouldn’t telegraph the fact. It should be a good story that suddenly hits you over the head with an unexpected punchline.

4. Stories that assume you know what the author is talking about, but which only make sense if you come from the same country. I’m sorry to say that the worst offenders in this category - at least in the slush I have read - are Americans. We certainly see a lot of US films and we get a lot of American fiction too, but in the end, a story that has them rolling in the aisles in New York may not make a lot of sense in Sydney or Auckland or London. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your culture with others, but remember you are writing for an international market and don’t assume we know what the joke is.

5. 20,000-word stories which should have been about a quarter the length. Sometimes a story has to be long. Most of the novellas I have slushed are just self-indulgent, written by someone who hasn’t edited. Bear in mind, too, that while we have occasionally published stories of this length, they have been brilliant. Each issue of ASIM has a fiction “budget” of 40,000 words. If your story is going to take up half of that, it has to be something about which the editor is passionate. After all, how would you like to buy a magazine which had one very long story you hated? A story that took up half the issue?

6. Cutesy themes that are the entire point of the story (see above, one-joke stories). It can be short. It can be very short - as long as the punchline suggests there is more. For example, the famous world’s-shortest SF/horror story. “The last man in the world sat alone at home. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.” Think about it.

7. Really good stories that are let down by their endings. When a story has kept me gripped right up till the last page, then suddenly ends illogically, I say, “Huh?” Then I leave it overnight just in case, but thinking about it, I usually realise that there are other bits of illogic in the story. Before you submit, put the thing away for a few days and re-read.

You may find the same thing I would have found if I had read it, and have time to fix it before this grumpy old slusher rejects it!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

UNSEEN ACADEMICALS By Terry Pratchett. London: Transworld, 2009

Who would have thought it? They play football in Ankh-MorporK! Well, there were those street urchin games run by Captain Carrot, it’s true. But in this novel, we learn that not only is the game played, but there are teams and passionate supporters of one or another. It’s not the kind of football(or even soccer) we know. It’s the early form played out in the street hundreds of years ago in our world.

And the wizards of Unseen University have discovered a clause in the will that gave them quite alot of money - only on condition that they play football. They have no choice, really; the bequest pays for most of their food - and what would the wizards be on a mere three meals a day?

Although the closest thing to a protagonist in the book is Night Kitchen chef Glenda (who makes the best pies in the city), there are plenty of other characters of importance. There’s Trevor, who is fabulous at kicking cans, but won’t play a game that killed his father. There’s his beloved Juliet, who isn’t too bright, but just might become a Discworld supermodel. In this novel, we find that there is actuazlly a Dwarf fashion scene, and all Juliet has to do is put on a fake beard to join in.

And there’s Trevor’s friend, Mr Nutt, who is believed to be a goblin, but may be something more. Even Mr Nutt doesn’t know. Yet.

This novel is as strong as ever, possibly better than Making Money, the last one. We get to take a good look into the kitchen of Unseen University. Some characters from other books appear (Rincewind, who appears briefly, seems actually to have succeeeded in living the boring life he wanted). There is a mention of Mightlily Oats, who appeared in Carpe Jugulum, and, it seems, has turned out to be the kind of decent holy man we hoped he would become. The only minor disappointment I felt was that, with the factor of awful pies at the football, mentioned early in the book, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler only appears once, and he’s selling souvenirs rather than pies. But there’s an emphasis on Glenda’s superb pies and perhaps the author didn’t want them to clash.

Normally, I wait for the paperback, but I just couldn’t, this time. And I don’t regret it. Another fabulous Discworld novel!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Of Qualified Teacher-librarians

Below is a link to a petition that has been running on-line in Australia. I am a qualified teacher-librarian. In Victoria, we've been a dying breed since the previous Premier gave State School Principals the control of the purse strings in their schools (something the current government has not changed back). Well, I say control, but in the end, they have to find ways to save money and they save it by cutting library staffing and employing people who are less qualified or not qualified at all. It's easier and less noticeable, unless you actually work in the school.

I believe in California, the "Governator" is trying to get rid of libraries altogether - at least it hasn't gone that far yet here, although it's not for want of trying; some years ago, I heard about a school where they planned to get rid of the library altogether, buy a lot of computers and replace library staff with a computer technician who could not only help kids do their web searching (after all, nobody reads books any more, do they, they just go on-line) but could fix the computers and would cost less and have to work longer hours!

It didn't happen, thank heaven, but we're not far off. The other day we had a college-wide planning day. One of the things we discussed was a unit of work centred around research skills and I suggested that the folk from each campus worked with their teacher-librarians - of course, there's already one campus where a good quality teacher-librarian, who had been involved in curriculum planning, was replaced by an unqualified library aide - not a library assistant, because you need a certificate for that. An aide. She does what she can, but she is not a teacher or even a librarian. She can't plan or help in planning curriculum. She can't teach.

If you read this and live in Australia, and you want your children literate, please
visit this site and add your signature. Then let your friends know about it and ask them to spread the word in their turn.

Online petition - A Qualified Teacher Librarian in Every School

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

PASTWORLD By Ian Beck. London: Bloomsbury, 2009

The year is 2048. Daily life is a bore - except in Pastworld. The whole of London has become a Victorian-era theme park, complete with nightly fog, old-style technology and (robotic) rats and pigeons. Most of the residents have chosen to live in the past, accepting old-fashioned laws, and put up with tourists who pay big money to visit and enjoy the Victorian lifestyle for a while.

The whole thing is run by the sinister Buckland Corporation, which is constantly coming up with new entertainments for the tourists, known as Gawkers.

So what happens when their designated Jack the Ripper gets out of control and starts killing whoever he wants? And what is the mystery behind seventeen-year-old Eve, who can’t remember anything before two years ago and thinks she is living in Victorian London?

This cross between The Truman Show and Westworld is a nicely-gripping thriller. It is fast-paced, bouncing around from one drama to another till all the ends are tied. The pace is speeded up by the shortness of most chapters.

I worked out what was happening well before the end, but I’ve read far more than the average teenager for whom the book is intended. Chances are that they won’t work it out so easily.

Recommended for mid-to-late teens.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

THE GENIUS WARS By Catherine Jinks. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2009

It began with Evil Genius, in which orphan Cadel Piggott was being raised to become a criminal matermind. As part of this, he was sent to the sinister Axis Institute in Sydney, where he studied such subjects as Fraud and Disguise and improved his already considerable skills in computer hacking. By the end of the second novel, Genius Squad, he had rebelled against all this and was trying to live a nornal life, though villain Prosper English, who had been responsible for his upbringing, had done everything he could to prevent this.

Genius Wars opens nine months later. Cadel, now fifteen, has settled down with police detective Saul Greeniaus and his wife Fiona, who are hoping to adopt him. Despite his youth, he has begun university and is in contact with some of his friends from the Axis Institute and the Genius Squad, who also want normal lives. Life is pretty good, and he has used his computer hacking skills to make life easier for his best friend, mathematical genius Sonja, who suffers from cerebral palsy. All he wants is to make it possible for her to get around easily in her wheelchair.

But old enemies haven’t forgotten him - and the very things he has done to help his friend may work against him..

This has been a fascinating series. The original premise sounded humorous - and there are certainly some over-the-top ideas, such as Cadel’s friend Gazo, a human stink-bomb who produces a smell that can literally knock people out when he is stressed. And what about brother-sister computer hackers Dorothy and Compton , mostly known as Dot and Com?

But this is not a comedy. Cadel is angry, frustrated and terrified that even knowing him may kill anyone he cares about. The series has, predictably, been compared to Harry Potter, as anything with a young hero is these days. If anything, it’s reminiscent of Artemis Fowl, if you can imagine that young Irish genius as an orphan, being manipulated by nasty guardians rather than supported and protected by his loyal bodyguard and loving family - or, for that matter, Mark Walden’s H.I.V.E. novels.

In any case, teens who liked either of those series should enjoy this one. I’d describe it as borderline SF. It never ceases to amaze me how many different genres this writer has clocked up over the years - SF, fantasy, ghost stories, historical fiction, suspense. She is the writer equivalent of the kind of actor who refuses to be typecast.

There’s no point in reading this book if you haven’t read the others, so if you haven’t, go and get them. You won’t be disappointed.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Day At The Opera - AIDA without Elephants

I've used this opera in my fiction, in a short story called "Nefer", in which a cat mummy follows a kid home from the museum, then proceeds to wreck the arena production of Aida in which her ballet class is taking part. The story appeared in a short anthology for kids, one of the Spinouts series edited by Meredith Costain and Paul Collins.

Also, I am very familiar with the music, because in my early teens I bought a boxed set with Leontyne Price in the title role, and saw the very old film in which Sophia Loren was darkened and someone else sang for her.

Till today,though, I had never seen it on stage. The Australian Opera tended not to do it, presumably because of the expense of the sets and such.

In 2009, it's still expensive, with the large chorus and costumes, but the sets are no longer an issue. Most of it is projected on to backdrops, including strips of fabric posing as Egyptian columns. Very clever, and they can get on with the singing and dancing (the choreographer was the legendary Graeme Murphy). After this, they will have the costumes and the software to do the projection, so the main expense will be the performers. You don't need elephants, no matter what the old stories say!

Of course the story is silly - opera plots always are. Terry Pratchett certainly had fun sending them up in his novel Maskerade.

Aida loves Radames. Radames loves Aida. Princess Amneris also loves Radames. Aida is a captive Ethiopian princess (but keeping her ID secret, very sensibly). After Radames has gone to fight her homeland and she has sung about it a lot, he comes back and Princess Amneris says, "Nyah, nyah, I'm the Pharoah's daughter and I'm having him." But Aida's Dad is captured and manages to persuade her to winkle military secrets out from her boyfriend, who is then arrested and sentenced to death, despite Amneris's pleas for the idiot to defend himself. Fortunately for all the singing in the last scene, he is sentenced to live burial and he and Aida, who has returned to die with him, can do some final singing, while Amneris sings above them on a spectacular double stage.

In this production, they did have to sling a bridge across the stage to get in the double stage scene.

The fanfares in the Grand March were played by six trumpeters in Egyptian costume on the stage - were they regular members of the orchestra, I wonder, or hired for the occasion? Anyway, it looked good.

Amneris looked good, as did the High Priest Ramfis. Aida was, as the lady next to me described her, a "rather solid girl". I was immediately reminded of Rita Hunter, a fabulous singer of many years ago, whose personality was as huge as her body. She played Abigaille in Nabucco and Norma in the Bellini opera. But her voice made you forget her size. And this one had a fine voice too. (Radames was also rather solidly built.)

Only trouble was, Aida didn't look remotely Ethiopian, apart from a wig. I mean, I know what Ethiopians generally look like. We have several kids from that country at my school. They're generally not as dark as the Sudanese kids, but still, they're - well, dark. Was it the recent issue over white people here going blackface on a TV skit, offending a visiting American? I think the singer was American. Had they decided to be "unconventional"? Did it not go well with the sets?

Hard to tell, but it made her less convincing to me.

And now, having seen the opera on stage, I don't feel the need to see it again. I'm just as happy to listen to a good recording. I have lost my enjoyment of both Il Trovatore (another silly storyline) and Madama Butterfly (not so silly, but they've done it too many times) because Melbourne tends to get all the repeats, while Sydney gets the new productions. I don't want to lose my taste for this one.

Final opera for the year is Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, which should be good fun. Stand by.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Seeing Things Differently.SLAV Conference November 13 2009

I have just been to this year's end-of-year library conference. I usually hold out for this one, because, unlike the earlier ones, it's book-related. Writers and artists speak about their work and some of the talks are directly related to libraries. It's not that I have anything against conferences that give you ideas for running the library. It's just that I have found most of them are aimed at the kind of school where they have more than one part-time teacher-librarian and part-time support staff and that have budgets I can only dream about. The last straw was when I attended a SLAV conference at which one of the guest speakers, who came from a Grammar School, stood on the podium and told us smugly about all the fabulous things they were doing at her school ... with dozens of staff and budgets in the 100,000-or-more range. And then expected us all to applaud her for doing writers and publishers out of their hard-earned money by scanning their work on to a school web site. As if the rich kids at her school couldn't afford about $12.95 for a copy, or the library couldn't buy some class sets of them! It was illegal, of course, but what point in getting up and accusing? I just stopped going to "those" conferences. That was years ago.

So I was looking forward to this one, which was held at the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Rd.

Well, there were some very good presentations. I took notes on the use of Web 2 in libraries and on graphic novels in the curriculum. I did wonder if having to study them wouldn't spoil them for the kids, but I'm prepared to try it out. "Visual literacies" was the theme of this conference, which was natural for a conference held at the gallery. And the keynote address by Dr Mark Norman, marine biologist and children's non-fiction writer, was worth the price of the conference by itself. He was delightful. I could hardly wait to get down to the book stall to pick up some of his books which I knew would thoroughly engage our reluctant readers. He began by showing a picture of a vampire and a real-life fish with fangs and showed us, in the course of the talk, how truth really is more bizarre than fiction and that there are so many wonderful things in real life that you couldn't invent.I was sitting next to Sue Ann Barber, programmer for Aussiecon 4, and suggested she see if we could get him for the con's science stream. I am certainly going to get hold of some of his books for myself, before my new budget next year, to use in my own research.

The only trouble was: there was no book stall. No publishers showing off their stuff. No useful stuff for schools. No graphic novels of the kind that speakers were urging us to buy for our libraries. A library conference with no books, except those on the screen? It reminded me of the time, years ago, when a friend and I took her son to the Book Week Fair at the Arts Centre and the poor boy stopped and asked, "Where are the books?" The only books at that event were on the YABBA stall, on display, not for sale.

Now, I know I can't get at my budget for next year as yet, because the books are closed and there has been a death among the admin staff and no time to replace her, not to mention a business manager on leave. But I have never seen a book stall not swarming with customers, even in November. What happened? Did the gallery object, perhaps, because they have their own bookshop? But that wasn't connected with the sort of stuff normally sold. Did the booksellers simply not bother this time? I'm sure I will find out eventually, but right now I am puzzled and disappointed.

No writers as speakers, either, except for the delightful Dr Norman. I really look forward to this conference because of something that wasn't there this time. While I found the talk on Asian art enjoyable and the talk by a painting conservator fascinating, including his description of the research he had to do to get it right, they just weren't what I attended the conference for.

I assume they had to use the gallery's caterers too. There was no afternoon tea, as in the past, so we had both sessions before lunch,when we went to the Great Hall - a lovely place for lunch. And if you like dead animal on your plate, I'm sure the egg and bacon and chicken sandwiches and party pies and sausage rolls were fine. For those of us who prefer not to eat meat, there were only roast vegetable sandwiches, and while I am in a minority in this, I believe vegies belong on the side of the plate, not in bread. I ate them because there was nothing else except fruit on sticks, which I also ate. I was hungry when I left, though, and dinner with my family wasn't till 7.30 p.m. And no coffee urns when we arrived. When coffee was available at morning tea, you had to wait for a staff member to pour it for you.

Still, there was Dr Norman and there were some really useful suggestions about the use of Web 2 and graphic novels in the library and classroom (we are already buying lots of graphic novels, especially manga, though not teaching them).

I can only hope that next year, though, the event is held elsewhere and is more like what I look forward to.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

HEART’S BLOOD By Juliet Marillier. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2009.

Young scribe Caitrin, fleeing an unwanted marriage with a violent cousin, finds herself on Whistling Tor, whose chieftain, Anluan, needs a scribe to do a summer’s work, translating Latin documents. Anluan’s family has been cursed for a century, since an ancestor conjured up a ghostly horde from the Otherworld and then couldn’t either control them or send them back. Anluan can handle them as long as he stays on the Tor, but if he leaves, the spirits could go on the rampage. They want to go back too, and something- or someone - is driving them insane, unable to control themselves. There may be a counter-spell in the Latin documents that will help. Everyone is relying on Caitrin to find it.

Despite the curse and the fact that Anluan can’t be the chieftain his people need, Caitrin finds friends on the Tor, some of them supernatural, and also finds love.

This Gothic-style romance has moved the story of “Beauty and the Beast” to mediaeval Connacht, a part of Ireland facing imminent invasion by Normans from England. Anluan is not a fairytale Beast, but crippled by a childhood illness. The “heart’s blood” of the title is a plant used to make very expensive ink, but also has a much more important use, as Caitrin finds.

It’s an interesting setting for the story, and it works. Western Australian-based novelist Juliet Marillier’s other Celtic fantasies are set in Ireland and she knows her period well. She reminds her readers that Irish law was fairer to women than the laws in other places at the time. Women had positions of responsibility and they had more property and inheritance rights.

The story is very readable; it was my first time reading one of this writer’s books and it won’t be my last. It is, admittedly, something of a Mary Sue. But I have been known to enjoy Mary Sue when well-written and at least this one is lacking long-lost princes, quests, elves and high priestesses. The only evil sorcerer is the hero’s ancestor, who was unpleasant and stupid, but hardly Sauron. And I must admit that "Beauty and the Beast" is a fairytale I like, and the author has done a good job of putting it into an historical context.

If you haven’t read Juliet Marillier’s other books, this one might be a good place to start, as it is a stand-alone and not part of a trilogy. If you have read her other novels, you probably won’t need me to convince you!

Monday, November 02, 2009

AND ANOTHER THING … Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Part Six of Three. By Eoin Colfer. Camberwell, Penguin, 2009.

I first discovered The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy when I was studying librarianship, many years ago. We used to throw quotes at each other over coffee, between classes. “Forty-two!” we would cry. “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything!” We needed the humour; librarianship was a heavy, exhausting course which gave us very little time to ourselves.

At home, my brother was taping the radio series. We listened to it and developed a passion for that. The story was over-the-top hilarious. It became a TV series and a movie and recordings.

I loved the first two books. The third was not quite as good, though it was still very funny - and since then, I have listened to Douglas Adams reading the talking book and decided I liked it better than the first time around. The fourth book came along and it was not as good as the third. It still had some fun, but it was almost serious. In it, Arthur Dent got a girlfriend, Fenchurch, but she suddenly disappeared from his side and never returned. The fifth book, Mostly Harmless, was such a disappointment to me that I gave away my copy and never read it again. My re-reading rarely goes beyond the second book and never past the fourth

I mention all this so it will be understood that I am a major fan of this universe, but I acknowledge that even Douglas Adams, who created it, had lost the plot, so to speak, by the end. So when I heard that Eoin Colfer, author of the wonderful Artemis Fowl novels, had been commissioned to write a sixth book in the series, I was in two minds about it. If Douglas Adams couldn’t keep it up, how could anyone else, even Eoin Colfer? But the author’s widow had approved him and of course, I was curious to see how he would get Arthur, Ford and Trillian out of the impossible situation in which they had been left at the end of Mostly Harmless.

This book has been written to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Hitcher’s. It starts with a summary of the story so far, written in an Adams-esque style. It may have been to refresh the reader’s memory, and in any case, Douglas Adams did it himself. It may have been for any potential new readers, but my advice to these readers is not to read it till they have read the original. There’s no point. And Another Thing... was clearly written for people familiar with the universe.

I must admit, Mr Colfer does a good job of getting Ford, Arthur, Trillian and their daughter, Random Dent, out of the fix they were in at the end of Mostly Harmless. I couldn’t imagine how it could be done, but he did it.

He makes a fairly good fist of Adams’s style, except for an irritating tendency to stop for asides. Douglas Adams did it, but nowhere near as often.

The story brings back a lot of characters from the third book, Life The Universe And Everything, including Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. He was the green-skinned immortal who was trying to liven up his eternal existence by insulting everyone in the universe in alphabetical order. Now, he has returned and he wants to get rid of the immortality; we learn that his insults are aimed at getting someone to kill him.

The original character was there as a single joke. He was funny. Now he has become, of all things, a romantic interest for Trillian. He isn’t funny any more.

Zaphod Beeblebrox is back too, with one head; the other one has replaced Eddie as the ship’s computer on the Heart of Gold. He has a quest of his own: helping Wowbagger get killed. This involves searching for the Norse god Thor, original owner of Wowbagger’s ship.

Also in the novel are the Vogons, who are still trying to wipe out the last humans to tie up loose ends - not only Arthur and Trillian, but a colony of middle-class Earthlings who have bought the Magrathean-built planet Nano. The Vogon captain, Prostetnic Jeltz, who destroyed Earth in the first novel, is back, with a son who may not agree with him.

The story bounces around from one storyline to another, but all the ends are tied, although the very end suggests there may be more to come.

I got the occasional chuckle out of this book, but no more. It starts well enough, but just isn’t funny. A friend of mine suggested that Tom Holt might have been a better choice, but personally, I don’t think anyone could handle it.

Eoin Colfer is a brave man to have had a go at something like this, which has a passionate fandom. I commend him for it. I don’t believe anyone could have done it, but he has done as well as anyone could and at least he seems to be a fan.

If you are completist, buy it by all means - hey, if you’re reading the book at all, you almost certainly are a completist. At least this story extracts our heroes from an impossible situation!

Thursday, October 29, 2009


This was written for a fanzine, some time ago. I can't recall which one, alas! But I think it's worth a re-visit.

I have recently read a glut of fantasy novels and have been re-reading the original classic Lord of the Rings in preparation for the films and it has occurred to me that no one in any of them ever seems to explain how all those elves can be aristocrats. Tolkien, I’m afraid, much as I love him, is the worst offender. All his elves are rulers; we’re never told who they rule.

At a literature conference I attended recently, Tamora Pierce, a great Tolkien fan, remarked - not without affection - that no one ever seems to go to the bathroom in Tolkien, but it’s worse than that. We know Bilbo Baggins can cook, from The Hobbit, which may be why he is so welcome in Rivendell, because no one else appears to do any menial work, yet they seem to have no trouble whipping up a feast. The Elves who meet Frodo and Sam early on their quest apologize for their plain fare, but of course, it tastes superb - bread, fruit, wine - as you would expect of Elvish cuisine.

Everyone in Rivendell is a warrior or a musician or a scholar. No one is ever seen growing food or preparing it, let alone cleaning up after the party. There are elven smiths, true, but they are all too occupied creating magical rings or repairing swords for long-lost kings to be bothered doing horse-shoes or nails or anything so plebeian. I keep picturing some pointy-eared elven smith wiping his sweaty forehead as he says apologetically, “Sorry, sir, we’re a-makin’ of a mass order of armour for Ragnarok next week, no time to look after your ‘oss’s cast shoe. You tried the hobbit smith down the road?”

We know that Galadriel and her maidens in Lothlorien weave fabulous cloth for magical cloaks, but this, like making magic rings, is an acceptable aristocratic occupation. Somebody makes the lembas (journey bread), I suppose, but we’re not told who - or where the ingredients come from. Come to think of it, who looks after the sheep whose wool is used in elven cloaks or grows the cotton or flax?

They do make rope in Lothlorien; when Sam is leaving, he's told that actually, they would have shown him how if they had known he was into rope-making. But it's magical rope, of course!

Possibly they trade with the communities of Men or hobbits, but this wouldn’t be a very practical way to survive in out-of-the-way Rivendell or Lothlorien - what if you were cut off from your suppliers by war or the Dark Lord or something?

In folklore, we are told that the Fair Folk live on illusion. Their palaces only seem to be beautiful, their clothes grand. In fact, they live in holes, their clothes are rags and their food, if you’re silly enough to eat it and be stuck in Faerie, is tasteless. Not only that, but their gold turns into dead leaves overnight. My theory is that the reason for this is because they’re all aristocrats and find it beneath their dignity to cook, clean or make and repair clothes.

To be fair, we do see some plebeian Elves in The Hobbit - but this is in Mirkwood, whose Elves are not of the High variety and never went to the West back in the earlier ages.

Perhaps Rivendell and Lothlorien are Elvish artist colonies? ;-)

If anyone knows of a serious fantasy novel that presents elves, Faerie, whatever, who actually work for a living - or go to the bathroom - I’d be interested to hear of it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Jacinta washes dishes for the tsunami victims

It's nearly 4.00 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. I am the last person left in the library. The last three weeks have been exhausting if satisfying. I meant to be out of here by 3.30.

Jacinta didn't care for the other Girlfriend book, but is now reading my book, Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, which has short chapters and is easy for a reluctant reader to get through in bites.

This afternoon, she and some other girls were washing dishes that had been donated for the Samoa appeal. Some were so filthy that they simply couldn't bring themselves to send them out, even though the recipients will wash them anyway. It is disrespectful.

They continued to pack boxes. We can't get anywhere near enough boxes for all the donations flowing in!

The girls who had made cakes and sweets finished selling them to staff and students and raised $82.30 in all.

Three students went to the local charity shops today and picked up what must have been $2000 worth of second-hand - but clean - toys for about $160. They had raised the money and were entitled to have a say in how it was spent. The token male student made sure there were toys for boys.

These will go to the children who have lost homes and perhaps parents through the tsunami.

Two of my students designed a card to go with each box. They asked me for suggestions about what they should write, but I advised them to write what was in their hearts - and they did. One of them, James, had shown a gift for design, so I asked him to do it, while Adrian had been on the shopping trip for the toys - which range from small plastic dolls of both genders to huge fluffy toys. We scored a Pooh Bear, giant animals, and someone seems to have donated a purple elephant!

We hope that next week we can get one or both of our large newspapers to come and grab the photo opportunity, as long as they don't dismiss it as an education story.

And yet, the kids have learned a lot - some have discovered talents they never knew they had. They have shown entrepreneurial skills which will stand them in good stead later.

This is all I can say about it for now. Stand by for some book reviews - I have the new Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy title, the new Juliet Marrillier book and the latest Scott Westerfeld YA title.

Forgive the diversion!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Writing, small press and technology

I seem to have gotten into such a nice discussion with Adelaide about technology, I thought it might be better to do a post than continue with the comments chatter.

Recently, I did a panel on small press at the Continuum 5 SF convention. On my way to the panel, I found a lot of tables in the dealers' room, all selling small press science fiction books. That, of course, included my own, the Andromeda table.

Small press has been around for a very long time,as I remember from my early days in SF fandom. In Australia we had several, over the years - Norstrilia, Aphelion, Corey and Collins to name just a few off the top of my head. And those are just the ones that did books.

They worked hard and got their stuff printed and they published writers and artists who went on to become famous. Sean Tan, who did art for Aurealis when he was very young, has become an award-winner with many books under his belt.

But since computers became available to everyone who wanted them and then the Internet arrived, it has become a lot easier to publish. There's do-it-yourself desktop publishing that lets you do something that looks good without worrying about hiring someone to do the layout, and publishing on-line and artists can submit their work overseas if they want, by email; we commission plenty of overseas artists to do work for Andromeda Spaceways, both covers and internals, and we don't have to wait days and days for it to arrive and worry about whether it might have been damaged on the way. I remember the wonderful Marilyn Pride telling me once that she couldn't send her work overseas because publishers had tight deadlines. Well, Andromeda is done entirely on-line, until the printer gets the hard-copy to us. We meet on-line, slush on-line, edit and receive the finished product on-line; I've never even met most of the Andromeda co-op members.

Technologically, it is a wonderful time for small press to flourish. And technology means I no longer have to re-type entire manuscripts. Mind you, I do copy and paste into a new file when I am going to edit, so any future university academic who wants to do a PhD on the works of Sue Bursztynski - if any - will have no problem accessing my original MSS.

My last few books have been done almost entirely on computer, the editing done by email. I do like to meet editors, but there are some I have never met at all. My second editor, Sarah Brenan, was just a voice on the phone to me till after I had handed in the full manuscript of Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science, although I must admit it was a little before the time of email for me; we exchanged letters.

Research has become easier for me since the Internet. I do still use plenty of books, but because I am a librarian I can understand the difference between a good site and one that isn't likely to be of use, and it's amazing what you can find on the web. My book Rolling Right Along, a history of the wheel, included a chapter on the Ferris wheel, with a description of what the builder's wife was wearing at the launch. "Are you sure?" asked my editor. I was fairly sure, because my Internet research had unearthed a newspaper article written at the time by someone who was there. The World Wide Web is, for me, a massive library on the other side of the screen, just waiting for good researchers to use it properly.

For my book Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, I did research in books, web sites and newspapers. Many of those newspapers were on-line archives. Only a few years ago, I would have had to go to the State Library and spend the evening hunting through microfilm - and I would have had to know exactly what I was looking for and when it happened before starting. Now I just need some keywords - well, duh - librarian! Pity the newspapers are planning to start charging to view their sites.

Now I'm off to do something a bit less technological - I am spending the rest of the day researching guitars for a possible book on musical instruments, and reading photocopies and printouts somewhere quiet with coffee...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Jacinta and the Tsunami

Jacinta came back from holidays with the book read and enjoyed. I have made arrangements with her literacy teacher to see if she can tempt her with another humorous Girlfriend book. (See my earlier post, "Jacinta and the Girlfriend Fiction boook"). Stand by for further information.

Meanwhile, a disaster happened in a number of countries in the last few weeks. If you have been reading the papers you will know. In Samoa, it was a tsunami. Because we have some Samoan students at the school, Amanda and I decided to pool our Year 8 homeroom students and get them collecting, fundraising and packing to send supplies to Samoa, with the help of the local primary school, whose Principal has contacts.

They have gone to it with a huge good will, and while all my students have made me proud the last two weeks, Jacinta has blossomed! This has become important to her and she has been rushing around with other students, packing and organizing. Because it meant so much to her, her sister Jamaine, who was in my class last year, had a word with their mother, who works for St Vincent De Paul, and they have sent a truckload of goods.

Jacinta is not only reading more, she's done some things to make her mother proud - and her homeroom teacher - me!

Monday, October 12, 2009

What if Conan Moved In Next Door?

Originally published in Janine Stinson's fanzine Peregrine Nations. PN is now on-line among other on-line zines and very good it is too, though it closed down some time ago. I am a fan of Robert E. Howard and in recent years I have discovered Kull as well, in the beautifully-illustrated omnibus editions. The Kull adventures are generally more light-hearted than the Conan ones and because Kull isn't travelling around as Conan does, there can be a number of regular characters.

But I wrote the article below in a fit of whimsy. It should be read in that spirit.

First, I’d like to make one thing quite clear: as a female fan of Robert E. Howard’s work, I have no desire to be crushed, panting, to Conan’s mailed breast, and never did have. If I was going to go out with a heroic fantasy hero, I’d rather have Tolkien’s hero Faramir, thanks. He’s a guy who’d not only be able to protect you from the baddies, but would remember your birthday and take you to some nice Minas Tirith restaurant for a birthday dinner, where you’d discuss art and music. If Conan remembered your birthday, he’d probably bring you a treasure from some ancient cursed tomb and you’d spend most of dinner watching in terror as he battled a slimy monster from before the dawn of time, come to take back its possession.

No - Conan wouldn’t be my idea of a boyfriend.

But he would make a very good next-door neighbour. He might not mow your lawn, and probably he’d have noisy feasts every other night, but he would make you feel utterly safe. Any stalker or burglar to invade your property would find himself hanging in midair, staring into a blazing pair of blue eyes under a long black mane, probably the last sight he ever saw. Any ex-boyfriend who tried to keep up a relationship you no longer wanted would be shaken thoroughly to make him understand that no means no and that a man of honour should understand this - then would be kicked down the street like a football. He would also knock on your door when you came home late from work to make sure everything was okay, or even come and pick you up from the station.

Conan appreciates an attractive woman, as we know from most of his adventures, and is only too happy to accept an offer from a charming lady - or a buxom wench - but never, ever forces himself on one. (You can’t really count the Frost Giant’s daughter - she’s just a challenge like any other, and Conan never turns down a challenge). It’s a part of his barbarian honour. In story after story, his behaviour is contrasted with that of arrogant, depraved noblemen of decadent civilizations. (I’m getting these visions of Conan showing his contempt for chardonnay-sipping yuppie males... Probably not a good idea to invite him to your dinner-party, though the backyard barbecue should be safe.)

I always liked it that the love of Conan’s life was Belit, a pirate queen. He had no problem with strong women, just with the ones who were trying to sacrifice him to some ancient demon, but the same applied to male priests who were doing the same. So he should have no problem with a strong professional woman living next door, as long as she showed him courtesy.

Well, Conan isn’t my next-door neighbour, alas, though the gentleman who lives in the next flat is nice enough. I can only find him between the covers of a book - in my case, one of the old Lancer editions which I first picked up on a remainders table, many years ago. I remember the wonderful Frank Frazetta covers, with Conan battling some monster or other, and the sheer joy of losing myself in his adventures. He may not be sitting with me in my study when I write, but I would probably never have had a go at heroic fantasy if not for those tales, or have joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, where I learned, at least, what you can’t do with a sword (it would have been much more fun to learn from Conan. I think he’d laugh at the idea, but help you out if you really wanted to learn).

The only thing is, if Conan moved in next door, he wouldn’t stay long. He would become restless for the next horizon - and probably run out of money and need another job. I think I’d miss him, too. Then again, he would probably leave you a souvenir ... such as a treasure from some ancient cursed tomb from before the dawn of time...


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Welcome Merrilee Faber - and - er, the other one

Welcome to my blog, Merrilee. I see you are also a writer, and an artist (I'm not!) and seem to be writing a novel. And you enjoy spec fic, among other things which is great. I did enjoy your post about the iPaq, whatever that is. I grew up in the generation when computers were the size of rooms and we were all very impressed with Isaac Amaterstein, who had a tape recorder, which he kindly brought over to let us record our radio show for school. Even video was a long way in the future!

Which basically means that I have revelled in every new bit of technology that has made it easier for me to write and research and listen to music. So I know where you're coming from.

I see I also have a new follower who is signed in as a number of upper keyboard thingies and while I assume he/she has a blog, I can't find it, only the others
(s)he follows. I hope I will get to know who you are, person without a profile!

Superman The TV Series

This was originally published in one of the last issues of Centero, Nikki's White's wonderful media-based letterzine. It went for over 100 issues and I had something in nearly every one of them. I honed my reviewing skills in it, and sometimes I just wrote letters or raved about old favourite films or TV shows with which I had become reacquainted through video or - later - DVD. I love the way DVD has brought them back, and all the extras on the better ones.

Superman the TV series was a childhood favourite - and now I'm reading and loving Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Klay, about a couple of Jewish boys in the 1930s, creating a superhero comic, a bit like the ones who created Superman. When I was a child, I was not allowed to read comics at home, so I went to visit my friend Denise, who lived in her parents' boarding house. We exchanged soft drink bottles left by the boarders for deposit money with which we bought more drinks, ice cream and Superman comic books, which we read as we feasted. It's a fond memory for me.

So here's a re-run of my comments on the DVD version of the George Reeves Superman series. Enjoy!
* * *

I have been re-viewing old favourites over the last couple of months.

I bought the first season of the George Reeves Adventures of Superman and binged on it. Strange to watch it all again, after Christopher Reeve’s films and Lois and Clark, Smallville and this latest movie.

The scenery wobbles and the effects are primitive, but each episode is like a mini-movie. You’re surprised when it’s over in twenty-five minutes. The SF is minimised. There is, of course, the opening episode which brings the baby to Earth (and by the way, the Kents are not called Jonathan and Martha, as we’re used to). There’s also the one with the robot and the one where the scientist has created a mind-controlling machine. Mostly, though, it’s Superman versus crooks. Even the Jimmy Olsen episode, The Haunted Lighthouse, hasn’t any actual ghosts in it, and the voice crying for help is a parrot. I’m pretty sure there was kryptonite eventually, but not in this season.

I always did wonder what happened to Clark’s suit while he was in his Superman costume - he always seems to be able to change back to Clark Kent no matter where he is - and where his Superman costume was stashed meanwhile. This series made it even more interesting. It’s implied that he’s wearing the Superman costume under his regular clothes (hopefully there’s a fly in those shorts), because in one episode he has to go for a staff medical and leaves it in the wardrobe, where a crook finds it and steals it. This means he can’t tell anyone what has been stolen from his cupboard! That’s the one where he has to leave the crooks on a mountain top till he can decide what to do with them, because they know his secret identity - fortunately, they get killed while trying to climb down. Not his fault - he did tell them to stay there and seek shelter in a nearby hut.

Which brings us to the next point - anyone who finds out his identity is doomed. They always, always end up dead by the end of the episode. The show is specifically set in 1951, when it was made, so the crooks still seem to be gangsters and their molls, wearing 1940s clothes.

George Reeves’s Clark Kent is not Christopher Reeve’s bumbling ,”Aw, gee, Lois...” character. He’s the one who solves mysteries - Superman just mops up and comes on the scene when speed or strength is needed. Lois competes with him for the best stories. Like Dean Cain’s later Clark, he can stand up to her. He doesn’t even pretend to be a bumbler, and has a regular arrangement with the police, who seem to respect him.

First season Lois is Phyllis Coates. This Lois Lane is a tough chick, not scared of anything. She’ll go anywhere for a good story, but has never heard of the word “teamwork” and as a result tends to rush off when the villains send a note, without letting anyone know where she’s going. The villains are usually very, very sorry they have tangled with her, but she still needs to be rescued by Superman. In one episode, the villain has been sticking a drug into coffee that turns you into an obedient zombie. Lois is suspicious of the coffee, saying she’ll pour it, then lets herself be distracted and still drinks the coffee!

Jimmy Olsen is played by Jack Larsen, who is perfect for the role. He is a wonderful comic relief, who can make his eyes bulge when he’s having a “Jimmy” moment.

John Hamilton is Perry White and also perfect for the role. This Perry is a long way from the Elvis-loving Perry White of Lois and Clark. He’s the “Don’t call me chief!” and “Great Caesar’s ghost!”, cigar-chomping editor of “a great metropolitan newspaper”. Interestingly enough, he never seems to tell the reporters to stop investigating crime and get on with meeting the deadline.

There are two extra features and commentary on four episodes. One of the extras is a delightful little featurette about the making of the series, and fascinating it is, too. Among those interviewed is Jack Larsen, who is a LOT older than when he was playing Jimmy, but whose voice is still recognisable. The other extra, “Pony Express Days” remind you that George Reeves had a life before Superman. In it, he plays a young - very young - Buffalo Bill Cody. If you’ve ever seen Gone With The Wind, of course, you might remember him as one of the Tarleton twins.

A classic series and well worth a re-viewing.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Two more SF links

I figured, since I mentioned Specusphere and Of Science And Swords bookshop, I should add links to make them easier to check out. If you're either living in, or visiting, Melbourne, Of Science And Swords is in the Strand Arcade in Lonsdale Street. It's small and friendly and the proprietors know their SF and know your name once you've been there a couple of times. Since we lost both Space Age and the SF bookshop run in the same spot by Justin Ackroyd, it's nice to still have a fannish shop in the CBD. Justin is still dealing in books and turns up to conventions, but it's just not the same. The shop's web site has an attached blog with chatter about the new books. Well worth checking out.

Welcome Satima!

Welcome to my blog, Satima Flavell! I see Satima has joined my small list of "followers" and I have done the same for her. Satima has been involved in Australian SF for some time and has written dance stuff for the newspapers as well. She has recently joined our list of Andromeda slushers and reviews for Specusphere, the SF review site. Go take a look at Specusphere for a whole lot of SF stuff, and a review of my crime book by "Hypatia", another reviewer - and have a peek at Satima's blog as well. It's a good one. See the side of this web page for a link.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A Whale of a Tale

Last night when I got home, I found something new in my letterbox. It was a parcel I had been expecting but it was wonderful to open up and take the book out, as well as the handmade ceramic whale tail pendant. Edwina Harvey's novel The Whale's Tale has been coming for a long time. Looking at the book, I remembered when the cover artist, young Eleanor Clarke, was born. She is the daughter of my friend Susan Batho, whom I have known for years, and has grown up into a beautiful, talented young woman who can produce amazing art. As well as the gorgeous cover painting of a whale diving into the ocean, she designed the delightful logo for the new publishing imprint, Peggy Bright Books, a clothes peg clasping a star.

I remembered when Edwina started writing for children and young adults. She had been a penpal, back in the days before email, and never realised that her whimsical over-the-top style was just right for kids. Then she started entering the Mary Grant Bruce Award for Children's Literature and got a Highly Commended, twice.

The second time it was for the original short story on which this novel is based, "Restitution." I was the judge that year. I read the stories "blind", but the style was unmistakable. When Adrian Penniston-Bird, the head of the Victorian Fellowship of Australian Writers, told me the story was by "Edwina -" I was able to finish it. "Edwina Harvey, right?"

Well, it deserved the prize. I actually gave the short list to children to read, and they decided on the order.

Then Edwina turned it into a novel. It was the novel of her heart and she was determined to see it in print. I read the original MS and had some suggestions to make about it, but on a flip-through, I think the problems have been fixed. I'll do a proper review a bit later, with the cover image. At the time, I also handed the MS to a young reader, Samantha Wilson, who loved it.

It's a joyous piece of writing. I think I will love it too.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Welcome Ruzkin!

I have added a link to the new web site of Ruzkin, writer extraordinaire and enthusiastic counter gent at Of Science And Swords Bookshop. Ruzkin, aka Chris, is a writer of speculative fiction who would like to be published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and hopefully will be at some stage. We read our slush blind, so I have no way of knowing if I have rejected any of his work or not.

Go take a look at Ruzkin's blog. It's worth the time.

Nobel Prizes and other blogs

Checking out a comment on a January Magazine review I did, I found another free blog site and visited it out of curiosity. One of the "blogs" linked to the main page was a CNN report that "three Americans" had won the Nobel prize for Medicine. There was no option to comment on that site, so I am mentioning it here. Sorry, CNN, but Elizabeth Blackburn, one of the winners, is not American, she's Australian. She lives and works in the US, but isn't American.

She is, in fact, the first Aussie woman to win the big one and I couldn't be more pleased. Pity I didn't know about her when I was writing my book on women scientists some years ago!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Comments and Spam

I don't get many comments, though I know plenty of people are reading my blog, due to my "invisible" counter. (Until I got the counter, I was wondering if anyone ever checked out my site!) Sometimes I get a comment with a name on it; mostly, for some reason, the most innocuous comments are added anonymously. Don't know why - do you think I'm going to sue you? Or stalk you? :-)

I do prefer to have people name themselves, but I have published a number of anonymous comments - only one was rejected, because it was having a personal go at someone whose book I had reviewed and that's not what this site is for.

However, today I came across four "comments" on the moderation page and guess what? They were all spam. So as of now, those of you who do want to comment - and I do urge you to do so, even if you disagree with me - will have to put your names on your comments. I have changed my settings so that the ID is necessary. I have a burning hatred of "direct marketing". Especially when the "direct marketers have bought their lists from people who had no right to sell them my personal information.

From here on, any comments will hopefully be real ones.

Sweet Mary Sue: Female “types” In Fan Fiction

First published, in a somewhat different form, in Centero and in Spaced Out #17

I first wrote on this topic for Nikki White’s letterzine Centero, back in the days when fan fiction was limited to print fanzines, when there were a relatively small number of media fanzines in Australia and only a few SF/F universes in which to write. Now, on the Internet, there is more opportunity than ever before to write about Mary Sue and the mind boggles at what they’re doing with it. When I was writing fan fiction - and doing the occasional Mary Sue for fun - we were writing original Trek and Blake’s 7 and not much else(I think I recall coming across a Dr Who Mary Sue once, involving the Tom Baker version and a companion who never appeared in the live series). Nowadays, no universe is safe. There’s even an entire sub-genre that pokes fun at the Tolkien-related Mary Sue. I can’t quite bring myself to read the stories at which they are laughing, but judging by the send-ups, the genre hasn’t changed much. The object of Mary Sue’s affections is still pointy-eared, but these days his name is Legolas or Elrond. Poor J.R.R. would turn in his grave. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to stick to the universes I know best, though I think the sub-categories apply well enough across the board.

So, who is Mary Sue? What is the Mary Sue story? She is the heroine of a sub-genre of fan fiction, though she occasionally turns up even in the shows on which the fan stories are based, or even in regular print fiction - hey, I have even reviewed one on this blog!

Originally, the term as applied to fan fiction really only covered the area I'd call Supergirl. It has grown to the point where it falls roughly into three broad categories, each containing its sub-categories. Let’s call them, for convenience, "The Sweet Young, Thing", "The Nightclub Singer" and “Supergirl”.

The Sweet Young Thing comes in a variety of flavours. She is a priestess, a princess in distress, a slave-girl or a rebel leader's daughter - occasionally a scientist's daughter. Her usual function is to tend the hero's wounds and nurse him back to health. As her reward, she gets his undying love and conceives his child.

Alas, his undying love is often her death sentence! Our pregnant heroine would be a bit awkward to take back to the Liberator or Enterprise , wouldn't she? For an excellent example of this, see the original Trek episode "The Paradise Syndrome". Poor Miramanee - she was doomed from the moment Kirk fell in 1ove with her.

If the Sweet Young Thing is a princess, however, she has some chance of survival. Firstly, she has an "out" - her duty to her people, which doesn't allow her to run off with brooding Vulcans or handsome rebel computer experts. Secondly, for some reason, fan-writers seem to like the idea of Avon/Spock/whoever becoming the father of royalty. It's next best to his being a ruler himself.

The Nightclub Singer is mostly to be found in the Blake’s 7 universe, far more rarely in the Trek universe. (If you're old enough to know what I'm talking about when I mention Blake's 7, good on you. If not, go and find it on DVD - it's well worth it! )

She is a little older than the Sweet Young Thing. Often, she is a widow, with or without children, making her living singing for her supper. Her husband died fighting in the rebellion, which has understandably soured her on the whole business, but she ends up helping our heroes anyhow, complaining all the way, and has a quiet romance with one of them(usually Avon) before waving them goodbye; at least she survives the story and rarely gets pregnant! One Australian fan-writer who made this variety of Mary Sue her own was the late Monica Mitchell, who showed how well the genre could be done in the hands of a competent writer. Her heroines usually had romances with the villains of Blake’s 7 - Travis was a favourite - but occasionally leered lustfully at Avon.

The Nightclub Singer may also be a professional woman - a doctor or scientist, for example, who was working for the Federation and has broken away. She boards the Liberator and saves the crew before continuing on her way. She usually fancies Vila or Avon. If it’s Avon, she spars with him for most of the story, of course

Third is "Supergirl", who is more a Trek type than anything else, but sometimes appears in other fan fiction, and often in mainstream fantasy, such as Kylie Chan's White Tiger.

She may be even younger than the Sweet Young Thing - usually about sixteen. Despite this, she has a string of university degrees and a pilot's licence. In the original Trek universe (I assume there are parallels in the spin-offs), she will probably be telepathic and brought up on Vulcan. Despite the difference in their ages, she usually knew Spock back home.

All the male characters fall in love with her, but sadly, she is not for any of them, in the end; she sacrifices herself saving the Liberator or Enterprise and is remembered fondly by all, or she flies off into the sunset(so to speak) to save the day elsewhere. Or - sometimes - she marries the hero of the author's choice and live happily ever after, playing a major role in the civilization of which her man is the leader...

Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s classic “Kraith” series had a Mary Sue of this variety (well, she may have been over sixteen, but she had been brought up on Vulcan, etc.). She became pregnant by Spock and died in an ancient Vulcan ceremony that had a tendency to kill pregnant women, but had to be performed.

Although Lichtenberg was a big-name fan writer at the time and went on to write professionally, the Supergirl story is mostly created by younger writers trying their hand, and is the female equivalent of the space-battle stories written by earnest young boys. Possibly the author will progress beyond it, but if not, she is having fun and so are her readers.

I rather suspect there are professional writers out there still writing Mary Sue stories for their own enjoyment! In fact, I know there are; at least one major Australian novelist admitted at a conference that she did this.

And when you've written a whole lot of mainstream books, or even worthwhile genre novels, it's very relaxing to kick off your shoes, turn on the computer and wander the galaxy with sweet Mary Sue.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

TIME OF TRIAL. Volume 4, The Laws of Magic, By Michael Pryor. Sydney: Random House, 2009

This is the fourth of the delightful Laws of Magic series, set in an alternative Edwardian England.

Once again, Aubrey Fitzwilliam and his friends George and Caroline are needed to save the world, as one of the characters observes wryly in the novel. This time, after the usual opening scene of magical mayhem - in this case, cloud ships attacking a university cricket game in which George and Aubrey are playing - it’s during a trip to Holmland (Germany in our universe) where Lady Rose, Aubrey’s mother, is speaking at a symposium.

But this is where the evil Dr Tremaine, Aubrey’s nemesis, is living. He has influence in high places. Very high places. And then there are the golems, which are far from the lumpy clay things of folklore; you can make them very lifelike, so that it’s impossible to tell them from real people till they’re deactivated. Who can be trusted? Certainly not characters who can get sucked into telephones, as in one memorable scene.

Then there’s the pearl which Aubrey took from Tremaine in the last novel - what mystery does it hide? Our heroes are about to find out - and they won’t like it.

It’s not all bad, though. Aubrey now has a Beccaria Cage, which reunites the body and soul he tore apart in a stupid experiment before the first volume began. If only it hasn’t been sabotaged...

As always, the adventure tears along at a breakneck pace, and is very funny. And it doesn’t let you go easily; there’s a twist near the end, just when you think the main story is over.

I found myself falling comfortably back into this universe, enjoying it as much as ever. It’s rarely that a series can continue for this many volumes without losing something, but though it will need to finish some time, at least for this story arc, The Laws Of Magic is one series that doesn’t go downhill.

I think the series will become a fantasy classic.

Bring on Volume 5!

Media fandom and Conventions

Today I had a chat with my friend Geoff. I've known Geoff since my first days in science fiction fandom. We met in Star Trek fandom, actually. Since then, though my media fannish heart belongs to that 1960s TV series (not as much to its spin-offs, though I like them), I have expanded, as has Geoff.

My main reason for identifying with media fandom was not only the shows and films involved, but because media fandom allowed you to be creative long after many mainstream fans concentrated their efforts on their fanzines, which were mainly of the "what I had for breakfast last Tuesday" variety. I wrote stories and letters of comment, made costumes, wrote reviews and as a consequence of what I learned in media fandom, I eventually managed to sell stories professionally, write articles and non-fiction books for which I was paid and write book reviews, which gave me thousands of dollars in free books over the years, and enabled me to be a better librarian. And my costuming, while not professional stuff like that of some other fans, taught me to make ordinary clothes of the kind I wanted to wear rather than what was in the shops. These days, organising art for Andromeda Spaceways, I can call on fannish friends whose art I know and love, when I need it.

The conventions, in Australia at least, were fun. Because we couldn't afford to pay huge numbers of actors to come and tell us that they loved "Orsteylia", we had to make our panels fannish. We didn't sit in an auditorium and wait to be entertained by Second Romulan From The Left. We had maybe one actor, or the likes of Bjo Trimble, who had been in fandom for many years and knew all about handcraft and writing markets and yes, what was going on with our favourite show.

Alas, that's no longer the case, which is why I don't generally go to so-called "conventions" where young fans who don't know any better pay hundreds of dollars to listen to an actor and then pay more to get an autograph.

Now we're having next year's World SF Convention in Melbourne and to my surprise, Geoff said he was not sure he was going, because there were no media guests of honour. I pointed out that there were not usually any such people at Worldcons.

We had one last time, he protested. Yes. We had the wonderful writer who created Babylon 5, and all the sneering lit fans who have a go at media fandom came to hear him speak. But that was not the same. He had written to the committee and said he was coming anyway and asked if he could be of help. I know. I was there. Naturally, they put his name on the posters - who wouldn't?

I suggested to Geoff that he might like to contact the programmer and arrange some media-based panels. Maybe he could even suggest inviting some folk who lived right here in Australia and have done SFX or stunts for the movies - some of them have appeared at previous media cons and were quite wonderful. One SFX specialist who lives in Sydney is almost certainly coming anyway, as a fan. Why do we need actors, even if they could be worked into the budget or the committee was willing to get them?

I hope Geoff will come - I know he'd enjoy it. I'm certainly looking forward to it, and the Andromeda Spaceways bunch will be there selling magazines, so I'll be spending some time in the dealers' room.

How often do we get a Worldcon in Melbourne?

Friday, September 25, 2009


When I was a child, I desperately wanted a horse. I hung around the local park, where pony rides happened weekly, offering my services in return for a ride. I put money away in a small typewriter ribbon container, and scanned the classified ads, pretending to select a horse from the horses-for-sale page.

And I read books, mostly British ones, especially those by the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Diana, Christine and Josephine. They were all full of girls and boys and their ponies, practising for gymkhanas and dreaming of riding glory.

Then there were the Australian ones, the Silver Brumby tales of Elyne Mitchell, about Thowra, the magnificent creamy-coloured stallion who ran wild in the Snowy Mountains, vanishing in the snow, his Secret Valley and his friends and offspring - Kunama, his daughter, was captured and turned into a stock horse for a time, but was freed to return to her mate, Tambo. I didn’t need riding to make my books enjoyable; it was horses I loved, like most little girls, although when I became a librarian I found that my library users, whenever they asked for a book about horses, wanted a book about riding. I sighed and found them a Saddle Club book.

Maybe it was my love of horses rather than riding that eventually changed the pictures on my bedroom wall from horses to unicorns and led me into the whole fantasy area. Actually, I was heading there with the Silver Brumby stories. Thowra was unquestionably a horse, who thought the way a horse would, if horses were capable of it. But he had friends in the bush who warned him when humans were on their way - Benni the kangaroo and his wife Silky, for example. He had a friend called Storm, another stallion whose mother had been friends with Thowra’s mother. Fortunately, they weren’t competing for a herd! He talked to other animals. He welcomed Kunama’s mate to his Secret Valley.

Definitely fantasy, But wonderful fantasy that swept me into the world of the Australian bush, from my seaside suburb of Melbourne. Years later, when my friend Jackie Marshall was visiting from England I found that she had also read the Silver Brumby books and had been hoping to visit the Snowy Mountains because of them.

This was going to be a post about my visit to the Royal Melbourne Show and watching one of the horse events. I went yesterday and sat in the stands, in the brief period between wind and rain, pouring coffee from my thermos and watching the girls on their well-trained, beautifully-turned-out mounts, still loving the look of the horses because, in some ways, I have never quite grown up. Unicorns aren’t quite the same, although I sometimes wonder if there’s a connection between girls’ love for horses and the well-known preference of unicorns for young women.

Damn. The idea for a story. Excuse me while I go off and have a go at writing it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

SOMEBODY’S CRYING By Maureen McCarthy. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2008.

Three years ago, forty-something mother and mature-age student Lillian Wishart was murdered in her home in the Victorian coastal town of Warrnambool. Jonty van der Weihl,her nephew, was arrested for the murder, but released after three months for lack of evidence. Now Jonty is back, and so are his former best friend, Tom, and Lillian’s daughter Alice. Jonty has returned from studies in Sydney, Tom is doing a work placement for his photography course and Alice has taken time off from university to live with her stroppy grandmother and work for Tom’s father, the lawyer who got Jonty off the charges.

Tom still believes Jonty did it, as does Alice. But Tom is feeling bad about having abandoned his friend when he was needed. After all, there’s no proof. Alice would like to believe he didn’t do it, as he is the closest thing she had to a brother. Her father is off in Darwin with his girlfriend and she has only her grandmother and Jonty now.

But nobody knows - including Jonty, who doesn’t remember much about that night. And when Jonty’s horrible father, Jed, returns and confesses to the murder, it seems as if everything is now sorted out ... or is it?

Flashbacks show the build-up to the murder. The reader can decide what to think - but the mystery isn’t all. The novel is more about how the past has affected those left behind. When Tom tells Alice, at one point, that it’s all in the past and over, she lets him know in no uncertain terms that it isn’t. Everyone in the novel needs closure.

Maureen McCarthy is one of Australia’s best mainstream writers for young adults. In the end, it is the characters who matter - and it isn’t only the young ones who are important. Their parents also count and you can feel for them as well as the young protagonists.

Another McCarthy book bound to become a classic.

Monday, September 21, 2009


I read a fair bit of crime fiction. A couple of years ago I discovered the fiction of Kathy Reichs, whose heroine, the forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan, is now the heroine of the TV series Bones. I was researching forensics for an article at the time and I found it fascinating because the author was herself a forensic anthropologist;, formerly an archaeologist - and archaeology was my childhood passion and the career I’d still like to try out once I finish my career in librarianship.

But in the end, I know I'm only going to read that sort of book once, enjoyable as it is. My personal preference is for the whodunnit, often known as the “cosy”. You know - the amateur sleuth doing something else for a living and giving you recipes at the end of the book? Actually, I am picky about those books and like the whodunnit aspect more than the recipes; Kerry Greenwood is the only crime writer I know whose recipes actually work, anyway, and don’t usually contain kilos of butter and cream and sugar.

She is one of the few I can read over and over, even knowing whodunnit, and “it” isn’t necessarily murder anyway. In the one I am currently re-reading, the question is, who has been selling the potentially disastrous weight loss tea, and where has Corinna Chapman’s father disappeared? When there is a death in the Corinna Chapman novels, it’s usually as a side-effect of something else.

Why can I re-read these novels, even knowing what’s going to happen?

It’s because of all the other stuff in them. Both her crime series, the Phryne Fisher novels and the Corinna Chapman books, are set in Melbourne. The author has a love affair with Melbourne, though one of the Phryne Fisher novels, Death Before Wicket, is set in Sydney. (Interestingly, in the short story she used for a trial run for that book, the setting was Melbourne University).

Phryne Fisher, Ms Greenwood’s rich, beautiful private eye, lives in St Kilda in the 1920s. She has a house on the Esplanade, right across the road from the beach. She has the occasional party at the Windsor Hotel, famous for its afternoon teas - I’ve been there for afternoon tea twice, mainly because of the Phryne Fisher novels. Phryne visits places that are now outer suburbs of Melbourne but were countryside in the 1920s. She gets an undercover job at a women’s magazine, so very different from anything running today, and located in the Melbourne CBD. She dances at the Green Mill, a dance hall that is no more, but was located where the Melbourne Arts Centre complex is now.

Baker Corinna Chapman lives in the modern Melbourne CBD, in a gorgeous apartment block that I would move into tomorrow if it existed as described. She looks a lot more like Kerry herself than Phryne. She is not rich, but makes a good living baking good quality bread, assisted by her apprentice, recovering drug addict Jason, who makes wonderful muffins - the recipes for some are at the back of her books, and they work. Corinna travels around Melbourne with her beautiful lover, Daniel Cohen, who looks like Angel and makes his living as a private eye. Daniel doesn’t drive, so they travel around the suburbs in a car belonging to former getaway car driver Timbo. They go out to dinner in Melbourne itself, or in Brunswick, and Melbourne is lovingly described.

The food is the most lovingly-described aspect of both series. Phryne can probably cook competently, but doesn’t; even when she was living in Paris after the Great War, she was eating food out of tins and going out for Breton pancakes. As a rich, independent woman, she employs the wonderful Mrs Butler to do her cooking, and Mrs Butler considers cooking a challenge and likes to experiment. Most of Phryne’s meals are described - breakfast, lunch and dinner and the occasional supper. And that’s when she’s at home. She eats out a lot, usually in the course of her investigations, and those meals are described in detail too.

Phryne and Corinna both start the day with strong black coffee, leading me to suspect this is how Kerry starts hers. After this, Phryne usually has a croissant or toast with homemade spread of one kind or another, but she has sometimes enjoyed a hearty cooked breakfast, usually when she is away from home and this food is on offer - Urn Burial, for example. Lunch is never, but never, a sandwich and a fruit, and if sandwiches are involved, they’re gourmet. Usually, though, Mrs Butler makes sure she has at least two courses, including dessert, at lunchtime. If she has a visitor, it’s three courses. Dinner is sometimes a huge buffet, but often entrees, fish, soup, main course, dessert and coffee or liqueur and perhaps chocolate or a savoury toast.

Only once can I remember anyone commenting to Phryne on how much food she seems to consume and then it’s only a comment, in Murder On A Midsummer Night, by a character invited to lunch, that he’d be huge if he had a feast like this every day.

Corinna, who is a large woman and proud of it, actually seems to eat a lot less than the thin Phryne Fisher. She enjoys cooking, quite apart from the baking she does for a living, although she feels great satisfaction in eating toast made from bread she made herself. After the coffee, her breakfast is occasionally a cooked one, but usually toast and jam (also homemade). Her weekend breakfast is coffee and croissants. She makes a relish from a recipe by her grandmother, jam and pickles and she rustles up good nourishing meals for herself and Daniel. But Daniel can also cook; his specialty is French onion soup, but he also enjoys making hors d’oeuvres and the two of them make up satisfying meals. Salad is invariably made using fresh leaves supplied by the witch Meroe, who runs the Buffy-style magic store downstairs. As in the Phryne Fisher novels, meals are described with great pleasure. As Insula, her apartment block, is a formerly serviced apartment, there is a kitchen in the basement, which allows the inhabitants to get together weekly for a meal and gives the author the excuse to finish each novel with a feast.

Come to think of it, the Phryne Fisher novels also end, quite often, with a party involving food.

Both heroines enjoy gin and tonic, leading me to think this ia also a Kerry Greenwood favourite. But Phryne is also lucky enough to have a butler - Mr Butler, husband of the abovementioned cook - who is Melbourne’s best bartender and designs delicious cocktails.

I started trying my luck with yeast after reading a Corinna Chapman novel and have been baking bread ever since. And there’s no harm in reading about delicious food, is there?

I enjoy these books as much for the characters and the ambience as for the mystery - more so, really, because after I have read them once, I don’t mind coming back. The city of Melbourne is a character in the books and if I didn’t live here I would want to come for a visit.

While I’m concentrating on catching up on the review books these holidays I am also letting myself be soothed by the fiction of Kerry Greenwood. It won’t be the last time.