Search This Blog

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.

ZOMBIE BLONDES By Brian James. New York: Macmillan, 2009.ISBN: 9780312573751

As the cover says: “They’re beautiful. They’re popular. They’re dead.”

What else is to be said about the monsters in this novel?

At the moment, Byronic vampires are the most popular beings in books for teenage girls. But zombie cheerleaders also have their fascination. What would you do to be popular, even when the most popular girls in town all look like anorexic Barbie dolls and are bullies?

You’d try to join them, of course, if you’re a teenage girl, especially one like Hannah Sanders, whose father is always on the run from creditors and moving to one hick town after another.

And because horror fiction has certain conventions, you’d ignore the warnings of a boy who has seen it all happen before. Zombies? Oh, come on now! And there are, let’s face it, only two possible endings for a book like this; as you read, see if you can work out which one it is -
a. she escapes town, after the new boyfriend has died to save her or, b. she doesn’t escape - her fate is sealed.

I would have liked to know who Lukas, the boy who issues the warnings, was. He didn’t seem to have any family - perhaps they’d already been eaten by the zombies? But he never mentioned it, only that one of the zombie cheerleaders was once a friend. So where were his parents?

For that matter, how did the zombie business begin? We never find out.

Never mind. This book is not intended for old cynics like me who have been reading horror fiction since Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives and Tom Tryon’s Harvest Home. It’s intended for the kind of teen girls who might well be wondering if they, too, would want to join a bunch of bullying zombies just to be popular. And this audience should enjoy it. It’s easy reading and not too long.

A nice scare for reluctant readers.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


As I write this, I am listening to the last glorious strains of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which, not surprisingly, has come nearly top of ABC FM’s Top 100 Symphony Countdown (personally, I think it should have come first, though I do like Dvorak’s New World Symphony, which is Number 1).

Tears fill my eyes for the sheer beauty of it, both the music and the words of Goethe.

And I can't help musing on the number of geniuses who weren’t particularly nice people. I think Beethoven’s soul was in his music; perhaps deep down, he was a man who loved humanity and had optimism for it, but I really wouldn’t have wanted him as a next door neighbour. He’d be yelling at you to get your damned cat out of his back yard or he’d turn it into catskin earflaps. He certainly wouldn’t keep an eye on the house while you were on holiday, or pick up your kids from kindergarten.

And you wouldn’t want to be his nephew. At one point, Uncle Ludwig's unpleasantness drove him to attempt suicide.

Nevertheless, he had friends and there were plenty of women in his life, if none who actually married him.

Anyway, when you listen to his music, you don’t care. The courage of the man! And his most glorious music written after he became deaf!

The Pastoral Symphony (number 4 on the Countdown list) is another one I enjoy. I remember hearing it at a concert once, and suddenly realising that you could hear each individual instrument while they all worked together to make a gorgeous harmony and tell you a story.

Then there’s that asshole Wagner. Let me make it clear: I don’t own any CDs of his music and I find those of his operas I have heard pretty dull, in between the orchestral pieces. He was arrogant and up himself, an adulterer, and as a Jew I have no reason to love him. And then there’s The Valkyrie, in which you’re supposed to sympathise with two characters who commit incest, just because they’re somehow superior beings! Urk!

But think of those whose style he influenced. How about Howard Shore of Lord of the Rings fame? And then John Williams, with his symphonic film scores and his leitmotifs that let you know exactly what the writer is saying about his characters and events? John Williams tells entire stories in his music and he admits to being influenced by Wagner. And he isn’t the only one by any means. But when I listen to his scores for Star Wars and theHarry Potter movies, I think Wagner. Damn. I hate to think of that debt, but I acknowledge it. I love John Williams and he is definitely influenced by Wagner.

And that’s only the music; when we think Nordic myth, we think of him, however much of it has no connection with him.

Wagner was not a nice man, but he was a genius.

Thomas Malory wrote the brilliant Morte D’Arthure while he was in jail. Okay, he adapted existing stories by other writers, but that was common in those days, and he convinced us that all those stories were one novel. It was his version of the story of Arthur that influenced T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which became the musical Camelot. It’s Malory’s Arthur we think of when we think of the Arthurian legend, not the earlier warrior king or even the Celtic version in the tales of the Mabinogion. And I know what I’m talking about; the theme of my university Honours Thesis was “Arthur - From Epic Hero To Master of Ceremonies In Mediaeval English Literature”. I spent a year with Sir Thomas. His book moved me more deeply than I can say.

We know he was in prison, though we know a lot less about him than you might think. And if he is the Thomas Malory who was jailed some time in the reign of Edward IV, it wasn’t just for being on the wrong side in the Wars of the Roses, it was probably for burglary, sheep-stealing and rape.

His book was printed in the early days of printing in England. There is actually a children's novel, The Load of Unicorn by Cynthia Harnett, which is about a young man trying to track down the manuscript at a time when the scribes were terrified of losing their jobs to the printing press. In the course of his quest, he finds out quite a lot about the late Sir Thomas..

Not a nice man, no, but a genius.

So, what is it with these geniuses who don’t get on with people?

It’s not that you can’t be a genius and nice, but that the ones who move us the most quite often aren’t, or weren’t.

Perhaps their souls were in their creative output and they had no room for anything else. In any case, we shouldn’t judge them by their unpleasantness, because if they really did put their souls into their creativity, then their souls were just fine.

That’s my theory, anyway.

Vale Mary Travers

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my friend Denise got a guitar and a songbook. We spent sunny Saturday afternoons at her home singing from it. Sometimes we sang from it at my place. There was a time when the noisy rock band playing loudly in the next flat drove us nuts. We'd had enough and decided that we'd show them who really knew how to be loud! Leaning out of the window, we sang Peter, Paul and Mary songs at the top of our teenage voices. The rehearsal ended soon after, when calling "Shut up!" didn't deter us and with great glee we watched the musicians stomp off, shaking fists at us.

I had a record I played over and over, Peter, Paul and Mary's In The Wind, then bought others when I could. I have always loved folk music, but it would be years before I discovered the likes of Pentangle and Steeleye Span and others. For me, anyway, Bob Dylan at the time was known through Peter, Paul and Mary. Whoever I discovered later, it was they who made me love the genre. Denise and I sang "Go Tell It On The Mountain" for our Grade 6 end-of-year concert, even before she got her guitar.

Later, when I was on a trip to Israel, a few of us hitched a ride up a mountain to a kibbutz and were discussing our favourite singers when the people giving us a lift joined in the discussion - they, too, were fans.

Then, years after the group split, they did a reunion tour to Australia. Of course, I went to hear them at the Concert Hall, worried I might be disappointed. I wasn't. It was as if time had stood still.

It hadn't, of course. After intermission, each of the singers had a solo spot, speaking as well as singing. Mary Travers reported gleefully how she had embarrassed her somewhat stuffy son-in-law when she was arrested on a protest march. I loved the fact that she had grown old disgracefully, as I hope to do one day...

She had the voice of an angel, one which moved me, whatever she sang. Since then, there have been others - Maddy Prior, Joan Baez, Jacqui McShee, Eliza Carthy - many others! But for me, she was the first. Reading about her passing saddened me deeply.

Rest peacefully, Mary.

VULTURE’S GATE By Kirsty Murray. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2009

Some time in the future, much of Australia is Mad Max territory. The outback is filled with folk killing each other, wiping out settlements and running freak shows. Sydney, now known as Vulture’s Gate, is in ruins with gangs fighting each other and the authorities, from the anti-elder Festers to the nut-case Sons of Gaia who want to wipe out everybody.

Oh, and there are very few women or girls left after a mutated form of bird flu not only killed most females but made it very difficult for the few survivors to produce anything but boys. There is still some technology in service of the Colony government, producing “drones” and “chosen” boys who get to live comfortably with two male parents.

Callum, who has been living with his two fathers in the outback, is kidnapped and sold to a circus, from which he escapes on a motorbike and meets Bo, a girl living on her own since the death of her engineer grandfather, with only the company of a pack of “roboraptors” which hunt for her. Together, they ride off in search of his missing fathers, accompanied by roboraptor Mr Pinkwhistle, which is as much a computer as a robotic dinosaur.

But there are things Callum’s Colony employee fathers never told him. Like what happens to drones who aren’t useful any more - and what happens to any girls unlucky enough to be taken...

It’s an enjoyable adventure kids should like, though I’m not sure at which age group it’s aimed . It reads like YA fiction, but the characters are all very young; Bo is older than Callum, but neither of them has reached puberty. And we’re never told exactly how Australia has been left in ruins - surely not just the bird flu? It is implied, anyway, that there may be women in other countries. And there is still enough technology to keep the race going, however nasty its use.

But it’s possible to suspend disbelief for the length of the novel, which is a nice road story. The chapters are short enough to make it work for reluctant readers and the characters are good. Who would have thought a robotic dinosaur would be as cute as R2D2?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jacinta and the Girlfriend Fiction Book

I have always believed that anyone who says they hate reading just hasn't found the right book yet. Recently, I've been introducing such people at my school to their ideal book. Of course, it's only the start because when they finish that one, they will have to be offered "something like that one, Miss."

Just this morning, I had 8A for a double period. It was the last day of term and apart from a group research activity, with lollies and chocolates as prizes for the first group to finish correctly, I wanted them to choose something for the term break. Recently, we've told parents that some students are behind in their work and will have to do something over the break. I'm a simple soul, and a librarian first and foremost: I told mine that they could read and review something (I'm going to get them to blog it when they come back). One girl shrieked that she has more important things to do on the holidays and couldn't spare time to read (she's a good reader, but prefers sport). "Yes, you will!" said her mother and sister firmly. As it happens, she is reading something she likes anyway.

And then there's Jacinta, who loudly insisted she doesn't read, thank you very much, she hates books and would absolutely not be doing this! But one of the books I was showing the class was Lili Wilkinson's The Not Quite Perfect Boyfriend, very funny and just right for reluctant readers. Her curiosity got the better of her and she asked for it.

A minute later, she was laughing. She was reading aloud - I didn't make her do the research activity while she was on a roll. "Miss, I've read eight pages already!"

"Well done, Jacinta," I responded. "Enjoy!"

Now if only the other Girlfriend books come back from loan, including the two I have reviewed for this page but not yet put up due to the review embargo... Wait till she reads about the girl who unintentionally sets off an explosion at the school fete and whose teacher is arrested for terrorism by mistake... and the one about the romance between the music nerd and the tennis nerd ...

Stand by.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

15 LOVE By R.M. Corbet, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2009, (Girlfriend Fiction#15). ISBN 9781742370156. A LETTER FROM LUISA By Rowena Mohr. Sydney: Alle

The Girlfriend Fiction series must be doing well, since these two bring the total so far up to sixteen books. I have read them all and put them in my library.

They’re a mixed bunch. Mostly, they are by well-known Australian young adult writers who know how to write for young people, whether it’s a serious story about issues important to teenagers or a romance that is still a bit more than the standard teen romance that was so popular in the 1980s, but was not generally well-written. These stories are mainly well-written, though some are better than others, in my opinion. And the quality is not always about the experience of the writer concerned - some of the better books were by newer writers. Interestingly, I have found that our students tend to agree with me, judging by their comments on returning the books.

I’m pleased to say that both these new books in the series are among the better titles produced so far.

15 Love is a romantic comedy about the attraction between Will, who plays tennis and looks after his younger brother, now confined to a wheelchair, and Mia, who plays the viola in the school orchestra. An unlikely pairing, you might think, except that both of them are nerdy in their ways and have never actually dated anyone, unless you count Mia going to the movies with her friend, boy-crazy Vanessa, and Vanessa’s latest, who brings his friends along for Mia and her other friend, Renata.

Will has started to wonder if there’s more to life than tennis, while Mia’s father is cheating on her mother with a woman half his age.

It takes one beagle called Harriet, a smashed viola, an arm injury and Vanessa trying to steal Will to bring the two together, while both of them have their own personal troubles to deal with.

The chapters are short, making the book easier for reluctant readers, the characters are likeable, and the story is told from both viewpoints. In some ways, it’s like the fiction of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, without the swearing.

There have been only three male writers so far in this series and two of them have written romances. Interesting, that.

A Letter From Luisa sees the welcome return of Rowena Mohr, author of the hilarious My Life And Other Catastrophes which opened the Girlfriend series. Once again, she has produced a very funny book, though with a serious undertone to the over-the-top story. Also, she has created one of only two heroines in the entire series who isn’t a WASP. The other non-WASP protagonist was the heroine of Step Up and Dance, who was Greek. Also, the male romantic interest in Big Sky was an indigenous Australian. One issue I have had with this series, so far, is that it doesn’t really reflect the broad variety of cultures we have in Australia.

However, that isn’t a problem in this one. Luisa, whose mother was Spanish, has only one friend at school, Japanese exchange student Meko. She has been keeping house for her rather vague father and her younger sister, Nina, since her mother died three years ago. Her father had been a musician and composer, but is now creating advertising jingles for a living. Luisa, herself a gifted composer and musician, has been avoiding the guitar so as not to make him feel bad.

Now the school’s Twilight Fete is coming up and gorgeous Jet Lucas, the school’s rock star, is going to perform. Luisa is determined to impress him, even though the school’s female bully considers him her own property and is making dire threats. Luisa is trying desperately to keep a low profile to avoid being bashed up, but Jet himself has suddenly become very friendly...

At the start of the book, we know already that there has been an explosion, her teacher has been mistaken for a terrorist and Luisa has been suspended. The lead-up yo these events is very, very funny. Luisa’s problems at home and school are believable; the author just has an over-the-top way of getting them sorted out.

The book should appeal equally to those girls who want a straight romance, those who want mainstream fiction and those who like a funny story.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

GAMERS’ QUEST By George Ivanoff. Melbourne: Ford Street Publishing, 2009.

In recent years, computer games have gone way beyond the likes of Pacman, Space Invaders and such. These days you can take on an avatar and “live” in Second Life, for example. When I was much younger, you could play Dungeons and Dragons around a table, with other fans. It was very sociable and you collected gold, treasure, skills and weapons at the roll of a pair of dice, going up to higher levels as you went. Now, you can go on-line to do the same thing.

What would happen if the avatars wanted the same thing, only in our world?

Anyone who has read the original short story on which this is based, in the Ford Street anthology Trust Me! will know immediately what’s going on in this novel, so I’m not giving much away. Even if you haven’t read the original, you pick it up fairly speedily.

Teenage thieves Tark and Zyra live in a world in which magic is mixed with technology. You can be using a sword o’light to kill a dragon one moment and battling a cyborg the next. The reasons for this become clear fairly soon. The young thieves use their ill-gotten gains to give them time in Designers’ Paradise, where they can do exotic things such as go to school, then home to do homework and watch television. But they have gotten in trouble with a character known as the Fat Man, who will not give up the chase, even when they are making their way to Designers’ Paradise. And Designers’ Paradise, when they get there, is also in danger…

A good introduction to speculative fiction for younger readers, this one is non-stop action with a light touch. There is a lot of delightful over-the-top silliness – you wouldn’t for example, want to be a mage in this world, where you can end up a toad if your spell bounces back at you. The story is a cross between a computer game and Dungeons and Dragons, with a touch of Westworld. The cover art is by wonderful book illustrator Les Petersen, who did the covers for Simon Haynes’ Hal Spacejock novels and several for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. The images of Tark and Zyra look like computer game avatars, giving a strong hint of what the novel is about.

The author has set up a web site, ,for readers who would like more stories about his characters.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What I'm re-reading #1: Brother Cadfael

I do an awful lot of reading and reviewing of new books, both for this blog and January Magazine. For all of that, I have some comfort re-reading - Kerry Greenwood, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien. I have decided that every now and then I am going to post something to this site about what I'm re-reading at the time.

Right now, I'm making my way back through the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, AKA Edith Pargeter.

I had known her as Edith Pargeter long before I started reading her history mysteries. She wrote mediaeval historical novels, usually centred around the Welsh border country. There was the Heaven Tree trilogy, the Brothers of Gwynedd, her Hotspur novel, A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury. She was also writing crime fiction as Ellis Peters. What more natural than that she should put the two skills together?

I remember discovering Brother Cadfael, her Welsh monk living in Shrewsbury during the fight between Stephen and Maud for the English throne. Cadfael had gone off to the First Crusade as a man-at-arms and, on his return, had decided to retire into a monastery, where he became the monastery's herbalist. He is very shrewd and observant and has skills the average forensic investigator would value. He had a son from his adventures in the East, who turned up in one of the early novels, The Virgin In The Ice, and then again in the final book in the twenty-novel series. His best friend was the local law enforcer, Hugh Beringar, who started off as a potential villain, but by the end of the first book had become Cadfael's friend, in a classic combination of the amateur sleuth and his buddy the cop. Hugh was assistant Sheriff of Shropshire, then became Sheriff after his boss's death. And, of course, you wouldn't want to be living in Shrewsbury around then, any more than you'd like to live in the county of Midsomer now! Not with all those murders.

I became hooked on the series - while each story had its own mystery to solve, there was the history, the characters and the fact that you cared about them. I gave my mother one of the books to read and at the time, she wasn't interested. Then, on a trip to England in 1988, I took her to Shrewsbury, where I found the description had been so accurate, I actually recognised the streets and layout of the town.

Brother Cadfael had brought plenty of tourists to the quiet, pretty town of Shrewsbury - a place so small you could get around all the tourist sections in an afternoon! Mum and I visited the church of St Peter and St Paul, which had a leaky roof at the time and we were told by one of the parishioners that in winter the heating had to be turned off an hour into the service to save electricity. I have not been back, but I hope things have improved since then and am fully expecting at least one comment on this post to let me know!

When this gentleman saw Mum taking my photo on the steps, he said, "Dare I ask if you're a Brother Cadfael fan?" I smiled and said, "Need you ask?"

After that, he stood with us and pointed out several places mentioned in the novels. It was a delightful trip all round. When we got back, Mum finally decided to read the books to see what all the fuss was about and then bewailed the fact that she had been in Shrewsbury and had not been able to appreciate the Cadfael connection, though she had loved the beauty of the place.

Recently, she told me that she is too stressed at the moment, with family health troubles, to be able to concentrate on any of the new books I had been borrowing for her from the library. I suggested a re-read, which always makes me feel better. I gave her the Cadfael books, which she is presently re-reading with great delight, and now I have started doing it too. It has been so long, I have actually forgotten whodunnit, though not Brother Cadfael, Hugh, Abbot Radulfus, Prior Robert or any of the regulars. It is giving me a lot of pleasure, freeing me from work-related stress for a time, as I join this calm, mild-mannered monk in the mid-eleventh century...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Feedback on a book I reviewed

Some time ago, I reviewed Paul Jennings' new book, The Nest. At the time, while I thought it a perfectly good YA novel, I was not sure how the fans of one of Australia's funniest writers would feel about a book that wasn't funny. As a teacher-librarian, I have recently spoken to two young men about the book. I lent it out to a student who was told it was not going to be funny and said fair enough. But two days later, he returned it, syaing apologetically that in his heart he had expected it to be funny and simply couldn't finish it.

But yesterday I spoke with another student, who asked me if I had read the book, which he wanted to discuss. He had no problems with the fact that it wasn't funny and was enjoying it, he said, although he found the "short chapters" confusing. When I had explained that those short chapters were meant to be stories written by the hero, which told you something about his feelings, the student's face brightened: he got it! Now he will enjoy it more.

The jury is still out on this book, for me, at least, but it is interesting to have had two types of feedback. It would be a shame if Mr Jennings couldn't interest his fans in a new kind of writing.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

WOUNDED (The Wereling Trilogy 1) By Stephen Cole. London: Bloomsbury,, 2009

I haven’t come across any of the books in this trilogy before. They were originally published in 2003, but this edition has only come out recently. The cover features a pair of sinister-looking eyes and a silhouette of a wolf, howling in a dark green landscape.

Kate and Tom are thrown together when her family kidnaps him from his camping family and turns him into a werewolf. In this world, werewolves can both be born and made. Kate’s family are born ones. Her mother is the worst of them, a killing junkie who is addicted to turning wolf and killing humans. Kate is not a werewolf yet, She won’t become one until she has been mated with a male werewolf. Werewolf women are usually raped to turn them. Or, as Kate puts it, the girl is locked into a room with a crazed male werewolf and if her parents feel romantic, they might even put a bed in the room.

Kate’s mother, Marcie, has plans for Tom. There’s a prophecy to do with a human-turned-were which will usher in an age of werewolf dominance. After Kate rescues Tom from her brother, the two of them go on the run, hoping to find a Native American shaman, last heard of in New Orleans, who can cure him. But Marcie is powerful in the werewolf community. They find they can’t trust anybody...

It will be interesting to see how this one goes with the girls who come to my library. Right now, the fashion is for darkly brooding, Byronic vampires. Whether a not-especially-Byronic werewolf will be of interest, I don’t know, but I suspect that, like the recent spate of vampire novels, this book will appeal more to girls than boys. It’s a good enough road story and ends with the quest unfinished, so the reader needs to wait for the next volume. It’s not very long and I think it might work best in an omnibus edition.

NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST By Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Movie tie-in edition, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2009

I was at Reading Matters conference when this book was launched in Australia in 2007. David Levithan was one of the guest speakers and spoke about how he and Rachel Cohn had written it as a sort of screwball comedy. I have the original Australian cover, but this one, with the young movie actors, should attract plenty of teen readers.

It is certainly very funny, full of music and teen angst and over-the-top happenings. I haven't seen the movie, but I suspect it will make an enjoyable one, hopefully with plenty of music in it.

The entire novel takes place over a single night. Nick, who is playing at a dance, sees the girlfriend who dumped him enter with her new man. Desperate not to seem concerned, he asks Norah, the nearest girl, “I know this is going to sound strange, but would you mind being my girlfriend for the next five minutes?”

Her response is to kiss him, making sure the ex can see her doing it, and this is the beginning of an all-night music gig crawl, sponsored by his friends in the band, who feel he needs the morale boost and trust her to be kind and helpful. Romance is in the air.

There’s a lot more to it than this, of course. Norah actually knows Nick’s ex and doesn’t particularly like her. She has her own troubles. The chapters alternate between the boy and girl and all the ends are drawn together at the end.

Easy reading and an enjoyable piece of fluff.

ROBOT RIOT (Schooling Around) By Andy Griffiths. Sydney, Pan Macmillan,2009

This is the fourth of the “Schooling Around” series featuring the students of Grade 5B at Northwest Southeast Central School, but like the others, it pretty much stands alone.

The stories are all over-the-top humorous and the characters mostly have names that suit their personalities - Gretel Armstrong, for example, is strong, Jenny Friendly is the nice one, Grant Gadget is the son of an inventor and invents plenty himself.

The stories are seen from the viewpoint of Henry McThrottle. In this latest adventure, Henry is convinced that logical, unemotional new girl Roberta Flywheel is a robot from the future, planning to wipe out the population of Earth, starting with the students of 5B...

As always, it’s delightfully silly and still makes good points about friendship. And wouldn’t we all like to have been in Mr Brainfright’s class, with a teacher who loves bananas enough to dress up as one and teaches that the world would be a better place if we would all just look at it through coloured cellophane once a day?

Andy Griffiths is one of the most popular children’s writers in Australia, for good reason. He knows kids love to laugh and they love over-the-top laughs.

This series is going well at my school right now. I’d better get this book processed; there is a waiting list for it...