Search This Blog

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!