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Monday, October 31, 2011

Now Up On The Dog!

I finally managed to get my first two posts up on Insideadog. From here on I will be putting most of my effort into that until the end of the month, though I'll wander over here to do some reviews and put in links to whatever is my blog post of the day. I am so very excited at having this gig, so do check it out.

Second Insideadog Post

Still can't get in, so here's my second post, on the right day, anyway! This will all go to the Insideadog web site as soon as I can get it there.


I’m writing this on Cup Day, which, this year, is also my brother’s birthday. The famous American writer Mark Twain, author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and a whole lot of very funny stories, visited Australia in the late 19th century and was impressed with the whole Cup business. 

He said, “Cup Day is supreme, it has no rival. In America we have no annual supreme day, no day whose approach makes the whole nation glad…the Cup astonishes me.”

He said a lot of other things about it which you can Google under “Mark Twain Melbourne Cup”. The description he gave of how people put aside special clothes for the day and how they celebrate could have been lifted almost from newspapers written today. The language is a bit more old-fashioned, but the things people do isn’t.

Some years ago, I wrote an article for the NSW School Magazine about Phar Lap, the wonderful horse who ran in the early 1930s. His name meant “Lightning” – “Sky flash” -  in Thai and it was such a good name for a horse that could move like – well, lightning! He was also known to the Americans as “the Red Terror” and to his friends at the stable as Bobby, a gentle horse.

I researched the story and found that he was bought for a very small amount of money – 168 pounds (about $330). Yes, that bought a lot more in those days than it does now, but it was still not much for a racehorse. I bet the original owners were kicking themselves when he started racing.

In those days, there were a lot of people who were very poor because of the Depression, and having Phar Lap to cheer on gave them a little bit of happiness.

There were some people who weren’t happy – those who made their living taking bets on the races. Someone tried to shoot him when he was being led home from training one day and for many years after he died, suddenly, in America, there were all sorts of theories about his being killed deliberately. More recently, it has been suggested that he died of a bacterial disease which was not known to vets in the 1930s.

You can still see him in the Melbourne Museum, looking as if he could step down and win a race.

Me, I’d just like to cuddle him. Have I mentioned I love horses?

My First post for Insideadog

I'm still trying to work out how to log in to the Writer-In-Residence blog and won't be able to ring Adele Walsh for a talk-through till tomorrow, so I'm going to put my first CYL post here and pop it up on Insideadog as soon as it's available. I did try, but it wouldn't accept the login I'd been given and while I was able to follow the instructions using my own login, it wouldn't save.

So here it is and please, do go check it out on Insideadog when it's up there. I mean to post regularly:

Hi guys! I’m Sue Bursztynski, your writer-in-residence for the next month. My day job is as a library teacher at Sunshine College in Melbourne, where I have a lunchtime book and writers’club. Our students get to read manuscripts and provide feedback for one of my publishers. They get free books to say thank you.

I’ve been writing since I was about eight, though I sold my first book only after I was an adult. It was called Monsters And Creatures Of The Night and my favourite letter from that was from a boy who wanted me to send him a photo of a real zombie. He had to settle for some bookmarks.

My latest book, Wolfborn, has werewolves and knights in it. I got my students to check bits of the manuscript to make sure I got the mediaeval stuff right. I loved writing that one, because I’m crazy about the Middle Ages and stuff about fantastical creatures like werewolves and Faeries and unicorns, so I wrote them all in.

I used to be in a club called the SCA – the Society for Creative Anachronism – where we dressed up in mediaeval clothes and had feasts and tournaments where people did sword fights. If I find a pic of me in my SCA costume some time this month I’ll post it.

Mostly, though, in the past I’ve written non-fiction, books and articles. Here’s a link to the official book trailer for my last non-fiction book, Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, published by Ford Street Publishing a couple of years ago:

Not at all Middle Ages, is it? But fun! See you in my next post.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Resident in the Doghouse

For the next month, I will be taking up residence on the CYL's web site, Insideadog, as this month's Writer In Residence. I'm thrilled to bits and looking forward to it. I've been attending Booktalkers for quite a few years now, so the Centre for Youth Literature has come to mean a lot to me. It has been the place where I've spent a lot of wonderful evenings, caught up with teacher-librarian friends and met/discovered writers - and the great thing is, it all counts as PD for work purposes! Yay!

Now, at last, I'm being recognised as a writer myself, many thanks to Adele Walsh, who, in her earlier incarnation as the blogger at Persnickety Snark, gave my book Crime Time such a fabulous review.

I might not have time to do as many posts here while I'm over at "the Doghouse", but please do follow me over there - join, even! Insideadog is a great web site for anyone interested in children's and YA books - students, teachers and just plain booklovers - and it has become a lot better over the last couple of years.

See you all there!

Here's to the Professor! (Tolkien, of course)

This is the edition I bought from the Monash bookshop
I wrote the below for my Goodreads comment and then thought - why not put it on my blog as well? This book makes my heart swell. It's a beautiful, beautiful book. Tolkien put his heart and soul into writing it and I'm not surprised it has reached so many other hearts.

I have to be honest. It took me a while to get into this, originally. I bought it when I was at university because everyone, staff and students alike, was saying, "You HAVEN'T read Lord of the Rings?" I got about halfways through, but never finished it.

Then, one summer, I went on holiday. I was tired. I didn't want to go do touristy things - I just wanted to lie on the beach and read. I took along Fellowship of The Ring - and suddenly, I was caught up, swept away by the narrative and the characters. I finished the entire book when I got home and have read it six times since then and would be re-reading it again, except for all the review copies and books I have to read for my library. It's because of this book that I'm very picky in my fantasy reading; anything that has on the cover a comparison to LOTR is immediately dropped back on the bookshop shelves. NOTHING is anything like it, though some have tried. It has become comfort reading for me. When I'm tired and stressed and need to be reminded that an ordinary person can be a hero too, I pick this up again and, as I go through it, mutter, "Oh, good, this is the chapter where they meet Aragorn...where they reach Rivendell ... where Eowyn disguises herself and goes with the army..." and enjoy it all over again.

When I hear some currently-big-name writer having a go at this book at a writers' festival, I think, "If your novel is still being read and loved fifty or sixty years from now, then you can comment, mate!"

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What I'm reading now: Ranger's Apprentice and others

I'm making my way through John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice books. Having attended the launch of Brotherband 1 last week, I thought I'd better get into this universe. I have already read the book, which I will be reviewing shortly, but to be honest, I'd only read the introductory volume to Ranger's Apprentice when I went to the launch last week and now I'm finishing up the fourth novel, Oakleaf Bearers. I'm glad I have, because it tells you a lot more about the society of Skandia, the parallel Viking society in which Brotherband I: The Outcasts is set, and you get to see more of Jarl Erak, the likable Skandian leader, before he became Oberjarl Erak.

I'm finding it a fascinating read. Despite the cheeky - deliberate! - anachronisms - coffee, tea, turkey, blueberries and potatoes available in the equivalent of mediaeval Europe, not to mention showers in the castle -  the author doesn't muck around with the technical stuff. He knows his weapons and battle stuff and I found myself utterly delighted by the scenes in Gallica in the third volume, The Icebound Land, in which Halt the Ranger and Horace, the apprentice warrior, make their way through the parallel France, having to deal with the kind of knights who turn up in Malory's Arthurian tales and are sent up by Monty Python - you know, the ones who guard bridges and crossroads, demanding tolls or fights. Of course, Horace is pretty good with a sword and shield and the knights aren't, so he somehow develops a reputation as a fearsome knight. Halt would much rather do an Indiana Jones and just shoot the pests, but goes along with it. Young readers won't be familiar with the Arthurian tales, but the kind of adults who read these books generally will be. I couldn't stop giggling.

Oakleaf Bearers has an alliance between the Viking-Skandians and Halt and his young friends, to oppose the Temujai, aka Mongol hordes, who are fully expecting the Skandians to do what they always do and just yell, "Attack!" and be wiped out.

I'm going to have to wait for Volume 5, till i get back after the long weekend, so I will, meanwhile, attack some of my other review stuff, such as Rowena Cory Daniells' The King's Bastard and Melina Marchetta's Froi of the Exiles. Stand by!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

John Flanagan Book Launch

I got an email from Dot Tonkin at Random House, in my capacity as a librarian rather than as a Random House writer, letting me know they were doing a launch at the State Library for a new series by John Flanagan, of Ranger's Apprentice fame. The new series, Brotherband, is set in the same universe, but in the country of Skandia, more-or-less Scandinavia. This universe is more or less mediaeval Europe with extras added, such as the fact that there's coffee and turkey and showers in the castle (cold ones, but it's implied there may be warm ones). Well, I couldn't complain; I did the same thing in my own novel. Not with the coffee and other anachronisms, but with imported gods and a religion that was cobbled together. Like John Flanagan, I said, "It's my universe and I can have what I want in it, so there!"

Anyway, as our students enjoy the Ranger's Apprentice series, I let them know about the launch and I decided to go myself. I confess I hadn't read the series - there's so much to read, especially with review books, that I just hadn't got around to it. So I took home the first novel in the series, The Ruins of Gorlan, which I found very readable and finished between yesterday morning and today (it wouldn't have taken me that long, but I spent most of yesterday with family and at the theatre).

I arrived about 1.45 p.m., said hi to the State Library staff and bought a copy of the new novel from the Reading's booksellers in the foyer. There were a lot of children there and they thoroughly enjoyed his entertaining style, as he told them about his writing and how he sold his first book after a lot of rejections and gleefully imagined what had happened at those publishing companies that had rejected J.K. Rowling after she became a hit. He described his way of careful planning before beginning any book (and good luck to him, but if I waited till the whole thing was planned out I'd never write anything. I did do some basic planning for Wolfborn, but never more than a chapter ahead. Each to their own).

The children asked a lot of questions. I'd have liked to know how he does his research, but it seemed only courteous to let the kids ask all the questions. One little boy in my row put up his hand several times and didn't get the mike, so I can only hope he had the chance to ask in the autograph queue.

I joined the line afterwards, with my copy of Brotherband #1 and the school's copy of Ruins of Gorlan and had a chat with a Year 12 girl and her Mum. Dot introduced me to him as a Random House writer and let me have some bookmarks to take back to the library. I told her how much our students had enjoyed Marianne De Pierres' visit and that it was in the school magazine and she said she'd be in touch about some possible more visits next year.

Just before I left, I had a chat with Paula Kelly, the State Library head honcho, who reminded me that Booktalkers in on Tuesday night. I said I'd be there.

I'm sixty pages into the new book, very readable so far, and will be reviewing it soonish; Dot said she'd send me a review copy so that I can have a copy for the library. Young Ali, the current reader of this universe, will be pleased.

Stand by.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Belated Vale Bert Jansch

While we were all mourning the passing of Steve Jobs, not as many of us noticed that there had been another sad loss to the world on the same day - Bert Jansch, that wonderful guitarist and singer whom I first heard with the British folk-rock group Pentangle when I started university. I remember walking into the Monash University bookshop one day to hear the Pentangle album Basket Of Light, and was immediately captivated. I was starting to discover that there were folk musicians other than Peter, Paul and Mary and other groups of the sixties - the kind of music you could sit with your friends and sing to the guitar. Basket of Light had all the traditional stuff, but a style I hadn't heard and wanted to hear more of.

For my brother, Maurice, he was one of the great guitarists of the century, and he was certainly that. But I tend to notice voices as well and his was a distinctive one which sent pleasant chills down my spine.

He only spent about four years with Pentangle before they broke up, but he was a founding member and then played with them again when they re-formed, as well as years as a soloist and with other artists.

 Still - I am going to unearth my Pentangle albums and listen once more to that wonderful sound that filled my university years and later.

Farewell, Bert, and thanks for all the joy you gave me.

Sample chapter from Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski

Here's a sample chapter from my novel Wolfborn. I meant to put it up some time ago, but haven't had the chance, although I've emailed out some PDF versions on request. Thanks to Random House for allowing me to put it up on my blog as a promotion. Please note, this was a simple copy and paste from a PDF file which can't be reproduced properly on a regular blog site like this one, so I've just removed all the page numbers and copyright statements except the final one. If you want something that looks more like  the book version, let me know and I'll email it to you. Meanwhile - enjoy, and if you want to read more, go out and buy one in the shops or order the ePub version on-line. If you're outside Australia and want hard copy, you can order it from Fishpond. The postage isn't cheap for one, but if you order, say, three Aussie books, the postage works out a lot cheaper.

• prologue •

They executed a werewolf in one of my father’s
inland villages the week I left. There was no question about his guilt; he’d been
taken, in wolf shape, among the flocks, and put in a cage till morning, together with the clothes he’d left hidden in a hollow tree. Nobody saw him change back, but he was found fully clothed in the cage next day, wild-eyed, howling in agony and shaking the bars.
I suppose he could have stayed in his wolf shape, but the villagers knew who he was. It was important to be sure before they did anything; they knew my father would insist on proof, and his dead body alone would not give that proof. Witnesses were needed as well.
It wasn’t illegal to be a werewolf in our region, though it was not much liked, but this one had been destroying the flocks the villagers lived on, and a little girl had been found with her throat torn out. As lord, Father was forced to condemn Pierre – a boy not much older than myself – but he didn’t like it. Neither of us could look into those haunted eyes.
‘I feel sorry for the wretch, Etienne,’ he told me as we rode away, leaving some soldiers to do the dirty work of the execution and the village priest to bless it. ‘He can’t help himself; he was born that way.’
‘Father?’ I asked hesitantly. ‘I heard there’s a race of shape-changers.’
My father gave a sharp bark of laughter. ‘Yes, I’ve heard that too. Perhaps, but I think it’s legend. There are tales of robber barons who signed pacts with the Dark One centuries ago, to make them invincible in their conquests, and their descendants would have the curse; perhaps that’s the origin of that tale. In this case, I suppose someone made a pact far more recently, probably Pierre’s father. He was a wander- ing mercenary who came and went. Many of them are werewolves; it’s useful in their profession. The lords who hire them value their strength and fero- city and they make excellent spies and scouts. They are paid almost double the fee of a normal soldier. Unfortunately, their offspring are often born with the hairy curse – and, as it doesn’t show up till they reach manhood or womanhood, it takes a while for them to be caught. If Pierre’s father had taken him along, he might be learning the soldier’s trade now and be honoured for his abilities. Instead . . .’ He sighed and shrugged. ‘It’s a harsh world, Etienne.’
I was to remember the incident later.

• chapter one •
I hadn’t wanted to go to Lucanne for my training. I didn’t see the point. I had already learned plenty from my father and it was his holding where I would be lord one day. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to be a famous warrior. Other things were more important to me.
‘It’s not about being a famous warrior,’ my father had said firmly. ‘It’s about doing your duty as lord to your people. You’re my only son. The kingdom has only you to do what must be done here. I hold these lands of Lord Geraint, and he is the best man to finish your education. And once a year, when you’re Lord of Jervaux, you’ll have to do your duty to the King. These are not the peaceful times when the Rom folk protected us. You’re military caste, lad. Live with it.’

And I was living with it. But I was living with something else, too. Something I hadn’t discussed with my father, something I feared would come out while I was far from my family’s protection. Even if it didn’t, and I returned to marry some neighbour’s daughter, what if it happened afterwards? Happened to my children, if not me?
When I was eight, I got into a fight with the stew- ard’s son and bit him. After we’d both been punished, my mother took me aside.
‘Etienne, you mustn’t ever do that again. The time might come when someone will remember and hold it against you.’
‘Gilbert will hold it against me,’ I’d said, rather proudly to be honest.
‘Yes, he will, but that’s not why.’ She had sent her women to work in the stillroom, and we were alone. Now she picked up her shuttle and continued with her weaving. ‘Listen, Etienne, I come from Lafranc. Your father and I were betrothed at an early age, as our families wished. But there were . . . things . . . my parents never told his parents about our ancestors. It might have led to a cancellation of the marriage contract. And you must never tell your father. He’ll worry and it’s likely that it will never matter. My great-grandfather’s brother was . . . hairy. Very hairy. He disappeared regularly and then . . . he never returned. I think I know why, though I can’t be sure. It happens in the best of families. But in Lafranc, what he was might have led to his death, even if he never did anything wrong. If it happens to you . . . well, we mustn’t give anyone any excuses, do you understand?’
I didn’t understand at the time, though I promised her what she wanted. Later, I heard from my tutor about the race of shape-changers.
Then I panicked.

Armand, the head page at Lucanne, took me tothe kitchen and introduced me to the staff. I would be getting to know them well enough in my duties. An older woman named Lise ran the kitchens effi- ciently, as she had to in a place with so many mouths to feed.
We ate leftover cold meat with bread and sipped cups of ale in a corner of the room, talking while work continued around us.
Armand told me about his home.
‘We only have one manor, near the mountains south of here,’ he said. ‘My sisters won’t have much in the way of dowries. Maybe when I earn my spurs and go home I can persuade my father to let me travel to Lafranc for some bigger mares and a stallion. All we have at home are ponies and you can’t ride those in armour. Well, I can’t!’ He gestured at himself and I nodded. Armand was a tall boy. ‘In Lafranc they have the descendants of Rom cavalry horses. Maybe if my family can breed some, we can earn the money for my sisters’ dowries and I can pay for some real armour . . . What about you?’
‘I’m from the coast,’ I said. ‘Our castle is one of a line protecting the country from invaders, but I don’t remember anything except Ibernian pirates; they turn up every summer and we throw them back. Still, you never know. My parents remember when we had real invaders, Saesneg like the ones who invaded the Djarnish Isles centuries ago. Jervaux is a fishing town. I’m here to finish my education, not start it . . . I suppose my sisters will have dowries enough from our other manors. We have four, one of them not far from here, which my father holds of Lord Geraint. I haven’t seen it in years, though.’
‘And what do you want to do when your education is over?’
‘I don’t know,’ I admitted. ‘It doesn’t matter what I want. I’ll return and protect the fishermen and do my military duties when called upon and marry – probably a girl from one of the near estates, but I don’t know who she will be yet. Perhaps I’ll write down some of the legends of the Jervaux coast.’
He stared. ‘You can write? And you aren’t going to be a priest?’
I laughed. ‘Everyone in my family writes and reads, my mother insisted on it. She even taught my father how. A priest? No, thank you! Anyway, it isn’t an option. I’m an only son. We’re in Notzrian territory and their priests don’t marry.’
I wondered if I could ask him about this place without it sounding like gossip. I was going to be here for the next few years; I wanted to know. Gilles, the Lucanne steward who had brought me here from home, had spoken nonstop, but hadn’t said much I was interested in hearing.
‘Tell me about this place,’ I asked, ‘please? We met Lord Geraint on the road here. He was on his way to fight and Gilles went after him as soon as he had left me here.’
Lord Geraint was quite old, I had noticed – at least thirty – but powerfully muscled under his old- fashioned armour, and he wore his long black hair braided for convenience. He was also incredibly hairy. I had noticed that first.

Armand smiled. ‘Oh, Lord Geraint is good to work for, a good master and teacher. And did you notice his horse? It’s a white mare from Beran, a real beauty. If I could get a few like her for our herds . . .’
‘Most knights only want to ride stallions. What was the fight about?’
He shuddered. ‘Nasty. There’s this baron called Dupré who treats his peasants like beasts. The King gave some of Dupré’s lands to Lord Geraint, but he won’t accept that. We got a message saying he and his mercenaries were burning out the villages on his former lands. That’s why this place is so quiet today.’
‘Mercenaries?’ I asked. ‘What about his levies?’
‘Didn’t you hear what I said about the way he treats his peasants? They’d be useless to him. And nobody holds lands of him if they can avoid it.’
‘Come, let’s go see our lady.’ ‘Thank you . . . It is quiet, isn’t it? Have all the men gone to the fight?’
He sighed. ‘They should have taken me along. I’m good enough, I know I am. Instead, here I am with the women and children!’
I had nothing to say to that. He was a big lad and would probably be starting as an armour-bearer soon
enough. It was understandable that he was eager to be with the men. I found a spot in the boys’ sleeping quarters for my clothes and bedding and fumbled my exhausted way from my dusty travelling clothes into something more presentable, washing the dust from my face and combing my tangled hair with my fingers. It had been a long day, but it wasn’t over yet.
We set out for Dame Eglantine’s solar. Here and there a tapestry hung on the wall, but more to keep out the cold than to decorate the place. This was a working castle; every part of it had a function. My own home was just as practical. With the Ibernians always raiding there was no choice. I felt a little less homesick.

Up some steps beyond the great hall, which was comfortably cluttered with the household war- riors’ living-spaces, lay Dame Eglantine’s solar. She had tried to make it fashionable. There was actually a glass window – a small one, of course – which must have cost a fortune to bring here. She sat prettily among her fosterlings, sewing something attractive but not especially useful; all the real work was being done by the girls and her two waiting-women. She was young – about nineteen, I guessed – recently married according to my father, golden-haired and pretty. Her hands were white, not roughened by work. She had a carefully cultivated air of help- lessness. I supposed it was expected of girls at the Lafrancan court, as she had been. Our lord Luiz was a warrior king and had to be, with the troubles at home and the constant danger of invasion, but those nobles with kin across the mountains in Lafranc sent their daughters to that court, where they could enjoy frivolities they couldn’t have at home. My own mother had gone for a short time, though she had never been affected by it.
My mother regularly got up before dawn to look after a household the size of six inns. If she wasn’t getting in the harvest, helping the steward with the accounts or making sure there was enough preserved food for the winter, she was weaving, working in her stillroom on medicines, or tending sick house- hold members or villagers. She was the second line of defence in war and had once, before my birth, successfully defended the castle against Saesneg raiders while Father was doing his annual military duties for the King.
If Eglantine was capable of any of that, she hid it well. Frankly, looking at her, I doubted it. My
homesickness began to return. What kind of place is this? I wondered.
There was a not-very-good musician playing as I entered, singing some sentimental love song; he sounded as if he’d rather be playing bloodthirsty sagas. Eglantine waved a white hand to bid him pause and looked over at me.
‘Who is this, Armand?’
‘Etienne de Jervaux, Madame. You asked to see him.’
‘Ah, yes. I forgot. It’s easy to forget here. One day is like another. Welcome, child. Come here.’
I went, irked by the ‘child’. I’d spent a long time at home, where I was needed, before coming here to finish my education. I was only a few years younger than her.
‘You’re rather old to be starting your fostering, aren’t you?’
‘My father needed me, Madame. I began my training with him.’
‘Ah. Let’s see, your father’s the Lord of Jervaux, on the coast . . . Your mother was at the Lafranc court with my mother some years ago.’ She sighed. ‘I was there too. One misses it. So much culture. The latest fashions . . . Does your mother keep up?’
‘I don’t think so, Madame,’ I said as politely as I could. I wondered how she could be worrying about fashions and culture while her husband was off fighting, maybe getting killed.
‘Well, we’ll look after you here,’ she assured me. Her girls giggled. She waved to the musician to go on.
‘Come on,’ Armand said kindly, ‘let’s rest for now. We’ll be busy later, when Sire Geraint comes back. He’ll bring the neighbours with him.’
We waited the rest of the day for the soldiers’ return, and most of the night. I was rousted out of my bed when they came in, as we had to help serve food and drink to the hungry, exhaus- ted fighters, while the wounded were attended. There was a kind of late supper, with the kitchen staff finding cold meats and bread from the day before.
I caught a glimpse of the enemy lord, who was brought in, chained, on his way to imprisonment in the cells below.
The Baron was a huge, hairy bear of a man, with a smell like a wild beast and muscles like rocks. His fur cloak was heavy enough – and smelly enough – to be armour in its own right. It would have been easy to mistake him for just another oaf if you hadn’t seen his eyes. I was unlucky enough to see his face as he turned it towards his captor; if the Netherworld was cold instead of hot, you would have seen it in those two chips of ice glaring at Geraint.
‘I am entitled to better treatment than this, de Lucanne! I demand my knightly entitlements.’
‘You forfeited your entitlements,’ Sire Geraint said flatly, ‘when you slaughtered helpless peasants. If you’d behaved like a knight, you wouldn’t have lost those villages in the first place. You can explain it all to His Grace next week.’ He gestured his men to take the Baron away. As far as he was concerned, that was the end of it.
I watched as the Baron went; Geraint had turned to his guests, but Dame Eglantine was staring at the prisoner like a bird at a snake. He glanced back at her, sensing her fear, and opened his mouth in a silent, mocking laugh.
Little bird, that look said, I’m going to eat you, bones and all. He turned away, leaving a chill like a snowy night behind, as if someone had opened the hall door; even his guards were clearly uncomfortable.
Eglantine cringed and huddled against her husband’s side; he took it for a display of affection and squeezed her hand, then spoke to two other warriors.
‘You’re welcome here, Sire Jean and Sire Balin. Without your help, we might not have taken this murderous scum.’
Eglantine gulped, but pulled herself together. I felt my first twinge of sympathy for her. ‘I welcome you here also, gentlemen. Anyone who helps my hus- band is always welcome in our hall. Please sit and eat . . .’
‘Well, he was devastating my lands too,’ Sire Jean said, sitting where indicated. He was a middle-aged man with a red beard and twinkling eyes. ‘A good thing my nephew was here, eh?’
Unlike the other men, Balin didn’t look like a warrior. He hadn’t had time to clean up, so he was soaked with sweat and his clothes were torn, but they had once been elegant. He was about twenty- two and smooth-skinned, with a cap of black hair and grey eyes in a clean-shaven face. He was certainly the kind who dressed fashionably.
‘For how long are you visiting?’ She waved me over to bring him the water-ewer and another boy the wine.
‘Permanently, Madame,’ Balin answered, ‘or at least until I can win some lands of my own. I’m a younger son, you see – very tiresome, but there it is. I didn’t fancy being a priest, so my uncle has offered me a post in his castle guard. I’m hoping to go to war in the Prince-Heir’s retinue next year; that should earn me some honours.’
They were looking at each other with interest. Sire Geraint smiled proudly at his wife, probably seeing Balin’s gaze as simple admiration of her beauty. I wonder if I’m only remembering this with hindsight? I suspect that on the night I was half-asleep, serving automatically, thinking of not much beyond return- ing to bed. I didn’t know these people; I couldn’t possibly have seen then what was going to happen.
During the meal, Dame Eglantine’s musician began to play his harp, already chanting something about the skirmish, improvised to an existing tune. Balin looked pained.
‘Forgive me, Madame . . . is this your household harper?’
‘Yes, he has been in this household for years,’ she sighed. ‘He only knows the old tunes.’
‘Would you permit me to play for the company? I know a few songs that are very popular at court just now.’
Her eyes shone. ‘Oh, please, do! Gaspard, lend Sire Balin your harp.’
But Balin waved it away. ‘I have something better.’ He snapped his fingers and a servant came forward with an instrument bag. ‘I never travel without it.’
He pulled out a pear-shaped box with a long neck and strings stretched lengthwise, and began tuning the instrument.
‘It’s from the east – called al oudh. It has a much more melodious sound than the harp. I got it in Beran, during the Holy Wars last year . . .’
‘You fought in the Holy Wars?’ she asked admir- ingly.
‘The lad went with his father,’ Sire Jean said with a chuckle. ‘I’ll wager there was more danger from flies than from Sarzins, eh, Balin?’
If looks could kill, Balin’s glare at his uncle would have stretched him flat.
‘It was hardly my fault that a peace treaty was signed two days after I arrived!’ Then he recovered himself and forced a laugh. ‘Well, perhaps I distin- guished myself enough today to be awarded some lands, hmm? And I must admit the Sarzins, when you aren’t fighting them, are fine musicians and poets. Here’s a song I learned there, my lady. I’ll try to translate it as best I can.’
He began to sing. If that song was an improvised translation, I’d eat my horse; he probably didn’t even know the original. His voice was pleasant enough, I suppose. From the expression on Eglantine’s face, she thought it a lot more than pleasant.
Of course it was a love song, something about the beloved, a shepherdess, being locked away in the king’s harem (he broke off to explain that the Sarzins had multiple wives) and the lover yearning for her outside. She went downstairs to look for him, even escaped into the city, but could not find him. It was not an appropriate piece for a single man to sing to a married woman, but it was probably every bit as popular at court as he’d said. My mother was always laughing about the stories she heard, about this new form of love that was all the rage, where the woman was always married and the beloved, a single knight (heaven help him if he dared to marry himself!), had to suffer all sorts of humiliations to fulfil her every whim.
‘It’s women’s revenge for being married off at twelve to fifty-year-old knights and becoming their property,’ she’d said more than once, smiling at Father, who was only a year or two older than her and had been betrothed to her when they were both infants.
Whatever it was, I thought it all very silly, but Eglantine lapped the song up. She gazed at Balin, chin propped on her knuckles, her blue eyes wide. Afterwards she said, ‘Oh, you must come, Sire Balin, and sing to us often! It’s such a pleasure to hear the new songs sung – and in such a voice! Don’t you think so, Geraint?’
She turned to her husband, who laughed and said, ‘Now, my dear, we mustn’t insult our poor Gaspard, who has been ignored this evening. Besides, you won’t be seeing much of any of us for a week or two. We’re going to take our prisoner to the King and tell him what has happened before he hears a differ- ent version by rumour. Gentlemen, will you stay for what’s left of the night?’
They agreed and bedding was brought to the hall for Sire Jean’s men – those who weren’t already in bed having their wounds treated. The two knights were offered a room above.
We went back to our beds and our interrupted sleep. Unable to settle immediately, I was staring through the gap in the hanging that separated us from the hall when, to my surprise, I saw Sire Geraint leaving, wrapped in a simple dark cloak. It was not totally black outside, so I recognised the outline of his head, with that distinctive braid hanging from it. For such a big man he was oddly silent, moving more like an animal than a human, not as if he was sneak- ing out but as if it was natural to him. One of the four favourite hounds that were allowed to sleep inside instead of in the kennels sniffed at him, tail wagging,
and made a tiny questioning noise: Can I come too? He put a gentle hand on her head, saying nothing, but she returned to her place and he continued on his way.
Exhausted after the long day, first travelling then being woken to serve the men when they returned, I thought no more of it and fell asleep.

Copyright © Sue Bursztynski, 2010. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Monday, October 17, 2011

BLEEDING HEARTS By Alyxandra Harvey. London: Bloomsbury, 2011

This is Volume 4 of the Drake Chronicles, which is the story of that likable family of vampires, the Drakes, with its seven gorgeous sons, single daughter Solange and its friends and enemies.

Lucy Hamilton, Solange's best friend, daughter of two hippies, has her cousin Christabel staying with her. Christabel is a book-loving nerd who may well be the perfect match for Connor, the geeky but gorgeous son of the Drake family. Everything seems to be going fine until those scary blue feral vampires, the Hel-Blar invade town, right during the Blood Moon, a gathering of vampires from all over. And let's just say of the Hel-Blar that they're the vampires even the other vampires don't want to hang out with. They smell awful and they eat people, even other vampires, and if you get infected with their saliva you can end up one of them. Ew!

In the midst of all this, Christabel is kidnapped for ransom and the note says the sender represents the Hel-Blar...

This series is one of the few vampire series I actually enjoy, because of the humour. Alyxandra Harvey writes tongue-in-cheek, even when there are scary issues. It's doing very well in my library and I'm looking forward to offering it to the students who have read and enjoyed the others.

Buy it, but make sure you read the others first. Unlike the rest, this one ends on a cliffhanger, making me wonder if the next is going to be the conclusion to the series. That would be a disappointment (there are, I think, about three Drake brothers who still don't have girlfriends) but the author has shown she can write other stuff and that it's just as entertaining.

Recommended for girls from about thirteen up.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

ANGEL ARIAS: The Night Creatures Book 2. By Marianne De Pierres. Sydney: Random House, 2011

In Burn Bright, Retra, a girl from the Puritan-like Seal community in Grave, followed her runaway brother to the island of Ixion. On Ixion, where teenagers party throughout the night (there is no day) she discovered some terrifying truths about what happened to those teens once they got too old for Ixion. But Retra, now named Naif, was a lot stronger than she had thought. She has fought for her new friends, been rescued, with others, from the island by pirate Ruzalia, and taken to her own haven.

Thing is, not everything on that island is going well either. People who realise that their Ixion badges will turn off their lives after a while, blame Ruzalia. Some just want to go back to Ixion. When a group of them mutiny, Naif persuades Ruzalia to help her return to Grave, where Ripers, who run Ixion, have been seen talking with the local Elders. This is a little fishy, given that running away to Ixion was a sign of rebellion.

Naif and her friend Markes, the musician, have  just two days to find out what’s going on for Ruzalia…

In this story, we see a little more about life in Grave, which then-Retra left at the start of Burn Bright. We learn about Markes’s background in the wealthier community outside the Seal compound – a community no nicer than her own.

There’s non-stop adventure here – and some things Naif wishes she hadn’t known.

There are also some revelations which make sense of some of the things that happened in the earlier book, but which I may not mention here because there would be spoilers. Just read it.

Those who enjoyed Burn Bright will get plenty out of this one as well, but be warned – it ends on a cliffhanger.


There is, I have to admit, one disadvantage to reading a series like this one out of order, even if the second novel stands more or less alone: you know who's going to survive, because they appear in the next book. I won't say who, lest there be spoilers, but I do advise anyone who hasn't read Army Of The Undead to read this first.

This is Jakob's first adventure with the Catholic witch hunter organisation called the Hexenjager. Only one week into his time with the group, he is sent on a mission with a much more experienced group. The team is told that they have to recover a relic which is one of the trumpets that was used by Joshua's army to destroy Jericho. If it falls into the wrong hands, it will be a powerful weapon for darkness. They travel to a ruined castle where, they are told, the trumpet is likely to be hidden, possibly guarded by a coven of witches led by the Blood Countess (fictional but based on historical Elisabeth Bathory, that  female Dracula).

There's only one problem: when they get there, they find there may be competition, not from demons or vampires but from a Protestant team called the Brotherhood of the Cross. One of them has never been known to miss a shot and has never been defeated...

Despite his terror, Jakob finds himself fighting for his life and those of his team mates, wondering all the time why he ever joined this organisation.

As in the sequel, there's plenty of humour. And never assume the adventure is over till near the end - it's one fight after another, all taking place over a single day, unlike Army of the Undead, which involved a long journey through Greece and the Holy Land down to the Dead Sea.

I would have liked to see the kitchen maid Sabina play a larger role; she is a strong character, but only appears in the last few pages. Hopefully, she will play a larger role in the third book. There's a character who disappears in the midst of the fighting - maybe he'll return in another book?

It's a light piece which teens should enjoy.

Ryan Meyers Interviews Sandy Fussell

Ryan Meyers, Sunshine College student and book club member, is fascinated by things Japanese and writes Japanese martial arts fiction himself. Recently he interviewed Sandy Fussell, YA novelist and author of the delightful and exciting Samurai Kids series of YA adventures. We would like to thank Sandy for her kindness in answering the questions Ryan sent and hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did. 

RM: What was your inspiration for the Samurai Kids series?
SF: I have always been fascinated by Samurai Japan. I found myself thinking about how a person is born into the samurai class. It’s a birthright and there is no other way for someone to become a samurai. Then I started to think ‘what if someone didn’t want to be a samurai warrior?’ And’ What if the reason wasn’t something they could control?’ “What if it was physically very difficult to learn sword fighting and martial arts – with only one arm or one leg?’
I went into my backyard and tried a martial arts kick on one leg. And landed on my bottom. I had found the opening paragraph for Samurai Kids 1: White Crane:
I scissor kick high as I can and land on my left foot. I haven’t got another one. My name is Niya Moto and I’m the only one-legged samurai kid in Japan. Usually I miss my foot and land on my backside. Or flat on my face in the dirt.

RMWere any of the characters based on real people?
SF: In Samurai Kids 2: Owl Ninja the character of Mitsuka Minamoto is loosely based on Miyamoto Musashi, who is generally considered the greatest swordsman of all time. He also wrote the Book of Five Rings, a strategy guide still studied by the military. I regularly re-read this book as I write the series - it helps fix me firmly in the right time and place. Musashi was known for his poor hygiene habits and I liked the ironic humour in that – so Mitsuka has the same flaw. I guess if you are the best swordsman in the world no-one is going to tell you to take a bath if you don’t want to.

All the other characters are fictional although some of the character traits of my family and friends have sneaked in.
  1. RMAre you planning on starting any other series?
SF: I do have another idea for a series. I am currently roughing out the story arc for a trilogy. It is a fantasy although there is not a wizard, angel, demon or dragon in sight. Don’t hold me to that last one, there might be a dragon. I love dragon books. 
  1. RM: Do you know any martial arts that helped you write the books?
SF: I did go to tae kwon do for a while and I attended a sword fighting class. I was hopeless at both and dangerous at the latter (even with only a wooden bokken). I am proof you don’t have to be good at something to write about it! You just have to be interested, do a lot of research (written and visual) and be willing to have a go (for hands on research).
  1. RM: Are any of the samurai schools in the books based on real samurai schools?
SF: No, they are all fictional. School for samurais was generally training with an older relative – a father or uncle. I extended this by imagining who would train the samurai children that weren’t considered capable enough – like Niya with his one leg. I imagined a very gifted teacher like Sensei Ki-Yaga would gather them up.
  1. SF: Do you speak Japanese?
I wish I did. It is on my to-do-list but I suspect I will always prefer to write and never find the time for learning a new language.

  1. RM: When did you decide to write for children?
SF: When my own son stopped reading because it was ‘all boring’ and nothing I suggested interested him, I asked him to write me a story to show me what he liked. I didn’t expect him to say yes but he said he would as long as I wrote it down. I tried to help him with some story basics (like you can’t just ditch the main character mid story without explanation just because you don’t like girls anymore). He quickly tired of my interfering and told me to go and write my own book. I did and still am!
  1. RM: How long does it usually take for you to write a book (including research time)?
SF: The Samurai Kids books take me about six months each. Because I already know the characters there is not as much preparatory work. I spend a month researching the time and place and developing the story line and then I write for four months and revise in the last month. This enables me to write another non-Samurai Kids book in the same year. I don’t have a lot of writing time as I also have a job in Information Technology, a family and two very demanding Burmese cats.

Thanks very much, Sandy! Anyone who would like to learn more about this terrific series should go take a look at the Official Samurai Kids Website or wander over to Sandy's own web site, Sandy Fussell.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Coming soon to a blog near you...

I've just received the interview from Sandy Fussell, author of the terrific Samurai Kids books and will be posting it some time in the next day and night. It's a fascinating set of answers to the questions asked by my book clubber Ryan Meyers. Two of my English students are currently preparing an interview for another fabulous Aussie writer, as a response to their Literature Circles book.

I'm reading the first Witch Hunter Chronicles book by Suart Daly, The Jericho Scourge (out of order, but who cares?) and - oh, joy! - have just received the latest (fourth) Drake Chronicles book by Alyxandra Harvey. I will be finishing and reviewing that ASAP, because a student is reading the third book and will want to read this as soon as she is finished. :-). I've also read Angel Arias, the sequel to the gorgeous Burn Bright by Marianne De Pierres and that review will be up soon too because - yes, I have a student waiting.

Stand by for some great stuff on The Great Raven!

Monday, October 10, 2011

AFTER OBSESSION By Carrie Jones and Steven E. Wedel. London: Bloomsbury, 2011

After Obsession is set where all the best horror/possession/ghost stories come from – a small town in Maine, New England.  As in many other such stories, there’s a Native American element., and stupid white colonists who just wouldn’t listen.

Alan is the new boy in town, come, with his single mother, to live with his aunt and cousin, Courtney. He’s fairly certain that his father, whom he has never met, was Navajo, but he has had to research his heritage on-line. Somehow he has managed to arrange his own vision quest and find a totem animal, which has been advising him in visions.

Aimee, whose mother died several years before, has inherited her healing powers, which also make her vulnerable, as do her true dreams.

Now the two must join forces to fight  something nasty that has been possessing Courtney and bringing out the worst in the townsfolk. If they don’t stop it, the thing trapped in the river will escape and overwhelm a lot more than the twon.

Aimee and Alan are such kind and decent kids! They treat everyone well, love their families and each other. Alan respects Aimee’s abilities as well as loving her. They both have their own troubles that they must overcome to fight the evil spirit.

I liked the notion that the “sweet librarian lady” at their school has so much information that they can use; there is only so far the Internet can go, but in the end, you can’t beat a good librarian and her archives!

Because the story is told in alternating voices – Aimee’s and Alan’s – it avoids many of the clichés of standard YA paranormal fiction with its damsel in distress heroine.

Still – it’s basically a girls’ book and should suit girls from abut 14 upwards.

Saturday, October 08, 2011


The year is 1666.  The hero: Jakob, a  teenage member of the Hexenjager, a German military witch and demon hunter organization. Jakob has been a member for only about a month when, one night in a cemetery, investigating something fishy involving exhumed bodies, he learns something the Witch Hunters weren’t expecting.

Something a lot nastier than a bunch of warlocks or minor demons.

Try fallen angels, never sent to hell because they'd be an asset to Satan. They’re not, by any means, hot teenage boy angels with an angst issue. They’re more like something out of your worst nightmare. If they get hold of something called the Tablet of Breaking, the world will be wiped out.

A team has to find this relic before they do or the world goes down the gurgler. Guess who is assigned to be a part of it?

From here it’s non-stop action as Jakob, his friend Armand, a French duellist, teenage girl Francesca, a tomb robber who collects relics for the Vatican and a crack team of the Church’s best fighters head for the Dead Sea via Greece, fighting zombies, death traps and monsters all the way.

The story is a sort of Three Musketeers meets Matthew Reilly with a touch of Indiana Jones. In this case, Indy is female. Francesca is the expert on whom the fighters rely to get them through all those traps she’s encountered often in her career.

The author is a history teacher who knows his seventeenth century history. There’s a handy set of historical notes at the end and a bibliography for those who want to read further. Weapons, locations, even the primitive submarine, are all a part of history as it was.

The book is great fun and while it will appeal especially to boys, girls should also enjoy it. Francesca is one classy chick. Even among all the gore, the bloodshed, the lurching zombies and having a limited time to save the world, there’s plenty of humour. The main characters are flawed enough to be likeable.

It’s the second in a series, but you don’t have to have read the first one to follow this – I haven’t. There are mentions of things that happened in the first book, but the story is stand-alone.

Recommended for boys and girls from about thirteen upwards.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Vale Steve Jobs!

Steve Jobs has gone ... :-(

I am an Apple user and always have been. I do use Windows computers at work, but at home it has always been Apple. I grew up in an era when computers filled rooms, so when I first started to learn how to use personal computers, it was as an adult. The very first computer I used at work was an Apple 2C, which we had in the staffroom, then I bought a 2E for the library. It was nothing like the sleek model I'm using to type this. It had a disk drive into which you inserted first the program, then the floppy disk with your work on it. My library one had two disk drives, so I could just put the program in and not have to remove it every time. You had to use commands, nothing like the easy thing we do now.

By the time I got my own, the Mac Classic 2 was out. You just had to turn it on and away you went. I used it for eight years and only spent $50 for a new battery in all that time. It still works! If there was a way I could still use it I would.

The Mac was a fabulous computer for someone like me who had not learned to use a computer as a child or a teen.

And look at what we have now! This computer allows me to do things I would never have dreamed of, when I was growing up, watching Star Trek. I can film myself and pop it up on Youtube. I can make and edit a film (I'm still working on the Literature Circles movie for school). I can save my old tapes on to my computer and burn them as CDs - or put them up as podcasts. Yay GarageBand!

Yes, there are a lot of things you can also do on Windows, but I learned much more quickly on my Apple. I was able to write my first book with it, without having to re-type whole pages, without having to work out  the commands you had on PCs before Windows

I owe a lot to Steve Jobs. His imagination and skills have made a huge difference to my life and those of others. Vale Steve! We'll miss you.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Wolfborn Trailer Up On Youtube

Since my Teachertube video still won't open, I've given in and put the Wolfborn book trailer up on Youtube. There are a few typos there, but Kristen worked hard on it and I'm very proud. I hope she will do well in the Inkys Creative Reading competition for which she created the trailer.

Even though you might have seen the trailer here, please do wander over to Youtube and take a look. It's a great little trailer and at this stage it has no hits yet.

Wolfborn Trailer