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Friday, January 31, 2014

I've Just Finished Reading...Frontier Wolf By Rosemary Sutcliff

This is the cover of the ebook edition I've just read.

It's a hot Saturday afternoon in Melbourne. I'm with my mother, whom I normally take out to lunch, but too hot for that. She is dozing in front of the TV.

So I've been reading and finishing this Sutcliff novel I've never read before. I've read the Eagle trilogy and Sword At Sunset, which was set in the world of Eagle Of The Ninth, three days after the ending of The Lantern Bearers, but written for adults(which didn't stop the kids from reading and loving it!) I've even read The Shining Company, set long afterwards - but not this one, set in between The Silver Breanch and The Lantern Bearers.

And I loved it, every bit as much as the others. It's the story of yet another descendant of Marcus Flavius Aquila,  complete with that flawed emerald dolphin ring which appears even in a novel set in the Middle Ages. At one point in the novel, the hero even mentions his ancestor, though not by name. But you know by the details it has to be Marcus. 

This Aquila is Alexios, with a half-Greek mother, presumably where that Greek praenomen comes from. He has made a huge mistake while serving in Germany, moving his men from an endangered fort when it was definitely not standard procedure, and lost them to an attack. This is important because later in the book he's faced with the same decision. Because his uncle is high up in the Roman forces in Britain, he's given another command, this time of a fort in the far north, whose men are scouts, the Frontier Wolves, who wear wolfskin cloaks(from a wolf each man kills, then never again) and are laid-back in their attitudes, as they need to be, but still disciplined. Here, he develops and grows and soon comes to respect his men as they  do him, which is a good thing, because some dreadful things are about to happen.

It's a fascinating era. The Roman Empire is officially Christian, but not everyone in the forces is Christian -Alexios himself is a follower of Mithras - so there are different customs among the Wolves, depending on the religion of the individual soldier. And we discover them as te novel proceeds. The local tribes also have their customs and rituals - there's a Chieftain's funeral early in the novel. 

There are two different languages represented by the way the characters speak. In this book, te British tribesmen speak in the familiar Sutcliff style, "It is in my mind that...." and "Na, na..." - if you've read her other books you will know it. The Latin speakers speak in simple modern English, but not so modern that you wince at anachronistic slang. And then, when Alexios speaks to the British in their own tongue, he speaks as they so, so it's the anguage, not the people.

I'm pleased to have discovered a book set in between those I've already read. This author is, in my opinion, the definitive one on Roman Britain, so finding another one  is like unearthing a hidden treasure and saying, "Hey, look what I've found!"

This isn't a children's book, I'd describe it as YA, though the characters are in their twenties.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

In Which I Lose Another Bookshop!

Farewell, Little Bookroom!

Oh, it's not closing or anything. I can even catch a tram from St Kilda and take the longish journey to Brunswick if I want to have a browse through this specialised children's bookshop for myself.

What I can't do any more is ring up and ask for a book display at my school, in which a bunch of great kids get to plunge their hands into a selected box of books and discover something they've been looking for, or something new, with a cry of delight. Yesterday I had an email from the lady who runs the shop, enthusiastically telling me that as of this year we can get it all on line! Yay! And the shop will have all these exciting events! Yay! But no more school visits, except for "special occasions". And no, I can't ring and say, "Can you bring a display, it's a special occasion." This means if you're, as it might be, running the YABBAs or having a writers' festival with guests, they get the gig of being the bookseller which sells books to the kids. Which means, of course, private schools or middle class state schools whose students have parents who could afford a private education, but haven't opted for one, the kind of school where laptops are on the book list, not a school like mine. My budget is down from peanuts to peanut shells and staffing down again, but one pleasure I have always been able to give the students is choice of new books. No more.Not this shop, anyway.

Well, it's a business. They've decided it isn't worth their while to visit schools when they can save time and money selling on line. But I mourn the shop that I've known and bought books from since they were in the Melbourne CBD, before rising rents forced them into the suburbs. I remember the original owner, Albert, who was as big a name in children's books as Agnes Nieuwenhausen. By the time they moved, he'd retired and sold his business to the staff. Then they moved on and the shop was sold again. And for a while, that was okay, though I do still miss the lovely reps who came around with boxes and boxes of books they'd chosen knowing my school's needs and my tastes(one ruthlessly brought a gorgeously illoed edition of The Hobbit she knew I'd have to buy  for myself). And over the years I bought thousands of dollars worth of books, even when my budget was halved. If I was going to buy books, that was where I'd buy them.

I explained that 1.I'm not allowed to order online. 2. I don't want to buy books I haven't seen. 3. This is for the kids; if I want to buy something specific, I will take a shopping list and visit Dymock's, with which I have a good relationship (They know me by name there and are very helpful. And a branch of Dymock's  got the gig to the last YABBAs and remembered to bring one of my books to sell, something booksellers at these events rarely do).

My explanation didn't help. The response, in politer language, was, tough! No "well, seeing you've been a good customer for years and years and had such a good relationship with us, we'll give you one or two visits a year."

I told her I was sorry we'd come to a parting of the ways after so long, but her new system is just not possible for me.

So, now to see if my education bookseller can help. Fingers crossed.

And farewell Little Bookroom! I'll miss you.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Visit From Juliet Marillier!

I'd like to welcome Juliet Marillier to The Great Raven for her second visit. The first time was when she was interviewed about her Irish-themed Sevenwaters series by my student Thando Bhebe, herself a keen writer and big fan of Juliet's. Check it out here.

First, the standard opening question: how did you get the idea for the Shadowfell novels?

My imagination was sparked by the events of the ‘Arab Spring’ in which there were popular uprisings against several repressive regimes in the Middle East. I asked myself what sacrifices an ordinary person would have to make in order to stand up, and keep on standing up, against extremely powerful enemies. A rebel has to give up almost everything: home, family, relationships, friendships, in the name of the cause. I wanted to write about what the fight for freedom might truly cost. The Shadowfell series follows a group of young protagonists through that struggle. 

I also asked this question: is it ever OK to do bad/violent acts for the greater good? This is a moral dilemma the rebel spy, Flint, has to deal with every day. Neryn also faces it when some of her early attempts to use her gift go wrong. I wondered what sort of burden that lays on a person, and if that burden ever lifts.  

Why the Scottish theme?

My ancestors are from that part of the world and I love the place and culture. Alban is very loosely based on Scotland, but the Shadowfell series is not real history. Even the geography is approximate! In order to allow the uncanny elements of this story full play, I didn’t try to squeeze it into a historical context. But I do love the Scottish flavour of the series and the use of dialect for the cast of Good Folk. Again, this is not historically accurate – the dialect, which my characters speak in light, middling and broad forms, belongs to a later period than the story suggests. The setting was never intended to be real history. (After all, it’s full of magic!)

Did you ever consider setting it in historic Scotland instead of your own version thereof?

No. The uncanny and magical elements are just too big to fit within the confines of known history.

If it had been set in our own world, around which historic period would it be?

If I had to pick a time period it would be loosely the time of the Picts. But as mentioned above, this does not fit with the use of Scots dialect, which belongs to the Scotland of the clans. I built the world of Shadowfell with a combination of research, informed guesswork and imagination.

Which, if any, of the Good Folk in your novels are inspired by beings from real folklore?

The brollachan, Hollow. The urisk, who lives behind waterfalls and weeps from loneliness. You have to be careful not to answer or you’ll have him trailing along after you forever. The selkie. In Raven Flight there’s a particularly appealing selkie character known as Himself, who is the partner of the powerful Hag of the Isles. There are various hags in Scottish folklore too, though this one was my own invention. The general name Good Folk is used collectively for Scotland’s uncanny beings. You have to call such beings nice names like Good Folk or Fair Folk. Otherwise they may play nasty tricks like turning your milk sour or pulling the washing off the line!

Your Good Folk are somewhat human like in their emotions and they can be killed quite easily - is this based on any real folklore or is it your own idea?

Cold iron is traditionally a bane to uncanny folk, so they can easily be killed or hurt by iron, yes, and they can be killed by powerful magic. The way this all works in the book is partly based on folkloric research and partly on imagination.

There are a number of discussions on Goodreads in which some fans are arguing that your heroine, Neryn, is rather too nice. Would you agree or disagree with this? Why?

Neryn has been through an incredibly traumatic time at the start of Shadowfell, and has only survived because of her inner strength. Her gift as a Caller (a person who can communicate with the Good Folk and get them to cooperate with humankind) is both powerful and perilous. The nature of that gift means that from the start she has a natural empathy for both uncanny and human people, even the deeply flawed ones. If that were not so, her attempts to use her ability could be disastrous and destructive. This is developed further in book three, The Caller.

I work hard on all  my characters (for me this is one of the most interesting parts of writing.) I do my best to create individuals whose actions, reactions and psychology feel real and authentic to me. 

How much research did you have to do for these novels?

I know Scotland and Scottish culture pretty well already, but I did some reading about the geography and the seasons, and I studied the folklore afresh before starting the series. I revised my knowledge of Scots dialect, though in fact that came pretty naturally, thanks to my upbringing in the very Scottish New Zealand city of Dunedin! I also consulted some Wiccan and druid friends about elemental lore, since on her path to becoming a fully-fledged Caller Neryn has to learn the magic of earth, air, fire and water. As a practising druid I have some knowledge of this, but talking to a few wise people broadened my understanding.

Do you have a favourite character in the first two books? (No spoilers for the third! Some of us haven't been able to read it yet)

Difficult to choose just one, as I love many of the characters, but I’d probably choose Sage, the little wise woman of the Good Folk who is Neryn’s mentor. And I love the conflicted anti-hero Flint, who gets a bigger role in the third book.

Are you working on something now? Tell us about it.

I have an exciting new project on the go – an adult fantasy series called Blackthorn & Grim, which is darker and grittier than my usual work, with a mystery element. I’ve just completed the first book, Dreamer’s Pool, which will be published in November 2014 by Pan Macmillan Australia and Penguin US. Those readers who found Neryn too nice might like the main female character of this series, the embittered wise woman Blackthorn, who could not possibly be described as nice, though she has her reasons for that! 

The Blackthorn & Grim series has some elements that will be familiar to my readers: fairy tale magic, a love story, an Irish setting. But it’s a departure in several ways. Each novel has a stand-alone mystery story, and the same two central characters appear in each book. My protagonists are older and more damaged than the leads in my earlier novels. Dreamer’s Pool has three narrators, two male, one female, who alternate chapters. I hope readers are going to love this series.

More about Juliet and her work at:

The Caller Publication Dates : 

Australian edition (Pan Macmillan)
E-book February 25 2014

Print edition June 2014

US edition (Penguin)
July 9 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Happy Birthday, Lewis Carroll!

Today, January 27, is Lewis Carroll's birthday. If he were alive today, he'd be 182 years old. Mathematician(some of his jokes in Alice are maths-based), humorous writer, photographer (though that's him in the above pic, with a family he was friendly with, so someone else took it) - he was multitalented. 

I first read Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass when I was in Grade 1 and named my first doll Alice after the heroine. I know a lot of the jokes went over my head, having read the books again as an adult, and when I did, I thought, how very Victorian! But kids have loved it for a long time. It has been turned into plays, musicals, cartoons, movies, you name it.

While he wasn't exactly the Terry Pratchett of his day, I think these two masters of the absurd would have a lot to say to each other, perhaps over a pint.

When I was in England once, I went to Oxford to visit a friend. She'd been caught in a staff meeting, as I later learned(this was before mobile phones)so after waiting an hour, I decided that I'd just plunge into the streets of Oxford and see what I could find as a tourist. 

What I found was Christ Church College, where Lewis Carroll worked, and, across the road, the shop on which Tenniel, Carroll's illustrator, based the shop run by the sheep in Through The Looking Glass, now an Alice-themed souvenir shop called Alice's Old Sheep Shop.

My day was not wasted.

If you haven't read the Alice books, why not borrow one from the library? Download them from Project Gutenberg? I'm going to do a reread in honour of the day. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Happy Birthday, Li Cunxin!

All over the country today, January 26,  people are taking their oaths and becoming Australian citizens.

It's also the birthday of Australian of the Year shortlist member Li Cunxin, who told his story in the wonderful Mao's Last Dancer, which my students have loved, and took time off a busy schedule, planning a tour for the Queensland Ballet, to answer some questions from a group of his young fans here.

Even though you didn't win, Li Cunxin, you're always Aussie of the Year to us.

Happy birthday and wishing you many more happy years contributing to the arts in Australia, even if you never write another book. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Peggy Bright Books Australia Day Weekend Special!

This evening, I received the following email from Peggy Bright Books:

"For the Australia Day weekend Peggy Bright Books ( is running a special! Buy e-copies of Flight 404 by Simon Petrie, The Gordon Mamon Casebook by Simon Petrie, Rare Unsigned Copy by Simon Petrie and The Whale's Tale by Edwina Harvey for just $1.99 each. E-copies of our anthology, Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear only $2.99 Email me ( for payment details, This special is NOT available through our website."

They explained that it was a last-minute decision, hence the lack of time to alter the details on the   website. I, personally, would be  happy to take a little bit of extra trouble to email the editor for the chance to buy all that stock for the total cost of a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. I know ebook downloads are impulsive things but look at it this way: you'd get all that great reading matter cheap and it would STILL be quicker than waiting for an ordered print copy to come through from Amazon or wherever.

The offer is open from Friday midnight to Monday midnight Australian Eastern Daylight Saving Time, so if you live outside Australia, you'll need to get going quickly! The good news is, since you're emailing a human being instead of downloading straight from the website, she will allow for the  quirks of time differences and probably not worry too much if you're a bit early or late. :)

I have all these books and they're great! 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

First Fiction Sale For 2014!

I have made my first sale for the year! Yay!

Later this year, my story which as yet has the rather silly title "The Sheepdog In The Stable"(I don't mind if it changes, I am hopeless at titles), will appear in a book of stories, poems, memoirs, art and such to be published by Christmas Press.

A few weeks ago, I had an invitation to submit from the delightful Sophie Masson. The book will be on a Christmas theme. She didn't mind if it was already-published. It just had to be about Christmas, aimed at children between five and twelve and no more than 1500 words in length.

I had never written anything Christmas-themed unless you count a piece of fan fiction I wrote years ago and that was definitely not aimed at children. So I had to come up with something new. And it had to be aimed at an age group younger than I've written for before. I have written often for 8-12, but it was always more suitable for the older age of that range. If Sophie didn't want it, I wasn't sure who would. Perhaps NSW School Magazine, but I've never sold them fiction before, only non fiction, and if they didn't want it either....

Still, I had to give it a go. How flattering is that, when someone you admire thinks your writing is likely to be suitable for her by-invitation anthology!

I started with a story which was going to be about a family getting together for Christmas and it would turn out that they were living in a small rural community of werewolves somewhere in Victoria. I couldn't get that going in a way that would suit young children. It was an adult concept. I may use it yet, but not now.

I didn't want to lose the werewolves, though. So I went for the school Nativity Play, something that isn't common these days with so many multicultural communities, I set it in a school not unlike my own, though primary, and I had a boy who was an unusual type of multicultural. In fact, I sort of set it in an alternative universe in which everyone takes unicorns and werewolves and such for granted, Joan Aiken-style, and the sudden appearance of a wolf cub in a Nativity Play only gets the reaction,"Hey, that is so cool!" The country of Armorique, originally a part of the triple-mooned world of Wolfborn, was sneaked into this one.

I wasn't sure it would work, but finally, after a lot of fiddling, decided that sooner or later, I would have to submit it or give up. I submitted it, fingers crossed.

Both Sophie and the editor, Beattie, thought it very funny(Beattie said she nearly snorted her coffee through her nostrils reading it). And this reminds me of something once said at a seminar I attended, by Rosalind Price of Allen and Unwin: "If you can make me laugh, I'll buy it." I like a touch of humour, if not more, in anything I write.

Beattie added that she loved that unicorns were still living in Armorique and she wanted to go there! Sophie suggested I consider writing a novel with Armorique in it. Well, I have, but I think she meant the present day, with the silliness of taken-for-granted fantastical creatures.

I'll think about it. :-)

Meanwhile, yay!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Free Ebook From Peggy Bright Books!

If you'd like to try out some of the fiction of award-winning SF writer Simon Petrie, Peggy Bright Books has just uploaded five of his stories in all formats - ePub, mobi, PDF- as a free sampler, under the title Needs More Dinosaurs. Simon writes both humour and serious stuff, but whatever the flavour, it's accurate. I've had Simon, a fellow ASIMite, check  out the physics in one of the stories I edited for ASIM 60.

I've just downloaded the book to my iBooks shelf and am very much looking forward to reading it. The cover is a simple monochrome dinosaur from a 19th century public domain publication, done so deliberately, although he could have found something more elaborate on a Creative Commons site - it will work better on an ereader, for one thing.

Here's the link for you. If you like the stories in this book, there's more by Simon on the PBB website, each book about the price of a cup of coffee. And of course, there's the wonderful anthology,  Light Touch Paper Stand Back, which has had a lot of guest posts on this blog from contributors and which had a story of mine in it. ;-) Simon was a co-editor on this.

Go get your freebie and tell me what you think.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Disappearance Of Ember Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina. Sydney: Walker Books, 2013

"However this ends, you're probably going to find out some things about me, and they re not nice things. But, Ash, even after you know, do you think you could remember the good? And whatever you end up discovering - try to think of me kindly. If you can." Ember Crow is missing. To find her friend, Ashala Wolf must control her increasingly erratic and dangerous Sleepwalking ability and leave the Firstwood. But Ashala doesn t realise that Ember is harbouring terrible secrets and is trying to shield the Tribe and all Illegals from a devastating new threat - her own past.

This is a sequel to The Interrogation Of Ashala Wolf, the first of The Tribe series. If you haven't read the first book, it might be a good idea to do that before reading this one. It's sort of stand-alone, but the first book sets up the universe and you really need to know who the characters are and why they're hiding out in the forest.

In case you haven't read it and want the details, here they are: in the first novel, we met Ashala Wolf, an Illegal, who lives in a future world where, due to environmental abuse, the planet has suffered major changes that have affected the tectonic plates and once again, we have a Pangaia. The good news is that people are finally taking care of the planet, have, in fact, turned it into a virtual religion based on the teachings of an Alexander Hoffman.  The bad news is that people with  unusual abilities are placed in detention centres. Ashala was one of a group of children and teens who had escaped into the forest and started their own tribe. The nearby Gull City camp is run by a villain called Neville Rose, who was dealt with at the end of that novel, but there are things that Ashala and her tribe didn't know, about him and others who supported him, and now, her friend Ember Crow, has vanished. Ashala isn't going to leave her friend, no matter what messages she receives from her, asking her not to follow...

It's wonderful to see that a sequel is as good as the original. It doesn't suffer from "middle book syndrome". The author, an indigenous Australian, includes more of her heritage here, develops it further, yet you are reminded this is not Australia, it's the only continent left on Earth, although in an afterword, the author admits the landscape is one familiar to her.

Ashala also develops as a character. She has to learn to stop holding back her beloved Connor, whose death she fears after he came back from it in the last book. Their relationship won't survive otherwise and sometimes looks as if it might be destroyed.

The serious storyline, with plenty of action, still manages to include some humour, such as Ashala nearly choking on her drink when a very special cat tells her telepathically that her person is her pet. I personally believe in the importance of at least touches of humour in even the most serious fiction. And this one has plenty!

If you liked the first book, you won't be disappointed in this one. If you haven 't read it, what are you waiting for?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Memories of Wombat.... A Guest Post By Susan Batho

With Charlotte, a wombat he sponsored at Taronga Zoo

Last week, I went to the Blue Mountains with my friends Edwina Harvey, Susan Batho and Anne Devrell. Our purpose was to scatter some of the ashes of our mutual friend jan howard finder (small letters deliberate - it was how he spelled his name), also known as the Wombat, whose partner, Lin Daniel, had requested that the ashes be scattered in parts of the world he had loved. And he adored Australia. He actually read Aussie newspapers on line and once he emailed to tell me that there was going to be a Shane Moloney book launch that evening at the Trades Hall in Melbourne. He was a huge fan both of Shane Moloney and Kerry Greenwood, authors to whose work I'd introduced him. He made sure he emailed them both to say how much he loved their books. And he knew about something happening in my city that I didn't! Of course, I went, and bought a copy to be signed. When I asked Shane to sign it to the Wombat, his face brightened. "Oh, the Wombat! How is he?" Kerry Greenwood was a good friend too; when he came to Melbourne, she kindly showed us around to places she had used in her novels and then shouted us both to lunch.
Susan handed us each a CD of Wombat memories, saying she would love to have the article below published, and as I was the one with a full scale blog I said I would do it.
With me at Aussiecon 3

You have to understand that jan was a huge part of science fiction fandom, which was important to all of us. I made most of my friends in fandom - even a workmate friend who likes SF turned out to have been in Austrek at one time, knew several people I did and had read the first fanzine in which my stories were published.!

Jan was funny, warm, cuddly and knew absolutely EVERYONE. He even had a letter from J.R.R Tolkien and was planning a Tolkien convention when he died.

So I hope you'll read and enjoy Susan's article and perhaps look up more stuff about this delightful friend of ours. We all miss him terribly, but have had our closure with our little ceremony in the mountains.

On Making Contact... 
In 1972, I put out my first solo fanzine, GOF – Girls Own Fanzine.  I was a university student, engaged to a BNF
 , Ron L Clarke, exploring the world of the perzine
.  I was armed with addresses of Loccers
 to Ron’s fanzine, The Mentor, and received a LoC from Italy from an American who was working with US troops in that country.  I replied, and next thing you know, we had a correspondence going which lasted 43 years, outlasting fanzines, and conventions, although I know jan was working on yet another convention when he passed.

Meeting the Wombat
Aussiecon 1 was held in 1975.  Ron and I were living at 32 Spurwood Road, Warrimoo and had our first child, Evelyn.  We were building our home at Faulconbridge, and things were tight financially.  However, it was way too good a chance not to meet our friends from overseas, many of whom we still correspond with.
Early August, we met jan in person at Sydney airport.  He walked straight up to me, picked up my hand and kissed it gently, with finesse, and said “Bellisima”. Sigh.
We took jan to his motel on top of the Cross which had been booked by the convention travel agents.  Unfortunately, they did not realise that jan was not a girl, and booked him into a triple with two ladies.  Not sure how that worked out, but I am sure jan would have charmed them, and the hotel staff.  On the way there we passed a statuesque blonde that he could not resist wolf whistling.  She/He turned and smiled beautifully, and with a bass voice, said “Why thank you, buster.”  Such a hoot!
Unfortunately, I did not make the convention, as my best friend, Marea Ozanne stayed home also, as her son, Alex, had been hit by a suicidal driver.  We kept each other company, and joined in the fun when the con goers descended on the mountains after the convention.  Jan came to stay with us, and that was when we discovered that he was Jewish. It had never come up before.  One night we came to end of the food in the house, except for a can of spaghetti, which, if you know me, I can feed a crowd with if necessary, but jan decided that we could eat out.  And when he asked us what we wanted, we said in a chorus, roast pork.... oh dear....
Louis Grey, Susan Batho, Rusty Hevlin, Unknown, Sheryl Birkhead, Michael Glickson, Wilson Tucker, Wombat, Marea Ozanne & Eric Lindsay.  Taken  Faulconbridge, NSW.  September 1975.

The Hat....
Ever wondered when jan started wearing the slouch hat which became his signature hat?  When he arrived the first time in Australia, he was wearing a baseball cap....
My brother, Chris, was an army cadet, and thought jan needed something more stylish.   My father had also taken a shine to jan. He and Chris searched out a virgin hat from the disposal store, soaked it, and shaped it.  It was just a tad still damp when it was presented to jan, but he didn’t care.  We had to leave him at the railway station at Blaxland to get back to Sydney.  I didn’t legally drive in those days and Blaxland was as far as I was willing to risk without being caught.  Chris showed jan how to doff his hat to young ladies, and guaranteed him that the best pick up line he could use was, ”G’day, sheila.  D’you know the way to Sydney?”  We watched him with a mixture of dread, amazement and laughter as he made his way onto the platform, walked up to the nearest attractive lady, doffed his hat, and asked, very charmingly, “G’day, Sheila, d’you know the way to Sydney?”
According to him, later, he spent a lovely couple of days with the young lady whilst he waited for his plane home.
You could never underestimate the charm of a wombat.
Oh, on that first trip, he asked for the hand of my first born who was six months old at the time.... 

The Great Trip...
Anyone who got to know jan, knew that he planned to the minutest detail his great trip to Australia.  There was so much he wanted to do and see and each time he came, he did some more.  But it was one of his greatest frustrations in life that he was not allowed to spend a year exploring the way he wanted to.  He offered to post a bond, to negotiate a temporary permanent visa.  He even asked my daughters both to marry him just for the year....  (one was already married and the second was still in school at the time....)
He finally purchased a brand new car, made our home his headquarters, and headed off.... driving to  Albany Western Australia  where he presented a letter from the Mayor of his own home town of Albany, New York and was given a grand time there.  He sent us back reports, and stories galore.  I wish he could have done his original trip, which, when printed off, was at least four inches thick. But for six monthes he just added to his wide experiences of Australia, meeting and making friends wherever he went. 
Oh, and he rang every finder in the phone book and found one.... in Queensland.  Like Batho, it is a rare name.  And they met up and swapped family stories.
And he shared his recipes for green beans, almonds and bacon....

With Charlotte the wombat and Anne Devrell

Jan promoted Aussiecons and the failed Syncon in 91 bid.  He did so with complete enthusiasm and gusto and sincerity.  He wanted the bids to succeed and he wanted people to know Australia and Australian fans, the way he did.
 I think Anne Devrell and Sue Bursztynski would be better describing how jan worked conventions.  I know he was a lot of fun.  He would introduce himself, and slip you a business card with ‘Free backrubs on request.’ And I believe he was a polite room buddy.  And he kept wearing that ruddy hat, even past its use-by date...
pastedGraphic_2.pdf jan at Magicon in 1992

And then there was wombats...
 One of our greatest and best memories was the wombats.  We’d collect wombats and send them to jan – not that he needed reminding.  We still have one in the garden that was meant to go over when we went to visit him.  
He supported the preservation of the threatened Eastern Hairy Nosed Wombat, for at least the 43 years I knew him.  We would go with him to visit his sponsored wombats at Taronga Zoo in Sydney.  We even learnt all about wombat sex from watching wombat porn there.  All very educational of course.  And that’s where we met a baby wombat called Charlotte.  Some of the photos of jan and Charlotte are our best memories.
Jan even made the trip to a secret location to physically help out with the preservation of the species... and found himself digging holes for a wombat proof fence.  And even though he was exhausted, he loved and was proud of every moment.

Aboriginal carvings in Faulconbridge 1999

Other memories:
Bytelock – blockages in the information highway
Arthur Upfield – jan would throw himself into those things that would interest him.  The Boney book series fascinated him, and he became a self-made expert, lecturing on the series, the man, and everything about the books.  He got to travel a lot doing this to his great delight and pleasure.
Tolkein – he was planning another convention and I wanted to go... Tolkein was one of the great loves of his life.
Hugs – he gave the best, most sincere, hugs.  Greetings and goodbyes, and just because hugs -- At home, when travelling, at conventions.  When you needed one or when he needed one, there was a hug.
Talking – okay, he woke up early, often already making breakfast for us all.  And over that we would start talking.  We would explore, or laze, but talk all the way through the day.  Then at night, long into the night, long past when everyone else had gone to bed, we would talk some more... no subject was sacred.  Nothing cruel was said of anyone.  And there was always something to talk about, never once repeating anything we had to say to each other.
And our Christmas/New Year letters each year where he made notes for it all year, and it was the whole year spread out for us to go through...  It inspired me to do the same, sharing the adventures.  I am going to miss all our letters and emails back and forth.
Jan was a unique, intelligent, warm, sincere, fun gentleman, who was one of my longest friends.
Teggedizzi, mate.  I miss you.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Hunter Of Sherwood: Knight Of Shadows, by Toby Venables. Oxford:Abaddon Books, 2013


"England, 1191. Richard Lionheart has left the realm bankrupt and leaderless in his quest for glory. Only Prince John seems willing to fight back the tide of chaos threatening England – embodied by the traitorous ‘Hood.’

But John has a secret weapon: Guy of Gisburne, outcast, mercenary, and now knight. His first mission: to intercept the jewel-encrusted skull of John the Baptist, sent by the Templars to Philip, King of France. Gisburne’s quest takes him, his world-weary squire Galfrid in tow, from the Tower of London to the hectic Crusader port of Marseilles – and into increasingly bloody encounters with ‘the White Devil’: the fanatical Templar de Mercheval."

This is the first novel in a series and I must confess I look forward to more. If you're a fan of the tales of Robin Hood, you'll probably be familiar with his nemesis, Guy of Gisburne. This isn't the first time I've read a novel which shows Prince/King John in a sympathetic light - Myself As Witness by James Goldman of Lion In Winter fame did that long ago. It's not even the first time I've read a book in which Robin Hood was not at all nice(Shield Of Three Lions by Pamela Kaufman does that), though the Robin in this novel is a nasty piece of work. And for the record, Richard really did say he'd sell London if he could find a buyer. Not a nice man. The best of the family was his father, Henry II.

 It's the first time, though, that I've read a book turning that super villain Gisburne into the good guy - not merely an anti-hero, but a decent man. This Guy of Gisburne has had to become a mercenary to pay the bills when his honourable and decent mentor, Gilbert De Gaillan, is deliberately sent on a suicide mission by that chevalier sans peur Richard the Lionheart, whom he had pissed off by standing up to him over an outrage Richard had committed. Nobody wanted to take Guy on as a squire after that and he has no lands left because Richard took them to raise money for his crusade. And one of his mercenary comrades and, for a time, closest friend, is a charismatic bowman called Robert of Locksley...

The author says he had in mind James Bond and Indiana Jones. As a mediaeval Bond, Guy even has his own Q, a character called Llewelyn who has a lab full of equipment and experiments, with Prince John as M. There's enough bloody action to keep even Matthew Reilly fans happy. There's also a good, strong female character and a likeable squire accompanying Gisburne.

As someone who has read the original Robin Hood ballads, I appreciate the reference to the ballad-Gisburne's horse skin coat and the fact that the original Gisburne was also a mercenary; this Gisburne is wearing the hide of his father's war horse, which was killed by Robin Hood. The black leather made me think of the costume worn by Richard Armitage in the BBC series, so I pictured him as the novel's Gisburne.

Probably a few too many flashbacks for my taste, but hopefully, having set up Guy's background in this book, the author won't have to do more flashbacks in the next. 

Good fun, well worth a read.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Two Trickster Tales From Russia: The Audiobook

 This is the audiobook version of the gorgeous children's picture book published last year by Christmas Press, a new Australian small press launched by Sophie Masson, author of many children's and YA novels, artist David Allan and designer Fiona McDonald. Later in 2014, the press will publish more international folk tales by other Australian children's writers, which is something to look forward to.

Meanwhile, if you enjoy your books in audiobook format, this is a delightful version of the print book, narrated by Xavier Masson-Leach, with incidental music and sound effects by Xavier and Bevis Masson-Leach.

In the first story, Masha And The Bear, the grumpy bear is given a strong Russian accent, while the characters in The Rooster With The Golden Crest speak like American hillbillies, with appropriate - and charming - music for both. The whole thing goes for about 14 minutes, but since children tend to have short attention spans anyway, it may be just the thing to play before bedtime. It reminds me a little of a version of Peter And The Wolf I received for review some years ago.

The book and the CD are now available in many Australian bookshops or you can order them from .here, or as a download.  If you live outside Australia, email your inquiry to 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

In Which I Go To Sydney

I'm in Sydney this week. I arrived Monday, when all I did was settle into my YHA, a very comfortable place right near Sydney Central station, do my shopping and meet my friend Edwina Harvey. I haven't stayed at a hostel for some years now, but it's amazing how quickly I settled back into the routine. 

Yesterday I had the day to myself, so I made lunch and went down to Manly on the ferry, a favourite activity of mine. Here's a picture of the view from the ferry. While there I did a couple of things I hadn't done before - I visited the local art gallery/museum, a small place which held a portrait display by Bill Leak and a number of pictures centred around early encounters between English and indigenous folk. That didn't take long and I had time to visit the next building. It's called the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary. Really, it's just an aquarium, though a very nice one. I saw the feeding of the Little Penguins, which also swam around in a pool with other sea creatures, including a gummy shark. Looking at this harmless creature, I thought, all these kids watching will have eaten its relatives on fish and chips night. The penguins were unbelievably cute! I have seen them before, of course.  There's a colony at the St Kilda breakwater near my home and I even spotted one preening itself on one of the boats one morning. But this was the closest I've seen them.

Returning to my hostel I waited for the delightful Will Kostakis, who was joining me for afternoon tea. He's currently working at the Sydney Cricket Ground to pay the bills and was on his way home to start work on his next YA novel. It has taken a while, but he's on his way to a writing career. Good luck to him!

Today I'm meeting Edwina again and we're going to the Blue Mountains where I've been many a time, but this time not for the pleasure of seeing the Three Sisters and hiking around, but to scatter some ashes - those of Jan Howard Finder, that delightful American SF fan who so loved Australia that even when he wasn't here, he was reading our newspapers on line. He loved wombats, especially the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat, which has become endangered. When he died, his partner arranged for his ashes to be taken to different parts of the world which he had loved. My friend Ann travelled to the US and attended a memorial event, Wombatcon, where she collected a bag of ashes. 

It will be a bit cool today, so I will take my poncho and an umbrella and I've been warned to wear walking shoes. I'm getting up as soon as this is posted, dressing and have a quick breakfast before Edwina arrives. More of this later. 

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Happy Birthday, Isaac Asimov!

I remember my first encounter with this amazingly prolific SF writer. Actually, he did a lot more than SF. He wrote just about everything and I vaguely recall him saying once that non fiction - popular science - was his first love.

But for me, he was science fiction personified. I first encountered him at my sister's home while babysitting my first nephew, David. I'd read some classic SF at school, of course - some Wells and Verne and others, including some guy called Donald Suddaby whose books are, I think, long out of print, but you can still find him on a Google search. And there was the TV science fiction - I had been a Star Trek fan since childhood and loved the Doctor. There were the Irwin Allen shows when I was growing up too - for a long time, I found Lost In Space irritatingly silly, though looking back I have come to appreciate and enjoy its 1960s campiness - and the music was by Alexander "Star Trek" Courage and a certain "Johnny Williams" - yes, THAT John Williams!

  But Asimov was my introduction to real, modern SF. My sister was a major fan(probably still is)and had all his works on her shelves. On a Saturday night, my best bet was to read the short fiction. And I did - all of it that was available at the time. I read more in the following years, but that was the time of the classics. Foundation, the robot books, the science fictional mysteries...

Even if you haven't heard of most modern SF writers, I bet you've heard of Asimov, even if it's only through the movies based on them, such as The Bicentennial Man and I, Robot.


And writers are still using Asimov's Laws Of Robotics, the ones about a robot not hurting a human or allowing one to come to harm,  without necessarily realising where they come from. I have only recently asked one of the writers in my issue of Andromeda Spaceways to do a small rewrite to remove a mention of the laws of robotics because they belong to Asimov. Asimov is only one of a number of writers who have so affected fiction that people don't know it comes from a book. For example, Merlin is often mentioned as living backwards - something that only happened in T.H. White's The Sword In The Stone, but now everyone uses it.

Asimov grew up in the Golden Age of SF, when the pulps were on all the news stands and the good writers got their start among a lot of schlock and went on to become famous. He managed to persuade his father, who thought SF was rubbish, that it was educational because it had "science" in its name.

 If you want his biography, it's on Wikipedia - this is just an appreciation of the man whose writing gave me the "sensawunda" that made me a fan of speculative fiction.

Here, if you're interested, is a link to an article that quotes what he predicted in 1964 about the year 2014 - enjoy!