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Thursday, June 29, 2017

CBCA Shortlist #2: Yellow by Megan Jacobson. Melbourne: Penguin, 2016

"Yellow" is the nickname of Kirra Barley, given to her because of her unusual eye colour, by her father, whose nickname is Lark, because in his teens he used to lark around a lot, nothing to do with the bird. Actually, there are a number of characters with nicknames in this book and Lark is the only one whose real name we are never told.

But Kirra's surfer father, a genuine dole bludger, has run off with the Avon lady, or at least, the door to door cosmetics seller, only a couple of months ago, and set up a home only three blocks away, which is not good in such a small town, where everybody knows and gossips about everybody.  Kirra's mother, Judy, has been living at the bottom of her gin bottle ever since, though it turns out later that it isn't only Lark's betrayal that has caused it. To tell you more would be spoilers.

Kirra's home troubles are bad enough, but she also has bullying troubles at school, with girls who are supposed to be her friends, but are the local Mean Girls. She finds herself being befriended by the school Bad Girl, Willow, who doesn't care what anyone thinks of her and gives the thumb to whatever or whoever she doesn't like. She teaches Kirra a lot and helps her confidence.

Then, one day, she answers a ringing in a telephone box that was supposed to have been removed years ago, and finds herself talking to the ghost of a teenage boy who died twenty years ago and claims to have been murdered. In return for her help in bringing his killer to justice, he will help her overcome some of her problems, though only with advice, of course, since how much physical help can a ghost give from the afterlife? The boy, who calls himself Boogie, has been unable to move on and is going crazy from loneliness.  

Really, it's a story about life in a small town on the coast, where everyone has been living for  the last couple of generations, never moving out, which gives it a faint flavour of Back To The Future. It's the story of a girl who learns to overcome the bullies and make real friends and help her mother. The fantastical elements are a bonus, but not, repeat not, a tacked-on element. They belong. 

I began to suspect who Boogie was when Kirra was talking to the town librarian, a nice old lady who remembered everyone from her parents' generation. I was a little disappointed that Kirra's research in the old newspapers was interrupted abruptly and never resumed. But there was a reason for it. 

And it was made clear that things - and people - aren't always what they seem. 

Interesting that it was set in the 1990s. A number of "contemporary" books have been set in the 1980s and 90s recently. I suppose it does help if the characters can't go on line to do research or make an urgent phone call with their own mobiles; in one scene, Kirra is wondering if the whole Boogie thing was set up by the bullies using their parents' mobile phones, because this is before teens had their own. And, as in Back To The Future, the parents had to have been there in a certain era.

Did I like it? Yes. I finished it more or less in one sitting. It's easy, comfortable reading. Do I think kids would like it? Perhaps. I think they might prefer Frankie. This one is a bit preachier than Frankie: "Be yourself! Don't believe people are what they look like!" And so on. 

We'll see how it goes over when I return it to the library. 

CBCA Shortlist #3: The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon. Hachette, 2016

Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of a distant homeland, life behind the fences is all he has ever known. But as he grows, his imagination gets bigger too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. The night sea brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories.

The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl who appears from the other side of the wires, and brings a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family's love songs and tragedies.

Subhi and Jimmie might both find a way to freedom, as their tales unfold. But not until each of them has been braver than ever before.

Oh, dear, what to say? It is so very sad! The author says in the afterword that she wishes this book didn't have to be written, that the story and characters are fictional, but the issues aren't. It's true, too. We read about it every day in the papers, whatever we can still get, since the government has threatened prosecution to anyone who has worked in these places and spoken out about them. You know - "fake news"? All I can say is, I didn't vote for them!

And the thought of a child actually born in one of these places is truly awful.

But for Subhi, it's all he knows. He makes the best of his situation. When the human rights advocates come to inspect the camp from time to time, the inmates know they will get a decent meal or two, and Subhi pretends it's for his birthday. His imagination frees him and one day a girl from Outside, whose mother has died and father is grieving with her, smuggles the Outside into the camp, along with hot chocolate and a book written by hand by her beloved mother, with the fantastical story of the bone sparrow she wears around her neck, given to her by her mother just before she died. Because of all the moving around she has done, Jimmie hasn't had time to learn to read, so she asks Subhi, whose English is fine(born there, remember?) and who can read, to read it to her. The story he reads is a part of the narrative, a sub-narrative about Jimmie's ancestors.

The characters are drawn with care and love. There is even one decent camp guard, Harvey, who looks after Subhi when he needs it and fills a rubber pool for the children in the hottest weather. When it's time for Subhi to have his say about a tragedy that had occurred, he knows he will have to involve Harvey, who witnessed it, but Harvey lets him know it's the right thing to do.

And there's a rubber ducky, the Shakespeare duck, which makes snarky comments from Subhi's pocket, in his imagination. This brings a little much-needed humour to an otherwise terribly sad story.

It rather reminds me of Morris Gleitzman in style, sort of Boy Overboard and Girl Underground meets Once. If you liked those books, you will find much to like in this one. I believe the kids will like it too. I'll be recommending it.

Meanwhile, I can only hope that this year's CBCA shortlist has at least two books with some real humour in them(I know there's one, Words In Deep Blue); for this one, stock up on the boxes of tissues!

Friday, June 23, 2017

CBCA Shortlist #1: Frankie by Shivaun Plozza.

Once again I'm making my way through the shortlist, at least the Older Readers. I've just finished this one and borrowed Yellow by Megan Jacobson. Of course, I read Dragonfly Song ages ago, when I got it for reviewing - check out my interview with the author here! Waer by Meg Caddy is currently out, but no rush. I have The Bone Sparrow and Words In Deep Blue, by the wonderful Cath Crowley, on my iPad - I'm keeping the latter for dessert, though I've started it. I suspect I'm going to need it after some depressing stuff. I could be wrong. I hope I am. But every year the CBCA choose at least two or three depressing titles for their shortlist. That said, kids often like depressing books. I've even been asked for them!

What to say about Frankie, a debut novel that has already scored its author a place on the shortlist and an invitation to be a GoH at the Reading Matters conference this year?

It's set on the grubbier side of Collingwood, a formerly working class suburb of Melbourne which, AFAIK, is becoming more gentrified than the novel suggests. But then, I don't live there, and I did once live in St Kilda, which has large numbers of people living in poverty, yet has house prices that reflect its location next to the sea. Go figure. Collingwood is near prettier parts of the city, not far from the river and has the Collingwood Children's Farm, which features in the novel as the place where the heroine was abandoned by her drug-taking, irresponsible mother, at the age of four, to run off with her current boyfriend.

So. Frankie is Francesca Vega, daughter of the irresponsible Juliet Vega, in Year 12 at the local secondary school, but on an indefinite suspension because she broke the nose of a nasty boy with a hardback Works Of Shakespeare. She won't tell anyone what he said to earn the assault, not even her best friend, Cara, or her loving aunt Vinnie, who has brought her up since that abandonment - and whom she has disappointed time after time.

And one day, a fourteen year old boy called Xavier arrives in her life and tells her he is her kid brother, well, half brother. And suddenly Frankie's life in her aunt's Kebab Emporium has changed for good. Xavier is someone she can care about, a gifted artist who wants to make her happy. He's also in big trouble. Huge trouble! He owes money to people who are likely to take it out of his hide. He is a thief. But he is her kid brother and when he disappears she has to go looking for him, with the help of Nate, a boy who looks like Shia LaBeouf and to whom Xavier owes money. Fortunately for her, he's a burglar...

It's good, no question about it. The grubbiness of the area is well described, though I should reassure any readers from outside of Melbourne that a visit to Smith St will give them plenty of restaurants and other such treats, not land them in the middle of drug deals the minute they get off the tram,  and that it's not far from very pretty places by the river, such as the above mentioned children's farm. But it makes you feel the dirt and despair of the heroine's living space - in fact, her own home is about the only one in the book that isn't filthy and broken down and even that is a sort of shabby place above the shop.

Frankie's family, such as it is, seems to be unlucky from the start. Apart from her mother, her uncle is deservedly in jail and even her decent aunt has had bad luck with the men in her life. But Vinnie wants better for her niece and is frustrated that Frankie apparently won't help herself get out of the kebab shop into university.  

The characters are well drawn. Frankie has the right kind of snarkiness to make the reader like her, and she cares, really cares, about a younger brother she has met only three times, not under the best of circumstances, to make her risk her own future to find him. 

Her friend Cara is just the sort of person we all want for a best friend, who,is always in her corner, and when they hang out, sometimes doing unwise things such as drinking Vinnie's vodka, you still get the feeling of two very intelligent young women. 

Nate, the young burglar, is maybe a little too good to be true, and when the obvious attraction blossoms, you do have to wonder what kind of a future there could be for them, given his lifestyle and where he is living(a squat)and the fact that he hasn't really any other options at this stage. 

So, did I like it? Absolutely! I think the girls will like it too - in fact, the Year 8 girl who borrowed it first enjoyed it very much. I got through it quickly and easily. There's plenty of meat for class discussion if, like my school, you're looking for a new class text, for, as it might be, Year 10. 

Would I read it again? Possibly not. A matter of personal taste and it doesn't, for me, have the sweetness of Will Kostakis or Cath Crowley's books. But again - personal taste. And I suspect that anyone who can score a shortlist and a festival appearance on a first novel has a strong career ahead! 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

What I Was Doing At 4.20 am this morning... A radio interview!

The interview was on the ABC radio program Overnights, about my book Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly. I have to take my hat off to those folk who do this nearly every night and act as if it's the middle of the day! They're amazing.  That's both the presenter, Trevor Chappell(no, not the cricketer!) and the producers.

Was it worth getting up in the small hours on a weekday? You bet! And I had already told my daily organiser at school that I was going to go back to bed and sleep in. She was fine with that - I have plenty of leave and I don't have classes on Monday anyhow. She even wondered why I was coming in at all, but I have things that need to be done. which can't be done at home.

So, what was it all about? My lovely publisher Paul Collins arranged it. He did an interview about something else a couple of weeks ago(his own version of Henry Lawson's dog-themed stories). They asked him if he could recommend someone else and he recommended me. Which goes to show how right I am to believe you will always get more support from small press than large.

He sent them a copy of my book(which I think they will be giving away to a listener who rang to ask how to get a copy for their children) and I really believe it was read, or at least skimmed.

Then I heard from a producer who said they were interested in doing the interview this morning. She suggested I focus on the Batavia story and the nineteenth century stories, which I did, and made voluminous notes, just in case. You never know, and it has been a while since I wrote this.

So, I got up at 3.30 a.m to make sure I was awake enough to be able to answer questions. I put on the kettle for honey and lemon - I've been sick recently and still have a hacking cough, which I hoped a hot honey and lemon drink might soothe, at least during the interview.

I kept a copy of the book beside me just in case... and sure enough, some questions were about later chapters, but no big deal.

There were questions about the stories themselves and about how you go about choosing stories for a children's book on this subject and how much you have to leave out - and I had no problem with those. Mr Chappell seemed to get it that this is storytelling as much as fiction, and we discussed that too.

To my delight, one of the talkback listeners referred to a story about "an elderly woman, I don't remember her name, who poisoned her family..." which gave me the excuse to talk about Caroline Grills and how I'd once met a member of the prison staff of the time, who called her "such a sweet woman!" despite knowing exactly what she had done. And about how I had once told a bunch of kids too young for the book about "the very naughty nana... I bet your nana wouldn't do that!"

Really, this was such a good promotion, and the presenter was pleasant and relaxed and chuckled a lot at the colourful characters in my book.

I am very happy to have done it. If you're interested in hearing it, here is the link:

I don't know if it will work outside Australia, but give it a go. I'm going to download it from iTunes and save it to my computer.

Just heard from a friend in the UK - you can open it overseas! Listen and let me know what you think!

Here's a sample chapter!
And here's the Ford Street website!
Have a great day, readers!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Wizardry Of Jewish Women - The New Edition!

And here's the new cover! Nice, isn't it?

A while ago, some of my friends who had books with small press Satalyte Publishing had the shock of finding their beautiful books suddenly out of print when the publisher closed down. One of them was Gillian Polack, author of the above book and other Satalyte titles. 

The good news was, they had their rights back and they have been making the best of things, finding other publishers. Gillian's is Bookview Cafe, a writer's co-op which has some founding members with huge names! (This book was typeset by no less than Vonda McIntyre!). Not everyone can join. You have to have skills the co-op can use - Gillian has several - and you must be someone they can get along with, because you will be helping out with the publishing. 

So the book is now available again, in ebook, and hopefully the others will follow soon. I bought a copy on the web site yesterday, and it was very simple. It's done via PayPal and they send you a receipt which has a link to the download. It's available in both ePub and mobi. When I didn't receive my email, for some reason, I made contact and would you believe I got a reply about ten minutes later, from a gentleman who said he'd sent me another email and, in case that didn't work, here was a link to the checkout page, which I had lost. And that did have my download. So now it's safe on my iPad and I believe they're fine with you downloading it to another device. Well, iBooks lets you do that; my phone is connected to my iPad. And I do read on my phone sometimes. 

So, if you missed out on the Satalyte edition, which was launched only last September, here's another chance! It's well worth a read.

I'm currently reading Gillian's earlier novel, The Time Of The Ghosts, and enjoying it very much. It's set in Gillian's home town of Canberra and features a young woman and her three "grandmothers", in the best fairytale style, one of whom may not be what she seems... And ghosts and odd creatures from Europe(our ghostbusting grandmothers leave the local spirits alone) and saving the world - well, Canberra anyway - one coffee and one dinner party at a time. I'm really liking the flirtatious ghost of a bushranger who died in the 1840s, who rather fancies one of the older ladies. 

I bought one of the last copies direct from the author on the weekend, but if you wander over to Bookview Cafe, it should be available in ebook there eventually.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Back From Another Con With More Books - Day 2!

Today's con was only going till 2.00 pm plus closing ceremony, so I wanted to get to as many sessions as possible. There was no lunch real, only a snack break, when I went to the hotel cafe and had a pot of tea and a Florentine and chatted with a group of folk, some of whom I knew, others I didn't. One of them, a gentleman, was check g through his database of films and books and it seems that he has about four times as many DVDs as I do, though we had about the same number of books, and he had catlogued them all on this database. 

I wanted to arrive on time for the first session, at 9.30 a.m, but I was a bit late anyway, and missed the beginning of "Forgotten Mothers Of SF." Well, the women mentioned weren't so forgotten, as I'd heard of pretty much all of them and read most, but then, I'm old enough to have read them in the 1980s. Maybe most are now out of print? I don't think so, but you never know. I think that there has been rather too much self pity in the panels I have heard at this convention - "Poor us, we've been unfairly treated! Whine, whinge, unfair, mutter, mutter!" And very few stops for questions or comments from the audience in any of them.

Still, it was an interesting panel and I did enjoy the discussion of what the name of the new YA Hugo should be. It was pointed out that most YA spec fic was written by women, so it should be named after a woman. Everyone on the panel had her own favourite. One suggested it should be named for Diana Wynne Jones, not a bad idea, though it was decided in the end that "The Jones" just didn't sound too exciting. Well, pardon her for having a common name! Someone else liked the Nesbit, after E.Nesbit. The discussion will be held at the Worldcon business meeting in Helsinki this year, so anyone at the con who wants to make a suggestion can go. I won't be there, alas! I agree it should be named for a woman, preferably the author of classic fiction, such as E.Nesbit or Dianna Wynne Jones or Andre Norton, whose writing pulled a lot of kids into SF. 

I would have liked to have an invitation to the audience to make suggestions. 

My bet is that it will be named for an American, whether male or female. 

I went to the food in fantasy panel, which included my friend Gillian Polack, and enjoyed that, I even sampled someone's kangaroo jerky, though I don't usually eat unkosher meat, because he has created his own universe with kangaroos in it, as "hoppers", and has devised his own recipes. Sorry, but it tasted to me like beef. Now I know. Maybe it was his marinade. 

 Gillian offered to analyse any writer's attitude to food, and did mine. She was quite right to say that food in my fiction was there only to support the plot. She intended it to be critical, but it was true, and I wasn't offended. There is very little food in my mediaeval fiction, because it's mostly not needed and because my knowledge is not good enough to support it, so I prefer to be vague. Unlike Gillian the food historian, who is willing and able to experiment with cooking the food, I just can't. What I should do next time is email her for advice. She was very helpful in that story I submitted (unsuccessfully, mutter, grumble!) to Cranky Ladies Of History. I hadn't realised, for example, that you had to take your own food on a voyage in the 19th century. Gillian told me that. 

Next, I went to the Dr Who panel. It was a fun discussion of New Who. We all agreed we loved the current series, and this one was open to audience interaction. My friend George Ivanoff was on it, which doesn't surprise me in the least. George is a passionate media fan, and that includes bizarre shows thAt gave long been forgotten by everyone else - so nice to hear him discuss something we had all heard of. This was my favourite panel of the day. 

I should have attended the "Humans Are Special" panel as my last for the day, but made the mistake of going to the one on fan fiction. I love fan fiction, I used to write it, many years ago, so it sounded like it would be fun. It wasn't. The panel consisted of four young things who probably think fan fiction was invented on the Internet, and who wrote the sort of stuff that used to come in plain brown wrappers when I was buying fanzines. One admitted cheerfully to being a sadist in the technical sense and told us that she writes sadist porn. Now, that is not my cup of tea, but if it's in your own universe, well, that is between you and your readers. Using it to write in someone else's universe is another matter. She made me just a bit angry. So did the others, but especially her. 

That's on top of feeing old. These days, fan fiction is HUGE, and it's because it's all on line. You can't filter it through an editor and if you're a copyright owner you can't really stop it. I suppose sooner or later Paramount will try to close down the delightful 1001 Trek Tales web site, but the thing is, they could only do it in Australia, during the print era, because we don't have the same loophole as other countries, so other countries kept publishing it quite legally. Now they would have their work cut out to close down, say, Fanfiction Net, which has hundreds of universes, including those of games, and there are definitely R rated stories which require a statement that you're over 18. My students all know about this site and some write their own fan fiction, though never in universes familiar to me. 

I miss the times when I bought a fanzine at a con and curled up in bed with it. They did say, at this panel, that people shouldn't be charging for their fan fiction, which of course, they shouldn't, but when I was writing and publishing, the editor did have to charge at least for print and postage. The contributors would get a free copy, and that was all. I recall a club in Queensland that had a policy of never handing out contributor copies, which asked me if they could reprint one of my longer stories. I said sure, as long as I got a free copy. They whined that they couldn't afford it(though they intended to sell it)and I told them that I wasn't a charity, though if they had been fundraising for charity, that would have been another matter. It was never reprinted. So be it. 

I loved my print zines, not only because I could curl up in bed with them, but because they were filtered by editors. I grant you that some fanzines were pretty dreadful, but you soon worked out which ones they were, and in general you knew they would be okay. You can't know now. 

Anyway, that was the final panel and was followed by the closing ceremony. I went home in the tram with Gillian, who has family in my part of Melbourne, and a friend of hers who also lives here. 

My plan was to get home about 3.30 tops and do a load of wash, but no such luck. Gillian is popular, and spent at least 20 minutes on her farewells! Oh, well. It will just have to wait.

So, anyone got a suggestion for a name for the YA Hugo? 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Back From Another Con... With More Books! Day 1

And here they are! I did download one book, Feed, by Mira Grant, the pen name of Seanan McGuire, the GoH of this year's Continuum - Number 13, how time flies! I've been to every single one since the start. 

Seanan McGuire, who writes urban fantasy under her own name, explained during her GoH speech that she had to take a pen name for a more literary type of speculative fiction because a lot of people just don't buy anything by an urban fantasy writer, even if it isn't urban fantasy. She said many people who had read and loved her Newsflesh series said they would never have picked them up if they had known who the author was, because urban fantasy is, oddly, considered inferior. So she writes those as Mira Grant. 

She mentioned, interestingly, that she can't afford health care because the costs are over $1100 a month and she lives entirely on her writing. Some years are good, some aren't. 

Due to family commitments I couldn't get there till yesterday, but there were some good panels and I was lucky enough to be able to hear the GoH speech, which is normally on the Saturday. 

As it was, I arrived in the middle of a book launch. It was a children's book published by Allen and Unwin, so I listened, but wasn't interested. Even the bits read by the author were explaining the universe rather than things happening. I left as soon as we were invited to have a nibble and buy a book. 

So I went to the panel on fairy tales, on which Seanan McGuire was appearing. It was a lot of fun and there were comments on such things as siblings in fairy tales. There wasn't much I didn't know, but it's always enjoyable to hear other people's thoughts. Nobody, for some reason, commented on the fact that, actually, there are groups of three - the older two ignore the magical helpers and fail, the youngest shares his/her lunch and succeeds. But nobody mentioned this.

Then there was Kid Stuff, a panel on which a group of writers, led by Michael Pryor, talked about their inspiration from their childhoods. 

At noon, we all attended the GoH speech and I ended up going to lunch by myself, as everyone I know disappeared, including George Ivanoff, who had to go and find some Panadols; his cold is at an earlier stage than mine, poor man! It gave me an excuse to read for lunch, over a freshly made borek and hot lentil soup.

I did intend to go to the talk about the history of Aussie fandom, but as I entered, I was harassed by someone I won't name. I stayed about five minutes, then went out to the dealer's room, where I bought the three books you see above, having a chat with two friends, Narrelle Harris and Simon Petrie. Both of them had new books out, so I bought them, plus Gillian Polack's The Time Of The Ghosts, which I've started reading. Fascinating, by the way - in it, the French fay Melusine is Jewish! And alive and well and living in modern Canberra. It's one of the books which suddenly went out of print when her publisher closed, but Simon told me that she has a new publisher, so great! I managed to chat for five minutes with Gillian as I was leaving and it was even better than Simon had told me. I need to catch up and get details. 

I went to a label on "Queering SF" because a friend of mine, Geoff Allshorn, was on it. The argument was that "there have always been queers in space opera." They then went on to complain about lack of representation. Weird! And one of them complained about that scene in A Civil Campaign in which Ivan, Miles's ultra-hetero cousin, arrives at the spaceport to greet Lady Donna, his sexual mentor, who has come back as Lord Dono, a hulking man with a beard. The complaint? Ivan hadn't wanted to continue the relationship. Well, no... Ivan is a heterosexual. And it wasn't that kind of relationship anyway. It was strictly sexual. At best, it would be "we're friends, but strictly Platonic now."  And Ivan ended up helping Lord Dono to get his inheritance and by the way, Dono ends up engaged to a young woman, one of the beautiful intelligent Koudelka sisters. Donna had been fed up with being a woman and fed up with men. 

Geoff later told me that the panel hadn't quite worked out as he had expected(he was moderating). 

My final panel for the day was on filking. It, too, was a lot of fun. We don't have much of a filk community here, though we used to. A pity. Anne Poore, a wonderful harpist, said that Dave Luckett, our major filker, doesn't perform his sings any more, so she does. Seanan McGuire , who has done quite a lot of it herself and produced her own albums, said there is a major filk con in Columbus, Ohio, every year, because it's right in the middle of the U.S. Bible Belt and the arrival of all those weirdos is a shock to the locals! This is on purpose. 

I had to leave early, to get some food and go to my mother's place, but on the dhole it was a good day. 


Friday, June 09, 2017

The Vorkosiverse and Technology

Checking my Pages app, I discovered this post I'd never got around to using. I wrote it in March this year. So here it is - enjoy! 

I'm currently rereading the Vorkosigan saga, inspired by Tsana Dolichva, who is doing it, as part of a discussion with another blogger who has never read the books. What a great idea! But right now I haven't anyone to do it with and, to be honest, I have a lot of other commitments, book review-wise and other stuff, so I'm going to take my time and just do the occasional post here. The operative word being "occasional"!

And today I'm going to give some general thoughts in why I love this author's SF so much. I've commented on her work before, eg this post about Miles Vorkosigan's encounter with a Loathly Lady and how it made me think of the traditional ballad "King Henry." That post had a disappointingly small number of hits, so if you missed it, follow this link and please do comment! It's a good post. 

Meanwhile, I'm nearly finished my reread of Barrayar, which is, chronologically, the second Vorkosigan novel(unless you count Falling Free, which is set in the same universe, but so much earlier that it doesn't have any of our favourite characters. I don't count it in the Vorkosigan chronology though it's a great book). In this one, Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan are married and expecting their first child(Miles) when a terrorist attack nearly kills them and Miles has to be transferred to a uterine replicator to finish his mother's pregnancy - and a palace coup changes things dramatically...

It's chronologically the second novel, set very soon after the end of the first, but written after some others, so the author has had time to get used to her characters and they are recognisable. That's important because one of the things I love about this universe is that the author cares about her characters. She makes us care about them. 

And it's still science fiction. It really is. 

I get a lot of wannabe-SF in my slush pile. Wannabe in that it has technology. But - and this is a big but - technology alone does not a science fiction story make. If it doesn't fall apart when you remove the tech, it isn't SF. When I get those, I roll my eyes and groan, "Another bloody Western set in space!" Or whatever. Or it spends so much time on the tech, it has no time for the story.  When I report on those, I say, "Yes, very interesting, but what's it about? And why should I care about these characters?"

See, Lois McMaster Bujold's SF has technology in it, which you couldn't remove without a lot of rewriting and still have a story. But it's about the effect that technology has on people and societies, not tech for its own sake. 

In fact, I once heard her speak about what a uterine replicator could do to change things, when she was in Australia for Swancon in Perth. More of that anon.

Barrayar, the homeworld of Miles Vorkosigan and his parents Aral and Cordelia, is a feudal society with spaceships. It has a military caste, the Vor, who are the aristocrats of that society. When a character might have to be considered expendable for the good of all, someone will say, "He/she is Vor. She understands," or even, "Of course you had to consider me expendable. I'm Vor. I understand." It's almost, well, Klingon! Given that the author was a Trek fan in her youth, those warriors may be lurking somewhere in the back of her mind, even if she has denied the universe's connection with fan fiction.  

The reason Barrayar is so backward in its social attitudes(there are still peasants living in huts without electricity or communications) is that some time ago it lost access to its only wormhole connection to the other Earth colonies. It was still terraforming anyway, so a lot of the planet is still unliveable by humans even in Miles' time. But the rest of it is comfortably Earthlike and there are horses and Earth-descended plant life, making it possible to live there, if without much technology. 

Then another wormhole opened, allowing the planet to be invaded by the Cetagandan Empire - now, that is a fascinating science fictional world, whose people specialise in genetic engineering, in which even the children participate! We learn that in one of the later books, CetagandaThis invasion happened during the youth of Miles's grandfather. He was a guerrilla general who helped throw out the invaders. 

And now, there's a feudal society which has access once more to spaceships and the chance to get revenge on the planet which took bribes to betray them, Komarr. Komarr has control of lots of wormholes and apart from revenge, the Barrayarans need to be sure they have that control. 

Does the technology change them? Some - but not in the way you might expect. They now have access to weapons they would never have dreamed of back in the days of swords and horses. But they still have horses and swords, and women still have fewer rights than men. The new space fleet is commanded by Vor officers, though it is possible for a humbler man to rise through the ranks, but not a woman. They can't join at all, which is one reason why Elena Bothari, Miles's first love, never wants to return to Barrayar and joins the Dendarii mercenaries.

However, uterine replicators, when they arrive, make a difference. On Barrayar, it just means that the male-dominated society of the Vor, get to choose their children's sex and most of them want boys, so there aren't enough women in Miles's generation. (We've had similar situations in China, where there are a lot of young men born during the one-child era, who have very little chance of marrying)

More than that, elsewhere, if you don't have to spend nine months being pregnant, you can have control over your life. On Barrayar, even, women no longer die in childbirth. That makes a huge difference in lifestyles. 

It allows an entire planet, Athos, to be populated by men, as long as they have ovaries to produce the eggs they need - and they do. In Ethan Of Athos, the hero is an obstetrician on a world with no women. 

On Cetaganda, there are parents who have never even met. Their suitable genes are simply mixed up in a uterine replicator. The very idea of a child being born from its mother's body is almost as disgusting as it was in Huxley's Brave New World, though genetic engineering is an art as well as a science, so no mass production here. There are women of the highest caste, the haut, who are in charge of the Empire's gene banks. These women are stunningly beautiful, but prefer not to show themselves outside their homes. They could, I suppose, simply veil themselves, but in this universe they float around on float chairs with forcefield bubbles they can colour or thin as they please. At one point, Miles wonders if they use this opportunity to wear sloppy clothes and bedroom slippers. The murder that happens in this novel, which Miles investigates, is able to work because of these forcefield-protected chairs. 

Jackson's Whole is a frighteningly-capitalist world where pretty much anything goes, as long as you're willing to pay for it, including genetically-engineered sexual slaves and clones whose bodies are developed to order and taken by elderly rich people when they're ready to transfer. It produces Sergeant Taura, whom Miles first meets and rescues in the collection Borders Of Infinity.   It also produces Miles's clone brother, Mark, who desperately wants to bring down the clone trade. We don't learn too much about Mark in his first novel, Brothers In Arms, in which he has been brought in to replace Miles to support a Komarran terrorist plot. Later, in Mirror Dance, we learn the whole tragic story. And it costs Miles dearly.

But in this universe, death isn't necessarily the end. You can sometimes be frozen and brought back by cryonics experts. That affects Miles's later life and career quite dramatically. He becomes what he has always been, deep down - a detective of sorts. 

His parents suddenly have two sons - how would that work? Is he a delayed twin? The same person? 

Cordelia is from Beta Colony. As far as she's concerned, he is Miles's little brother. Her homeworld is a lot more laid-back and advanced technologically than Barrayar. Because it's nowhere near as terraformed as yet, everyone lives underground. That affects Betan society dramatically. Cordelia is amazed at the waste of wood on her adopted planet - it's terribly expensive back home and the Barrayarans walk on it! Burn it, for goodness' sake! They actually eat dead animals when you can get perfectly good protein produced in vats, which tastes fine and doesn't require anything to be killed. 

The number of children has to be carefully limited. But it's not like China. These people have uterine replicators. That allows control and it allows any genetic diseases to be picked up and removed before birth. So everyone is healthy and lives a lot longer than on Barrayar. You aren't allowed to be a parent until you've had training and a licence. Girls get a contraceptive implant at fourteen and have a coming-out party. Their hymens are cut to spare them the pain when they do start sexual relations. There are three sexes - male, female and hermaphrodite(that was an experiment that fizzled out some years ago). Hermaphrodites make popular sex therapists, as they can look after men and women alike, in a non-threatening environment. 

When Cordelia is asked, in the second novel, whether they have whores on her planet, she explains about sexual therapists, who have training and a status around the same as hairdressers on Barrayar. Bothari, the bodyguard, growls that only Betans would think you need a bloody university degree for the job. At the same time, the Betans can analyse you to death. It's one reason why Cordelia has to leave. They send a psychologist after her when she insists she was not mistreated as a POW. 

The thing is, Beta Colony's culture is the way it is because of the limited living space. Would they have been different if they had had a place like Barrayar to live in? 

The characters are the way they are because of their ways of life and those in turn are affected by the worlds where they live and their technology. By the time Miles becomes a father, uterine replicators are normal on his homeworld. He and his wife are off-world solving a mystery while their children are being cooked up in their replicator. 

My favourite book in the series is A Civil Campaign, a sort of Regency Romance comedy set on Barrayar, but with genetically-engineered bugs which produce wonderful and nutritious food from their vomit. Mark shows that his genius is for business, as Miles's is for things military. There is a Vor woman who has gone to Beta for a sex change operation that makes her into a functional male because in that backward world it's the only way she can possibly inherit the position of Count. In our world you can have a sex change, but you can't father children(though there was the amazing case, some years ago, in which a woman who had had a sex change and married was able to give birth to his wife's child when she couldn't because he hadn't got rid of his female organs). But it's not about, wow, this is a great bit of SF but of, what if a woman needed to become a man because her society is so dumb - and she could actually do it? And father children? What implication would there be for that society once it was accepted? In the same book, a Count who wants extra population in his area, now that the peasants are allowed to move out of it, uses modern technology to produce his own. 

In this universe, it's the people who matter. You follow the series not only to find out what fascinating science fictional elements she will explore next - ooh, I love the butter bugs in A Civil Campaign! - but to see how it affects the characters you have come to know and love. I don't think it's for nothing that there are no aliens in this universe, apart from the scary fauna on the planet where Aral and Cordelia meet. If there were, it would be a whole new ball game, with new implications. 

This ball game works just fine.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Back From The Con...With Books! Reading Matters 2017 Part 2

IDIC - Public domain, as far as I know

So, having gone through the technical stuff about Reading Matters 2017, let's start talking about the events. By the way, I finished guest speaker Jane Harrison's Becoming Kirrali Lewis yesterday morning. It's the story of a Koori girl brought up by a loving, caring white working class family, who thinks the other Kooris should just do as she's doing and work hard, etc. to get into uni. And no, she's not stolen generation as we know it, because her mother was middle class white, living in an era when unmarried girls were pressured to give up their children. And the way she treats her poor biological mother when they meet, because  she wasn't what Kirrali had expected only adds to the girl's obnoxious character. But she learns. I found it an easy read and enjoyed it, but not enough to keep, so it's going into my library today.

Friday morning, we got a welcome speech from the con committee and a welcome-to-country speech by a local elder, who told us about his family. 

Then there was a panel of sweet kids who are on this year's Insideadog advisory committee. They will be getting swapped around, so hopefully some of our kids can apply next time, but I no longer have my enthusiastic Nerd Pack or even their enthusiastic successors. I also have the sinking feeling that most or all of these kids attend a private or a middle class stare school. I did have at least one very capable student applying to be an Inky Awards judge, but that was a while ago and she didn't get in. 

However, that's neither here nor there. They were all passionate readers, the kind of people who will read the cereal box on the table if there's nothing else to read at breakfast. I totally get that. 

Looking through the different panels, I think it might be best to describe the ones I enjoyed most, because it's been a about three days and I was still sick enough to have trouble focussing. At one point I was coughing so much I got up out of my seat and went to cough behind a pillar. A kind gentleman filled and handed me a glass of water. 

The first actual session was the presentation - what we call a GoH speech in fandom - by Jennifer Niven. It was about her and how her books had been influenced by her own life. She said that when people sometimes challenged her with a "what do you know about that?" she would wonder how much they knew about her. Anyway, I was interested enough to download All The Bright Places, which I have in my library if it hasn't already been stolen. I think it has, though by a literacy teacher rather than a student. 

There was a panel on "Invented Worlds, Real Feelings" which included an overseas GoH, Mariko Tamaki, who does graphíc novels with "queer" sensibilities(apparently, one of them was on last year's top ten most challenged books list, though it might be a bit hard to do a virtual readout of a graphic novel), Alison Evans, who has done a fantasy novel and the lovely Alison Goodman, whom I've known since we met in a car on the way to our Aussiecon 3 committee meetings. We used to sit in the back and chat and she told me about this really good book called Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone. She did her first ever school visit to my library, because she wanted the practice, and spoke to my book club. She was teaching Creative Writing back then, but only had one book to her name, Singing The Dogstar Blues, but goodness, she had it all plotted out and showed my four eager students her massive chart!

There were several panels that day, but for me the standout was Jay Kristoff's GoH speech on Why We Need Science Fiction. You may know him as the co-author of the Illuminae Chronicles, which he's done with fellow Aussie Amie Kaufman, whom I first met at Flinders St station some years ago, when she stopped me to admire my t-shirt and told me she had her first book coming out the next year. They have both done very well since then, but, while Amie keeps popping up at various events, it was the first time I had heard him speak and I have to say I was impressed. I learned, among other things, that he once raided George R R Martin's hotel room for booze to share with some Game of Thrones cast members after the bar closed. 

It did help that he finished his inspiring speech with a line about a show that had presented people of diversity, of all colours and races going to the stars together and showed a slide of the original Star Trek cast. I wanted to cheer, but there were a few startled laughs. Clearly those audience members didn't get it. I think Gene Roddenberry, with his concept of IDIC(Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) "got it" far better than some folk now promoting book diversity. 

And I remember an episode, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", which showed the utter stupidity of racism. Two men from the same planet had been fighting and chasing each other through space for thousands of years. Both were half black, half white - literally! The only difference between them? One had black on his left side, the other on his right. When they finally got back to their homeworld, it was dead - destroyed by war. It wasn't by any means the best episode of the series, but it made its point. 

Star Trek did what other genres can't: it commented on our world, hidden within the science fictional elements. I think that was somewhere in Jay's speech. Well done, Jay! 

Saturday had more interesting panels than Friday. It opened with Mariko Tamaki doing her GoH speech, which was mostly autobiographical, about growing up Japanese in Canada, then doing her first graphic novels. It was an enjoyable speech with plenty of warmth and humour. 

This was followed by "Too long, didn't read," on "Engaging the Internet generation." The main question was whether kids were reading less as a result of spending so much time on line. It was answered with a resounding "No!" by all the panellists. Kids, they pointed out, were reading - and writing - as much as  ever, if not more. It was just a matter of what. This was the point at which Lili Wilkinson suggested allowing fan fiction as part of a creative response in English. Of course, I always did that, back when we were allowed to do creative responses. Hers went a tiny bit further: including characters from other universes in the fan fiction. That hadn't occurred to me, though why not?

 I used to keep fan fiction as an option for the better writers - the poor ones really preferred to do something simpler, such as prepare a PowerPoint which showed pictures from the story and told the story. Once, I even had an integration student do an audio ebook, with his own voice reading what he had written, next to the slides. He needed help, but it worked and he had something to be proud of. Fan fiction, though, told me whether or not a student had understood the story. One student wrote a beautiful sequel to Morris Gleitzman's Once(she hadn't read Then, the actual sequel and I wasn't going to tell her). As far as I was concerned, she had understood it. And this particular student had a habit of writing novelettes! Nine thousand word epics, which I then had to edit. She was a bit upset at being limited to a few hundred words, but she learned how to keep it short and the story was published in the school anthology. 

I digress. Anyway, I nodded in agreement with Lili. Recently, a student cried, "Miss, I can't think of how to end this!" I suggested he have a spaceship land. "That's what I do," I told him. (Well, only sometimes, but still...). Ten minutes later, his story was complete. With spaceship and all. Yesss! Not quite fan fiction, but similar to Lili's suggestion. 

It was after this that Adele Walsh invited us to post links to our on line fan fiction on Twitter. Which I did, don't know if anyone else did.  

Another session I enjoyed was "Finding Zevo", presented by a transgender person called Zevo, who has written an autobiography, the one we had in our goody bags. As far as I'm concerned, Zevo is a "he", a young man with long hair tied back in a pony tail, and a beard. You change genders, that's the gender you are, right? The program book referred to him as "they". But I will refer to him as "he". Besides, the one trans person in my circle of friends insisted he was David, once he was no longer Jan, and he, not she. When I went to his funeral by the river, his very macho sword and heavy armour were laid out and plans made for a sort of Viking funeral(the ashes were laid in a toy Viking ship and launched on the river.)

I wasn't sure what to expect, given that Zevo had been called "they" in the con book, but he was very funny and warm, as he told his story, of having been a nice Jewish girl for Mum, who wanted a girl. She even had a bat mitzvah. He assured us he was not born into the wrong body, it was the right body, just not what his parents wanted. For a time, Zevo was a lesbian, girlfriend and all. Then, finally, time to take the hormones and do the other necessary stuff and behold! A young man. He's just turned twenty-one and has already been doing a lot of community work - good on him! I will be reading his book as soon as I get my goody bag back from Mum's place. 

A panel I liked very much was "The Real Of The Unreal", in which three spec fic writers talked about the research they did for their fantastical worlds. Alison Goodman, as we know, has been working on Regency fantasies(I bought the first in ebook on Saturday)and has done huge amounts of research, including learning some Regency era dances. Jay Kristoff said that he and Amie Kauffman work with what they know, research and then have their work read by experts in the area. That, of course, is a  great way to do it. Rachael Kraw, whose sort fic novel has DNA in it as an important element, admitted cheekily that she bullshits quite a lot and hopes she will get away with it. So far, I think, she has. I'm reading that one next. They were comfortable together, as spec fic people tend to be. More of this next time, please! 

Lance Balchin, a photographer who has built bits and pieces to use in a book called Mechanica(followed by Aquatica) did his GoH speech and that was great fun, as he showed us how he did it. Believe me, I had to be firm with myself and not allow myself a copy of one of those beautiful picture "encyclopaedias" of the future! I knew I would take them home, drool for a while and never read them again. 

This was followed by a sneak peek at the new Insideadog website,  which hasn't actually been created yet, but they explained that it would be more focussed on the chance for kids to do creative things instead if just checking out each other's book reviews. Pity it won't be out for a while! 

The closing ceremony had the gorgeous cartoons I mentioned in my last post. I hope they will be up soon. I was sorry that on the Friday I had to miss Will Kostakis's GoH speech. I gather it made people cry! I had to leave on time for the family dinner, and the event had gone over time. Will said on Saturday that they might be doing a podcast - fingers crossed! 

Anyway, there's my con report for this Reading Matters. I have a lot of reading to do! 

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Back From The Con...With Books! Reading Matters 2017 - Part One

I've spent most of the last week at home with a sore throat, a bad cough and a stuffy head, but I have been looking forward to Reading Matters for months - and paid $$$, as I was never sure that my school would pay. I was going. My doctor said on Tuesday that every conference has at least one irritating person who is spreading their germs and I shouldn't be that person. I understood, but I was going. I took great care to sit on the end of the row and turn my head to cough into my tissues. I didn't touch anyone and I was careful not to touch the food on the tables except with a fork. That's all I could do.

So, on to the conference itself. We arrived on Friday morning, picked up our badges and a goody bag with actual goodies in it! The last couple of times the goody bags were mostly filled with advertising materials, which I dumped. We even got a USB stick which was filled with advertising and I don't think you could delete the files. Useless! We got a USB stick this time too, but I believe that among whatever advertising stuff is in it(haven't checked it yet)is our certificate for VIT to say we did the 16 hours of PD time. 

But this time there were five books - five! One was the newest Vikki Wakefield novel, which I had better read, as it's likely to turn up on next year's CBCA shortlist. There was a Volume 2 fantasy novel, a verse novel and - oh, yes, one by one of the GoHs, I do hope they get royałties on it. I mean, that's about five hundred copies. Mind you, Will Kostakis's book The First Third, was handed out in uncorrected proof form, at another RM and he's done fine since then, and the novel has had some shortlistihgs. 

There was a book of sample chapters, but I left that behind. I prefer to read the whole thing. And five full length books had been provided, more than enough to keep me happy. 

Now, before I talk about the con itself I will just make a few suggestions for next time, for the con committee.

1. Consider videoing the panels and projecting them on to the screen which, this time, was used only for showing the book covers of the panellists except for a couple of GoH speeches when the speakers showed slides that went with their talks. The auditorium was long and the dais was in the middle. If you were sitting at the side or the back, you didn't have much chance of seeing the speakers. I chose to sit on the side, for reasons mentioned above and so that I could slip out if I had to. I couldn't see much beyond the occasional nose or head of hair. So I just listened. 

2. Take an example from SF conventions and give a wind-up signal. The first day was going way over time, though they did manage to get the over-time down by the end of the day. The second day there was timing, which didn't stop the final presenter before the closing ceremony from going fifteen minutes over her allocated time - did they allow it or did she just ignore the windup signal? And the closing ceremony included a wonderful presentation by the convention artist, who had been taking "notes" in the form of colourful cartoons for two days. I would have hated to miss that, and some people might have had to, with transport issues or waiting family. 

3. This is probably just personal, but think about it anyway. Reading Matters is basically a writers' festival, though admittedly the attendees are mainly librarians. If I want advice on how to run my library I can go to a SLAV conference. That's what they're for. SLAV used to have a book-based conference at the end of each year, but no more. So I really look forward to Reading Matters, which is only once every two years. I would really like it if next time they could scrap those presentations and slip in a couple more book panels - OR - preferably - see below...

4. Leave room in each panel or presentation for about ten minutes of Q and A. That was missing from this year's event, I'm not sure why. If strict timing is observed next time, then they will have room. Obviously, this time, that first day was already running late. But when you've come a long way and spent a lot of money to hear favourite authors, you do want the chance to ask a question or two! 

Here are a few things that worked well for me. The catering was good, the catering staff pleasant. The tea was help-yourself while there were two coffee carts making lattes, cappuccinos, etc. That's a good way to do it. There were cold water urns in the auditorium, as well as the foyer, and proper glasses rather than paper cups. Nice! 

The autograph sessions were well organised, over two rooms. Mind you, I only got one book signed, and that was because I had donated my copy to the school library, from which it was borrowed and not returned. I owed myself a signed copy! 

The book stall was there for most of the con, which meant that after the first session, when you couldn't get near the books let alone the booksellers, there was plenty of time to have a browse. 

I will continue with the actual panels in my next post, hopefully tomorrow. There were some good speakers, and IMO the best panels were those on speculative fiction. Of course, I'm biased, but others said the same. There are reasons for that, which I'll discuss in my next post.

By the way, one of the quirkier bits of the con was Adele Walsh, the head honcho, asking the audience who had written fan fiction. When many hands shot up, she invited us to tweet links to our stories. I thought all of mine were in print, not on line, but suddenly recalled that two of my old Trek stories were up on a web site called 1001 Trek Tales. So I did put up a link, but if anyone else did I have no idea. And I don't really want to wade through all those #YAmatters tweets to find out! Let me know if you're interested and I'll put up my link on this site. There are only two, because the lady published what she already had in her old zine collection. I did give my permission, of course.  But you're welcome to read them. 

Anyway, good night till my next post!