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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Swallow's Dance by Wendy Orr. Melbourne: Allen and Unwin, 2018

I wonder if the first day of Learning is always like this - do the girls on the hill always feel the ground tremble under their feet?

Leira is about to start her initiation as a priestess when her world is turned upside down. A violent earthquake leaves her home - and her family - in pieces. And the goddess hasn't finished with the island yet.

With her family, Leira flees across the sea to Crete, expecting sanctuary. But a volcanic eruption throws the entire world into darkness. After the resulting tsunami, society descends into chaos; the status and privilege of being noble-born reduced to nothing. With her injured mother and elderly nurse, Leira has only the strength and resourcefulness within herself to find safety.

This is another of Wendy Orr's amazing stories set in ancient Greece. The first one, Dragonfly Song, was about bull dancing in ancient Crete, as seen from the viewpoint of a young girl who has become mute after seeing her foster mother carried off by raiders, and lives as a servant in the hall of her real mother, the Lady(high priestess) before volunteering to go to Crete as a bull dancer. Here's my interview with Wendy Orr about that, when she shows just how much she knows about this subject!

This novel is about the Thera explosion. In case you're unfamiliar with that, it was a huge volcanic explosion on the island of Santorini in about 1610 BCE. You can still go to the island and look into the crater. It erupted with the energy of several hundred atomic bombs. Fortunately, the inhabitants probably got away in time, though their homes were wiped out, so there would have been a lot of refugees. It may have had a major effect on not only Minoan civilization, but others; there are even theories about a connection with the Ten Plagues of Egypt.

There are still some remains, including a wonderful wall painting called "The saffron gatherers".

Public Domain.
In her introduction to the book, the author says she was inspired by this painting and I think the girl gathering crocus flowers above is her inspiration for Leira.

Unlike Aissa, heroine of Dragonfly Song, Leira lives happily and comfortably with her aristocratic priestly family until disaster strikes. Before the eruption, there is an earthquake. Her mother is a priestess under the Lady, high priestess of the Goddess, her father is the head of the small island's merchant fleet. She has two older brothers, one married and travelling with their father, the other a diplomat representing the family in Crete. Suddenly, she finds herself having to take responsibility for her mother and her elderly nurse; while her father did manage to get them away, then set off for a trading voyage, the people of Thera are considered unlucky. From wealth and comfort, they are now poor and homeless.

What I like about Leira is that she doesn't complain, she just gets on with  the challenge she has been given, and makes a good fist of it. Some people she meets are dreadful, others kind and compassionate.  Whoever they are, she deals with the life she has been given. And it isn't only Leira. Her father and his sailors spend weeks after the earthquake digging out people and property and looking after other survivors. There is no complaint, just doing what has to be done.

We have no way of knowing exactly how the Minoans lived, but I found this book 's interpretation of the evidence convincing. The young daughters of the priestly class gather crocus flowers and produce the precious saffron as a religious task. The volcano's rumbles are described as the Goddess belching. The culture is shown as a pleasant one, laid-back and comfortable; late in the book, Leira is shocked to see that other cities have, in desperation, resorted to human sacrifice, something that was never a part of her own culture when she was living at home. 

I found this an enjoyable trip to ancient Greece, which children from about nine upwards will also enjoy. It has fewer fantasy elements than Dragonfly Song - no snake singing or mental control of animals, just a dream that Leira's father has, which encourages him to take his family and fellow islanders away, and an omen or two, but the few fantastical elements are enough for this story. Like Dragonfly Song, it has large chunks of verse. It took me a while to get used to that in the first book, but I am comfortable with it now.

Highly recommended from mid-primary to early secondary school level.

How to buy:

You can buy it in paperback from Booktopia . I believe Booktopia, an Australian site, ships overseas.

Amazon Australia has it for Kindle, but you will have to wait till October to get it in hardcover from this site, either in Australia or the US. Book Depository has the paperback available now.  

Good Stuff Recently Picked Up On iBooks!

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I have read it, but I gave my print copy to a bookloving younger family member, one I know will love it. (And by the way, another young family member, only nine years old, cuddled up with me yesterday to show me his new  copy of The Ruins Of Gorlan, by John Flanagan and we bonded over the Ranger’s Apprentice series and Percy Jackson. We’ve already bonded over Harry Potter.)

The Lace Weaver by debut Aussie author Lauren Chater. It’s historical fiction, which I love, set in Eastern Europe,and sounds intriguing. I wish her all the best with it!

Wouldn’t It be Deadly by D.E Ireland, which was recommended by a blogger I follow. It’s set in the world of Shaw’s Pygmalion, though it is part of a crime fiction - cosy? - series that has titles based on songs from My Fair Lady. It sounded like fun and I’ve started it and so far, it is fun. Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins solving mysteries? Intriguing! Not certain what Bernard Shaw would think of it, but I’m enjoying.

Ocean’s Justice by Demelza Carlton, whom I first discovered on Instafreebie. In which the Little Mermaid, having killed her prince, and disgusted at having been pushed into it, turns up on a raft in the Atlantic in the early 20th century... Just started this one.

The Miracle And Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis. I will read anything by this author! I’m halfway through, reading a tongue-in-cheek Poirot send-up.

A couple more cosies, which I cam’t resist when they are going free on iBooks. And some Simon Haynes novels, which I can’t keep up with, including Peace Force, the first of a new series, which sounds like a space opera adventure, but so far, reads more like a cross between the over the top humour of  Douglas Adams and Robert Sheckley.

Bath Tangle, by Georgette Heyer, which is havrn’t read before and was going cheap on iBooks.

Finally- for now- Simon Petrie’s Flight 404, which I have somewhere in print, but can’t find. It’s hard SF with a transgender heroine and still manages to be about family and the character. If you missed the Peggy Bright Books edition, here’s your chance!

So, what are YOU reading?

PS Return to this site and n Wednesday for my review of Wendy Orr’s new novel, Swallow’s Dance, set in the time of the Thera explosion.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

On Midwinter’s Day : Some rereads and a download!

I have just finished rereading The Devil’s Novice by Ellis Peters. Like all her other Brother Cadfael novels, it features a sweet young couple, of course, and Brother Cadfael as wise mentor as well as sleuth. Usually, he examines a dead body in forensic detail, but for reasons you’ll find once you start reading, that isn’t possible in this one. A cleric disappears on his way to an important meeting, after spending the night at a local manor house. Soon after, a young man is brought by his father to the abbey at Shrewsbury as a novice. He seems keen to join the monastic life, but starts screaming in his sleep, terrifying all the other novices... it has been so long since I read this that I’d forgotten whodunnit, so it’s nice to read it like a new book, yet with the comfort of the familiar characters and setting. I love this series - despite Shrewsbury being a sort of mediaeval Midsomer, it’s gentle, and has characters you care about.

I’ve started rereading Peter’s Room by Antonia Forest. Despite being the fifth in a series, it stands alone quite happily - I’ve never read any of the others and remember enjoying it the first time. I’m just reading how the Peter of the title, a fourteen year old boy, has discovered a cluttered old room in a building on the farm the family has inherited from a relative, and is setting it up to be his den. There have been family members there for centuries so he has found some fascinating historical documents among the junk. It’s really about the Bronte sisters’ personal stories about Gondal, a world created well before they wrote their classic novels. The kids’ discussions about this are very interesting stuff. Anyway, I’m enjoying the reread and have just discovered that it’s one of a whole lot of old children’s books being reprinted by a British small press, Girls Gone By, and that author Michelle Cooper, who recently did a guest post on this blog, is also reading it!

I’ve just Started rereading Lord Of The Rings in ebook. I’ve just started the chapter in which the hobbits arrive at Bree, where they will have dinner at the Prancing Pony inn and first meet Aragorn! Yay! Amazing how many adventures they have already had, so short a way into the book. When you’ve read this book several times, you start to pick up things you didn’t notice the first time. And I do like the Bree chapter, not only for Strider. Tolkien liked his English cooking, which most of us assume is stodgy, but the supper the hobbits enjoy really isn’t stodgy at all. In fact, I find the descriptions mouthwatering.

Now for the download. I’ve recently read a post that mentions Geoffrey Trease, a children’s historical  novelist who was writing about the same time as C.S Lewis. I remember loving his books when I was reading them years ago. He wrote about every era from Ancient Greece to the early 20th century and his heroines were always strong and interesting. His first novel, interestingly, was a leftist interpretation of the story of Robin Hood, in which Robin rallies the peasants against the rich. I once heard someone point out a hammer and sickle in the crowd in one of the illoes!

But the one I downloaded is Cue For Treason, set in Elizabeth I’s England. it involves a boy running from a local lord who is after him for helping knock down a wall(the notorious enclosures of that era), a girl running from an unwanted marriage and disguised as a boy and Shakespeare’s company. Oh, and a plot against the Queen... I bought it in audiobook and the reader is Clive Mantle. Clive Mantle played Little John in Robin Of Sherwood. In fact, he  seems to have made a career of playing lower-class characters, so out of curiosity I checked his bio. Son of a well-off family who went to boarding school, it seems. (And Patrick Stewart, who talks like someone who has been to boarding school, one of the elites, was the son of a very UN-elite Yorkshire family who left school at fifteen...)

Anyway,  Clive Mantle reads well, though his reading voice is lighter than the deep rumble he used in Robin Of Sherwood. And by the way, he is a graduate of RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. You have to be pretty good to get into that

I will be lying bs k in bed tonight and enjoying listening to it in the dark! 

Monday, June 11, 2018

Vale Lucy Zinkiewicz!

A couple of days ago I learned on Twitter that an old friend of mine from SF fandom, Lucy Zinkiewicz, had died of cancer. She was several years younger than me, so it feels weird. She was not a famous writer or musician or actress, but within SF fandom in Australia she was known and respected for other things. In her day job as a university academic, she was a well known psychologist with a PhD, articles and books in her name. 

I first met Lucy at the home of a mutual friend. She was in her teens then. I was already a teacher. We all used to hang out, eat stuff and watch Blake’s 7, a British science fiction TV series of the 1970s and 80s. Lucy particularly hung out with her friend Adina, who was about her age and equally bright. I’m not sure what happened to Adina, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear they kept up communication.

The years went by. She moved around, eventually getting a PhD and a job as a member of the faculty of Psychology at Deakin University in Geelong. I live in Melbourne, so I rarely saw her, except at the occasional science fiction convention or an event run by the Melbourne Science Fiction Club, of which she was a member. 

Then - we found ourselves hanging out again, on line. We both joined the Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine co-op. I was art director and answered inquiries while Lucy took on the much more challenging job of slush wrangler. 

If you want some idea of how challenging the job is, it involved receiving thousands of submissions a year - I do mean thousands! - and sending them out to slush readers, including myself. Then she received our responses and it was her melancholy job to give people the bad news when they had been rejected, copying and pasting our comments into the email. No “printed slips” for ASIM! I did get some of the angry replies through the inquiries email, but I have no doubt she got far more than I did - and handled them with courtesy and grace. I can only imagine what she had to put up with from disgruntled authors., judging by some of the emails I had.  I could probably do a whole post about those, but at this stage I’ll just mention those that I received complaining that they had been waiting a whole  24 hours for a reply or a tracking number, was there something wrong with the “Slush O Matic”? I had to reply on those occasions that there was no mechanical device, only a university academic called Lucy, who, like the rest of us, had a day job and was not being paid for this, and asked them to be patient. 

Sometimes, she had the happy job of letting authors know their stories had gone on to the second round or the slushpool, which is where the stories good enough to be published went for editors to choose stories for their issues. However, both of those had extra work. Stories going to the second round, where two readers would decide whether they were good enough for the slushpool, had to be sent out to the readers again, then another response to the authors, whether good news or bad. If it was good news involving the slushpool, she had to insert the story and post to the co-op to let them know there were new stories up and what was being dropped after two months. (More work, including emailing the authors again!)

She was doing all this while lecturing, preparing classes, supervising student theses, writing books and publishing articles. 

But she had yet another task, which I discovered when I finally edited an issue of ASIM. That was to send me stories that might suit my needs. I was still slushing, but the stories I received now were all “refined”, ie second round. She responded promptly to my requests for the different genres needed for my issue. “Can you find me a horror story, please?” That meant she at least had to check out the beginning of the story or people’s comments. By the time I had chosen my stories, either from Lucy’s emails or the slushpool, I felt that she could almost be considered a joint editor. 

She was kind, patient and helpful. And she never, ever complained on list about the exhausting job, though she would have had sympathy, which probably made her the only one of us who didn’t grumble. 

If there is an afterlife, I hope she is curled up on a comfy chair catching up with all the best science fiction she missed out on while looking after new writers - and us. 

Here is a Twitter comment from one of her former students, who I hope won’t mind my quoting him.  Her class was the most engaging and she was fantastic. I looked forward to Wednesday nights every week. A loss to future students, a privilege to past.”

Vale, Lucy, the much-missed! 

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

The Fandom by Anna Day. From an idea by Angela McCann. Frome: Chicken House, 2018

This novel was the result of two competitions run by Chicken House. One of them was the Children's Fiction Competition, the other the Big Idea Competition. So the winner of the former wrote a book based on an idea by the latter. A strange thing, really - if I had a fabulous idea, I sure wouldn't want to give it to someone else to write! Still, it seems to have worked for these two.

The idea is a fascinating one - not totally original, but still fascinating: what if you suddenly found yourself in the universe of a book of which you're a huge fan? Not in a nice world, either - in this case, it's the universe of a bestselling YA dystopian that was turned into a major film. And what if you then unintentionally helped kill off the main character at the start of the story, five minutes after you arrived?

This is what happens to four teens who arrive in the universe of YA dystopian novel Gallows Dance, written by Sally King, an author who committed suicide before she could write the expected sequel. Violet and her friends Katie and Alice and Violet's younger brother Nate are attending the London Comic Con, in costumes based on the film. The only one of them who isn't actually a fan is Katie, who hasn't read the book or seen the film, giving the other characters the excuse to explain things to her.  Alice is stunningly beautiful, tall and elegant and a candidate for Britain's Next Top Model. She is also a very good  - and well known -fan writer, who has been creating her own Gallows Dance stories on line. This is important in the later part of the novel, but no spoilers here. Nate is also knowledgeable about the book, and the smartest of the four.

While getting selfies taken with the actors from the Gallows Dance film, the four collapse and wake up to find themselves in the Coliseum, an area in which the upper-crust, genetically engineered Gems come weekly to watch Imps, members of the unmodified lower classes, hanged. The story of the novel had the heroine throwing a thistle bomb to distract the audience while rebels rescued the latest victims, but Katie, who didn't know this, sees what she thinks is the actress about to throw the grenade and shouts a warning to her, resulting in her death - at the beginning of the story! The rebels do arrive, taking the teens along with them, but now what?

Violet finds out, early on, that the only way for her and her brother and friends to get home is for her to take over the role of Imp Rose, the book's heroine, and complete the canon. It will give her the excuse to kiss the gorgeous Willow Harper, Gem hero of the novel. There are only two problems: one is that she soon discovers she prefers the lesser male character(you know - those YA novels in which the heroine has to choose between two hot boys?) and two - and most important - Rose was supposed to die at the end of the novel! Then Willow is supposed to urge his fellow Gems to tear down the gallows and  reunite the human race. If it doesn't happen, they are stuck in this world.

Violet has a week to win the trust of the rebels, win the love of Willow Harper - and hang. Oh, dear...

It wasn't funny, as I'd thought it would be when I heard about it - this universe is nasty and dangerous and Violet and her friends are in as much danger from the Imp rebels as they are from the Gems.  But I did enjoy the pop culture references scattered throughout the novel. The Hunger Games and Divergent were referenced, as was Twilight -  at one point, Violet wonders how Robert Pattinson felt when Taylor Lautner arrived on the set, and feels a little embarrassed to realise she is falling for the Jacob character instead of Edward.

Interesting to read a novel in which fan fiction is so important. Alice's fan stories were all Mary Sues in which various versions of herself got to romance Willow Harper, but she and her fan fiction are vital to what will happen to this world. And the thing is, that's what fan fiction is about.  Not for nothing is the title The Fandom.

As I said, not truly original. It was being done in classic SF and fantasy many years ago. Fredric Brown's What Mad Universe has a science fiction magazine editor finding himself in a universe which is based on pulp fiction, in which the hero is a version of a loony writer whose work he had rejected. Fletcher Pratt and L Sprague De Camp wrote a series of stories in which the characters use mathematics to get them into the various universes of literature. In Marvin Kaye's The Incredible Umbrella, the hero buys an umbrella that takes him to the world of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas - and others... And so on. There are even plenty of fan stories in which female characters travel to their favourite universes and romance their favourite characters.

But I admit it's the first time I have encountered it in YA.

I'm not sure I liked the ending of this one, but no matter. It's a readable book with non-stop action.

For good readers from about fourteen upwards.

If you want to get this in ebook, you might have to settle for Kindle - I found it on iBooks in four languages, none of them English! There was an audiobook, though. You can get it in print on all the usual web sites or in your local bookshop.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Who Wants To Be A Librarian? And Why?

So, there was this discussion on Twitter about why you would go into librarianship. Someone started it with this well known trope that “if you want to go into librarianship because you ‘love reading’ I suggest another line of work’.” It was tweeted by a non librarian, of course, one of those who think they know all about it. As it was a University academic, I suppose that special librarians don’t take books home to enjoy. But that wasn’t what the tweet said. It was that you shouldn’t go into librarianship if it’s because you love reading. Honestly, why else would you do it?

All the librarians chipped in. Some agreed that sitting around reading all day was not what being a librarian was about. Others, the school librarians, felt that the original tweet had missed the entire point. If you are wanting kids to love reading, you have to love it yourself and that means reading the stuff. Not in the library, obviously, with the million things you have to do, but reading.

Here’s the thing. One of the tweeters said that you shouldn’t put it into your application if you wanted to get the job. And that’s right. BUT...

When I was about to do my interview at RMIT for the librarianship course, which was much sought-after and very hard to get into, I was warned against saying I wanted to do the course because I loved books. I should say it was because I wanted to help people. The time came, I went into the office of the man in the librarianship department who got to decide, finally, whether I would be a librarianship student that year. I’d done all the other stuff. It was a long process that ended in the interview if you were close. The question arrived. Why did I want to do this course? I opened my mouth to say what he presumably wanted to hear... and I said, “Are you seriously suggesting that you didn’t do it because you loved books?”

And he grinned and agreed. He said, “Most people say they want to be handmaids to some sort of research.” That, in other words, and probably “because I want to help people” was what he was fed up with hearing, not “because I love books.”.

Reader, I got in. There were five hundred applications and thirty accepted and I got in because I was honest. So much for that trope.

Of course you want to help people! And I love the research - it has been a huge help in my writing. It has been great to be able to help kids learn how to do it. And of course you don’t sit around reading in the library. You grab a book off the shelves and take it home to read.

I think I probably had the best version of the library job, the school library, closely followed by the public library, but even if I was working in a public library I’d want to be the one who organised and ran storytimes. I love the children’s and YA books. I love opening a box of display books and inviting kids in to help choose new stock. I love taking them to writers’ festivals and chatting about them on the way back to school on the train, and getting kids voting for favourites on the YABBA and Inky Awards. I love watching eyes light up when I hand them the next book in a series they’re reading. I love finding that one book that will get a reluctant reader reading. Most of all, I love saying, “Have I got a book for you!” and sharing it.

See? It is about loving books and reading! And sharing that love.