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Monday, May 31, 2021

The Boy Who Stepped Through Time by Anna Ciddor. Melbourne, Allen and Unwin, 2021


The title of this novel is very suitable. The hero, Perry, literally goes for a walk and ends up in fourth century Roman Gaul. There is a bit more to it than that, but it’s a pretty good description.

Twelve year old Australian boy Perry, in the south of France with his family, is attending a Roman festival in Aix, for which his enthusiastic mother has made costumes. While there, he checks out a display which includes a Roman child’s coffin from the fourth century. Roman children’s coffins included the exact age they were when they died. 

Perry goes for a walk, picks up a Roman stylus and writes on the ground with it and...voila! Back in Roman times, at a villa which was only a ruin last time he looked at it. The master is just returning from the north after a long trip and somehow Perry(Peregrinus in Latin) is mixed up with the new slaves who have returned with the travel party. Not only that, but he can speak and understand Latin. 

Fortunately, the family for whom he is working is quite nice, and he soon makes two friends, Carotus, a fellow slave, and Valentia, the master’s daughter. 

Naturally he spends a lot of the novel trying to work out how he got there and how to get back to his family, but he soon discovers to his horror that the Roman child who died in Aix is someone he knows and cares about. Can he change history before he goes home? 

In the course of the story we are taken through some of the Roman agricultural year and festivals. (Perry agrees the Saturnalia is more fun than Christmas) And there is none of this “don’t step on a butterfly” business. It’s not history when you meet and like the people way back when. Perry works hard to find his way home, but also to save the person who is otherwise doomed to die, by finding out how and where it will happen; thanks to the coffin inscription he already knows when. 

It’s a sweet story, and charming. It’s not an exciting adventure, but not meant to be. There is no villain, which makes that easier.

It rather reminds me of her other two most recent novels, in which not a lot happens, but we learn a bit of history and culture, very  entertainingly. Somehow it works.

And once again, Anna Ciddor shows her artist skills with the internal illustrations.

The author has done her research, but doesn’t shove it in your face. In fact, her sister, a historian who knows a lot about the era, helped with the research, as did another sister and a nephew. Oh, my goodness, how much work those researchers did! 

Well worth a read, for children from about 9-13.

Check out this link from the author’s web site to see what children think of it so far. Hopefully it should be available soon outside Australia.

Balticon #55 - A Virtual And Free Science Fiction Convention

Over the last year, one silver lining to the lockdowns has been the ability to attend science fiction conventions on-line via Zoom or YouTube. I know, the social aspect has been cut back to chatting on line, and the joy of meeting new people and having room parties is not there. But if you want to learn new stuff and hear favourite writers and artists you can still do that, and I have to say I have learned a lot from experts in various subjects. Plus I can leave if the panel isn’t what I had in mind, without offending anyone.

I’ve attended, on line, Worldcon, World Fantasy Con, NASFIC, and others. I couldn’t have done that face to face, due to family commitments. And some were free. Those that weren’t gave attendees lots of books to enjoy and vote on. I’ve joined this year’s Worldcon, even though I can’t go and it’s face to face, because the Hugo Award packet alone is worth the price of membership and I can vote. 

This weekend I have been attending yet another virtual con, Balticon, which is free. 

I have only seen a couple of panels so far, but nearly everything is being recorded and put up on YouTube, so not hard to catch up. Just type “Balticon” into YouTube to find it, and as a bonus you will find panels from other years, which is nice, because the recorded panels of most of the virtual cons we have been enjoying over the last year have been up for about a month on average. This year’s Balticon is #55. You don’t have to join, just wander over to the website to see what is on, or go straight to YouTube, probably best as the con will be over now. The Guest of Honour is Seanan McGuire, author of the October Daye urban fantasy series and many others. Seanan was here in Melbourne for a convention a few years ago. She has cats, which get mentioned on her Twitter account. 

The panel on which I saw her over the weekend, was about bad movie adaptations. It was interesting to hear what the panellists thought were bad(nobody mentioned The Dark Is Rising, a British classic which was completely ruined by being Americanised). But one question which stuck in my mind was “Would you agree to having your books turned into films?” All of the panellists said hell, yeah! Seanan argued that even a film that gets a lot of bad reviews and drops out of sight can make the author of the original book much more money than normal income. I do remember her, at the Melbourne event, saying that even as a full time writer she was not well off and couldn’t afford to pay health insurance, something necessary in the US, where there is no universal health cover. 

I’m off to watch some more panels. See you on YouTube! 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Reasonable Doubt by Dr Xanthe Mallett. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2020

 We all put our faith in the criminal justice system. We trust the professionals: the police, the lawyers, the judges, the expert witnesses. But what happens when the process lets us down and the wrong person ends up in jail?

Henry Keogh spent almost twenty years locked away for a murder that never even happened. Khalid Baker was imprisoned for the death of a man his best friend has openly admitted to causing. And the exposure of 'Lawyer X' Nicola Gobbo's double-dealing could lead to some of Australia's most notorious convictions being overturned.

Dr Xanthe Mallett is a forensic anthropologist who has written a number of books on the subject of crime.

This time, the theme is what happens when forensic scientists and other experts get it wrong, so that innocent people are convicted, often spending years in prison before being freed when the error is picked up - if it ever is. 

If you are Australian, you will certainly have heard of one case not  covered in this book, but which is a good example: Lindy Chamberlain. She was the woman whose baby was carried off by a dingo while the family was camping. The forensics team found her guilty of killing her own child in the car. That area of forensics was not very good at the time and they came to the wrong conclusion. It was several years before the baby’s matinee jacket was found and she was exonerated. 

The cases covered in this book make me wonder if we can rely on those who are supposed to work out what happened using science. I have, in fact, recently read an article that says there is now an argument going on among forensic specialists about whether “shaken baby syndrome” is a thing. Forensics will hopefully improve, but the cases in this book were mishandled because the experts stuffed up. If you are a jury member and an expert witness gets up to explain why the defendant is guilty, you think, well, he knows what he is talking about...

The final chapter of the book deals not with a victim of miscarriage of justice but with someone who has been responsible for many herself.

For many years Nicola Gobbo, known as Lawyer X, was both representing some of the most notorious members of Melbourne’s crime community, during the gangland wars, and using what she had learned to inform against them. Not only that but she also used information from the police taskforce to help her clients. 

  “Conflict of interest” is a major understatement!

   As a result of all this coming to light, hundreds of convicted people will have the opportunity to claim miscarriage of justice and some will be released. 

What a mess! 

Dr Mallett concludes that on the whole the system works, despite all the cases covered in the book, but urges any readers who might find themselves on a jury not to be blinded by science or powerful expert testimony, which can, after all, go horribly wrong, and has. 

Each chapter has a useful section in which an expert in that area explains how it works. 

A fascinating true crime book that shows the other side of crime - when convictions go wrong. Highly recommended.

You can buy this book on all the usual websites, including Amazon, Booktopia and Book Depository. It’s available both in print and ebook, both Kindle and ePub.


Cuckoo’s Flight by Wendy Orr. Melbourne: Allen And Unwin, 2021

 If she had stayed to load the kiln as she should have, she’d never have seen the ship. Mama said the ship still would have been there, so everything had to happen the way it did. But that’s not true. Clio saw it, and the world changed.

When a raiders’ ship appears off the coast, the goddess demands an unthinkable price to save the town – and Clio’s grandmother creates a sacred statue to save Clio’s life.But Clio is torn between the demands of guarding the statue and caring for her beloved horses. Disabled in an accident, she must try to put aside her own grief at no longer being able to ride – and in the process, save a friend’s life and stop a war.

Here is the third of Wendy Orr’s ancient Crete novels. The first, Dragonfly Song,  was about Aissa, a girl who travels to Crete to become a bull dancer. The heroine of the second was Leira, a girl who fled her island, Thera, to escape a volcanic eruption that was bigger than Krakatoa’s. 

In this third volume, the heroine is Leira’s granddaughter, the daughter of a potter and her Trojan husband. Clio has an injury that makes it no longer possible for her to ride her beloved horse Grey Girl, but her father is building her a chariot. 

Clio sees raiders in the bay. There is time for the townsfolk to prepare to defend themselves, unlike in Dragonfly Song, but the Lady(priestess of the mother goddess) of the town, announces that they may have to choose a girl for sacrifice, so grandmother Leira prepares a perfect priestess figurine as an alternative, one which must be preserved until the final decision is made. She dies, but in the course of the novel we learn about all the good things she has done over the years, since we last met her as a girl in Swallow’s Dance

Clio is a worthy granddaughter to Leira. Despite all her problems, she is willing to help a refugee girl who is being badly treated by her brother - who also has reasons for being the way he is. 

Each of the books in this series has just a touch of fantasy, and it’s nice to see a throwaway mention of Troy, presumably the Trojan War. Clio’s father Hector is definitely one of Homer’s “horse taming Trojans.” It doesn’t matter, because the book is aimed at children, who have probably never heard of Homer, but some will look it up, others will simply find out about it later.  

There are no kings or princesses in this book, just a peaceful small town daily life with ordinary people who suddenly have to prepare for war. 

It’s also the most personal of the trilogy, as the author, too, has had an injury preventing her from riding. 

A nice ending to the series! 

I’m not sure when it will be available outside Australia, but it’s worth checking the usual sites to pre order. 

Although each novel stands alone, it’s also worth reading the first two. Why not do that if you have to wait for the new one?

Recommended, especially for children from about 9 to 12.