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Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Montmaray Journals Books 1 and 2, by Michelle Cooper. Sydney, Random House, 2010

The first of these two books, A Brief History of Montmaray, came out in 2008, and did very well, winning the NSW Premier's Literary Awards in 2009. This is now out in a new cover, with its sequel, The FitzOsbornes in Exile.

Sophie FitzOsborne, who narrates these stories in a journal, is a princess. She even lives in a castle. The only problem is, it's not much of a castle; her home is crumbling away and the tiny island kingdom her family rules has lost most of its subjects, both to emigration and to the Great War. She lives with her intellectual cousin Veronica, who is writing a history of the kingdom, her little sister Henry (short for Henrietta), Henry and Sophie's insane uncle, King John, who never leaves his room these days, and a housekeeper, Rebecca. Sophie's brother, Toby, heir to the throne, is off at school in England The royal family's lives are kept busy with housework and milking the goat and all their news from the outside world comes in a Basque ship now and then.

The year, in the first book, is 1936, and there is a hint that war might be coming. When a group of Nazis arrives, led by a scholar who really believes the Holy Grail might be somewhere in the crumbling cvastle of Montmaray, their lives change for the worse...

With a sequel called The FitzOsbornes In Exile, it's impossible to avoid spoilers. Sophie and her family have been forced to flee Montmaray for England, where they are now living with Aunt Charlotte, a Montmaray princess who married a wealthy commoner and left her home twenty years ago. Uncle Arthur is now dead, but his money lives on. As a result, ironically, the princesses are able to live like royalty for the first time in their lives. Of course, Aunt Charlotte is setting up their debuts, determined to get Sophie and Veronica husbands. It doesn't help that Veronica is intelligent and left-wing in her politics. She embarrasses her aunt at every dinner party by asking questions that the likes of Oswald Mosley don't want to hear. It helps even less that Veronica is more or less going out with a Jewish left-wing intellectual, her former tutor.This is the era of Neville Chamberlain and other politicians who think Hitler is the best thing that ever happened to Germany and are determined to make peace at any cost. Because the girls are royalty, they meet a large number of famous historical figures, while campaigning for help for Montmaray.

But this is the era of appeasement and the British government is not keen to help. The girls might have to find their own solution.

The two books are a delight. They show history from the viewpoint of characters you care about. There's no historical detail of the kind that might turn off young readers. If they're interested, they can pursue some of the history that Sophie mentions in the course of telling about her own life. The Author Notes at the back of both books give them enough information for them to do so. The class conscious society of Britain between the wars is well-presented.

Recommended for girls from about fourteen upwards.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Copyedit Done!

My novel, first called Bisclavret, now to come out in December as Wolfborn, is getting to the final stages. Cover design done, complete with something called a 'shoutline" and cover blurb, copyedit complete as of today. I was surprised to see some things "corrected" when they weren't wrong, but this was to fit in with the company style manual. I also found some bits that I had got wrong ages ago and somehow missed, in all the writing and re-writing I've done.

Strange, really. This is my tenth book - eleventh if you count the one I wrote last year for a very small publisher who will never get any work from me again ... but that's another matter. Anyway - I have been through the editing/copyediting/proofing stages many times and somehow this feels different, probably because all but two of those books were non-fiction. And the two fiction pieces were children's chapter books, only the length of a short story. You learn so much.

In the past, because it was non-fiction and each chapter told a different story, I could write my book and send it in chapter by chapter, working with an editor as i went along. This one started with a complete manuscript and comments were made on the book as a whole.

That makes for a very different experience.

Still - it's very exciting now that it's really, really happening. I think I might have a very emotional moment when I see my first advance copy. :-)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Lost In Stories" and Romy

I have checked out my new follower, Romy's, web site at and can heartily recommend it to anyone who loves a good book blog with an emphasis on young adult books. It's beautifully presented and the reviews are great. Fairly soon I am going to put it on the sidebar as a regular link, but meanwhile, if you are reading this, please go take a look at this terrific blog. I've already popped myself in as a follower.

Monday, July 19, 2010


What a day I had on Saturday July 17!

It’s not that I haven’t done some book-signing before, but usually it’s been a case of trying to flog my children’s non-fiction at a science fiction event, the only opportunity I’ve been given. And if you were at a con and could buy the latest bit of speculative fiction and have it signed, or a children’s book about spies or crime, which would you choose, unless you knew the author personally and wanted to be supportive? (Or you were, say, Jeanette Allen who knew the author, wanted to be supportive AND loved true crime!)

Ironically, I ended up selling more books at Dymock’s last weekend than the YA novelists, because the people who wandered in to buy books brought their small children, not their teenagers. Even Hazel Edwards, who is the best self-promoter I have ever met, ended up signing a whole lot of copies of There’s A Hippopotamus On My Roof Eating Cake and not so many copies of F2M, her new novel, for this reason (not to mention her fans who had read Hippo as children!).

I left Mum’s place early on Saturday morning, picked up some of my Crime Time mini-posters from home (Paul, my publisher, has run out, but I haven’t) and went off to Cheltenham by train, arriving at Southland early enough to take a quick look at what the bookshop had arranged for us.

It was excellent! They had a timetable planned out, balloons outside, our books in the windows – really, more like a mini writers’ festival than a standard bookshop event. I met the organiser, Alice, and had a short chat with her before going off for a coffee and cake – there was plenty of time – until it was time. I rang a couple of people who were coming to assure them it looked like a great gig.

And so it was. Alice told me that when it was time, they would go round up some children for our audience. I was on first, at the back of the store in the children’s section. Before that, a store manager offered to put my stuff into the back room, which I accepted gratefully. He said, “When I was reading your blog this morning…”

Wow! Reading MY blog? Silly me. It was Chuck McKenzie, fan extraordinaire and LiveJournal friend! We’d never met, but it was nice to meet him for the first time.

That shop has a small press stand, which includes one of Chuck’s own books and other Aussie small press titles, including both the Peggy Bright books.

I told him about my novel and he said that when it comes out, they will put it face out on the paranormal fiction stand, which sells about five times more than the SF section. I left a copy of my cover/blurb with Alice, who will see if she can’t organise something for me in December, although at Christmas the place will be overflowing and not much space for signings and such.
When I saw my audience consisted of very young children, probably way too young for my book, I had to change my planned talk. I sat down on one of the tiny stools and asked if they’d rather hear scary stories or funny ones.

“Funny ones!” they chorused, so I told them about the silly people who robbed the Cuckoo restaurant and came home with only a bag of bread rolls, and the very naughty nana – “not like YOUR nana, I bet!” to which they agreed – who had poisoned members of her family. Fortunately, they had elder siblings listening, so I actually sold two copies that morning, signed to the older kids, of course, not the little ones. But the little ones did laugh at the right spots.

On to roaming the shop with copies and mini-posters, and smiling at customers and persuading them to buy my book and get it signed. One lady who thought I was staff glared at me till I assured her I didn’t work there, I was only a writer, then relaxed and bought a copy.

By the time I was signing in the window, I’d sold five copies of Crime Time, then another three. I even sold some books to adults, for themselves! One couple came along and bought two copies of Crime Time – one for the wife, the other for her mother – and a copy of Your Cat Could Be A Spy, which her husband wanted for himself. I sold another copy of Cat to a child, who was fascinated by my story of the cat which had been wired for sound and then killed on the road on its first day as a spy. She went to find her father to buy it. These copies of Cat were actually print-on-demand, which Allen and Unwin is doing now, so had had to be bought on firm sale. They looked fine – just like the originals. I offered to buy any unsold, but Alice assured me they would sell – she asked me just to sign anything unsold, which then had a sticker to say they were signed.

I finally got to meet Grant Gittus, the designer, whom I told that this was the best cover I’d ever had. Grant was wandering around taking photos, which added to the festive atmosphere. He mentioned he knew of a company who could do me some more bookmarks for a reasonable price. I’m going to follow it up. I know stickers are a good thing and I gave away a lot of mini-posters for kids to put on their schoolbooks, but bookmarks always work.

Chuck told me that the book had originally been in true crime because the head office had thought the cover looked adult. I’d thought that too, but as it turned out, later, there was more to it. There was a mistake on the distributors’ web site, which Paul has now fixed.

Anyway, Chuck told me that once he’d put it face out in the children’s section it had sold just fine. He was going to let head office know.

The next gig was at Angus and Robertson at Victoria Gardens in Richmond. That one was just a signing – I have to admit I was relieved; although the morning had been fun, I was tired. The signing tables were set up in the entrance, with a thoughtful bottle of water for each of us (I NEEDED a drink by then!) and a very nice pen for each.

The manager here told me that he’d ordered twenty copies of my book and sold a large number of them in the days before we arrived. He was going to order another ten and invited me to come back for another event. I only sold two that afternoon, but the staff didn’t seem bothered. Again, we signed and put stickers on unsold stock.

After finding my way back to Church Street, I took the tram homewards and went out to celebrate a great day with dinner at the Presse café, including a glass of white wine.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

SIX IMPOSSIBLE THINGS By Fiona Wood. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2010

Dan Cereill (anagram for “Cinderella”, deliberate) has a list of six things he’d like to see, starting with kissing beautiful Estelle, the girl next door (he’s never met her, but it doesn’t hurt to dream). He believes all six are impossible, with good reason.

He has had to absorb a lot of shocks at once. Dad has become bankrupt, come out as gay and left, leaving Dan and his mother to see everything they own other than the clothes on their backs and a few things they’ve smuggled out, taken away. They do have somewhere to live, because Dan’s mother’s Great-Aunt Adelaide has died, leaving them the use of her hone. It’s a huge Victorian house with priceless antiques in it, but they can’t sell anything, because they don’t own it. It all goes to the Historic Homes Trust whenever his mother dies. Money? Left to the National Gallery. Jewellery? Left to a local shopkeeper.

Then there’s his new school. They can’t afford private any longer, so it’s off to the local secondary school, where he has to start all over again. There are the bully-types, but there’s also sensible Lou (perfect for his friend Fred). And Estelle, who doesn’t seem to like him much, and spends all her time with her two friends.

Still, there’s the Year 9 Social to look forward to, if he can bring himself to go, and stop worrying about his mother, who has started listening to Radiohead while working at her not-so-successful wedding cake business (she keeps talking clients out of getting married).

I began by thinking this one reminded me a little of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, but Dan is a lot stronger than Adrian. When things eventually take a turn for the better, it’s because he has been working at it. Things don’t just happen to him: he deals with them, as best he can.

It’s seen from the viewpoint of the boy, but I can imagine a companion volume about Estelle and her two best friends, because they are strong characters in their own right.

The title, while referring to Dan’s list, also takes us right back to Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who used to believe six impossible things before breakfast every morning. That, too, was a story of the absurd things that can happen to a child.

The one nitpick I have with it is that I really, really can’t see a school ordering three kids to do a responsible task like arranging the school dance as a punishment. It happens often enough in teen comedy, but is highly unlikely to happen in the real world. In the state school system in which I work, such events are generally arranged by the Student Representative Council with the help of the staff.

Also, teachers come along to supervise the event. In this novel, there are no teachers present on the night, which enables the school airheads to bring along booze and get everyone drunk. Sorry. It doesn’t happen in the schools of the state system. Perhaps it would be allowed in private schools, but I suspect not. A school can be sued if a branch falls on a student in the yard where no teacher is on yard duty; it’s just too much to believe that the school would allow a bunch of kids to take over the gym for the night with no teachers to supervise. There are adults present – the boy’s neighbour and his DJ girlfriend, who help avert disaster - but that’s by chance.

I can understand why the author did it. She needed a drunk scene for one of the characters and a fight which solves some of the problems. But this is just too much suspension of disbelief to ask, and I suspect teen readers might also find it a bit much to swallow.

Still, it’s a funny, gentle story which should work well on the teen market, probably better with girls than boys, but might also work well as a class text.

Maybe they can discuss the unlikely bits as part of the class discussion of the novel.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Of Followers and Posts

G'day. followers and anyone else reading this. I seem to have acquired two followers in as many days, making the number twelve. Several of them I know personally, whether here in Melbourne or through SF fandom - or, in one case, through my classroom - hullo, Dylan! Hope your baby brother comes along very soon now!

Others are mysterious to me. If you have not given a full name, or I don't know you personally, would you like to put in a comment and introduce yourself? And why my blog? I've checked out the other blogs followed with some of them and there are such a wide variety I can't work out the connection.

Just wondering.

Also - I don't seem to have had any real comments in some time, though I have rejected several in Chinese, one which started in Chinese and ended with the word "blog" in English and one which was just ...... I'm wondering if anyone has put in a comment only to have it end up as ...... or Chinese gibberish?

Stand by for some more reviews. I have just finished a young adult book called Six Impossible Things, which is not a seventh volume in the Hitch-Hiker's Guide or a sequel to Alice Through The Looking Glass.

Today I have a gig at Southland Dymock's and Victoria Gardens A&R, to promote Crime Time. Wish me luck, everyone!

Monday, July 12, 2010

MOMENT OF TRUTH. Book 5: The Laws Of Magic. By Michael Pryor. Sydney: Random House, 2010

There’s a war on in the Edwardian alternative universe of The Laws Of Magic. Aubrey Fitzwilliam, son of the Prime Minister of Albion, and his friends George and Caroline, who have spent the last four volumes trying to prevent it, have been recruited as part of the Albionish secret service. War is bad enough in itself, but if this one proceeds for long enough, it will lead to the immortality of the evil Dr Tremaine, former Sorcerer Royal, who has no problem with wiping out as many lives as it takes to perform the magic ritual that will extend his own.

The trio returns to Gallia, scene of their earlier adventures (Heart Of Gold), this time to set up a base for a team of remote magical observers. But nothing ever goes the way it’s meant to go in Aubrey’s world. All bets are off when the three find out what is being manufactured in a Holmland factory belonging to Baron von Grolman …

If you’re worried about this delightful steampunk series going downhill, as series novels tend to do, don’t be. The fun and the action are there, as always, the characters as likable as ever. Aubrey can be worrying about his team-leading skills one moment and how he’s going to tell Caroline his feelings the next. George is still Aubrey’s solid support. Caroline is elegant and deadly; she doesn’t lose control even when in the presence of Dr Tremaine, who killed her father. And she’s still capable of reducing Aubrey to mush with a word.

George, Aubrey and Caroline have come a long way since Blaze of Glory. They have a little way further to go, with one more novel in the series. It will be sad to say goodbye to these characters, and I suspect I will end up going back and reading it all over again.

There is a new cover; the whole series has been re-packaged to appeal to the young adult audience for which it was originally intended, and to have more of a science fiction feel. The brooding Aubrey on the cover looks quite menacing for a young man who hates carrying guns and prefers to use his intellect and his magic, but it’s very striking and should gather a new set of fans for the series.

If you haven’t read this series yet, what are you waiting for? Go and get the lot, with the great new covers!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

On Comments in Chinese

What is it with these Chinese "comments"? I know it happens to other bloggers, I've seen it in the Blogger complaint forum, but I'm still not sure why. If it's spam, why do the spammers think they can sell us anything in Chinese?

Every day, I eagerly check to see if anyone has been interested enough in my posts to make a comment - and most days the "comments" are either Chinese or English language spam.

Today there were two.


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

MADIGAN MINE By Kirstyn McDermott. Sydney, Pan Macmillan, 2010

Alex is in his twenties, in a shared house and working a dead-end job after failing to get anywhere with his art. Suddenly, he runs into childhood sweetheart Madigan, daughter of a wealthy family, who had been taken back to Ireland and wandered Europe after her mother’s death, before returning to Melbourne.

Madigan is beautiful, passionate, far more talented in art than Alex could ever be. And she is very much in love with him.

But Madigan has something deeply weird about her. She moves into his share house and his life, then brings her group of - disciples? Fans? Only Alex can’t see that there’s anything wrong, but even he throws her out when she finally goes too far even for him – and then she commits suicide.

But is she as dead as she seems? Alex suffers blackouts. People he has never met greet him. He has, apparently, done things he can’t remember doing. And it only gets worse….

This could easily be a psychological thriller, but gradually, through flashbacks, the reader realises that there is enough evidence to believe Alex when he says he’s possessed.

It’s an interesting premise, a possession story from the viewpoint of the possessed, and it’s some time before you do accept that he’s possessed and not just crazy – Alex is not exactly a stable person even at the beginning of the novel. My own background has the dybbuk as part of its folklore, but there is a ritual way to get rid of the dybbuk, while Alex seems to find only one very grim way to get her out of his body, if he is willing to do it.

This is a debut novel from a writer who is well-known in Australia for her short horror fiction and has won several awards in this genre. Hopefully, it is just the first in a long career.