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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Reading Matters 2015 - Some Books I Bought

Three days! It was a wonderful conference but, unlike SF conventions, you don't really have the option of hanging about outside chatting with friends old and new. Well, you can, but then you miss what you're there for, and I spent $$$ on the membership. And I was cold in that room. I'm told it was just me - even Virginia Lowe, who is much older than me, was surprised when I told her. My mother and sister both suggest it means that I'm not well. So right now, I'm achey all over and have a sore throat.  Oh, well.

I ended up buying some books in print because they weren't on iBooks. In ebook, I got Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains, a piece of historical fiction about African Americans who were slaves in the North during the American Revolution. The sequel wasn't available in ebook, so that was one I bought in print. I also bought her first novel, Speak, in ebook.

I bought Erin Gough's gay YA romance, Flywheel. It sounded like fun.

Clare Wright's Stella-winning non fiction about the women at Eureka, The Forgotten Rebels Of Eureka, sounded fascinating, so I got the book of that. She is apparently working on the YA version, which is mostly abridged. If I like it, I may get that for my library, because I've found the junior version of Mao's Last Dancer has gone over well with our students. Kids do like non fiction if it's about a subject that interests them.

I must admit, her talk went rather too long for my tastes, but it may be because I was starting to feel unwell and just wanted to get out and have a hot drink.

My final ebook was Sean Williams' Jump, which is a what-if that suggests how different the world might be if we had matter transmitters like the ones in Star Trek. We do have a copy in my library, but I don't feel like lugging it home - and if I've been enjoying it, I might be able to recommend it.

One of my print books is Sally Gardner's The Door That Led To Where, a timeslip story about a boy in the here and now who travels back to London in 1830 through a door that only his mysterious key can open - but someone has left the door unlocked and people on both sides have been misusing it for their own ends. It's very entertaining and I've already finished it. I'm starting to read the latest Rbecca Lim novel, The Astrologer's Daughter, which I'm enjoying very much so far, only has anyone noticed how many books these days have titles that go "The ______'s Daughter"?  Still. I have never read one of her books I didn't like and so far, this one is no exception.

Lots of great stuff to read ahead of me!

Friday, May 29, 2015

Reading Matters 2015

Reading Matters 2015 - Student Day and Day 1

I love the Reading Matters Conference. It has been going for a long time and I've gone to all of them. I remember the first one, organised by Agnes Nieuwenhausen. Afterwards, we all went to dinner at a Greek restaurant somewhere in Lonsdale St. I forget which one, though it's probably still there. I was sitting next to Jack Dann, whose wife was one of the speakers. It was nice hearing this American SF writer telling the American next to him how wonderful it was to live in Australia and how safe he felt. They were living in South Yarra at the time, but have since moved to Foster, a beautiful coastal town where Jack can look at the sea as he writes.

There have been ten more since then and on Thursday I was able to take some students to the Student Day. They are all great kids, who didn't disappear and stayed together. One of them not only bought several books and got them signed, but discovered a place at Melbourne Central station where people drop unwanted books and pick up anything they want. It's called the Little Library and I think the two books she picked up were ex library books. They were also books she had been wanting, in a series she is reading. I heard the murmur of envy and admiration from the other students as she showed them off.

One of my students is an autistic lad who is mostly fine, but can explode if he gets upset. This time, he socialised nicely(normally he prefers to sit by himself in class), got his book autographed by Will Kostakis(I took a photo which I can't share with you due to the legalities, but it was a nice one)and generally had a ball. Now and then he asked me a question, but he whispered it and I replied. The integration aides had assured me he would be fine as long as I gave him some attention, so I sat next to him. When Jaclyn Moriarty was talking about how she created her universe for her series "The Colours Of Madeleine" she mentioned a childhood incident in the life of Isaac Newton and I whispered to my young friend that Newton had been autistic(he was, Asperger's, I believe, and that childhood incident confirmed that for me).

I think the highlights of the day were Jaclyn Moriarty, and Sally Gardner's talk about how she was dyslexic and how Dickens wouldn't have made it as a journalist today because he had very little education and the big newspapers refuse anyone without a degree from the major universities. She has written a timeslip story in which the hero time travels to pre-Victorian London. (I have since bought that and am thoroughly enjoying it). Another highlight was the panel with Will Kostakis and Amie Kaufman, which was after lunch. As one of my students said, "They left the best till last." Well, yes and no. Sally Gardner was before lunch. But I do have to say, they need to do something about those microphones in the State Library. The voices were blurred and you had to listen really hard to be able to make out anything the speakers were saying. The panel with the two American GoHs was very hard to make out. There was a motivational speech about following your dreams by Abe Nouk, a local poet and former refugee who has lived here for about eleven years. He is self published(though, to be honest, most poets these days are. Even Steven Herrick, who was selling verse novels to big publishers, has started writing prose these days)

Yesterday, which was at the ANZ Pavilion in the Arts Centre, the microphones were fine.

Anyway, we had a good day and the kids went to get a bit of lunch to take away and bs k we went to Sunshine. Some had notes to say they could be dismissed from the station. Some I dismissed from the shops near school since they live nearby. The rest came back and went home from school. And my autistic lad said, "Thank you for giving up a day of your time in the library to take us."

Is that sweet or what?

I tweeted instead of taking notes yesterday. I bought books! They will, of course, all go into the school library when I've finished reading them. I might review some.

The GoHs were better yesterday, when I could hear them properly. I downloaded two of Laurie Halse Anderson's books and bought in print editions a couple that weren't available on iBooks. Laurie H A gave a very good GoH speech - on the Student Day she was only on a panel. It makes a lot of difference, believe me. As well as contemporary fiction with a gay slant, she writes historical fiction. She spoke of her disillusionment with Benjamin Franklin, who had been her hero until she discovered he was a slave owner all his life. (Well, so were George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and Washington was horrible to his slaves, while Jefferson's lived better than the free peasants, but that's not the point, is it?). Anyway, I bought both her historical novels. I didn't bother with autographs, since I won't be keeping them, and some were ebooks anyway.

I met a few people I knew - Sharon, who used to work with me in the library, who now works at a Catholic girls' school down the road, and Vikki Wakefield, who said it was nice to be there just as a member of the audience instead of a speaker(nice to know, though I'd be thrilled if someone asked ME to speak at a Festival!) I ran into Ellie Marney, who writes that junior modern day Sherlock Holmes fiction, who saw my name tag and asked,"Aren't you on Twitter?" I said I was and that we were doing a panel together at Continuum next week. I'm also doing one with Amie Kaufman, but I think we've done one before. I also met Kirsty Murray, who said she wasn't going to be there today.  I told her one of my students is a big fan of hers and had acquired her latest book on Thursday - pity I couldn't get it signed for her. Oh, well.

I had a bit of egoboo in the morning when the first person I met said, "Hey, you're a writer!"

More today! I will add my photos tonight when I can download them to my computer.

Monday, May 25, 2015

My Take On An Open Letter From GRRM

A friend sent me a certain link, thinking it might amuse me. It did, sort of.

Here it is, so you can read it too. 

It seems people have been noticing how many characters you like get killed in Game Of Thrones. Some must have been complaining about it, because his response is rather grumpy. But I did chuckle when he pointed out that, among other things, Ned Stark is an idiot who warned his enemy - and then that they had cast Sean Bean in the role, what did people expect? Because, of course, he does  tend to play roles in which he is killed off. I can think of two off the top of my head - Boromir in LOTR and a man who got on the wrong side of Henry VIII in the miniseries with Ray Winstone(I forget the character's name, but he was real, and Mr Bean got to use his Yorkshire accent). Though he also played Odysseus in Troy and Odysseus survived, didn't he, and came home to a faithful wife and a loyal son, unlike the other Greek heroes. 

Then he went on to call William Shakespeare a psycho and argue that there are piles of bodies on the stage in Shakespeare tragedies. Well, yes. That's how tragedies ended in those days. It was standard practice to have a pile of bodies at the end of those plays. At least Hamlet's best friend is still alive at the end, because Hamlet doesn't let him kill himself. And it's a gorgeous play and you care about the characters.  

Though one play Mr Martin describes with gruesome relish is Titus Andronicus, which was probably Shakespeare's first play, certainly early in his career. I must admit, that's one I can't watch. I had to read it at university and haven't read it since then and I didn't go to see the movie(what were they thinking, choosing that one?). It's too awful. There's even a scene where this man is standing making a beautiful, lyrical speech about his niece when she has just been raped and mutilated! But the thing is, it wasn't the only one of its kind. It was part of a very popular genre, the revenge tragedy. I guess he and his company must have decided to cash in on the craze. 

And Shakespeare, like a certain American spec fic writer complaining about him in this open letter, was a commercial writer. If he was alive today he would probably be writing sensationalist shows for TV. He wouldn't be getting invited to writers' festivals to talk about the deep and meaningful symbolism in his work. The fact that he wrote stuff that makes you laugh and cry and says for you things that you can't express yourself and has something to say about everything  is beside the point. He would probably be shocked to find people running courses in his work. I had a very faint taste of that once, when I found an online review of a short story I had forgotten I'd written, reading into it all sorts of things that had never occurred to me when I wrote it. 

Shakespeare was the sort of guy you could have a beer with at the pub. And he wrote plays that are still performed, not because they're great literature(though they are)but because they still have things to say to us. 

Then Mr Martin goes on about that dreadful, violent book, the Bible. Well, I can't deny that. I have always liked the Bible for that very reason, all the sex and violence ...;-) 

I read The Game Of Thrones when it first came out. I liked it for the believable mediaeval stink and discomfort and for the fascinating weather conditions on whichever planet it is, oh, and for all the eating that goes on. Some fans wrote a wonderful cookbook, which I have at home. I have since read more, though I'm not sure I'll finish the series, not because of the violence and killing off your favourite characters, but because, IMO, it has turned into a soap opera. I'm not a fan of the soaps.  I'm also not a fan, in general, of fat fantasy series, however good they might be - and this series is good. Terry Pratchett was another matter. His books weren't thick and it mostly didn't matter if you hadn't read the earlier ones, though you'd probably rush off to find them anyway.

To be honest, there are other books of GRRM that I prefer. Tuf Voyaging, the space-based story of a man and his cats and their adventures in a seed ship. Fevre Dream, the story of vampires in the Old South and a vampire who is sick of killing people and wants to find another way of getting his nutrition, is my favourite. That was about to come out when he was in Melbourne for a very small convention at a tiny hotel in St Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne - the population is small here, so even US minicons would be huge compared to our conventions. (We couldn't afford him now!) I remember him saying that he chose that setting because it was a time and place where slaves could disappear and nobody would ask questions. He was working on the TV series Beauty And The Beast at the time. And I enjoyed his work. Fortunately, the early ones are still in print, no doubt because of the success of his later ones. Read them if you can. 

The Glorious 25th Of May! Terry Pratchett's Night Watch

Truth! Justice! Freedom! And a hard boiled egg! (And no, I'm not going to say, "Make that two hard boiled eggs" - different universe)

Just now, I finished rereading Terry Pratchett's Night Watch. It's one of the later City Watch novels. It's one of my favourites. And it occurred to me that this is "the glorious 25th of May" as mentioned in the book,so what better day to post about it?

In this one, Sam Vimes, Commander of the City Watch, is without the backup of his loyal crew, Carrot, Angua, Cheery Littlebottom, Detritus and so on, because he has been thrown into his own past. He does, mind you, have Fred Colon. Nobby Nobbs is there, but he's a child, who's carved himself a police badge from soap. Still, he's useful. The future zombie Reg Shoe is alive. There's a rebellion growing in the city against the current Patrician(Vetinari, the future Patrician, is still a student at the Assassin's Guild, though he plays a very important role in the story, as does his aunt, presumably the one mentioned in Guards!Guards!). The History Monks are around - and I had just been rereading  Thief Of Time, in which you first met Lu Tze, the old monk who exhorts you to remember Rule 1(beware of skinny old men) and follows the Way of Mrs Cosmopolite. Vimes is thrown into the past while chasing a genuinely evil murderer, and realises that if he doesn't mentor his young self and take part in things happening in thus history, he may never make it back at all to his wife, his about-to-be-born child and his friends - and the murderer is right at home in the scary old times of Ankh-Morpork.

As I said, one of my favourites and there's a delightful adaptation of Rembrandt's painting on the cover.

But I love pretty much anything of Terry Pratchett's and I love this universe because, unlike many other fantasy writers, he doesn't waste time on long lost princes and elves going on a quest. Well, there  is a long-lost king, but he's a cop first and foremost and uninterested in taking the throne, even if he admitted he knew what he was, which he doesn't. And there are elves, in the Witches novels, but they aren't Galadriel or Legolas, they're lunatics who would rather kill you than look at you. And as someone who reads her folklore I can tell you he has it a lot more right than those authors who fill their books with twinkling glamorous fairies. And yes, there are wizards, but they like their huge meals and long snoozes and have no interest in going on quests. 

What I love is that his heroes are ordinary people. They're Mums and Dads running an all night Klatchian takeaway shop or farming in the Ramtops or having a fight with the neighbours. And in Ankh-Morpork, they enjoy their unofficial street theatre, and Ankh-Morpork has long ago stopped fighting other city-states and started selling them stuff. Any barbarian invader who tries to take over finds himself leaving with cheap wine and a purple straw donkey and a lot less money than when he arrived.

I love it all! So, raise your glass of whatever and drink with me to Freedom, Truth, Justice and a Hardboiled Egg!

And to the wonderful, much-mourned Terry Pratchett.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Two Happy Birthdays To Two Wonderful Writers

Today, May 23, is the birthday of Sean Williams, Aussie speculative fiction writer:

Publicity pic,

and the wonderful British children's/YA novelist Susan Cooper:

Profile pic from Goodreads

Both of them are massive bestsellers and both deserve it!

I must admit, I discovered Susan Cooper a long time before I had heard of Sean Williams. I stumbled on the first couple of novels in a series that became known as The Dark Is Rising, based on the title of the second book in the series, in which the young hero, Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, finds out on his eleventh birthday that he is the last of the Old Ones, destined to fight for the Light against the Dark, at the side of a Professor Merriman Lyon (yeah, he's Merlin). The sheer power and beauty of this novel has made it a classic. The author was already living in the US when she wrote it, but it's very British, based on the Buckinghamshire she remembered. Unfortunately, someone decided to make a dreadful movie out of it and I wasted a whole morning and $17 on seeing it. When it came out on DVD I refused to buy it even discounted.  But the book and the series were amazing and you wouldn't think she could continue to write wonderful books, but she has - The Boggart(a Canadian family bring home a desk from a Scottish castle and there's a boggart asleep in a drawer, poor thing!), King Of Shadows(American boy actor finds himself in Shakespeare's London), most recently Ghost Hawk, set in the part of the US where the author now lives, historical fiction and fantasy combined in a gorgeous story.

I remember writing her a fan letter, back in the days when you could do that by looking through a book of modern children's writers, which had postal addresses, and getting a reply. But when she came out here for a library conference in Hobart, I found myself tongue-tied, like the other teacher-librarians there - a bunch of fan-girls we all were!

I have  read and loved some of Sean Williams' short speculative fiction over the years, but more recently, I've had a chance to read his Trouble-Twisters series for children, written with Garth Nix, and great fun they are too, with children who have special powers that aren't always convenient. It's interesting to see how many SF writers have become very good children's and YA novelists in recent years. Sean Williams is an international bestseller who, like many other Australian writers, doesn't mind writing for local small press, which has published entire books of his short fiction over the years, and he had a story in an early issue of ASIM. 

Anyway, happy birthday, Sean and Susan! May your pens never dry up!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Happy Birthday, John Flanagan!

My original plan was to do an "on this day" post, and there have been some interesting events in history on May 22( the Greeks beat the Persians, it was the start of the Wars of the Roses - even if you don't know what those were, I bet you'll know Game Of Thrones, which was inspired by them). And there were some interesting birthdays, such as Laurence Olivier and that awful man Richard Wagner.

But when I went looking for writers, I discovered that the wonderful John Flanagan celebrates his seventieth birthday today!

I remember hearing him talk about his first Ranger's Apprentice novel at a centre for Youth Literature event. Hmm, I thought, sounds interesting, but I didn't check it out for a while after that.

When I finally did get around to it, I was sorry I hadn't read the books earlier.

The Ranger's Apprentice, in case you haven't read these books, is a delightful series set in an alternative Middle Ages. In this world, women can do a lot of things they couldn't do in our world at that time and people drink coffee and tomatoes are around in "Europe".  And a boy called Will, who is small and really not much good at fighting gets a job as an apprentice to Ranger Halt, who is a likeable rogue, who managed to start up a program for breeding ponies for his colleagues in the Rangers by stealing some breeding stock from this world's Mongols.

There is a spinoff series set in Skandia, this world's Viking lands, about a bunch of boys nobody picked in the annual Brotherband trials, but who ended up winning the competition because their leader, Hal, is smart and an inventor.

The books are funny and serious at the same time and both series suggest that you don't have to be a big hulking knight to make it in the world (though Will's best friend is a big hulking knight, Horace).

Raise your mug of coffee to John Flanagan, creator of this delicious universe! And, sorry, Americans, he's ours! An Aussie!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Ellie McDoodle Diaries: Most Valuable Player by Ruth McNally Bradshaw. Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014

Ellie McDougall lives with her cheerful, over-the-top family in a nice, ordinary suburb and goes to a cheerful, over-the-top school which has Spirit Week, Crazy Hair Day and Teacher Twin Day, encouraging students to do silly but enjoyable things. She is a capable student and has two good friends, Mo and Travis.

She's good at a lot of things, but those don't include soccer. When her father becomes coach of a local girls' soccer team, Ellie feels she ought to be a part of it, no matter how hard it is to improve.

The story goes through several days of school time and soccer practice, as well as meetings of Journey Of The Mind, a group of intelligent kids who are working towards a competition. It features a birthday, a fundraiser and making stuff(due to the book's journal-style layout, it is easy for the author to draw the how-to of making ninja stars, flying dragons, etc.)

The style is very much like that of Jeff Kinney's Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series and, in fact,  one of our students, a Wimpy Kid fan, is simply loving this book. The characters are likeable, there are no real baddies(even the girl who yells at Ellie a lot on the soccer team is not that bad, and turns out to be a very good artist) and not too much happens, really. It's a nice, gentle read for young fans of the Wimpy Kid books, and not too many hard words. You don't have to have read the other books in the series(this is the fourth), as it's pretty much standalone. I hadn't read the others and had no trouble with it.

Recommended for children of about eight or nine upwards.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Warlock's Child 3: The Iron Claw, by Paul Collins and SeanMcMullen. Melbourne: Ford Street, 2015

"The warlock Calbaras wants to revive the ancient, forbidden magic of dragons, and his son Dantar is vital to his plans. Dantar is on the run in an enemy kingdom, unaware that he is so important. Worse, his sister Velza is now working for the enemy king."

This is the third in a set of five short children's fantasy books by speculative fiction veterans Paul Collins and Sean McMullen. Actually, it's one novel broken into five parts from the look of it and, like the first two parts, this one ends on a cliffhanger. 

The story is great fun and not difficult reading, so good for older reluctant readers as well as younger ones; the characters are all in their teens.  

There is an endearing silliness about the characters' predicaments, and about Merikus, the talking rat who is travelling with Dantar and his friend Marko. Velza can do fire magic like nobody's business but makes some dumb mistakes in other areas that get her into trouble. The tone is light and cheerful; it reminds me just a little of the style of Anna Ciddor's Viking Magic novels, though the storyline is very different.

If you haven't yet figured out who is the dragon chick you aren't paying attention. How and why are other matters, yet to come. 

Dantar is still a bit of a whinger, but we'll see how it goes.

The cover is as beautiful as the first two - Marc McBride just can't go wrong.  I'd like to add that Sean McMullen is proving himself to be a very good children's writer. Paul Collins has been doing children's and YA books for done time, but Mr McMullen is better-known for his adult novels and short stories and his ability with fiction for young readers has been a pleasant surprise. I hope he will continue.

Well worth a read and good for your library if you're a school or children's librarian, but get the 
first two; this is not standalone.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Two Fearsome Fairytales From France by Adele Geras. Illustrated FionaMcDonald. Christmas Press 2015Two


Here is another one of Christmas Press's delightful series of folk and fairytale retellings. This time the focus is on France, with the stories Beauty And The Beast and Bluebeard, retold by veteran children's historical novelist Adele Geras, once more lavishly illustrated by the talented Fiona McDonald.

Beauty And The Beast has been charming us since Lucius Apuleius's Cupid And Psyche in which the girl is to be sacrificed to a scary beast and instead finds herself married to the beautiful love god. (C.S Lewis used that one as the basis for his novel Till We Have Faces.) It tells us not to judge a book by its cover; the Beast can only be redeemed when a woman loves him for himself instead of for his looks, and Adele Geras does a little more than retell. She shows the reader just why Beauty might fall in love with a scary-looking man. She loves his "low, musical voice". He is intelligent. They talk about a wide variety of subjects every night, till she looks forward to their conversations. In the end, she, like Robin McKinley's Beauty, demands of the handsome young man what he has done with her Beast. 

Bluebeard is the truly scary story of a serial killer husband, but kids like gruesome. In this version, the mother urges her daughter to agree to the marriage because he's rich. He's old and much-married, but so what? Older men, she argues, tend to be indulgent to young wives. 

I often wonder what would have happened if the wife had not opened that room. I suspect the husband would have found another excuse for murder. There are plenty of Bluebeards in real life (Frederick Deeming, anyone?) who don't need an excuse.

The story is told well, anyway. And it's interesting to think that there's very little of the fantastical in this particular story, except the notion that the blood would still be on the floor or that the key couldn't be cleaned if it was. 

I think this book might suit children from about seven to ten. Any younger is too young. Any older and they might have abandoned fairytales for novels. 

Another excellent publication to add to your fairytale library!