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This is a book review and science fiction blog, for the most part, with the odd convention report and travel notes. And maybe the occasional Celtic goddess, such as the Great Raven...
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26. Unofficial A-Z Challenge: K Is For Kelly, L is For Leonski

K is for Jim Kelly

                                                          Jim Kelly. Public Domain

Look, we all know about Ned Kelly. You have to be from Mars not to have heard of Ned Kelly! And I'm betting that our first alien tourist will, after being taken to our leader, ask to visit the famous Kelly armour. Let's not talk about Ned Kelly. He only got a chapter in my book because you can't write a book about Australian crime and leave him out. 

Let's talk of Ned's younger brother, Jim, who wasn't a member of his gang. He was a Kelly and anyone in that family would have found it impossible not to have at least one or two brushes with the law, which he did in his younger years. But James died in 1946, after a long, quiet life, although I see from a 1912 newspaper in the National Library's Trove collection that he was arrested for a bit of minor cattle rustling in his middle years. Well, it can't have been easy being the brother of a national legend and having people say, "What, you're his brother and you haven't done anything dramatic?"

L is for Eddie Leonski

Eddie Leonski wasn't an Australian at all. He was an American soldier stationed in Melbourne during World War II. At that time, the street lighting was lowered to make a lesser target for bombers. The trouble was that these brownouts, as they were called, made murder easier. Eddie Leonski had already been in trouble in the U.S. for attempted murder. He was a man who became violent when he was drunk.

He was drunk a lot. In May 1942 he strangled a number of women during the brownouts. He was caught when another soldier found out and reported him. Weird as he was, he was found sane and hanged. 

If you're enjoying this, you can find my book and other titles at the Ford Street Publishing web site: 


It has links to the places where you can find them, both in print and ebook.

Tomorrow: Lola Montez
                    Arthur Orton

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27. Unofficial A-Z Challenge: H Is For Jody Harris, J Is For Audrey Jacob

Today's badly behaved Aussies are both female. Both stories are short, but interesting. 

As I had no I crooks in my book, I'll just mention another G, Frank Gardiner, a bushranger who robbed a gold coach at the Eugowra Rocks in 1862. He was arrested and served time, but ended up being exiled from Australia - the only person ever to suffer this. It's thought he went to San Francisco and opened a saloon. One of the witnesses to the Eugowra robbery was a child, George Burgess. George lived to a ripe old age and many years later he wrote about his adventure. His story inspired my contribution to Ford Street's anthology Rich And Rare(see below for a link)

H is for Jody Harris

Known as Australia's Catch Me If You Can thief, a con artist who was caught in 2006 with 100 drivers' licences, disguises, fake passports, Medicare cards, all the tools of her trade. She was sentenced to four years in jail.

J Is For Audrey Jacob

He was her man and he done her wrong, as the song goes. The quirk of this story, which happened in 1925, is that the killer, Perth girl Audrey Jacob, was seen to shoot her faithless fiancé in public, with hundreds of witnesses, as he was dancing with another woman - and was acquitted after a two day trial.  

He shouldn't have lied to her, the bounder.

If you're enjoying this, check out the Ford Street Publishing site: 


Ford Street is one of Australia's best small presses, specialising in children's and YA books. 

Tomorrow: Jim Kelly
                  Eddie Leonski

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28. Unofficial A-Z Challenge: D is For Dumb And Dumber, F is For Finch, G is for Great Bookie Robbery

As I don't have any badly behaved Australians in my book whose name starts with E, I'm going to give you an extra D.

D Is For Dumb And Dumber

Their names were Anthony Prince and Luke Carroll and they were so embarrassing to anyone from Australia. Coming from the land of Ned Kelly, they couldn't even get a bank robbery in the U.S. right! So Australian newspapers nicknamed them Dumb and Dumber.

These two characters had a job in a ski resort in Colorado. When they decided to rob the local bank, in 2005, they forgot to take off their name tags. Under their balaclava masks they spoke with their Australian accents. They clowned for the cameras.

When it came time to escape, they didn't use a getaway car. Oh, no, not them! They used their staff passes to hitch a ride in a ski lift.

No doubt they wondered why they were caught. (Facepalm!)

F is For James Finch

Whiskey Au Go Go. Fair usage

James Finch was one of the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub firebombers, who torched a Brisbane disco in 1973, killing fifteen people. He was hired by Brisbane criminal John Stuart, on behalf of a standover gang.

On the night of March 8 1973, two drums of  petrol were hauled into the foyer and lit.

It didn't take long for the police to catch up. To get the charges started quickly, they were charged with only one murder, that of a woman called Jennifer Davie. 

There was a huge campaign to free them, as they insisted their confessions had been forced, but Stuart died in jail. After serving his sentence, Finch was deported to England where, thinking himself safe, he publicly admitted his guilt. When it was pointed out that he had only been convicted of one murder and there were fourteen more, he retracted his confession. Whoops! 

G Is For Great Bookie Robbery

In 1975, Raymond Bennett, a career criminal who was serving a term in England, made use of his leave from jail to come home to Melbourne and plan a heist. He checked out the Victorian Club in Queen Street, where, for a century, bookies had gathered after races to "settle up." There were millions of dollars in cash involved, but most crooks assumed the place was impossible to rob.

After serving his British sentence, Bennett organised an almost military operation. The team he assembled was trained in the bush and made to promise to avoid drink and women for a month in advance. 

The robbery must have been embarrassingly easy. The team burst in and simply took the money off the terrified bookies.

Because Bennett was smart enough to spread the money out in investments and property, it was impossible for the police to prove who had committed the crime. Nobody actually ended up going to jail for it.

Only in Australia! 

If you enjoyed this story, there are plenty more in the book, Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly, available in ebook and print. 

Check it out here:


Tomorrow: Jody Harris and Audrey Jacob

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29. No CBCA Shortlist Yet!

Usually, at this time of year, the CBCA announces its shortlist of books for the CBCA Book of the Year. This year, they've changed. Instead of releasing the shortlist now, when we could get stuck into the reading and arrange activities to go with it, they're releasing a long list - after the holidays! - and the shortlist is being delayed till May, at the CBCA Conference.

Look, I understand the judges have a lot of books to get through and if that was given as the reason, I'd sort of understand, though they seem to have managed for the last seventy years. Instead, the web site makes it sound like a wonderful new system, meant to spread things out and make it all more exciting.

Do they want to be more like other awards, I wonder?

But the long list of the CBCA Awards isn't about nine or ten books like other awards. It's called the Notables and is really long, unless they're planning to shorten it for the new system. That might be the case. I hope so.

And we have to wait till halfway through term for the shortlist.

Oh, well, there are the Inkys and the YABBAs to keep me busy in the meantime. 

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30. Unofficial A-Z Challenge - C Is For The Charlotte Medal

Charlotte Medal.Wikipedia, Creative Commons

C Is For The Charlotte Medal

The Charlotte was a ship which came to Australia with the First Fleet, carrying convicts. One of the convicts on board was a convicted forger called Thomas Barnett. The ship's surgeon commissioned a medal(see above) which was made from a silver kidney bowl. There's no question that this is a work of art - Australia's first. It was bought in 2008 by Sydney's Maritime Museum.

Thomas Barnett was, let's not forget, a forger. That's what  had got him transported. Along the way, he forged quarter-dollar pieces and used them to buy food and other supplies through the ship's porthole in Rio Di Janeiro. Why waste a talent, he must have thought.

Unfortunately for Thomas after all that travel,  he never got a chance to create Australia's second piece of art. A few weeks after his arrival Down Under, he was caught stealing food and was executed.

D is for Lucy Dudko

Lucy Dudko was a Russian librarian who made the mistake of falling in love with a crook, John Killick. Such a nice man, he brought her coffee in bed!

When John was sentenced to several years in Sydney's Silverwater prison for armed robbery, Lucy decided to rescue him. In 1999, Sydney was getting ready for the Olympic Games, which gave her an idea. As a librarian, she knew how to do her research; she borrowed three videos about daring escapes and hired a helicopter, supposedly to check out the Olympic facilities. Instead, she pointed the gun at the pilot, Tim Joyce, and demanded he take her to the yard of Silverwater Prison, where she helped her boyfriend escape. Bad enough to be hijacked, but Tim found himself being shot at by the guards!

The couple tied him up and left him, fleeing for about forty-five days. When they were caught, Lucy protested she was innocent and someone else had hijacked the helicopter, but there were those videos, which she had forgotten to return and which were still in her home. 

She was sentenced to ten years, though she was released after seven, for being a model prisoner.

As a librarian myself, I can only say, serve her right for being overdue!

Tomorrow: "Dumb And Dumber"
                    James Finch
                    The Great Bookie Robbery

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31. An Unofficial A-Z Challenge - Australian Crime!

I've only just discovered the A-Z Challenge, too late to sign up - and I can't really commit myself to 26 posts, anyway. I certainly can't commit myself to anything beginning with X!

However, I wrote a children's book on crime a few years ago, Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly, so I know something about this subject without having to do any further research. So I thought, why not give you some snippets of the more entertaining stories I told in that book? A to Z! And that will be my theme for this - unofficial - A-Z Challenge.

From the Ford Street web site

I won't be writing anything too long, just a few lines. It will be fun to see if I can sum them up for you.

Why a book on Australian crime? Well, Australia did start off as a penal colony. So did the US, for that matter, or at least it was used as one until the British were kicked out, when they had to find somewhere else to dump their unwanted criminals. But there's a rich history of crime here, starting with the Batavia mutiny in 1629; at this writing, there's a film planned about it, with Russell Crowe as the hero and Geoffrey Rush as the villain, though both of them are way too old for the characters they're playing. Still, a good story which has been covered in a lot of fiction(and in my book). The first crime to happen in the new colony after the First Fleet arrived was only two weeks later - and on the way to Australia, a convicted forger used his skills to forge money to buy goods on the ship's stops.

We have the whole bushranger culture. Yes, every European-based country has its own history of robbers, some of them romantic, but ours are argued over and written about to this day. Ned Kelly - hero or baddie? We still argue. And Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced him to death, is still vilified for it, forgetting the fact that he also started the State Library of Victoria and gave away a lot of his wages to the poor. Ah, well.

So, first:

A is for April Fool's Day Stuff-up.

This is one of the more over-the-top stories in Australian crime. I have the full chapter as a sample here. Basically, two idiots, a few years ago, decided to hold up the Cuckoo, a popular restaurant in Olinda, a place in the Dandenongs outside Melbourne. Someone had told them that there would be $30,000 in pickings. Instead, they got away with a bag of stale bread rolls and one of them with a wound in an embarrassing part of her anatomy.

B is for Matthew Brady, Gentleman Bushranger

Matthew Brady was a celebrity bushranger. When he was hanged in 1826, the crowd wept, especially the women. During his imprisonment he'd been sent lots of flowers, food and fan mail. There had even been a petition to save him, to no avail.

Matthew Brady came to Australia as a convict in 1820. We don't really know why - it might have been theft or forgery. Both have been suggested by historians.  He started off as an assigned convict. Assigned convicts were used as servants. Matthew hated being a virtual slave and was un-co-operative enough to be whipped 350 times in a short period, before being sent to Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour, from which he escaped with a group of other convicts in 1824. They set up their hideout at a place later called Brady's Lookout and became known as Brady's Bunch. (Yes, I know! I didn't make this up)

Why was he so popular? Well, he didn't actually hurt anyone, except one man and that was  a fence who had betrayed him. Even then, it was a year later, when the betrayer was heard to sneer that he knew Brady didn't kill anyone.

His own men never betrayed him, though, even one who had been thrown out of the gang for rape; captured, he was hanged without giving away the gang's hideout.

He took over a house with family and guests, danced with the ladies and sang for them at the piano. A servant slipped away and got help, but he and his gang escaped - that time.

Eventually, with most of his men killed, he was captured by one John Batman - yes, that John Batman, the one who remarked that a certain spot by the river Yarra might make a nice place for a village. He was a bounty hunter at the time. Melbourne was founded by an early Bobba Fett!

On his way to the gallows, Matthew was cheered and pelted with flowers. He bowed to his fans - and died.

Hope you enjoyed this story!

Tomorrow: The Charlotte Medal and Lucy Dudko

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32. Inns, Pubs, Spaceport Bars In SF And Fantasy


They appear in so many fantastical adventures, often at the beginning of the quest. They tend to serve "stew". They're the site of brawls because that's what you do in these places, in fiction, anyway. The cliched innkeeper tends to be big and red-faced, as Terry Pratchett noticed when he had a character in Witches Abroad arrested by a story-loving ruler for not being big and red-faced.

They appear even in films and TV shows.

There's the cantina in the original Star Wars movie, of course. It's the typical spaceport bar where many different races mingle - and fight. A lot. It must be a lot, because when Obi-Wan kills an obnoxious being who is trying to start a fight, there's a brief glance in his direction, then the music starts again and everyone goes back to whatever they were doing. Likewise, no one makes a fuss when Han Solo shoots Greedo, not even the barkeep, who will have to clean up. A place like that must be the site of so much fighting that there's nothing special about it. Maybe he employs a cleaning firm to tidy up the bodies. 

The bar in the latest Star Wars movie is very different. It's run by a thousand year old non-human woman(probably older, because that's how long she has been in business) and is much more than a pub. Nobody misbehaves in her pub and from what we see of her, nobody would dare to start a fight. She's pleasant but firm, and seems to be a Jedi of sorts; you don't mess around with these folk. 

Another pub we see run by a woman is the Three Broomsticks in the Harry Potter series, whose owner is Madame Rosmerta. Nothing happens there, or at least not publicly(Katie Bell is grabbed and Imperiused in the sixth novel, in the bathroom of the Three Broomsticks). It's the respectable pub in Hogsmeade. The Hogwarts teachers and students go there. Madame Rosmerta has been running her business for a long time; she remembers the Marauders with fondness. 

The less respectable inn, which is more like the kind you'd imagine in general fantasy fiction, is the Hog's Head. It's where Hagrid won that dragon's egg in a card game. It's grimier. Strange beings prefer this pub to the nice, family-friendly Three Broomsticks. But it can't be all bad, as we discover that the innkeeper, who rescues Harry and his friends in Deathly Hallows, is Albus Dumbledore's estranged but decent brother Aberforth. It's also the place where rebel Hogwarts students hiding out from the Deatheaters come from the Room of Requirement when they need to get out of the school. In any case, I can't imagine Aberforth allowing fights to happen; he'd knock heads together and throw out misbehaved patrons.

And of course, there's the Leaky Cauldron, the entrance to Diagon Alley, which serves everyone in the wizarding community including folk with special needs. It's family-friendly, though I suspect the host, Tom, would be able to stop any fights before they got far.

Star Trek has its share of spaceport bars and fights. Captain Picard was nearly killed in a spaceport bar fight(which I think he started)as a young man, and had to get an artificial heart. 

But the first time we saw a spaceport bar fight in the series was in "The Trouble With Tribbles" by David Gerrold. Space Station K7 has a bar, though not an inn, and the barkeep is tall and thin, not fat and red faced. But it's a spaceport bar and there's a fight, when one of the Klingons insults the Enterprise. There's no doubt he's trying to start a fight. When insulting the captain doesn't work(Chekhov wants to fight over that, but Scotty doesn't let him)he insults the ship, infuriating Scotty, and the fight is on for young and old. It's a typical fantasy barroom fight, actually, although nobody uses weapons and actually, nobody seems to get hurt. 

Terry Pratchett has fun with the cliched fantasy pub brawl in his novel Going Postal. The hero, Moist Von Lipwig, has agreed to meet a woman he fancies, Adora Belle Dearheart(aka Spike)at the Mended  Drum pub before taking her somewhere much fancier. As he is entering, a group of barbarian warrior types are rehearsing their planned fight, because, let's face it, that's what you do in a fantasy fiction pub. 


The Mended Drum is not the only pub in Pratchett's city of Ankh-Morpork - there are others, such as the policemen's pub, which is quiet because, well, policemen drink there, and because after a day of chasing (unlicensed)thieves and pickpockets, they just want to relax and not talk. There's Biers, the pub where the undead go for a drink. The barkeep, Igor, keeps a club with various things that discourage undead from starting a fight. In one of the novels, The Truth, two genuinely nasty characters arrive and realise that this is not a place where they're likely to be able to stand over anyone. They leave hastily. 


But the Mended Drum is the fantasy fiction pub. It started life as the Broken Drum, in The Colour Of Magic. It, along with a large part of the city, burned down when tourist Twoflowers told them about what he does for a living, selling something called in-sewer-ants, then reopened as the Mended DrumIt's the pub where epic fantasy barbarian heroes gather, where throwing an axe at the entertainment is considered friendly. The fact that the owner has started offering cocktails with umbrellas in them doesn't make much difference. 

Of course, we all know of that wonderful inn, the Prancing Pony, in the town of Bree in Lord Of The Rings, and the Green Dragon, local pub at Michel Delving, where farming hobbits go to drink. The Green Dragon is where Bilbo met up with the Dwarves and Gandalf in The Hobbit and rode off into his life changing adventure. We do see inside it early in Lord Of The Rings, when the locals are gossiping about where Bilbo's money might have come from. 

But the Prancing Pony is where Frodo and his friends really begin. That's where they meet Aragorn and their adventure starts properly. 

It's a respectable inn. No barbarian warriors here, thank you! The food is good, solid English cuisine. The rooms are clean and the innkeeper makes sure there are rooms for hobbit comfort. The patrons are local farmers; any passing Nazghul would leave quickly. 

But I can't help feeling that this is the kind of inn that inspired a lot of other fantasy inns. 

What do you think?

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33. Shakespeare And Me At University

FTwo years ago, I blogged about some of my experiences with Shakespeare. Here's the link. Do read it if you haven't! And feel free to comment. It's a good post if I do say so myself. It could do with some more reading.

But now it's a special Shakespeare month worldwide, as he died in this month four hundred years ago.  I'd rather celebrate his birth, but let's think of it as a tribute to his life.

Shakespeare. 1610-16. Public Domain.

So, today, I'm going to share some memories of performing Shakespeare.

I was a student at Monash university. We had a very enthusiastic lecturer, Dr Bartholomeusz, whose opinion was that as Shakespeare wrote  his plays to be performed, his students should be doing that. We were offered the chance to skip one essay in exchange for appearing in the English Department production of Coriolanus, one of the plays we were studying in second year.

Coriolanus. Richard Westall 1800. Creative Commons

Dr Bartholmeusz also had a theory, based on a drawing he'd seen, that in historical plays such as the one we were doing, the aristocratic characters performed in appropriate historical costume, while the rest wore contemporary dress. So, as Third Citizen,  Second Officer(actually Cleaning Lady), etc. I wore modern dress of a lower class variety. Keen to get my role of Third Citizen right, I looked up Harley Granville-Barker, a Shakespeare critic who had, apparently, set out to describe every single character in Shakespeare. And I do mean every character! I discovered that Third Citizen is "a man who likes the sound of his own voice." Sounded good to me!

I was chosen to play the standard bearer in the battle scene. That meant rushing on, waving it around and being shot down with an invisible arrow almost immediately. It also meant I got to wear a Roman soldier's uniform. Unfortunately, the breastplate was rather too big for me; when I fell to the stage during dress rehearsal, instead of dying immediately, I found myself choking on the breastplate that had pushed up under my chin as I fell.

"Susan, what are you doing?"  demanded Dr B, who was directing.

"Choking to death, I think," I replied, struggling to get up.

Then I had to rush off, change costume and appear again as Second Cleaning Lady, sweeping up the palm leaves from Coriolanus's triumphal entrance to Rome. Later I had to change again for my role of a couple of messengers.

Still, it was a lot of fun.

During my university years I also got to be Ariel in a performed reading of The Tempest. Dr B decided to play Prospero. He'd had his wife in mind for the role of Ariel, as she could sing, but on learning that I'd hoped for the role he compromised: I could act the role, she did the singing of Ariel's songs. It was nice of her to agree. 

I built my costume from a leotard, embroidered with sequins that suggested Ariel's functions. It was, on the whole, a pleasant evening, as English Department functions were.

Finally, we did The Winter's Tale in my fourth year. I'd hoped to be Perdita, but it was not to be. Instead I played a lady in waiting and the shepherdess Mopsa, the Young Shepherd's girlfriend. She got to sing, and we were very lucky to have the services of Helen Gifford, a composer who had written music for professional performances of Shakespeare. We - the lady playing shepherdess Dorcas and I - went to the composer's home to learn our song, along with the lecturer playing the con artist Autolycus. That was a delightful evening too. 

Autolycus, 1828 - Public Domain

When the play was over, we went to someone's home for the cast party and I first heard "She Moved  Through The Fair", sung by the lecturer who had played the Young Shepherd(when we were on stage, he'd whispered, "Nothing...nothing..." to me. I asked him what he was doing that for and he replied, "I'm whispering sweet nothings in your ear."). He had a wonderful - very Irish - voice - and the song sent chills down my spine. It intrigued me enough to learn more about the song and that kind of music.

While I was doing these plays I had also learned about Renaissance music from a member of the cast, who was the music arranger. I've loved it ever since. 

Well, those are some  of my experiences in Shakespeare. Who has some more to add?

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34. March 31 - Born On This Day!

Not much in the way of joyful events for this day - dear me, what's wrong with history? (Did you know they began building the Titanic On This Day?)

 However, a few exciting people were born on March 31 over the centuries, so here are the ones I know best. Enjoy! 

1621 - Andrew Marvell - English poet, author of such beauties as "To His Coy Mistress" which urges the lady to sleep with him now, because while "the grave's a fine and private place...none, I think, do there embrace."  He was a republican during Cromwell's time, managed to survive without too much hassle in the Restoration monarchy and even talked Charles II out of executing John Milton, author of Paradise Lost,  who was a close friend of Marvell's. Hundreds of years later they're both  still giving us pleasure. 

Andrew Marvell, public domain
Speaking of giving pleasure, it's the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach and Josef Haydn, both wonderful composers who certainly make me want to sing along with the tunes! And Bach also gave the world a lot of extra Bach musicians and composers!

1809 - Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, author of, among other things, The Government Inspector, a send up of bureaucracy, which inspired that very funny Danny Kaye movie The Inspector General

Nikolai Gogol, public domain

1844 - Andrew Lang was the author/collector of all those coloured fairy books, which had samples of everything from Grimm fairy tales to Greek myths. You can get them all for free on Gutenberg. I have several on my cyber bookshelf. 

If you've missed out on any of these folk, you shouldn't have much trouble finding them online.

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35. Happy Birthday, Anna Sewell!

Anna Sewell. Public domain.

Today, March 30, is the 196th birthday of Anna Sewell, author of Black Beauty. 

Anna was born in Norfolk on this day in 1820, to Isaac and Mary Sewell. Her mother was a children's writer. The family was Quaker, though Anna and her mother later turned to the Church of England. Because they couldn't afford schooling for two children, Anna and her brother, Anna was home schooled till she was twelve.

I wonder what would have happened if she'd continued the home schooling? But she started going to school and one day she fell over on her way, breaking both ankles. She never really recovered and had trouble walking.

Was it this crippled state that made her depend more on horses, and make her interested in them?

Anyway, she wrote the book late in her life. Because of her pain, she couldn't always write herself and had her mother write it all out for her.

Black Beauty has become a classic of children's fiction. I think I was about eight when I read it for the first time - and loved it!  I was reading anything and everything with a horse on the cover at the time and this one was a surprise, but a pleasant one. There were no girls entering gymkhanas on ponies in it, or even wild horses running through the Snowy Mountains, but the first person narrative made up for that. I was indignant on behalf of the horse and his equine friends and who could avoid a lump in the throat after what happens to Beauty's friend Ginger?

If you've missed out on it, stop right now and get it. It's available on Gutenberg - free. Go on - I'll wait.

First edition. Public domain.

Got it? Good. Now, to continue. It was not actually written for children. It was written as a protest against the truly horrible treatment of horses in the Victorian era - and she told the story from the horse's viewpoint. If she had written a pamphlet, it might have been of interest for a few years and then been forgotten.

Black Beauty goes from the pleasant meadow with his mother to life with the kind Squire Gordon and his wife, then downhill from there, with the occasional improvement, such as his life as a cab horse with the decent cab driver Jerry. In the course of the story, we read of such horrors as the bearing rain, which forced horses to hold their heads up while trying to pull a carriage at the same time.  Rich people liked their horses to look as snooty as they were themselves, it seems. After this book came out, the RSPCA was able to use it to help get the bearing rein banned. A great achievement for a novel written by a middle-aged lady who was in constant pain!

The book was published in 1877, but she only lived a few months after it came out, so it was her only book. She died in April 1878, hopefully at least having lived long enough to see its success.

In fact, it has sold fifty million copies, which makes it one of the bestsellers of all time, and has been translated into fifty languages. That's success!

Happy birthday, Anna Sewell, and thank you for giving me such joy in my childhood!

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36. My First Purim Spiel - And The Phoenix Theatre

18th c Italian Purim woodcut.Public Domain

Last night I attended my first Purim spiel. This is a kind of play which is loosely - very loosely! - based on the story of Purim. Somewhere in it you have to have the characters - Esther, Haman, Mordecai, Ahashverosh - and at least a bit of the story, but otherwise, have fun and see what you can do with it. 

This one was called The Lambshank Redemption and set in a prison, Oicatraz. Ahashverosh is the warden. He's a right wing Trump supporter and is always on on-line dating sites. Vashti  is his head guard, rather too sweet and hipster to do her job properly. Esther, who comes in after intermission, is a much more efficient head guard who solves the mystery of the trade in smuggled Hamentashen. Mordecai is a wimp who still lives with his mother on the outside.

The Purim spiel is traditional and slipping in contemporary references is also a traditional part of it. It's an amateur thing too; this one had some cast members who have done quite a bit of amateur drama, including one who has been in CLOC, a very fine Melbourne  amateur group that is anything but amateurish. Others are just members of the community who enjoy doing Purim spiels once a year. The girl playing Vashti was a VCE student and very good she was too; I think a professional career may be ahead of her. If not, perhaps at least a membership of CLOC! I remember a CLOC performance of the late much-lamented Jon English's rock opera Paris in which the role of Helen of Troy was played by a Year 12 girl, who was also impressive. Hopefully she went on to study at VCA! 

It was a joyous production, everyone having fun, a cheeky script and well known tunes with new words. The cast could all sing, whether it was a solo or ensemble piece. There was a very funny adaptation of a number from the musical Chicago in which the female prisoners all tell the audience how they got to be in prison, and the narrator told the story in verse a la Dr Seuss. 

The band, dressed in prison uniforms, was at the back of the stage and I noticed that the young drummer was a girl. She played quite an important role, as she had to play solo marches whenever Ahashverosh was about to appear and the scenes were being moved by the cast. When I rang my mother at intermission my nephew Mark was there. He said he knew that girl, she was fourteen and related to his wife! Small world, small community.

And it really was a very community thing. I arrived at about 7.40, twenty minutes before the show was due to start and I felt like the only member of the audience who didn't know most of the other audience members! There was so much delighted greeting of friends and relatives that I had to weave my way through to get to my seat. In the theatre, there was much calling out until the show started. Probably most audience members were friends and relatives of the cast, as is understandable. It's a tiny theatre. I think it holds about 100 seats at most. 

Ah, yes, that theatre, the Phoenix. It's located at what was my own high school. I remember when I was attending Elwood High we had no school hall. Every year our parents were required to pay a hall levy. The year after I left one was built, a hall gymnasium. It burned down, much to the dismay of Mr Whitehead, an English teacher who directed all the school shows, which had to be performed at venues outside the school. There was a photo in the local papers of him standing looking tragic in the ruins. Well, it was genuine feeling, to be fair. I remember how he dreamed of having somewhere to do the school shows when I was there. 

I'm not sure where the money came from for rebuilding, perhaps from insurance? Anyway, they built a beautiful little theatre in place of the hall and Mr Whitehead was happy again and it was called the Phoenix for obvious reasons. The school also got another hall/gym. 

I believe the school makes good use of the theatre for drama and also rents it out for amateur productions. I hadn't been in years, though, since a production of The Crucible in which Elizabeth Proctor, victim of the Salem Witch Trials, washed the dishes in a green plastic basin. 

Uh huh. Sad that it's the only thing I can remember of that production - not a tribute to the director! 

Anyway, after last night I will definitely be keeping an eye out for productions in that theatre - and hopefully seeing next year's Purim spiel!

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37. Blood Queen: The Third Book Of Lharmell by Rhiannon Hart

After losing Rodden at the last Turning, Zeraphina is alone. Or she would be, if her mother and Prince Folsum would leave her in peace. The prince, blind in one eye after an attack by Zeraphina’s brant, has taken up residence in her home and is insisting she marry him. When an accident happens, Zeraphina flees – straight into the arms of a waiting harming.

Now a captive, she discovers she’s being taken to Lharmell. But not to be executed. To be crowned queen. The identity of the one who has given the orders is shrouded in mystery, and Zeraphina can’t help but be suspicious. After everything she’s done the Lharmellins should want her dead. Just who is awaiting her in Lharmell?

If you haven't read the first two volumes of this trilogy, stop right here, go back and read them.  This volume doesn't stand alone. Really. And the last one ended on a cliffhanger. In case you have read them, this review is being written carefully to avoid spoilers. The first of the spoilers is about a third of the way in, and I must admit I did not see it coming. And there's another twist in the final chapter which I really didn't see coming, which left me sputtering, "But - but - if that's the case, then why...?" No. I can't tell you. You'll have to read and find out. But not until after you've read the first two, Blood Song and Blood Storm

Zeraphina, having lost her beloved Rodden, has spent the last few months in her room at her mother's castle, numbing the pain with doses of laudanum. Things don't seem to be getting better, and become even worse when her nasty suitor tries to force the marriage. 

Escaping, she finds herself heading north in the company of a harming(a sort of semi-vampire like Zeraphina herself)who calls himself Raufo, talks with a Scottish accent and works to rid her of the laudanum habit. He seems familiar, but Zeraphina is in no mood to think about it. 

And when they reach Lharmell, she is in for another shock, meeting someone she had thought was long dead ...

In some ways, this is the story of Zeraphina coming to terms with herself and who she is. But there's plenty of action as well, though not till the second half of the book. We meet Zeraphina's sister Lilith again, and Lilith's husband Amis, who turn out to be nicer people than they seemed in the last two volumes. There's a dramatic tsunami in the middle of the other troubles our heroes have to face. There's even the headache of having to fight invaders from the air instead of the usual medieval siege.

This is a good conclusion to the trilogy, worth following up if you've been frustrated by that cliffhanger at the end of the previous volume. We must thank the author for deciding to finish it herself when her publishers decided not to. Publishers do that sometimes; in one case, the publisher, a friend of mine, told me that he'd decided against a third volume of a trilogy because the author had moved overseas. That shouldn't matter in this day and age, but it meant she wasn't around to promote her book here when she was needed, and it sold only half of the numbers of the previous volume. With a small press, he just couldn't afford to risk a third volume. I can think of three more, off the top of my head, but won't go into detail here.

The fact is, there is a final volume! I would like to thank Rhiannon Hart for offering me this book for my school library. It will go on to the shelves as soon as I return from term break. I wish her well for sales on this and on the first two, which can still bring her royalties. 

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38. Happy Birthday, Eden! Celebrating March 28

Today, March 28, is the seventh birthday of one Eden Pearl, my nephew Mark's older boy. Today he will be celebrating with his parents and grandparents and tomorrow with his friends.

For his birthday gift I've said it with books. A passionate reader, he has begun reading and enjoying A Series Of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket(pseudonym for American author Daniel Handler), only the first novel so far, so I bought him the next two in the series. Because his brother Jonah is only four and doesn't understand yet that you get gifts on your own birthday I've bought him the classic Possum Magic by Mem Fox. 

Eden is also a passionate chess player and as there wasn't much positive to report about This Day In History and no authors of any interest to him or to me, I thought I'd just show him and you this. 

Taken from Wikimedia Commons

It shows an eight year old boy, Sammy Reshevsky, playing against a whole lot of adults at once, in 1920. He was from Poland, but his family moved to the U.S. to give him the chance to get ahead in the field. Apparently, while he did very well, became famous and won championships, he never did give up his day job. Still, it's an impressive picture and I thought my young chess champion might enjoy it. 

And since his current reading interest is A Series Of Unfortunate Events, I thought I'd add a bit about the author.

Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, has also written for adults, under his own name. Not that this matters when he can give so much pleasure to children, but still...

Of more interest is that he has played in a couple of bands on his piano accordion, and Eden's "Ipa" Gary also plays piano accordion(he was playing it, in our kitchen, the first time I saw him, when he started going out with my sister). The children call him Ipa because when his first grandchild Dezzy was born he wanted to be Grandpa and she couldn't pronounce that. So Ipa it remains. He will be pleased to hear he has something in common with an author Eden likes! 

A very happy birthday, Eden, from your adoring Auntie Sue!

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39. Of March 25 And Tolkien

Today is March 25th and Good Friday. In a little while, after breakfast I will be off to join some friends in collecting for the Royal Children's Hospital, which uses the money for research that, sooner or later, helps the little ones.

And it occurred to me that on this day, on Middle-Earth, Frodo and Sam arrived at the Cracks of Doom to throw in the Ring and Frodo nearly yielded to the temptation to keep it. Well, actually, he did yield to the temptation, but was saved from himself by Gollum's action in biting off the finger with the Ring.

Eruption of Hawaiian volcano 1954. Public Domain.

Tolkien, a devout Catholic, didn't choose his dates at random. He knew exactly what he was doing. His Fellowship leaves Rivendell on December 25. Frodo and Sam reach their destination on March 25, which was also significant in the Church year, as the Feast of the Annunciation. It was New Year in England for hundreds of years.

It was also the traditional date of the Crucifixion. In other words, Good Friday. Is there a better date for the destruction of Sauron's instrument of evil? If you've read some of Tolkien's other works, you'll know that Sauron wasn't just a standard Dark Lord of the Voldemort(whoops! You know Who) persuasion. He was originally the sidekick of Morgoth, who was Middle-Earth's Satan. In other words, fallen angels, both of them. What they're offering is temptation to truly horrible sin. Not just the "I swore at my brother" type of sin, not even the "I robbed the bank" type of sin. That's amateur! This is the real thing, the kind of sin that turned a bunch of kings into the Ring Wraiths.

A Catholic website I found while refreshing my memory on the significance of the date suggests that the "unmaking" of the Ring is like the unmaking of sin by the Crucifixion. 

Makes sense to me. I read LOTR originally as a straight epic fantasy novel, the greatest of them all(one of the reasons why I so rarely read epic fantasy these days - they just can't compare to this one). You can read it that way and enjoy it, even love it. Tolkien doesn't hit you over the head with his faith. If you pick it up, wonderful, if not - enjoy anyway! 

But once I discovered the Catholic significance I was amazed that I hadn't noticed it first time around. For example, Gollum choking on the lembas bread(the Host). Frodo and Sam finding themselves able to live on just that and the Elven drink which is the sacramental wine. Go back and read! I promise it won't spoil it for you. It didn't spoil it for me, and I'm not "of the Nazarene   Persuasion." ;-)  Of course, I am a lover of things mediaeval and so was Tolkien. 

By the way, you'll pick up some bits of Tolkien in the wonderful though lesser Harry Potter books. I remember nearly choking on my drink the first time I read that scene in Prisoner of Azkaban in which the very Gandalf-like Dumbledore tells Harry that he may one day be glad he saved Wormtail. It took me back to a very similar scene between Gandalf and Frodo, only it's Gollum. Well, I guess Joanne Rowling is entitled to a bit of homage. She also, IMO, paid tribute to C.S Lewis in that scene in which Harry goes to the Deatheater camp. But Harry is her Frodo, if not with a Ring to tempt him. 

It seems almost irrelevant to this post, but I'm going to add a few birthdays of people who have given me delight. One is Patrick Troughton, the second Doctor. Another is Jim Lovell, astronaut of the Apollo 13 and hero of that wonderful film of the sane name. Happy birthday, Jim! A third is the glorious singer Aretha Franklin. 

So, have a great day, sleep in, go to church if that's your thing and consume lots of chocolate eggs. I'm going to have brekkie and raise money for the Royal Children's Hospital.

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40. My Belgian Friend!

Fellow book blogger Isabelle Frisch, a Belgian lady whose blog Lecture Toute Une Aventure(Reading Is An Adventure?) I follow and enjoy has posted to assure all her reading friends that all is well with her family and that her brother has returned safely from Bruxelles(I always wondered ... Now I know the correct spelling and pronunciation!)and has also been kind enough to  email and reassure friends personally.

It can be scary not knowing. One of our students, some years ago, spent all night waiting to be able to contact her brother, who worked at the World Trade Center. He was okay; apparently, he had attended a party the night before and was suffering a hangover, so was late for work. If he hadn't overdone the drinking the night before he might have been killed on 9/11!

It's becoming a scary world! A sad one. My thoughts go out to the families of those who were murdered last night.

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41. Just Finished Reading... The Family With Two Front Doors by Anna Ciddor

I confess I bought this in ebook on Thursday because I forgot the date of the launch at the Jewish Museum(thought it was later in the month) and missed out. It didn't take long to read, so here are some thoughts. It's not a formal review, but a formal review would really have said the same things in less chatty language.

The place is Lublin in Poland, the time the 1920s. The large, joyous Rabinovitch family, based on the family of the author's grandmother, have to spread out across two ground floor apartments because there are nine children and Papa is a rabbi, who needs an office where he can advise members of the community who come to him for help.

The entire novel is centred around preparations for the wedding of fifteen year old Adina, the eldest daughter(but not oldest child - the oldest son, Aaron is seventeen and already married!).

To be honest, not a lot happens. The family prepares for the September wedding and meanwhile, the girls cook and clean and look after younger siblings, prepare amazingly delicious meals for the Sabbath and go on the odd picnic.

But when you think of it, not a lot happens in Little Women either; Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy work, play, go to school(Amy), write, produce little plays for their own amusement, go on picnics, take the advice of their wise Marmee and generally live their daily life as the daughters of a minister off at the American Civil War. Somehow, it managed to become a classic and be filmed several times anyway. And Anna Ciddor's web site suggests that she had in mind Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series.

On another blog, I read Susan Price's description of the very elaborate mediaeval year and what people had to do to cope with the fact that there was a "hungry" period when you literally almost ran out of food. But the folk of the Middle Ages were organised - very organised. They managed.

And so are the women of the Rabinovitch family. Imagine having to prepare the equivalent of a dinner party every single week, not only for the family but for any random strangers Dad might bring home from the synagogue service on Friday night. These people might have come from out of town and couldn't travel on Sabbath, so a family would offer them dinner,  next day's lunch and a place to sleep meanwhile. So, a weekly dinner party(don't forget the dishes!) and, on the holy days, a feast for the extended family! And more dishes. And a house to clean and you absolutely have to make sure that there isn't anything un-kosher allowed into the house. Two lots of dishes to wash in two separate sinks...

Organisation is the keyword here; even today, a religious household needs it and I remember a member of my librarianship class, when I was studying at RMIT, a religious Jewish woman who ran her Orthodox household, cooked, cleaned, did all the observances and still managed to come top of the year in what has to be the toughest course of study I have ever done! She didn't see what the fuss was about; it was just what she did. It may go some way, though, to explaining why she was able to get all her studies done and end up with first place.

I think my mother would enjoy this book, if I can get hold of a print copy at some stage. Some of her memories are very close to the stories in this book, though her family was not quite as religious as the one in The Family With Two Front Doors. She told me long ago about the bakery where she was sent to collect her mother's challah and chulent(a yummy slow-cooked casserole of beans, vegetables and meat, cooked overnight so that religious families can have a hot lunch without breaking the rules about lighting a fire on the Sabbath), as the heroine, Nomi, does in this novel. The bakery had a better oven for the purposes of baking bread and slow-cooking chulent. And random visitors every week and the bath in the kitchen... She told me about her family's summers on the farm(in Mum's case, in the company of their huge, cuddly German Shepherd dogs); in Family, there isn't time to do this because of the wedding frenzy, so the children go to the farm for a picnic instead.

Somehow, every one of the nine children has a personality, though the story is told from the viewpoints of only two, Nomi and her younger brother Yakov. There is a charming drawing of the family at the front of the book, along with some internal illustrations in each chapter, drawn by the author who, it seems, is a bit like Gabrielle Wang in this respect!

Did I mention the food? I really don't care for Eastern European food in general, which is too fatty and heavy for our climate, but it's impossible to read this without a watering mouth - and in my case, a reason for a watering mouth, since I've tasted quite a lot of that food. I must admit, we don't actually stuff the fish in my family or extended family; I always wondered why the name gefilte(stuffed) fish was applied to white rissoles of minced fish with carrots on top. And my mother's kugel, a noodle dish with raisins in it, doesn't have any chicken fat and never had any, even before she discovered what fat can do to you and started preparing healthier food; vegetarians, if not vegans, can eat it safely. But the dishes are familiar.  Ooh, that calf's-foot jelly! With a bit of salt and lemon, a feast for a king!  I haven't tasted that in years. I can imagine some restaurant doing a Babette's Feast or Big Night event based on this novel.

The only sad thing about reading it was thinking of the fact that it's set only about fifteen years before the Holocaust would sweep away the world of this delightful family forever - and most of the family itself - as it did for my parents' families. Sure enough, there was an author's note at the end, in which we learned that only three of the children survived, her grandmother and two of her sisters.

Still - with Purim coming up next week, all we can say is "They tried to kill us, we survived, let's eat!" (I've booked a ticket for a Purim Spiel happening not far from where I live, my very first, though I know about them)

Let's raise a hat to Anna Ciddor's wonderful family from Lublin.

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42. Harmony Day At My School (reposted from Livejournal)

Yesterday was Harmony Day. Our celebrations were organised by our EAL teacher, Lily. We're a small campus of a four campus school, just a couple of hundred very multicultural students from Year 7 to 10. It used to be a full day celebration, but that just hasn't been possible in recent years, so we had an afternoon instead. We had a wonderful guest speaker, a lady who is half Iranian, half Mauritian, whose family had escaped to Australia just before the Shah was deposed, with a warning from a friend in the know. She spoke of music and culture and of her time in Brazil and the joyousness of Brazilian music culture. Then she got out her feathered Rio style costume and there were drums and she handed rattles to students and got them all up celebrating. The Year 8 students did African drumming, which they learn in music(a far cry from the days when for me, music meant an American teacher trying to get us to learn our own folk songs or, before her, a lady who told us entertaining stories about the composers).

In the past, we have had some amazing Islander students agreeing to perform dances, in costume - something they still do for the annual school concert - but this time they were all off playing volleyball for the school. So there was only one incredibly brave young man in Year 8 agreeing to do a haka, of which more in a minute.

Because we were so short of entertainment, not enough for the planned afternoon, I offered to do a telling of the story of Purim, which is next week. The nice thing about this is that it's interactive. The kids had full permission to cheer the good guys and boo the villain, and one of my colleagues, who suggested holding up boo and cheer cards, was roped in to assist me. Lily encouraged me to ham it up, asking for a PowerPoint to go with it. I found various pictures online to use, and discovered that the truly dreadful Joan Collins/Richard Egan sword and sandal epic wasn't the only retelling of the tale and that John Rhys Davies actually played Mordecai in one of the later versions.

I began by explaining some of the various traditions(I left out the one about getting drunk!) such as costuming, partying, sharing food, giving to charity and amateur drama - and telling the story with audience participation. I then offered them a choice of a tinsel wig or a Harpo wig, telling them it was the only costuming they were going to get out of me. They cheered for the Harpo wig, which I put on, telling my colleague he would have been asked to wear it if they'd chosen the tinsel one for me. ;-)

We actually have a student called Hadassah(Esther's real name) and I had considered getting her into the act, but reluctantly decided against it - that particular girl would have cringed. Pity.

I think it went over well and the boo/cheer cards added a nice touch. I let them know that there would be a traditional Purim chocolate frog for them all at home time.

Now for our brave Year 8 lad. Really, a haka needs to be done by a group. If there had been some other boys to join him, I think he would have managed it. But after a short performance, he put his head in his hands and ran off, muttering, "Oh, I can't!"

It told me something about the young man I hadn't realised: he is terribly shy. He's in my English class and I used to teach him Literacy in Year 7, before he was promoted out of my class. He has some issues, but in class he is very good at class discussions and picks up some things about the film text the others haven't noticed. He talks loudly and laughs a lot.Nevertheless, he's shy - and I've just realised. Maybe the loud talk is to hide it. Despite that, he agreed to stand up in front of two hundred people, classmates and teachers alike, and perform. That took guts, facing his fear.

As the kids left, collecting their chocolate, I whispered to him that I was proud of him.

And I've learned a bit more about how I can help him in class. 

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43. Happy Birthday, Caroline Herschel!

Caroline Herschel, astronomer, was born on this day, March 16, 1750 and lived to be 97. Here's a  Creative Commons licensed Victorian era lithograph of her and her brother William, who, like her, was a musician who became an astronomer. In his case, a massively famous astronomer whose name is better known even today than hers. For one thing, among his many achievemements he discovered the planet Uranus - the first time anyone had discovered a planet in centuries.  But over the course of her career, his sister was to discover a lot of comets. There's even a crater on the moon bashed for her.

You notice she's not doing any astronomy in this picture, she's handing him a nice cup of tea(or coffee or maybe chocolate) while he does astronomy? Well, she did follow him from Hanover to England to be his housekeeper and sing in his concerts(she was a fabulously gifted soprano), but still, how very Victorian! 
I wrote about her in my children's book, Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science(out of print but probably still available on ABEbooks or eBay). 

Because it was for children, I started off her chapter with her collecting horse dung for her work on a giant telescope. Kids love gross. 

Caroline seems to have been fairly fortunate in the men in her life - her father and brother. In the Wikipedia article I read to refresh my memory it says that her Mum didn't want her educated but her Dad, a musician, sneaked in some lessons while his wife was out. What it doesn't say in Wikipedia is that when she got interested in astronomy, her brother William gave her the maths lessons she needed to make a go of it. 

She was the first woman ever to be paid for her work in science and was eventually made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society, along with Mary Somerville, best known as a mathematician and teacher of the world's first computer programmer Ada Byron Lovelace. 

For many years she worked with her brother. Eventually he got married and didn't need her housekeeping any more, which made her rather sad. But it also led, eventually, to her having an independent career as an astronomer. And she had a good relationship with her nephew John, who also became an astronomer and married a botanist! 

I'll let you look up all the awards and medals she won before passing away at the age of 97. If you get quickly to the Google page, the Google Doodle should still be up, otherwise just look up her name. It's there - and I have to say, it's a lot easier to find information about women scientists now than it was back in the 1990s, when I was researching my book. That's wonderful! 

It's also kind of nice to know that way back in Caroline Herschel's time a woman scientist could be recognised, as she was - especially considering how many in much more recent times have not been. We still, for example, hear all about Watson and Crick in the history of DNA, but not as often about Rosalind Franklin. 

Happy birthday, Caroline! I'm off to drink a toast.

Creative Commons image from Winecast

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44. Coming Soon! Interview With Jaclyn Moriarty!

This is just to remind you that next Wednesday, my interview with Jaclyn Moriarty will go live, as part of the Tangle Of Gold Blog Tour arranged by her publishers, Pan Macmillan. It has been parked, in draft form, among my posts since February 19. I was asked to give her a month to reply to my questions, but the replies were shot back to me after only a couple of days!

If you're interested, today's stop is at Inkcrush blog, by a Queensland blogger who simply refers to herself as Nomes, why not wander over and check it out? She includes a review and guest questions by blogging friends, so it will be very different from my interview, which just says some nice things about the series and asks a few questions. There's always something new to learn! 

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45. Happy International Women's Day! Celebrating Women Writers!

Despite the Northern Hemisphere  date above this post, it's March 8 here Down Under. Trust me on this.

As I haven't had the time or energy or even help to decorate my school library, I thought I might make today's post a tribute to women writers. Feel free to post your own favourites in the comments section. 

Even in writing, a career you'd think would be equal, not requiring physical strength(except, perhaps staying up late to meet deadlines), there has been inequality. Remember Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? Otherwise known as Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte. Between you and me, I can't see how anyone could possibly have mistaken Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre for anything written by a man, but then, I wasn't around at the time.

Public Domain

There's that scene in Blackadder 3 in which Edmund Blackadder, the Prince Regent's butler, is talking to his sidekick Baldrick about his epic novel, Edmund: A Butler's Tale, which he sent to Samuel Johnson under the pseudonym of Gertrude Perkins, because everybody is doing it; Jane Austen is a great big Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush, according to Edmund. He tells Baldrick that the only real female writer around is Boswell "and that's only because she wants to get into Johnson's britches." 

You can see the joke here, a tribute to this matter of women having to write under male pen names. You'd think it was over by now, but no, not completely. Even in my own area of children's/YA fiction - in fact, especially - there are some women having to hide their female identities to get boys reading their books - at least, that's what their publishers tell them. I don't recall hearing about boys giving up the Harry Potter books after it turned out that J.K Rowling was Joanne. But that was why her name was written the way it is. And you know what? The only takers for Tamora Pierce's books at my school have been boys. And yes, Garth Nix's Old Kingdom books were written by a man, and it has been only boys, so far, whom I could persuade to read the adventures of his strong heroines. Not a single female borrowed of Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen.

But I'm wondering how many kids these days know that S.E Hinton was a Susan? The books aren't as popular now as when they were written, at least not in my school, but I make sure I tell the few kids who do borrow them that they were written by a teenage girl.

Lately, I suspect anyone who writes with initials of being female, though it isn't always the case. 

Even in a female dominated industry like children's writing, there are plenty of men. And yes, there are some wonderful male writers who can write from a female viewpoint. Off the top of my head, I'd suggest Will Kostakis's Loathing Lola, Garth Nix's Old Kingdom heroines and Sean Williams' Jump, Crash and Fall . But if anyone makes them write under female names in this genre, I haven't heard of it. (Romance is different, of course; I believe there are some male romance novelists writing under female names)

It's a bit like teaching: there are both male and female, but in a female-dominated career, guess who mostly gets to be in charge? Not that there aren't some amazing male primary teachers; my brother-in-law is the best I've ever known. And guess what? He was a Principal for a while too, but dropped it and went back to the classroom, telling me he only got to see the children when they had been naughty. The kids are what he's there for; he wasn't going to spend his career doing paperwork and discipline. He's back in the classroom and happy.

So, who are a few female children's writers I enjoy? Please forgive me if you are a writer and left out, I just want to name a few who come to mind. I'll probably remember more when I've finished posting.

In no special order...

Kate Constable, who wrote the Chanters of Tremaris series and has since done some gorgeous timeslip stories set in contemporary Australia. Interestingly, the Chanters of Tremaris series appealed to our boys and the girls have been passing around the timeslip tales by word of mouth.

Gabrielle Wang, who writes gentle fantasies for middle-grade readers. We do have a set of A Ghost In My Suitcase in our Literature Circles sets, and the kids have done very well with this one. There is an interview one group of students did with Gabrielle on this website, and it's in the free ebook as well.

Marianne De Pierres, whom I first met at the Aussiecon writer's workshop years ago, who has done a wonderful YA SF series starting with Burn Bright. That one is for good readers only, but well worth reading.It's about an island where anyone over 18 disappears, but meanwhile parties hard. I knew two girls who said they were fine with that, as long as they got in all that partying. There's an interview on this site with Marianne too.

Jackie French, a fabulous writer of historical fiction in a range from ancient Egypt to the World Wars. Kids are not very keen on historical fiction these days, but they'll read Jackie French.

Rebecca Lim, author of the series about Mercy, a fallen angel who is being hidden by the non fallen angels and does a Quantum Leap thing into various mortal bodies, one in each novel. The girls at my school simply love this series! And I tell them Rebecca lives right here in Melbourne. Nice!

These are all Aussie writers, but my favourite from overseas is Susan Cooper, who is still writing beautiful historical fantasy, long after the end of her classic Dark Is Rising series.

Let's celebrate women writers! Raise your glass in a toast with me!

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46. Three Dragons For Christmas: Sydney, Christmas Press, 2015 - A MuchBelated Review!

I received this last year, in time for Christmas...along with a lot of other books. Sorry this has taken so long, but do consider buying and putting it away for next Yuletide! Your kids will love you for it, and you'll have less worrying to do in the last minute.

Here is yet another gorgeous Christmas Press publication for children. This time, it's mostly written and illustrated by the staff of Christmas Press - Fiona McDonald, Sophie Masson and Beattie Alvarez pen two stories and a poem, regular artist David Allan is ably supported by Lisa Stewart, who illustrates Sophie Masson's story, "The Christmas Dragon," in which a young dragon, Fiery, dreams of pulling Santa's  sleigh. Signing herself "Frosty the Fabulous Flyer" she manages to get a job interview at the North Pole, only to be told that on Christmas Eve Santa has all the sleigh pullers he needs. Can Fiery help in another way? Read and find out!

Meanwhile, here is a sample page of Ms Stewart's art for the story.

Even if you didn't have the inimitable Sophie Masson writing the story the book would be worth buying just for the art.

David Allan contributes the delightful cover and some gorgeous internal art interspersed between the stories.

Artist Fiona McDonald shows she can write too, writing and illustrating "Dragon Market" in which a mother and daughter toymaking team who had nearly been driven out of business by the competition find that an act of kindness to an old woman, as in the best fairytales, and a handcrafted dragon, help them get back into business. Even though it's for children I couldn't help thinking of the real world in which small businesses can lose out to big ones. 

Finally, we have "The Dragon's Pet", Beattie Alvarez's tribute to Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit From St Nicholas" aka "The night before Christmas". This time the family is a family of dragons whose pet bunny has messed up their Christmas dinner. Needless to say, St Nick helps out and even washes the batter-covered rabbit! Ms Alvarez, who edited 2014's Christmas annual, in which I had a story, shows she can draw too, illustrating her own work.

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47. Look What I Got - A NEW Jules Verne Novel!

Well, new to me, anyway. This Verne adventure novel has been forgotten in English for some time(not in French!)till Sophie Masson, who read it in French as a child, arranged for a new translation - the first in a century - and new art. Then she did a crowd funding campaign through her imprint, Christmas Press(Eagle Books label). You'll find her guest post about it here.

I pre-ordered, of course, and am very pleased with the product. It's a gorgeous little book with the traditional built-in book mark and internal art of the old style, the kind you see in nineteenth century editions, done by the wonderful David Allan, who, I hope, might one day illustrate something of mine.... Well, I can dream. He seems to be able to adapt his style to whatever the book requires. 

The endpapers are maps of Russia and the pages are gilt-edged. A thing of beauty and that's before I've even read it, as I only picked it up from the Brighton Road post office agency this morning. I am looking forward to snuggling up with it before bed tonight. 

As for you, get your own! It should be available at the Eagle Books website.

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48. Class And Race In The Wizarding World

I've been rereading the Harry Potter books recently, mostly as bedtime comfort reading, and thinking, not for the first time, of the distinct flavour of class difference and racism among the people of wizarding society. 

When I say "racism" I don't mean white wizards and black wizards hating each other. They don't, as far as we know. It's rather similar, in this respect, to Terry Pratchett's Discworld in which black and white and brown humans will happily unite against green non-humans. The race thing in Harry Potter is literal - humans uniting against giants and cheerfully enslaving house-elves. They

are more wary of the goblins, who, after all, control their money and make it quite clear they have contempt for humans, though they are willing to work with them, as long as it's profitable. I suspect they own Gringott's Bank and employ humans, not the other way around. And they have fought wars against humans in the past. 

House-elves, on the other hand, grovel to humans despite having powerful magic of their own; even Dobby, the closest thing to a radical the house-elves have, insists on receiving only a token wage and time off, as a matter of principle; I suspect if he'd been working for the Weasleys, for example, or even(initially) for Hogwarts, he wouldn't have wished for freedom. It's a house-elf culture thing, but wizards are happy to take advantage of it. 

And everybody is terrified of giants. Well, nearly everybody; Hagrid's parents were a human and a giant, so his Dad was more broadminded than other wizards. Not to mention the fact that whatever the differences, there is enough that's the same for them to be able to interbreed! 

What I have noticed most, though, is the class structure reflecting the one in the Muggle world. Not entirely; in this universe, working class wizards get a chance to have the boarding school experience they would never have outside wizard society. Colin and Dennis Creevey, children of a Muggle milkman, mingle with the likes of Justin Finch-Fletchley, who was planning to attend the highly upper-crust Eton before getting his Hogwarts letter. Mundungus Fletcher and Stan Shunpike, as lower-class as you can get, would both have attended Hogwarts in their time, as did Tom Riddle, who came straight from an orphanage(though he was descended from the wealthy local squire and Salazar Slytherin, making him technically upper-crust on both sides, even if the Gaunts were the wizarding world's answer to Harper Lee's Ewells!). This is probably for the practical reason that children with magical abilities can't be allowed to run wild in the world at large, Muggle or wizarding, whether they can afford the fees or not. They need the training. I do sometimes wonder what happens when Muggle families whose children are offered a place at Hogwarts say, "No, thank you." It's not compulsory, of course, but it must worry Dumbledore when it happens - especially after what happened in his own family.

Within the wizarding world, however, it's fairly clear that there are a lot of people who attend Hogwarts and then go back to being farmers or shopkeepers, bus conductors or even petty thieves. Not everyone works for the Ministry of Magic. 

There are, of course, the issues between "purebloods" and Muggleborn or "halfbreeds". But even among the purebloods there are class differences. The Weasley family are poor by pureblood standards. They have hand-me-down wands and secondhand robes and have to scrape to find the money for textbooks and equipment. At the same time, Mr Weasley has a Civil Service job that enables him to make laws, including adding loopholes that let him fiddle with that car. That's not a job for a Clerk Class One! He may be poor, but his family is not lower class in the same way as Mundungus Fletcher or Stan Shunpike. 

Rich families like the Malfoys gang up - usually - on poor ones, even those who are also pureblood, as well as in Muggleborn and halfbreeds. Ironically, Lord Voldemort is a halfbreed, but that doesn't matter to him or his followers; none of the Deatheaters would dare to say, "Hang on, aren't you...?"

Well, he is a descendant of Slytherin, after all! 

And then there's Severus Snape. I think, from the evidence, that his father Tobias was a Muggleborn wizard rather than a Muggle. Little Severus takes the wizarding world for granted in a way he might not in the household of a straight Muggle, even if his mother was a witch; he is there to introduce young Lily Evans to her heritage. But judging by his Spinner's End home and the fact that even the very Muggle Petunia refers to him as "that awful boy" in a sneering tone, for being from the wrong side of the tracks, I believe Snape is as lower class as Fletcher and Shunpike, though we never find out, in the books at least, where his mother came from. All we know is that she was running the Gobstones Club at Hogwarts. He presumably made better use of his time at Hogwarts than the petty crook and the bus conductor, and has risen to become one of the inner circle of staff there. It does help him with the Deatheaters that they think he is still one of them and that he seems to favour the Slytherins.

I occasionally wonder about the author's attitude too. Of the heroes, Ron is poor but of the gentry. Hermione's parents are professionals - not upper-crust but well off(which doesn't stop her from being sneered at as a "mudblood"). Even Harry, that male Cinderella, is the son of a wealthy pureblood wizarding family and a Muggle family that is at least well off enough to snub the likes of young Severus. And he's the Chosen One, the long lost prince. Characters like Colin Creevey, the milkman's son, are presented in a comical light, though it's a pity what happens to him in the end; it wasn't necessary, IMO. Hagrid is a wonderful person, loved by our heroes, brave and honourable, but also shown mostly as comic relief. 

Sirius Black rejected his family's Deatheater sentiments, but in the end, he's an aristocrat too. His favourite aunt, Andromeda, married a Muggleborn, Ted Tonks, and was considered dead to her family, but there isn't the same grime about their cottage and their lives as there is in Snape's family home. I suspect Ted is a poor gentleman like Mr Weasley, rather than working class. 

Whatever Lupin's family is or was, he suffers from prejudice against werewolves, due to something that was done to him as a child. He's poor because nobody will take a chance on giving him a job before Dumbledore(though he must have had a teaching job somewhere some time as his battered trunk has "Professor Lupin" in peeling gold letters on it - or maybe it was just a glitch on the author's part). At Hogwarts, the Slytherins, who don't yet know what he is, sneer at him for being poor, before finding a better reason to sneer. 

And then there are the Squibs. There is one in the Weasley family, as Ron mentions in Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone that they have a relative who's an accountant, but says they don't speak of him. Neither do we ever meet him. He's presumably settled nicely into the Muggle world. There's Argus Filch, who insists on living in the wizarding world and as a result is desperately unhappy and takes his revenge on the students as best he can. He is disliked by the students for being unpleasant, not because he's a Squib, which they don't know, except Harry and his friends. He's another comical character - and I doubt he started life in an upper-crust family, who would surely never have allowed him to embarrass them as he must do in his caretaker job at Hogwarts. No. Filch is working-class - and sent up by the author. Would a Weasley-type caretaker be shown in this light? Probably not. He would be poor-but-honest, kind to the students, making the best of his life, despite his Squib nature. But bear in mind, the only Weasley Squib is an accountant, ie a well-paid professional! 

Mrs Figg is sent up before we actually meet her, as the crazy cat lady, but when she finally appears in Order Of The Phoenix, we learn that she was playing a role, to prevent the Dursleys from suspecting she was there to keep an eye on Harry for Dumbledore.  She gets a brief mention at the end of Goblet Of Fire as one of a team who must be contacted, so she lives in the Muggle world but is in touch with the world of her roots. Again, I doubt she was nobly born; she would not be living in the kind of home she does if she were. But she must have at least enough standing that the Dursleys have bothered to speak to her, even as babysitter for their despised Cinderella figure; they are such snobs!

I believe that class counts in the universe of Harry Potter, and not only from the viewpoint of the villains. 

Please note, this post is based only on the evidence from the books; if JKR has said anything to the contrary on Pottermore, please excuse me! I just don't have time to keep up.

What do you think? 

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49. On Having Your Letter To The Paper Published

I've been published on the letters page of the newspaper a number of times. Some of my comments have been published in the on-line editions. Over the years I've taught myself, through observation, what is likely to be accepted and what rejected and why.

But not always. Despite the page of "why my comments were not published" on the web site of my main paper, I have seen them publish comments that go against their moderation rules - and been rejected for some of my comments that didn't go against the rules. The moderators are only human, I suppose. They might be in a bad mood that day. They might disagree with you enough to stop you from having your say, even if they feel guilty about it later.

Yesterday, I received a call from the letters editor of the day who was considering publishing my letter about how science stories can be made more engaging by employing children's writers to tell them. The paper had published an article on the theme of making science stories exciting. My argument was that children won't put up with pages of technical language or with the "beautiful language" that would satisfy adults without actually telling a story. If you can excite children, I argued, you can excite anyone.

The lady said that it sounded like a plug for myself, because - ta da! - they know I'm a children's writer! I said good, but hardly anyone else does, outside the school and library system. The newspaper folk only know because they Googled me. Nevertheless, she argued, I should declare my interest. Could they publish the words "children's writer" with my name? Just to declare my interest. I agreed, adding that it would be nice if they did that more often, as they have published quite a few letters by people who hadn't declared their interests. (One of them is a high ranking member of a racist organisation, the other one practically runs her organisation. Neither of them has been phoned to confirm that they have no interest other than their opinions). "Oh, you should have told us!" she said and I agreed to do it next time, though I was thinking, "And you should have Googled them on their controversial topics, as you did me about my fairly innocuous one!" but didn't say it.

They have published my letter, cutting my sentence about children's writing being the last refuge of storytelling and adding a typo in the interests of removing my contraction. "Doesn't" became "doe snot." Ouch! I'll take responsibility for my own typos, thanks, and goodness knows, I get plenty of those due to the prediction software on my iPad, but this is a national newspaper.

A bit like the late unlamented Bulletin that published a letter from someone who declared "Jews are dupes of Satan!" but rang me when I responded, to make sure I was okay and then told me they weren't going to print my letter "because we haven't the space."

Ah, well, the newspaper at least published my letter, even if I did have to jump through a few hoops!

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50. An Interview With Jaclyn Moriarty: A Tangle Of Gold Blog Tour

Today's guest on The Great Raven is YA novelist Jaclyn Moriarty, whose final volume in the Colours Of Madeleine trilogy, A Tangle Of Gold, has just come out. In honour of the occasion, Macmillan is running a blog tour, on which this is a stop. If you haven't read the trilogy yet, I do recommend it. It's funny and sad, over the top and just plain entertaining. When it's clear the author is having fun, why shouldn't the readers? But begin with the first volume, A Corner Of White, in which the heroine, Madeleine, first discovers a corner of white paper sticking out of a parking meter in a street in Cambridge and finds herself corresponding with a cute boy in another universe, one in which seasons can change overnight and colours - or, rather Colours - can be dangerous....

To remind you, here is my review of the first two volumes, 

Thank you, Jaclyn, for kindly answering some of my questions about the trilogy. Without further ado, here she is! 

Why "The Colours Of Madeleine”?

Madeleine likes to wear bright colours because she is searching for colour and magic in her life.  She’s also trying to figure out her identity, and what she’s made of: her mistakes, her memories, her thoughts, her friendships, what?  So it’s like she wants to know if she is made of bright colours, complex colours, dull colours, selfish colours, blinding colours or dangerous colours. 


Why the Cambridge setting for the World? (Have you been to Cambridge?)

I lived in Cambridge, England for three years while I was doing a PhD.  I had an attic bedroom with sloping ceilings and a window that looked over a garden overgrown with wild grasses and flowers.  An owl used to hoot in a tree outside the window by my bed.  The place is magical to me, so it seemed like the right location for a crack through to the Kingdom of Cello. 


I've read the entire trilogy now and am still wondering just how important are the wandering seasons of Cello, given that you left them in even after you were  told that farming would be impossible in such a situation? 

Ha!   Wandering seasons are an integral part of Cello: I couldn’t write about Cello without mentioning them!  That would be like describing Paris and leaving out the Eiffel Tower.  And don’t worry, my farming friend was only joking when he said that farming would be impossible with wandering seasons.  There are plenty of places in the world where weather changes are frequent and dramatic so that farming is very difficult.  But people figure out solutions.  When the English first came to Australia they thought it was a barren land where nothing would ever grow.  And don’t forget that living things - including plants -  always find a way to survive.  Plants grow in the most unlikely places and most extreme conditions - in concrete, in sand, in clay, in darkness, in zero oxygen.  The crops that grow in Cello have evolved to resist the extremes of wandering seasons. 

Your characters eat a lot of delicious baked goods, both in Cello and in the World! There are cafes and tea rooms and characters baking at home - is this something you enjoy? 

Yes, this is something I enjoy a lot.  Even your question makes me happy and hungry.  Also, when I first came up with the idea of the Kingdom of Cello I was eating a chocolate croissant. 

Cello has a wide variety of cultures within the one kingdom, from the old style living of Olde Quainte to the high tech of Jagged Edge. What did you have in mind when you were working on this? 

I think the idea might have come to me from places like Europe - where many contrasting countries co-exist in a relatively small geographical space - and the United States, where there are such vast differences between some of the states, and the attitudes and lifestyles of their inhabitants, that it’s almost as if the states are different countries.  I wanted to play with this concept.   

What research did you have to do for this trilogy?

I read many books on Isaac Newton, Byron, Charles Babbage, Leonardo da Vinci and other famous historical figures, as well as books on science, physics and colour.  Also I had conversations with physicists, farmers, pilots, motocross enthusiasts, and other experts.  And I got my aura read and I learned to play the cello. 

In A Tangle Of Gold, we learn more about the Cellian connections of Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, even Byron and Vivaldi! Was it fun working them into your world? And, if you can tell us without spoilers - why these particular historical figures? 

I loved reading about these people: they are all brilliant, fascinating and flawed, and there is an element of mystery in all of their lives.

This is probably a question for the cover designer, but you might know - why was there a flying umbrella on all three covers? 

I think it’s because when Jack first sees Madeleine she’s walking down the road with a brightly-coloured umbrella?  And because it rains a lot in Cambridge?  Maybe it’s also a reference to the wandering seasons in Cello?  (See, that’s another reason I couldn’t take them out: they’re on the cover.) 

 Now that the three volume epic is over, what's next in your writing schedule? 

I’m writing a book about a girl whose parents have run away to have adventures with pirates leaving her to deliver treasure to ten aunts; a book about a woman who has enrolled in a course that will teach her to fly; a time travel book; a book about my great-grandmother; and a new Ashbury-Brookfield book.  

Find Jaclyn Moriarty on Twitter @jaclynmoriarty.

A Tangle Of Gold is now available! 


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