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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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1. Shopping At Dymock's - First Of The Year!

I'm now sitting at Ganache, a lovely chocolate and tea shop, having a well earned cuppa and three choccies. It's my usual reward for going out to buy books for the kids.

It was hard enough to get them to request what they felt like reading next - I have had more enthusiastic book clubbers in previous years. I mean, yes, they turn up at meetings and chat quite happily about things bookish, but there aren't the same cries of joy as they dive into a box of new books and too many of them read one book at a time and firmly refuse to borrow another one till it's finished.

But in the end, I had a decent shopping list from them - and, oddly, from some non members who turned up today, just in time, asking for such things as the next Magisterium novel(Holly Black and Cassndra Clare) and a series by a Polish gentleman which inspired a video game. And I found both! I bought the first novel in the series, and Book 2 of Magisterium(it was in the children's section instead of the YA and the Polish novel was in the SF). In the SF also I easily found a Terry Goodkind book for one of my book clubbers who wanted to read it because she had seen a TV show based on it. Fine. I imagine some of my spec fic lovers will read it after her.

There was a request for "more Diary of A Wimpy Kid, miss" from a Year 7 - I bought the latest,  which we don't have.

I'm afraid the vampire fans will miss out yet again. I did find a couple of the requested books, but not all, and the only Morganville Vampire book they had was the first, which we have. I must ask our bookseller if she can get hold of some more. I keep disappointing that young lady.

My young history lover, who was in my class in Year 8 the other year, asked for "anything about war."  I found a couple of books about WWI which he should find of interest but which Year 9 students can also use after him. One of them was actually on the CBCA short list a few years ago, but I must have missed it - I mostly read and buy the Older Readers books.

Speaking of which, I suddenly realised that they had some of this Year's Short List which I had missed. Two were Younger Reader books, but I bought them anyway. It's surprising what turns up there.

Anyway, time for tea and we will have some lovely new books early next term!

    Creative Commons image

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2. Calling All Aussie and Brit Spec Fic Fans!

Received in my email yesterday the following request from a lady doing her Masters thesis on diversity in speculative fiction. This is a subject that is being much discussed recently and it will be interesting to see what results she comes up with in her thesis. I'm going to do it.

Sorry, Australian and British fans only this time.

Take it away, Rachel Aitken!

Calling all science fiction and fantasy literature fans! I'm Rachel, and I'm a student from Scotland studying the MSc Publishing at Edinburgh Napier University. I'm currently conducting research for my dissertation, which aims to critically analyse racial and gender diversity within sci fi and fantasy fiction, specifically in the UK and Australia. I'm looking for participants to complete the following survey, where you will be asked about yourself, your opinions on diversity in the genre, with some case study questions regarding book cover decisions as well. The survey itself shouldn't take longer than 20 minutes, and I will be extremely grateful if you could complete it! It's for British and Australian participants only, as I am investigating differences in the genre between these two countries. The deadline for answers is July 17th. You can contact myself, if you have any questions, on Twitter (@rh_aitken) and you can access the survey here. Thank you again! 

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3. Forgetting Foster By Dianne Touchell. Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest, 2016

Foster Sumner is seven years old. He likes toy soldiers, tadpole hunting, going to school and the beach. Best of all, he likes listening to his dad's stories.

But then Foster's dad starts forgetting things. No one is too worried at first. Foster and Dad giggle about it. But the forgetting gets worse. And suddenly no one is laughing anymore.

This is Dianne Touchell's third novel. The first, Creepy And Maud, was on that year's CBCA shortlist. I admit to not having got around to reading that one, so this is my first experience with this author's writing. 

This story, about a family's having to deal with early onset Alzheimer's Disease in the father, is certainly not going to make its readers cheerful. Like the young hero, we know it's not going to go away, ever. Foster misses his funny, gentle, wise father and we miss him too, with all the flashbacks and memories of the delightful, ridiculous stories he used to tell. 

It's painful, watching the father deteriorate and the mother being frustrated and angry and constantly telling Foster to go play in his room when the adults have to discuss things. It's painful seeing how Foster tries to cope at school when word gets around. 

Clearly the author has done her research on what happens when Alzheimer's arrives, or perhaps her family has been through it; an afterword might have been interesting here. 

The story is poignant, yes, but... at whom is it aimed? The blurb says from thirteen up and it's slotted into "young adult" on the publisher's web site, but the hero is seven years old. Teenagers tend not to read books about characters that much younger than themselves. At the same time, the average seven year old is unlikely to get it. I understand that a lot of this couldn't happen if Foster had been thirteen or older; much of it depends on his not understanding quite what's going on, and the reader knowing.  But I think it might have worked better if he had been a little older, perhaps ten or eleven, and the language a little simpler, to make it more suitable for a younger age range. 

Available from June 22nd at all good bookshops and online. You can order it from Booktopia here

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4. Just Started Rereading... Gilgamesh The King by Robert Silverberg

I do have a copy of this in paperback on my overflowing shelves, somewhere, but bought the ebook on an impulse after reading and reviewing Two Tales Of Brothers From Ancient Mesopotamia. Robert Silverberg is best known for his science fiction, but this is historical fiction lalong the lines of Mary Renault's The King Must Die, ie taking a character from mythology and asking how you can fit him into real history. And, I have read, Gilgamesh was a real person who had myths and legends wound into his life, a bit like Charlemagne, whom we know existed, rather than Arthur, whom we would like to think existed, but don't know. 

 I'm enjoying the reread so far. I'd forgotten a lot of it. This Gilgamesh starts to think of death, and how he definitely doesn't want it, when he is only six and attends his father's funeral.

 It's certainly based on the royal burial excavated by Leonard Wooolley, in which he had the theory that all those people who went with the king were there voluntarily. If you believed without question that the afterlife for most people was darkness and dust and you had the chance to go to heaven and party with the gods instead, in exchange for taking poison and lying down with the king in his grave, you might just do it, yes? Woolley gave some reasons for his theory; the layout was too neat, nobody seemed to have struggled and one handmaiden had her silver headdress in her pocket instead of on her head; maybe, he suggests, she was a bit late getting dressed for the funeral and forgot to put it on? It's a fascinating read, by the way, a book called Ur Of The Chaldees, which Penguin published many years ago; I was given it along with a number of other classics by a teacher who was clearing his shelves and knew I loved history. I used the book in my research for my book Time Travellers: Adventures In Archaeology(my one and only bestseller - still in print in the U.S., still bringing me royalties after 14 years).

At this point in my reading, Gilgamesh is not much past twelve and already a huge young man and sexually experienced. He discovered girls early and when his uncle takes him to the temple of Inanna to have his supposed first experience with a sacred prostitute, he has to pretend to be a virgin. 

I'm looking forward to rereading the rest. I always enjoy a book which has taken a myth or legend and shown me how it could work as history. 

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5. Two Tales Of Brothers From Mesopotamia by John Heffernan.Ill. by KateDurack.Sydney: Christmas Press, 2016

Here is yet another beautiful picture story book from the wonderful Christmas Press. Christmas Press is a fine example of Australian small press publishing, springing up to fill a niche that the large publishing houses have left open. It only does a few books a year, but all of them are carefully and exquisitely produced, retelling folk and fairytales from various countries. 

This latest book is by John Heffernan, better known as a YA novelist. It retells, in language young readers can follow, part of the story of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu, who are as close as brothers. The two stories are "The King And The Wild Man" and "Brothers Battle The Beast." In the first story, the two men meet, fight and find themselves admiring each other. Gilgamesh has been a bad king, making the lives of his subjects a misery in his arrogance. The gods answer his subjects' prayers by creating a wild man, Enkidu, to match him, since he won't pay any attention to a lesser being. Then, in the second story, the two battle the monster Humbaba, the Bull of Heaven. 

Both stories are beautifully illustrated by Kate Durack, who uses ancient Mesopotamian styles as her starting point and gives them a cartoon-like flavour which, oddly, works. The stories and the artwork match well. The ancient Mesopotamian style will also give children some idea of the history behind the story. That's a good thing, because I don't think anyone does Mesopotamia in history any more; our Year 7 students study Egypt, Greece, Rome and China. 

Young readers might also follow up the stories told here. 

Just one thing: the author changes the ending, making it happier than in the original "Epic of Gilgamesh". But the original ending of this part of the story leads to the next part, in which Gilgamesh, upset by his friend's death, goes on his quest for immortality. And there's only so much you can fit into a picture story book, only so complex you can make it. That was recognised by Ursula Dubosarsky in her story about Romulus and Remus, in which she finishes by saying that she wishes she could give it a happy ending, but does say that Rome was founded as a result of this story. If children want to know more, they can always look it up. 

Suitable for children from about middle primary school upwards.

Available from the Christmas Press web site. 

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6. Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade By Kate and Jol Temple, ill.by Jon Faye. Sydney: Allen And Unwin, 2016

Jimmy Cook is finding History Week a bit boring until Ms Fennel starts banging on about Captain Cook. Then - bingo! Turns out he and Captain Cook have a lot in common. Here are three of the big ones: they are both named James Cook; they are both great explorers; and they both look great in a tricorn hat.

So, he makes a tricorn hat for History Week, which goes over very well, until it's clear he is going to keep right on wearing it, which his teacher and his mother don't like. Jimmy insists he is descended from Captain Cook, although Cook has no known descendants, and his goal is to go to Hawaii, despite all the dangers(volcanoes, scary animals and people who are rioting) to retrieve Cook's stuff, to use in his own exploration. There's a competition with a family trip to Hawaii as the prize, but it means buying a lot of a certain brand of breakfast cereal. Like hundreds of boxes - if he can get there before his rival Alice Toolie...

This is a gentle, humorous book in the style of the popular Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series,  with a delightful hero who just doesn't get that he may be confused about some things - and refuses to believe what he is told, even if it it right under his nose, if he is focused on something. He interprets things his way, always. There are plenty of references to various products with a slight name change, but which young readers will recognise and have a giggle over.

The illustrations are amusing, reminiscent of Andrew Weldon.

Suited for children from seven years up.

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7. Continuum 2016 Begins!

I won't be going till this afternoon, and only because I'm on a panel. It clashes with a theatre ticket; I'd have changed it if I was going on my own, but I'm going with my sister and we have dinner booked afterwards, with our mother and my sister's husband, too much to fiddle with.

This afternoon's panel(after which I'm going straight to the theatre) is on the topic of the Mary Sue. I've offered to be moderator, because I have a feeling that one of us in particular has a lot to say on the matter and it might be simplest just to introduce the panel and throw a few questions at them. One of the other panellists is one of our two GoHs, who writes martial arts fantasies centred around Asian gods and a young woman who would probably dislike, and be disliked by, Buffy. I've only read the first of them, when it first came out. One comment on my review described the heroine as a Mary Sue, so it will be interesting to hear her own thoughts on the matter. People tend to bristle when their heroines are accused of Mary Suedom.

As a collector of fanzines for many years before they all went online, losing their quality filters, I have read the original story that coined the term "Mary Sue", my old pen pal Paula Smith's "A Trekkie's Tale" and found it on line, connected with an interview with Paula by the TV Tropes web site. I do have the zine, but it's too hard to find and just about everything is online these days. If you're a librarian, with the skill of using the right search terms, you can find what you're after. Incidentally, Paula entered the opening line, slightly rewritten, for the Bulwer Lytton competition for dreadful opening lines and won a place in the annual collection of entries, though not the competition itself.

I've read a lot of Mary Sue stories, even written a couple for fun, both in the Robin Of Sherwood universe, back in the days before people were paying me to write, and both were with collaborators. These days there are a lot of people complaining that any competent and strong female character is accused of being a Mary Sue. To some extent, that's true, but not entirely. And there is also complaint that male characters don't get hit with the same accusation. Not quite true; there is even an official name for such males, either Marty or Gary Stu(for many years I called him Mark Sam). But it is true that it doesn't happen as often, and my guess is that it's because mostly women write this stuff and naturally they want to write about female characters. And in my own area of YA fiction, there are quite a few Mary Sues, because the main audience for them is female. The girls I work with might laugh about the love triangles, but they enjoy them. Grab a random book from the YA section of a bookshop and it's likely to be about a girl who saves the world while having to decide between two very attractive boys. 

 Personally, I think Suzanne Collins made the right decision in letting her heroine marry the boy who had suffered along with her instead of the childhood sweetheart, but there are plenty of girls arguing about it and supporting the other one. Does this make Katniss a Mary Sue? Possibly, but not in a derogatory sense. She's not Supergirl. She is just someone who does what she has to do and would really rather not have to do it, and when it's all over, she's not ruling the world or a Queen or a President. 

Can you have a canon Mary Sue? I think so. Think of Miramanee in Star Trek TOS. She fits into a category I'd describe as the Sweet Young Thing. She's a Native American priestess in a society which was set up by a mysterious race called the Preservers, who went around dropping endangered species on other planets to let them survive somewhere else. And she has the misfortune of being Captain Kirk's love interest - even worse, being married to him and pregnant with his child. You might as well hand her a red shirt to wear; she's going to be dead by the end of the episode.  There were a lot like her in fan fiction. 

I know one of our panellists wants to discuss Rey from the latest Star Wars movie, who has been called a Mary Sue. I was surprised to hear that; as far as I'm concerned, she is just the Luke Skywalker of this trilogy, and novpbody, as far as I know, ever called him a Gary Stu/Mark Sam. She's just the protagonist of the Hero's Journey, just like Luke. 

Anyway, we'll see how the panel goes. I'm doing two more on Monday, one on the YA love triangle, the final one on children's fiction. Those should be fun! 

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8. Found On My Shelves While Looking For Something Else.. Fritz LeiberClassic

So, last night I finished my reread of Terry Prachett's Mort and went to the shelves to look for another Pratchett to reread. I couldn't find the one I wanted and looked at the back layer of books, where I found Fritz Leiber's two horror classics Conjure Wife and Our Lady Of Darkeness, under the one cover, a Tor edition.

I bought the book years ago and it had been sitting there unread all this time! It isn't the only one by any means, and while I feel just a bit guilty another part of me says, "Yes, but that means I have a pleasant surprise every now and then, something new to read when I need it." It served me well back when I was unemployed and a trip to the bookshop was not an option. Yes, there's always the library,  but these were books I had chosen.

And there was that Twilight Zone episode which was based on a Harlan Ellison story, in which a young man rescues an older man, played by Danny Kaye, and goes back to his home, where there are shelves and shelves of books. On being asked whether he has read them all, the old man says, what's the point of having all those books if you've read them all.

I discovered Fritz Leiber through his fantasy tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, who live and have adventures in a place called Lankhmar. The stories have the kind of humour missing from a lot of other swords and sorcery fiction of the time - and, let's face it, from a lot of more recent fantasy fiction. Unlike recent writers, Leiber didn't write multi-volume sagas, and good on him! There were a lot of short stories about his two heroes, but you didn't have to read the lot to be able to follow the series. I think he actually coined the term "swords and sorcery", though not, of course, the genre. 

But he did a lot more. In recent years I've read two novellas, The Big Time and No Great Magic, set during something called the Change War, where agents from two competing organisations are travelling through time, changing things. 

He started life as an actor, as both his parents were actors; you'll see his father in a lot of very old movies, and I have this niggling feeling he might have done a few himself, must look it up. 

Anyway, off to read my new find, and hopefully let you know all about it!

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9. Just Started Rereading...Mort by Terry Pratchett

I've just finished my reread of Wyrd Sisters, the first novel about the three witches, and had intended to reread the next, Witches Abroad, in which Nanny, Granny and Magrat head for Genua, the Discworld New Orleans, which is currently being ruled by Granny's horrible sister Lily, now calling herself Lilith, who is determined to make fairytales come true ... and if you remember some of those fairytales ... Urk!

But my paperback copy of that book is missing till I tidy up(I have it in ebook, but by bedtime the iPad really needs charging) so I picked up Mort, the first of the Discworld novels in which Death had developed into the loveable character he remains for the rest of the series. In the first couple of books, he was just pursuing Rincewind the klutzy wizard who has embroidered the word "wizzard" on his hat in case you hadn't picked up what he is, and you were just happy Rincewind managed to elude him.

In this book, though, which was the first of the Discworld books I bought, he has decided to take an apprentice, to be company for the daughter he adopted, Ysabell. She is seventeen and now he doesn't know what to do with her.

This is the novel in which you discover he loves cats, enjoys the occasional curry and has a horse called Binky. Binky looks an awful lot like Shadowfax of Lord Of The Rings fame. Death also lives in a cottage that's bigger on the inside than the outside, with Ysabell and his manservant Albert, and has an umbrella stand, although it never rains there. 

Death is fascinated by humans, especially  by their ability to invent boredom, and actually cares about them, though, as he says himself, he never gets to see them at their best. By Hogfather, he is posing as the Discworld Santa Claus himself, as someone has made the real Hogfather disappear by removing children's belief in him. Death puts on the suit, with a pillow to pad himself out, takes up the sack and the sleigh and goes out to deliver the toys, to hold a space for the real Hogfather when his granddaughter Susan has managed to find out what's going on and save the Hogfather from the Auditors, the personification of dreary bureaucracy, who want the universe to be rocks floating in circles in space so they can get on with their filing. 

Actually, it has just occurred to me - who else do we know who has a home bigger on the inside than out, cares about humans and has a granddaughter called Susan? Just a thought, we can't ask the author any more, though I hope when he left us he met his own version of Death. He would have liked that. 

In this one, Death goes missing for a while himself, taking a holiday as a short order cook and leaving the Duty to his apprentice, Mort, who stuffs it up, of course, or there would be no story. 

It is the first time he does this in the series, though it won't be the last. In Reaper Man he is sacked from his job as Death and gets a job on a farm, calling himself Bill Door. In Soul Music Susan has to take over the Duty for a time while Albert searches for him. He is making an effort to learn to forget, doing everything from joining the Klatchian Foreign Legion to getting drunk. That novel became an animated film with the wonderful Christopher Lee voicing Death. 

He also appears in some non-Discworld novels, such as Good Omens, which has a scene in a cafe, while the Horsemen are gathering for the Apocalypse. There's a trivia slot machine in the cafe and in response to "Which year did Elvis Presley die?" he protests, "I never laid a hand on him!" (Elvis appears in a fast food joint, flipping burgers and singing to himself)

Who would have thought you could take the end of life and personify it into such a delightful character? 

I will be carrying my copy of Mort with me and reading it at bedtime, even as I make my way through the huge TBR pile of review copies. 

So, who else loves the Discworld Death? Any thoughts? Agreement, disagreement?


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10. Nearly Finished... Soon by Morris Gleitzman

It has taken me a while to get hold of this because the book was always out from my school library. It's interesting, really - my school, in Melbourne's western suburbs, is very multicultural, with quite a few Muslim kids in the mix, yet everyone is fascinated by Holocaust era fiction, and this series is much loved. Even a young man whom I know is capable of reading much more difficult fiction - I've just lent him Melina Marchetta's The Piper's Son - wanted to read this series(or "family of books" as the author calls it). He is a refugee himself and it resonated with him.

We now have two copies; I have one and I saw one of my students yesterday with the other copy, lent to her by the literacy co-ordinator. I suggested we could discuss it on Monday. I'm nearly finished and know, just know, that our hero Felix is heading for yet another tragedy. It's only comforting to know that he ends up in Australia as a well respected and much loved doctor, adored by his granddaughter. Not a spoiler, as we learned this two books ago. Right now, though, he's a thirteen year old boy who is trying to survive, with his friend Gabriek, a man who saved his life, and an orphaned baby thrust into his arms by a despairing mother just before she was killed. And it hurts to read.

Now that it's on the CBCA short list, I can add it to my display.

As far as I'm concerned, if it doesn't win this year's Younger Reader prize, there's no justice. How does Morris Gleitzman  do it, time after time? How does he manage to draw you in and make you cheer for his characters and care what happens to them, smile at the gentle humour - and then break your heart again, as he breaks theirs? Damn you, Gleitzman!

If you haven't read this series yet, go and do it - immediately! The author says you don't have to read it from the beginning, you can read it in any order, but I do recommend you at least start with Once, or when you go back to read it, you will already know what happens to Felix's friends and that might spoil it for you. 

But make sure you have a good supply of tissues!

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11. The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell. Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2015

The place: Russia, deep in the forest. The time: deep winter, a few years before the Russian Revolution would change the country forever. We're not given a precise date, only that it happened about a hundred years ago, and hints given in the novel suggest the Tsar is Nicholas II, who had a sick son, and that it's after 1905. 

Twelve year old Feodora, known as Feo, lives in the forest with her mother, returning to the wild wolves which have been abandoned by the aristocrats who had kept them as pets and become bored with them. When an insane General destroys their home and arrests her mother, dragging her off to St Petersburg, Feo follows with her much-loved pack of wolves, a newborn wolf pup and a new friend, Ilya, who has been forced to become a soldier(he's under age)when he would much rather be a dancer. 

Along the route to save Feo's mother, they make friends among the peasants who are starting to become restless; the General has been oppressing them too, and he represents the Tsar, after all. While the coming Revolution is never mentioned, anyone who is familiar with it will recognise the signs. And yet, the ending is almost fairy tale... I can't tell you any more lest I spoil it.

The author doesn't hesitate to do dreadful things to her characters, but it was a dreadful time, after all, and motivation is needed for the decisions made on Feo's quest. 

The language is beautiful and the flavour purest folk tale; I could almost hear a balalaika playing in some scenes, such as when a group of peasants celebrate the arrival of Feo and Ilya. In fact, I could almost imagine Baba Yaga flying through the trees in her mortar and pestle or arriving in her house on chicken legs! It is that kind of vision of Russia. 

If I have a nitpick, it was how quickly the villain recovers from having his eye poked out! I just can't imagine it.

Still, it's a great adventure with wolves, which I'm sorry I took so long to get around to reading, and I would recommend it for children from late primary school to early secondary.

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12. Just Received ... Somebody Stop Ivy Pocket!

Around this time last year, I was reviewing  Anyone But Ivy Pocket on this site. Yesterday, the sequel arrived. This time I seem to have the finished product instead of the proof copy, so the illustrations I missed last time are there!

I said at the time it rather reminded me of Judith Rossell's delightful Withering-By-Sea, so we will have to see how our favourite maid(but nobody else's)goes this time.

Here's the blurb from the Bloomsbury web site.

Ivy is now the beloved daughter of Ezra and Mother Snagbsy, coffin makers, even if she does have to work rather like a maid. Their trade is roaring, and Ivy is as happy as a pig in clover. Especially when she escapes to the library to talk to the devastatingly sympathetic Miss Carnage. 

But then Ivy guesses that all is not as it seems with her new parents, and discovers that she can pass into the world of the Clock Diamond. There, she sees her friend Rebecca, horribly sad and desperate. 

Can Ivy save Rebecca, and what do a missing aristocrat, a forbidden love affair and a bullfrog have to do with her mission?

Illustrated in humorous gothic detail by John Kelly, Somebody Stop Ivy Pocket is the second tale in Ivy's deadly comic journey to discover who she really is ... Perfect for fans of Lemony Snicket.

I'm looking forward to reading it!

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13. Game Theory By Barry Jonsberg. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2026.

Jamie is a sixteen-year-old maths whiz. Summerlee, his older sister, is in the grip of a wild phase. Tensions at home run high.

When Summerlee wins a 7.5-million-dollar lottery, she cuts all ties with her family. But money can cause trouble - big trouble. And when Jamie's younger sister Phoebe is kidnapped for a ransom, the family faces a crisis almost too painful to bear.

Jamie thinks he can use game theory - the strategy of predicting an opponent's actions - to get Phoebe back. But can he outfox the kidnapper? Or is he putting his own and his sister's life at risk?

The fascinating thing about this novel is that, like many of Barry Jonsberg's other books, it has an ending you can't quite predict, a little twist that makes you say, "Oh!" It is one I love but can't share because of spoilers. I did suspect who the kidnapper was, then thought, "Well, it can't be, because..." but it was. But that isn't the twist I was thinking of. There is a delicious irony about it. 

Jamie is certain he can work out how to find his sister and her kidnapper through game theory; when his opponent seems to know as much about it as he does, he even rather enjoys the challenge, worried as he is for his beloved little sister. This is his major flaw and makes the book more interesting, even though the reader might, like me, be just a little disappointed that the book isn't actually about that. 

I would have liked a little more detail about the kidnapper before the long, detailed explanation at the end. Although I suspected who it was, the character traits that affected what the villain did were not so evident in the build up. 

Still, it's a good, exciting thriller that should suit boys from about fourteen up. 

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14. Finally Reading... The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn


Yet again there's a book which took me ages to get around to reading and now I'm whizzing my way through it. It's The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn, which was an Honour Book, ie runner-up in the CBCA Awards in 2014. I'm sad to say that doesn't necessarily mean that the kids are reading it. Not at my school, anyway. There are usually some overlaps between the CBCA and YABBA short lists. But only some. I think this one might have been on a YABBA short list, must check it out. 

The cover doesn't help; kids rarely pick up books with depressing grey covers. But what else can you expect from a dystopian novel about a nuclear winter? 

Imagine what it might be like to be going to school one day as normal, hearing about some nuclear missile test going on somewhere on the other side of the world and next morning waking up to dirty, almost certainly toxic, snow outside, power, communication and the Internet gone and being unable to even find out what's going on.

 It's all too frighteningly easy to imagine. 

The rest of it so far is about how people treat each other when canned and dried foods and bottled water are gradually running out and still no word of when, or if, this will end. There are decent people helping each other and others who simply go crazy. The hero, Fin, is one of the former, when his parents go missing and he's left with his younger brother to look after. 

I can see why it has been compared to John Marsden's Tomorrow series, except that at least Ellie and her friends had someone/something to fight. How can you fight nuclear winter?

Anyway, I am looking forward to seeing how it all ends! 

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15. Goodies From The Festival!



Okay, I bought some print books! I also got a copy of Hazel Edwards's There's A Hippopotamus On Our Roof Eating Cake, for my youngest family member, Jonah. I got one for his cousin Dezzy, when she was about his age, and had both signed. (Dezzy is sixteen and writing American Gothic-style fiction for English Extensions. How time flies!)

I didn't buy Anna Ciddor's book because I have it already, in ebook and in print. Mum is reading the print copy, so I didn't bring it for signing.

Anna and Hazel did a great session this morning, discussing writing books about "different" kids. Hazel said she had ended up having to self publish Hijabi Girl, which she wrote with a Muslim school librarian, who wears the hijab herself and wanted to see kids like her students in books. It was rejected forty-one times and even the festival bookseller didn't have it, though you can buy it online through Bookpod. I gather it has been doing well so far. I bought a copy and will be showing it to our literacy co-ordinator.

Anna said The Family With Two Front Doors was a risk, because it took a long time to write and lowered her writer profile, because, as I know well, if you don't have a new book out NOW you can be forgotten. But she felt it was the book she had to write, for herself, and in the end, Allen and Unwin bought it, after a lot of rejections in which she was told, "Oh, it's lovely, but we won't buy it because it has too limited an audience." Hah! It's only been out this year and it's already into reprint. I can't help thinking if it had been a Holocaust novel it would have been grabbed by the first publisher. But it was about the author's family and they did go through the Holocaust only a few years later, with only three of those delightful children left out of ten, and both parents gone; she wanted one happy moment for them, with the traditions and the food and the family affection. 

I had three sessions altogether. My next one was my friend Mirna Cicioni doing an interview by Skype with a lady who had translated a lot of stuff from Italian, including Primo Levi, and one English-speaking  author who had moved to Italy and started writing in Italian. One question was - why get someone else to translate your work when you could do it yourself? The reply was that the author "thought in Italian" while writing in that language and it would mess it up. But I bet she would be upset if she thought the translator hadn't done a good job. 

Another author mentioned was Elena Ferrante, which is a pen name. Apparently nobody has ever met her or seen her or knows her real name and she only does interviews by email. There is even a theory that "she" is a man, with some ideas of which male author it might be! Now, that sounds like a storyline for a movie! A romantic comedy, perhaps, where the reclusive author has a visit from a young journalist who believes the author is a man, but she isn't and has her own reasons for wanting to be left alone. Maybe she's a famous person who doesn't want anyone to know she's writing a certain kind of fiction? (As in that film Without A Clue, where Dr Watson is the real detective, but has to hire an actor to play Sherlock Holmes because he is after a job he won't get if the administration find out he's doing something so disreputable as solving crime). Anyway, there is a romance... Not that I think that of Elena Ferrante, whoever she/he is! 

I spent some time having a cup of tea in the sunshine before my final session. I'd picked up a copy of Arnold Zable's The Fighter. It doesn't read like a typical biography, but then, Arnold Zable doesn't write like that. Very readable so far! I hadn't realised that, at the age of sixty-seven, Henry Nissen is still working on the docks, because his social work just wasn't paying enough to live on. He's still on call, has his mobile with him, in case he is needed. He is a true working class hero - heck, a secular saint! 

I might review it when I'm done.

My final session for the day was a panel about Holocaust fiction, which I chose because Kate Forsyth was on it. Of course, she was there because of The Beast's Garden. She spoke of the fairytale background to it and how much research it had taken. When asked why Holocaust fiction, she said that some stories should not be allowed to be forgotten and that it was up to storytellers to make sure they weren't.

 One of the other speakers was an Israeli writer, Nir Baram, who was very polite and kind when someone in the audience asked a question about his new book with a very strange over-the-top interpretation of it. She must have seen his expression, because she said plaintively, "I was reading it at two in the morning!" But he was nice anyway. I'm not sure I want to read it, not my cup of tea, but it sounds like it might be a very popular book. It's his first to be translated into English. 

A very enjoyable day, in all! 


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16. CBCA Shortlist 2016

Finally announced on Friday at the conference - wish I'd been able to go! Interestingly, they had it at the hotel where I attended my very first Sydney con.

Anyway, here's the list, which I pinched from children's book blog A Strong Belief In Wicker. Go on over and check it out - I think I'll be following it. 

I usually only buy the Older Reader books for my library and maybe the Younger Readers, as I work in a high school, and this year, alas, we only have two of the Older Reader books and one of the Youngers, Soon. Morris Gleitzman's books about Felix, the Jewish boy on the run from the Nazis, are very popular at my school, where none of the kids have ever even met anyone Jewish except their teacher librarian(me)! We had a student once whose surname was Cohen(hi, Dylan!) who told me he was "a little bit Jewish", but not in this generation. He was more closely related to Ned Kelly(true!). And yet, they ask for the next book in the series; when a Year 7 student saw we had After, she pounced on it saying, "Ooh, I was wanting this one! I read the others in primary school." I haven't read Soon yet; the kids have it. I will be buying the Deltora book; that series is well liked.

I've got Flywheel in ebook and am embarrassed to say I haven't read it yet. Ditto with the Eureka one. We do have a copy of that in the library, because it turned up in a display box and a student asked for it, but never read it. 

I've read only Cloudwish in that list. We do have the Vikki Wakefield book, but no - not read yet. Time to go shopping for the rest. 

I'm glad Cloudwish is on the list, but I'm sorry that In The Skin Of A Monster didn't make it. I think it deserves a spot on the shortlist. Still, it's nice that it made the Notables/longlist, and we were all thrilled that Rich And Rare got that far. It's a fabulous anthology, and not only because I have a story in it!

Book of the Year Older Readers Shortlist

The Flywheel - Erin Gough
The Pause - John Larkin
Freedom Ride - Sue Lawson
A Single Stone - Meg McKinlay
Inbetween Days - Vikki Wakefield
Cloudwish - Fiona Wood

The Book of the Year Younger Readers Shortlist

Soon - Morris Gleitzman
The Cleo Stories: A Friend and A Pet - Libby Gleeson, Freya Blackwood (illustrator)
Run, Pip, Run - J.C. Jones
Sister Heart - Sally Morgan (see my review)
Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars - Martine Murray (see my review)
Star of Deltora: Shadows of the Master - Emily Rodda

The Book of the Year Early Childhood Shortlist

Piranhas Don't Eat Bananas - Aaron Blabey
My Dog Bigsy - Alison Lester
Perfect - Danny Parker, Freya Blackwood (illustrator)
Ollie and the Wind - Ghosh Ronojoy
Mr Huff - Anna Walker
The Cow Tripped Over the Moon - Tony Wilson, Laura Wood (illustrator)

The Picture Book of the Year Shortlist

Perfect - Freya Blackwood (illustrator), Danny Parker (text)
Ride, Ricardo, Ride - Shane Devries (illustrator), Phil Cummings (text)
My Dead Bunny - James Foley (illustrator), Sigi Cohen (text)
Flight - Armin Greder (illustrator), Nadia Wheatley (text)
Suri's Wall - Matt Ottley (illustrator), Lucy Estela (text)
And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda - Bruce Whatley (illustrator), Eric Bogle (text)

The Eve Pownall Award for Information Books Shortlist

Phasmid: Saving the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect - Rohan Cleave, Coral Tulloch (illustrator)
The White Mouse: The Story of Nancy Wake - Peter Gouldthorpe
The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made - Fiona Katauskas
Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony - Stephanie Owen Reeder
Ancestry: Stories of Multicultural Anzacs - Robyn Siers, Carlie Walker (illustrator)
We are the Rebels: the Men and Women who made Eureka - Clare Wright

Crichton Award for New Illustrators Shortlist

The Underwater Fancy Dress Parade - Allison Colpoys (illustrator), Davina Bell (text)
The Cat With the Coloured Tail - Dinalie Dabarera (illustrator), Gillian Meares (text)
My Gallipoli - Robert Hannaford (illustrator), Ruth Starke (text)
Fish Jam - Kylie Howarth
Meet Weary Dunlop - Jeremy Lord (illustrator), Claire Saxby (text)

Time to get reading!




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17. Going To The Melbourne Jewish Writers'Fesrival!

It's on tomorrow and Monday - I can't make it Monday, alas, as I'm at work, but there's some pretty good stuff happening and a line-up worthy of a mini Melbourne Writers' Festival. Here's the link if you're in Melbourne and have the time to go.

The speakers aren't all Jewish, but they write on Jewish or sort-of-Jewish themes. There's a rather interesting panel with Arnold Zable talking about his new book on Henry Nissen, boxer and social worker, with whom my sister went out once or twice in her teens. I hadn't planned to attend that one although we'll see if I can slot it in between the ones I am attending and lunch with my friend Mirna, who's doing a Skype interview with an American translator of Primo Levi. Mirna did her PhD on Levi. I'm going to that. I might buy the Zable book, anyway. I promise myself not to buy any more print books than I can help, but just the one...

But first thing, I'm going to hear Anna Ciddor, author of the delightful The Family With Two Doors in conversation with Hazel Edwards, co-author of the quirky and funny F2M, which isn't remotely Jewish, but is about "the other", the theme of the panel. The protagonist is a teenage girl who identifies as male and has to tell his/her all-girl rock band. It was as much about punk rock as about bring trans and was utterly delightful. And published by Ford Street, my favourite publisher! Only trouble is, poor Hazel kept getting asked to sign one of her Hippo books instead the day we were signing out Ford Street books.

My final panel for the day is "The H Word", about Holocaust writing, and one of the panel members is the amazing Kate Forsyth, whose recent book In The Beast's Garden is set in Nazi Germany and definitely has Holocaust themes. I know Kate through SF fandom, but In The Beast's Garden is a straight historical novel, though it is inspired by a Grimm's fairy tale, "The Singing, Springing Lark", a sort of Beauty And The Beast story which turns into "East Of The Sun, West Of The Moon" halfway through.

I've reviewed all three novels on this site, you can find them on a search.

Anyway, there's plenty of good stuff going tomorrow, and tonight there will be an opening ceremony at the Glen Eira Town Hall, with music. My brother's friend, the cellist Robert Ekselman, will be playing. Wish I could go, but I have other commitments today.

Why not check out the MJWF web site and go? It's mostly on at Beth Weizmann Hewish community centre in Caulfield and is easy to get to by tram, either the 64 from the city, or the 67. If you know me and are going, get in touch and I'll meet you there. If you're one of my overseas or interstate readers... Well, you'll just have to read about it. Buy some of the books.

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18. Reviews Soon To Come...

I've just finished reading the latest book by Barry Jonsberg, a thriller called Game Theory, which I received on Saturday morning and finished last night - very readable, as are all of Jonsberg's books I've read so far. But the embargo date is May 25, so ... I'll write it and keep it in draft form till the time comes.

Meanwhile, I'm back to a book that has been on my TBR pile for far too long, The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, a YA novel set in Russia a hundred years ago, which has had a lot of raves about it on line as it just sat on my pile with only a few pages read. Maybe it will turn out to be one of those books I mentioned in a previous post, the kind you can't get into, then love. We'll see.

Stand by!

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19. On Reading ... Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe. Public Domain

I've read some in the past, just a little, but I tend to think of him mostly as the master of horror fiction, although I know he was also the author of some mysteries. My Year 11 niece Dezzy wants me to check out her story outline for English Extensions, in which she is focusing on American Gothic. English extensions seems to involve some creative writing in particular styles and then explaining the symbolism according to the symbolism found in the original fiction.  Hmm, I can already see her doing a Masters in Creative Writing, if she hadn't already said she wants to do Psychology...

Anyway, she explained that if you've read Edgar Allan Poe you should have some idea of American Gothic.

So I thought it was about time I did read some of his classic short fiction and downloaded a couple of volumes from Gutenberg. I'm about to read "The Murders In The Rue Morgue", which introduces his pre-Holmes detective C.Auguste Dupin.

But Edgar Allan Poe also wrote funny! Who knew? I didn't! Never too late to learn something new.

I've read three stories so far, including one about Scheherezade telling one more, truly weird Sinbad story after she's married... and annoying her husband enough to order her throttled after all - a very silly and over the top tale! I loved his comment that she must have read Machiavelli before undertaking her original scheme.

And "The Gold Bug" which contains a sort of McGuffin. I thought it might be horror fiction, but instead it was a cryptography story and the guy you first assume must be crazy isn't. The representation of the African American character as a clown was annoying, but you have to remember he was a Southerner, well and truly before the Civil War. I've long ago forgiven Shakespeare for Shylock, so what the heck.

And it was funny! I admit I did skip over some of the detailed cryptography but perhaps some time I'll have a play with the cipher.

Meanwhile, on to the Rue Morgue! 

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20. Some Happy Birthdays For May 14!

Here are some famous May 14 birthdays. I did leave out the director Sofia Coppola because I'm not familiar with her films, though I've heard of her. Happy birthday, anyway, Sofia! 

1727 - Thomas Gainsborough - Portrait artist who painted the royal famiƂy and aristocrats. It was good stuff, though! His most famous piece was The Blue Boy. Apparently, it was a sort of "Nyah nyah!" to the advice of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who said that cold colours like blue should be mostly kept out of paintings. 

The Blue Boy - Public Domain.

1775 - J.M. W Turner - painter of the most gorgeous landscapes and seascapes in a swirly style that nobody much was doing back then.

Turner. Public Domain.

1944 - George Lucas - yay! Star Wars! If you haven't seen at least one of his films, you've been hiding under a rock! 

1952 - Robert Zemeckis - yay! Back To The Future! Marty McFly and his skateboard! Professor Brown with his wild hairstyle and popping eyes! The Delorean time machine! 

1965 - Eoin Colfer - author of the wonderful Artemis Fowl novels which were so very Irish. The hero starts off the series by kidnapping a fairy for ransom. She is a member of the elite LepRecon unit, more like James Bond than Galadriel and certainly not a sweet winged being fluttering among the flowers. I loved the dwarfs in this, who could eat their way through soil and stone and produce energy by farting. Hilariousl!

Happy birthday, guys! 

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21. Books I Had Trouble Getting Into, Then Loved

We all have books we took a while to start reading, then wondered why we'd waited so long to get stuck into them, don't we?

There are some which took me a while because I got Volume 2 or 3 for reviewing without having read Volume 1, and it mattered.

There's Sean Williams's Jump, volume 1 of  the Twinmaker trilogy. I really should have had a go since a couple of my students had read it in manuscript and loved it. We had it in the library at the time(missing! Where is it now? I had to buy another copy for a student). But I just didn't get past the first two pages. Anyway, when I was offered Volume 3 for reviewing, I explained that I hadn't read the others. The publishers shipped them out to me and I read and reviewed them all on this blog and all I can say is, wow! How could I have been such a - teenager! - about trusting the author with more than a page or two? Especially when it went deep into the complications you might get in a world where you really did have a teleport and replicator, something I'd loved in Star Trek...

Jaclyn Moriarty's Colours Of Madeleine trilogy. I had been sent the second volume, The Cracks In The Kingdom, for reviewing, but that was a series in which you really did have to read Volume 1 to make sense of the rest. The characters, problem and universe had all been set up in the first book, A Corner Of White. Then I was asked if I wanted to do the blog tour for the third and said, only if I could read the first volume. Again, they gave me a copy of Volume 1 and 2(again, the copy of Volume 2 was missing from the library). I read and was overwhelmed. Wow! What if there was a cute boy/girl who lived in another universe? And the boy's universe had colours that could kill you? And the royal family were missing? Just - wow! Why, oh, why, hadn't I hunted up the first book earlier?

Then there are the classics. Dune by Frank Herbert. I admit I never got past the first book in the series, but even this one took several tries to finish. The universe is as complex as Middle-Earth and I don't say that lightly. The prose is dense, the story complicated and the characters are not easy to love. So it took me about four attempts, even after meeting the author. Frank Herbert came to Australia for a Swancon and, as was the tradition at the time, visited Melbourne's Space Age bookshop afterwards. He looked like Santa Claus and was just as jolly! I think the only writer these days who comes close in popularity to Frank Herbert back then is George R R Martin, except I doubt the latter would come to a bookshop for a signing now, probably for his own safety - so many of his newer fans aren't spec fic readers and you never know who would turn up in those huge mobs. I remember being glad I'd seen Mr Herbert at Space Age because when he came to Aussiecon in 1985, the signing queue went all the way down the stairs.

Anyway, I tried again and eventually I finished it and was blown away by the sheer power of it. I've bought the ebook and am reading it again. 

Oh, and these days, when my sister makes a cup of tea for me and doesn't fill it, I say, "Is this planet Arrakis?" because, of course, on Arrakis the water is so hard to get that when someone spits at you, it's a compliment - they are sharing their body's water.

The Lord Of The Rings is a book I've read many times over the years, but it took me a very long time to get into it. I'm not sure why. I first bought it while I was at university, from the Monash University bookshop. Everyone but me in my year had read it, including the staff. And yet, I just couldn't finish it. Then, one day, many years later, I was on holiday at Sorrento, too tired from work to be bothered with doing touristy stuff. All I wanted to do was go sit on the beach and read. I had brought along my Monash Uni copy of Fellowship Of The Ring.  Again: wow! Suddenly, I found myself whisking through it and finishing the other volumes after I got home - and buying illustrated editions. And I read the Appendices, where you got the details of what happened next and Elvish languages and runes and such. I found myself buying the History Of Middle-Earth books, which included stuff cut out of LOTR or information about the various characters, even that scene which was shown at the beginning of The Hobbit movie part 3, where Gandalf meets Thorin Oakenshield at the pub. It was  originally a story he was telling to his friends in Minas Tirith, when they're waiting for Aragorn's coronation. He concludes that all the things that have happened to them and the saving of Middle-Earth wouldn't ever have happened if he hadn't met Thorin that night. And I would never have read all this wonderful stuff if I hadn't been too tired to be bothered doing tourist stuff at Sorrento...

So, these are a few of my favourite books that took me a while to get into. What are some of yours?

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22. Drinking It Because Of A Book: Harry Harrison And Ottar The Viking!

(This is the cover of the edition I first read. It's signed - and falling apart, so I don't open it any more...)

I'm sick with an early winter cold. Not good. And my lovely bottle of Cointreau, an annual birthday gift from my sister, has gone below the half full mark while I've been pouring capfuls into my hot honey and lemon drinks, or drinking small sherry glasses full. I use alcohol when I'm sick, always.

So, today I decided to buy a replacement booze. I'm not fond of whiskey though I do have a glass on Dad's birthday with the rest of the family, and even I know you don't drink the cheap stuff, even for a cold.

In the supermarket I spotted a small bottle of Jack Daniels, which is as strong as Cointreau - and which played a large role in Harry Harrison's novel The Technicolor Time Machine.

In case you haven't read it, do! It's one of my favourite funny SF novels.

There's this film company in the 1950s which is on the point of going out of business. The bookkeepers from the bank are coming to visit very soon. The only way they can be held off is with a huge hit. And there's this scientist who has invented a time machine. They do have enough money to sponsor him, in exchange for using it to travel into the past to make a huge but cheap movie about the Viking discovery of America. On their first test run into the early eleventh century Orkneys, they meet a Viking, a local leader called Ottar, snatch him into their time machine and bring him back to speak with an Old Norse scholar, who is going to negotiate with him to be their native guide and hopefully teach him English before the company arrives in the eleventh century to begin filming.

And while he is in the twentieth century, they find he can be kept happy by feeding him burnt steaks - and Jack Daniels. Bottles of Jack Daniels become a part of his wages during the filming, leading to a lot of hilarious scenes.

So, tonight after dinner, I will drink like Ottar the Viking!  Not as much, by any means, but at least a taste...

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23. Some More Arthurian Novels!

Yesterday I wrote about three classics in the field of modern Arthurian fiction. The Once And Future King, The Sword At Sunset and Mary Stewart's Merlin novels are, in my opinion, the definitive novels in their genre - the Malory/fantastical, the straight historical and the historical with a touch of fantasy. If you can think of any others that you consider classics, feel free to comment below.

But there are other very good Arthurian novels. I already wrote a post about Parke Godwin's Arthurian novels, Firelord and Beloved Exile here. That was in my sad tribute to the late author. He was an American who could write wonderful stories about British heroes - he also wrote two amazing novels about Robin Hood. I loved Godwin's Arthur. He was a decent person as well as a good king and when he knew about what Guinevere had done, he understood completely the stresses she'd been under, as Queen, a job that was a lot more than doing embroidery with the ladies, and anyway, she dumps her lover fairly soon. The only thing he's angry with her for is the murder of Morgana, who is, in Firelord, a gentle woman, a tribal chief, who had committed the crime of having a child with Arthur(not incestuously), something Guinevere couldn't do, after a disastrous pregnancy.  But Guinevere is a princess of a tribe that gives its high priestess a lot of power and she is strong willed. And she has her own novel, Beloved Exile, in which the irritating Elaine, Ancellius/Lancelot's wife, has her kidnapped and sold to the Saxons, an experience which helps her learn about becoming a strong but compassionate person. Anyway, read the post.

Bernard Cornwell's trilogy was pretty amazing too. In that version, Arthur can't actually be king because he's illegitimate, so he is Regent for the rightful heir who is, unfortunately, the truly awful Mordred. He stays Regent for a very long time, precisely because his nephew is just not fit to be king.

In this version, he's supposed to marry a sweet young heiress when he meets Guinevere, a poverty-stricken princess, at the engagement party - and elopes with her. Fortunately, the sweet young heiress, who is a wonderful person, ends up with Arthur's friend, a Saxon brought up by Merlin, and narrator of the novel.

Lancelot is an arrogant man who thinks a lot of himself and looks good in armour, but isn't much of a fighter; all the hard work is done by his brother Galahad. He hires poets to write poems in his praise.

Guinevere only sleeps with him as part of a ritual to Isis which will, she hopes, cast a spell to make her husband king. She doesn't even like him let alone love him.

I won't reveal the ending of the trilogy, but it's fantastical and it's - different.

There is, of course, the classic Mark Twain novel, known as either A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court, or A Yankee At The Court Of King Arthur - forgot that one yesterday. I have a first British edition from 1889, under the latter title. In it, Hank Morgan, an American, is whacked on the head and wakes up in King Arthur's England. He is captured by a passing knight and taken to the court, where he manages to save his life by bullshitting about a solar eclipse he knows is coming. After that, it is complete and total bullshit while he makes an enemy of Merlin, whom he considers a phony (although at the end, you discover he isn't quite the fake Hank thinks he is). He gives himself the title of The Boss and proceeds to set up a modern society in sixth century Britain. He falls in love, gets married and... well, read it if you haven't.

There are quite a few modern novels in which King Arthur connects with the present.

In Arthur, King by Dennis Lee Anderson,  Arthur must follow Mordred into World War II to retrieve Merlin's diary. Merlin is living backwards(as in The Once And Future King) but his diary only goes as far as the end of World War II. Merlin tells him that he can get him there, but he will have only three months. He finds himself in a plane about to crash - fortunately, only into a pond, where water nymphs help him out. He meets and befriends an American volunteer who has joined the British air force before the US joined the war - one who comes from Connecticut, allowing an ongoing joke about it.  And he has to learn to be a pilot very quickly, though he never does get the hang of landing. Mordred, of course, is across the Channel with the Nazis...

There were a few glitches in this, but on the whole I found it delightful. It was very filmic in style and I would love to see a film version some time.

Peter David, who is nowadays writing comic books/graphic novels, did a couple of Arthur-in-modern times novels. The first one was Knight Life, in which Arthur returns after centuries and find himself in New York. The Lady of the Lake hands him back his sword in Central Park, covered with rubbish. "Never again!" she declares. He finds some of his knights, reborn. He finds Merlin who(yet again) has been living backwards and is now an eight year old boy.

Arthur has to get a job, but what? The current royal family isn't going to let him take over and in the US, he has to be elected. Merlin sets up fake records for him and the team starts the project of having King Arthur stand for election as Mayor of New York. There was a sequel, in which he has become President, though I didn't think it as good as this one.

And then, of course, there are Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising novels. She has more or less set up her own Arthurian canon, but it's powerful. Merlin is still around, head of the Old Ones, a bunch of long-lived people who are fighting for the Light against the Dark. And in modern times, he's not a Gandalf-like guy with long hair and beard in a star-speckled robe. He is a well-known scholar and archaeologist, who calls himself Merriman Lyon. Even people who don't know who he is, he's just an ordinary 20th century person. To the Drew children - at least till they find out - he's Great Uncle Merry, who had known their mother as a child. And even then they go on calling him Great Uncle Merry. There's more, but spoilers.

Plenty more novels including Peter Dickinson's Weather series, but I won't go into them here - there are too many! I won't even include C.S Lewis's novel, as I'm not fond of it.

I know - I've left out Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, but that's another one I'm not fond of. I hate, hate, hate what she did to my dear Arthur! She turned him into a wimp.

So, do you have any favourite Arthurian novels?

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24. My Favourite Arthurian Books

Recently I got my old video copy of Merlin Of The Crystal Cave converted to DVD as I can't watch videotape any more and, as far as I know, you can't buy it on DVD, though I will certainly buy a copy if it ever does become available.

This made me think of the novels and other classic Arthurian books I've loved over the years. There was a time when I was bingeing on them, but, you know how they are going to end, how they have to end and ... It's the reason why I don't generally buy Richard III fiction any more. (Mind you, I've recently re-read John M Ford's The Dragon Waiting, set in an alternative universe in which there's a happy ending for Richard...)

Still, here are some of the classics I love.

The Once And Future King by T.H White is based on Malory's fifteenth century version. It's the story of the Arthur we think of when we think of King Arthur - Camelot, knights, tournaments, the Holy Grail, etc. This is the book which inspired the musical Camelot.

But there's a bit more to it than that. This Arthur is quirky and loveable. He was tutored by a Merlin who knows what's going to happen because he is living backwards. Yes, this is the book it came from. Over the years, people have forgotten that it isn't a part of the original legend, just as they've forgotten that the laws of robotics belong to Isaac Asimov...

Merlin teaches him about human society by turning him into animal and birds - and as a bird, he flies and sees that there are no borders; borders are a human construct. As a king, he uses what he has learned from Merlin. The knights are sent out to help Arthur's subjects according to his idea of "Not might is right, but might for right."  The Holy Grail quest is to give his men something to do when they've finished that.

The problem is the fight between Gael and Gall and his nephews from Orkney start the restlessness that eventually leads to the end of Camelot. The novel ends on the eve of the last battle, with a young page called Tom of Warwick serving Arthur in his tent. Of course, it's meant to be Tom Malory.

Because it was originally written as a series of children's books, before being reworked into one novel, it retains the flavour of a children's book. And it works, it really does.

It's exquisite. If you haven't read it yet, you're missing out on the classic Arthurian novel.

Rosemary Sutcliff's The Sword At Sunset is a part of her series that began with Marcus Flavius Aquila in The Eagle Of The Ninth. There is a descendant of Marcus in all these books, going right up till the Middle Ages, connected by a dolphin ring with a flawed emerald. This novel is a sequel to The Lanternbearers, in which a member of the Aquila family refused to return to Rome when the legions left. It begins, in fact, three days after The Lanternbearers ends. The young man Artos, nephew of King Ambrosius, wants to begin a group of warriors who will travel around the country to help where needed. There are Saxons to be fought, fires to be put out. It ends up becoming his life's mission. And there is, of course, an Aquila among his men.

This is the classic "Arthur as a Romano-British general" novel. There have been others since, including some very fine ones which I may mention in another post, but IMO this is the best. The author takes bits of the legend and works them into a believable piece of historical fiction. This Arthur has his horse and his dog, because the legendary Arthur did, and Rosemary Sutcliff felt they were a part of him. He sticks to white horses and the horse he rides into his last battle is called Cygnus. His wonderful dog, Cabal, the second of that name(the first one dies of old age) was won from its dead Saxon master's side after a battle. 

His best friend - not Lancelot, who didn't enter the story till the Middle Ages,  but Bedwyr, one of his first companions in legend -  and his wife only sleep together once, when they're all hitting middle age. Deeply hurt, he sends them both away, but Bedwyr returns for the last battle. The sword goes into the lake because he doesn't want the enemy to know he's dead, not because of any Lady Of The Lake. There's no arm in white samite here. 

Finally, for this post, there's Mary Stewart's Arthurian series beginning with The Crystal Cave. The first three are not about Arthur but about Merlin. The series was inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was, I think, the one who slotted Merlin into the Arthurian legend.

There is just a touch of fantasy in this series. Merlin has the Sight, probably inherited from his mother, a Welsh princess, rather than his Roman father, Ambrosius. But he is more likely to use his brain than any magic. He is a skilled engineer, among other things. That's how he brings the main stone across the sea to Stonehenge. The Crystal Cave begins when he is seven and ends when, as a young man of twenty-two, he helps Uther smuggle himself into Tintagel to sleep with Igraine. It's not rape. They both know what they're doing. She knows who he is. Merlin does it because he knows who will be conceived that night. 

I loved that this Merlin refused to be a cliche; at the end of The Hollow Hills, the second book, Arthur asks him if he'd wear a robe with stars and moons on it for him and Merlin replies,"Not even for you, Arthur!"

It's a gorgeous series, with characters I cared about. Read it if you like just a taste of fantasy in your Arthurian fiction. 

I'll leave it here. My next post on this subject will be on more recent Arthurian fiction I have enjoyed over the years. 

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25. Currently Reading... Let It Snow

I borrowed my school library's copy of this. My niece Dezzy got a copy a few holidays ago, and it looked like fun. Snow is something I've seen a very few times in my life, once in Beersheba,  a town in southern Israel and once in the Sinai desert. Oh, and briefly at Tehran airport, back before the Ayatollahs took over. A few snowflakes, that's all. A snowstorm is something completely foreign to me in Melbourne(though I did once see a bit of snow on the ground on my way to work, a very long time ago). So it was fascinating to read about a snowstorm affecting the lives of the characters in this. 

The linking storyline is that there has been a huge snowstorm which stranded a train in a small town called Gracetown. In it, there are fourteen cheerleaders with two names among them, a local boy and a girl who was being sent to stay with her grandparents after her parents were arrested over a shopping riot.

The three novellas, are by three top YA novelists, Maureen Johnson, John Green and Lauren Myracle. I've just finished Maureen Johnson's "The Jubilee Express" which is seen from the viewpoint of a girl stuck with the name Jubilee, whose parents have been thrown in the slammer on Christmas Eve for being caught up in a riot over a limited edition ceramic, her boyfriend too busy with his family Christmas party to be bothered with her troubles and having to put up with a train full of cheerleaders. This is a delightful romantic comedy and I'm looking forward to reading the others.

I was right, it is fun.

Now I'll have something more to discuss with our students - and with Dezzy!

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