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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. Gillian Polack Speaks About The Wizardry Of Jewish Women

Gillian at Loncon. Borrowed from the midamerican cons website, hoping they won't mind! 

Today I'd like to welcome Gillian Polack to The Great Raven. She has visited us before, in the "Writing Process  Blog Hop" a couple of years ago. This time she is here to discuss her fabulous new novel, The Wizardry Of Jewish Women, which is about three women in Australia in 2002-2003, their family and personal problems and their discovery of magic. Until Gillian's interview I hadn't realised it had any connection with a short story that Gillian had published in ASIM some years ago. Who would have thought a little story of a couple of thousand words would inspire a full scale novel? 

Gillian lives in Canberra, where she works in the world of academia and teaches writing. She is an historian with more than a single specialisation - in her case mediaeval history - as I discovered when I needed to consult someone about the little details of nineteenth century England that history books just don't tell you. I hadn't realised that ship travellers had to take their own food or that there were a couple of places where you could catch a ship to Jamaica, starting in London. (I also had help in this from the delightful Louise Berridge, History Girl extraordinaire, but that's for another post.)

Gillian is a keen cook, and that includes historical cooking. Among other things, she arranged some historical banquets for the Conflux conventions - I had the pleasure of attending the Regency one - and wrote a book about it, including recipes! 

Actually, I can't keep up with all of Gillian's talents let alone all her books, so let's just focus on this one!  Here are my questions and Gillian's answers - enjoy! 

SB: Okay, as a warm-up, I'll start with the obvious question: what gave you the idea for this novel?

GP: I didn’t start with just one idea. I wondered what it would be like to be a woman with a superpower in a realistic world. I thought it would be a very tough world and I wanted to explore what it would do to someone. I saw a tombstone to a Hamburger made by a Macdonald. And I have all this history of magic at my fingertips (as much as food history, but people don’t ask me about it so I’m not known for it) and I wanted to write the Jewish side. And it struck me that I knew so few novels about Judaism that were centred on adult secular female Jews and that none of these was  Australian. And that it was about time I explored the political side of things. And… this was the novel of too-many-ideas. Fortunately, they all fitted together.

SB: I'm assuming it's set in 2002-2003 so you could include the Canberra bushfires, but does this event have a special significance in the story?

I wanted the culture of 2003-3. I wanted to catch the particular feminist activity of that moment and the e-cultures of that time, accurately. The events helped (and the bushfire wasn’t the only actual event, I put quite a few real events in the story) but the culture was what I wanted.

SB: Your three main characters consist of two Jewish women, Judith and Belinda, and their non-Jewish cousin Rhonda. What did you have in mind when you decided to make Rhonda non-Jewish? 

GP: I wanted to explore some of the aspects of Judaism in Australia that have hardly been touched by fiction. One of them was secular Jews (Judith), another was Jews who are connected to community rather than the religious belief (Belinda) and another was what happens when a family goes in a non-Jewish direction (Rhonda). They have a shared family culture, but the three don’t actually share religious belief. The novel is about women’s lives and I wanted to show how culture and these differences help me show that.

SB: Is there meant to be something Jewish about Rhonda's magical ability of prophecy? 

GP: It fits within some of the older beliefs of Jewish magic, but otherwise, no. I was wondering what places a major magic talent could go if there was no training and no support and no help. A mild talent would not get very far at all, of course, which explains the other side of the family.

GP: Actually, the three characters all seem to have things in common with you, the author. Belinda teaches and loves cooking. Rhonda writes and is an historian. What characteristics would you say Judith shares with you?

GP: Judith is also both like me and unlike me. I’ve never worked in a gift shop, but I was in groups with women like Judith and some of her political experiences were things I myself saw happening. It’s a bit of a game, really. I’ve taken the exteriors of my life and made a game out of them. I’ve only ever taught in high school as a guest unlike Belinda’s professional high school teaching, and, as a historian, I’m a long way removed from Rhonda. This is intentional.

Whenever readers tell me a character must be me, I create another character who has certain apparent similarities to me, who’s not me at all but bears some superficial resemblance in lifestyle or taste or occupation. So it’s less that I am any of my characters and far more that I have a rather evil sense of humour.

SB: Belinda and Judith's family is, like yours, Anglo-Jewish, very different from my own Continental Ashkenazi background. Can you tell us a bit about it? 

GP: My family came out between the 1850s and 1918. Only one branch was from London, but all the families who arrived in Australia that early took on Anglo-Jewish traits, so the culture of my father’s mother’s mother’s mother became mine. I have a solid Ashkenazi background as well, except that I learned any Yiddish I have (which is not much) as an adult and my Hebrew (such as it is) has the wrong accent. I suspect this makes me a mongrel, and that the Anglo-Australian Jewishness unifies the various cultures of my ancestors.

There aren’t many Anglo-Australian Jewish families left, so I looked into that part of my background while I still could, because I was curious. I discovered that I have, personally, a strong cultural affiliation with it. I call it the Church of England branch of Judaism or the scones-and-committees branch. I was in Girl Guides and did debating and played the violin and planned for university and cannot imagine a life without books. I have some Continental cooking from  the rest of the family, but we ate chops or sausages and three veg most nights when I was growing up, and the only difference between these meals and Anglo-Australian meals was that our sausages were kosher and that our mashed potatoes contained no butter. 

SB: When we read about Jewish magic, it tends to be about rabbis studying Kabbalah for many years and making golems, but the magic in this novel is very much mother to daughter stuff. Great-grandmother Ada fell out with her daughter because the daughter was a woman of science instead of magic. Now Judith is doing magic with her own daughter. How much of a tradition of mother to daughter magic is there in Judaism?

GP: I’ve not been able to find out. The magic system in the book is real, albeit made from bits of information from here and bits from there, but how it was passed down is something we don’t know  a lot about. 

Given the way traditions are handed down in Judaism, however, and given some stray comments I came across in Medieval documents about Jewish women as magic practitioners, it’s not improbable that there was a female tradition passed from mother to daughter. All that anti-Semitism has lost us so very much cultural memory, however, that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to find out for sure.

SB: Rhonda and the sisters only communicate offstage, ie it's mentioned that she knows Belinda and does communicate, but it never happens as part of the story. Is there a reason for this? 

GP: I like writing railway line novels, firstly. It’s fun to have two trains chugging their way next door to each other, with the characters waving and maybe chatting but never actually being able to shake hands or hug. The Wizardry of Jewish Women is partly this, with the lives of the two branches of the family being the engines of those trains. 

It also has a much more normal narrative pattern, lurking underneath. If you look at the plotlines, you’ll see very similar arcs: this is where the families come together. Each branch of the family produces people who are so much like each other that their lives echo. 

Also, I wanted to keep open the possibility of a sequel where Judith and Rhonda do something together. I don’t know if I want a sequel at this point, but … one never knows. After all, there is already a short story that tells us a bit about what happens next (“Impractical Magic”, ASIM #17, 2005).

SB: Although the story is set only a few years before you wrote it, it almost feels like historical fiction, because it was a different world, technologically at least. Chat rooms have pretty much been replaced by Facebook. Floppy disks have been replaced by flash drives. Internet cafes still exist, but not as many. Any thoughts about this? 

GP: I did this on purpose. Since the 80s I’ve been monitoring the great change we’re living through and I’m determined to make my novels show facets of it. Technology is never a neutral player in our lives and so I want it to have a quiet voice, for those who know how to listen.

It’s more than that, though. Every single one of my novels is carefully dated, whether I set it in this world or another. 

We live in a time of such change that even two years count in terms of the world each character lives in and the options they have for their lives. Rhonda would run into some very real problems now, that she didn’t way back then in terms of the capacity of technology to spy and secrets to be told, but in other ways she’d have an easier time of it, because people don’t tend to be as focused on ferreting out strangeness. This is why I take advantage of the changes of knowledge and of tech competence in the plot – Rhonda’s prophet-self has to deal with them.

SB: And finally, tell us about that Shetland unicorn - you know you want to! 

GP: I found out that in a Jewish bestiary there was actually a small unicorn. And that it would indeed have been kosher. Once one knows a factoid like this, it’s inevitable that it be used…

Hmm, I don't think I can see myself eating a cute Shetland unicorn or an elegant heraldic one either, but I suppose they would have cloven hooves and a cud... 

Thanks for your visit, Gillian! It has been very enjoyable and eye-opening - it has been so long since I read that story in ASIM I had forgotten the details. Now I'll have to hunt it up and read it again.

You can buy The Wizardry Of Jewish Women both in print and ebook on the web site of Satalyte Publishing - http://satalyte.com.au/product/wizardry-jewish-women-gillian-polack/

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2. Now Reading... Words In Deep Blue by Cath Crowley

And loving it so far! It's book to read if you love books. And young love. And family issues... And touches of humour. It's set largely in a second hand bookshop - what's not to like?

I'm trying to read as much new Australian YA as I can, because these are the ones from which the CBCA shortlist will be chosen.

And face it, I have yet to read a Cath Crowley book I didn't love. They're gentle and sweet and funny and she knows about teenagers - as a teacher/former teacher, she should!

My favourite so far has been Graffiti Moon, which I think should have won that year's CBCA Award, but didn't. Still - this may become my new favourite - stand by!

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3. In Which I Time Travel...In More Ways Than One: The Early Arts Guild Performs!

Today I was supposed to be attending a friend's Christmas party. Poor Gaye rang me last night to say she had a nasty cold which she didn't want to spread. I regret her cold, but not the party, which will be on next weekend, or I could catch up with friends to give them their gifts, if it wasn't.

Meanwhile, I had another option this afternoon: to attend the the annual Christmas concert of the Eaely Arts Guild. I receive their newsletter, because some years ago I was learning Renaisance Dance from Helga Hill. I was, let's face it, not very good and eventually dropped out to try belly dance. I was a little better at that, though not brilliant, but my first teacher stopped teaching to focus more on her nursing day job, the second one, who was very good indeed, moved to the other side of town, where I couldn't follow her, and that was that. I did try another couple of teachers, but neither was anywhere near as good as Samra. There was one who had taught herself dance through videos! 

Helga Hill is a huge expert in the era of the Renaisaance and the Baroque. She is an historian, a dancer, a musician with several instruments under her belt, a translator and makes the costumes, which are utterly accurate, from her research. She used to travel to Europe every year to read manuscripts and learn even more. 

I was never really good enough to perform, but she was kind and let me have a go at some simpler dances and the rest of the time I acted. I was a Duchess watching the dancers perform in my honour, a Commedia Del'Arte-masked clown called Clod, a lady in waiting watching the dancing with the king and, once, a lady embroidering at the bedside of the dying Queen Elizabeth while her life was played out in acting and dance below. 

It had been years since I'd seen Helga or her husband Mark and it was such a pleasure to see them again. I ended up buying a copy of Mark's local history book about Gippsland and their CD, which is playing on my CD player as I write this post.

The performance was wonderful as always. There was dance and music and a narrator and a wonderful soprano who also had learned the art of gesture. That's a very precise art, which we learned a little about when I was there, Only one dancer of today's troupe had been around in my time, Jan. I didn't get a chance to talk to her, but at intermission I approached Helga, who was pleased to see me and gave me a hug. 

I really must make the time to go to other concerts next year. I kept having clashes thus year.

After interval there was some Baroque dance by two dancers, both women, though one dressed as a man, complete with Van Dyke beard! It's always the same in that case - not enough men. Only one this time. And Baroque is a much more difficult form of dance than Renaissance, trust me on this!  We learned one Baroque dance when I was there - and that was one of the simpler ones. So these two were clearly the most advanced members of the team. 

That's a Baroque costume on the right.
The man is a lady!

The concert finished with bell ringing. That's something Mark used to teach years ago, but he has not been well lately, he was just out of hospital and on a crutch. 

It was a lovely end to a delightful performance. 

Learning Renaisance Dance was not just because I was interested in it. It was all a part of research for my writing. Did you know that there are very few medieval dances we know? That's because they weren't written down, or at least we don't have any dance manuals that might have been written at the time. So Helga focused on the later eras, for which there were manuals. 

Mind you, there were some earlier dancing masters we know of, just before the Renaissance. One of them was a Jewish lad from Pesaro called Guglielmo, of whom it was said that he could have seduced the goddess Diana. That's how gorgeous he was. There's a painting of him dancing between two young ladies, his students. He was respected enough that he didn't have to wear Jewish identification(you think the Nazis did this first?). On the whole, though, Italy was not a bad place to live if you were a Jew in the arts - and most of them were. It was expected of the kids that they learned music, dance, acting, whatever. We don't know what happened to Guglielmo, though there's a theory he may have converted to get a job he wanted. Oh, well... I wrote him into a story once, a Mary Sue, of course, in which the teenage girl met him at the school dance and found herself back in his time briefly, dancing with him... No, I never even tried to sell that one!  

Guglielmo with his students.
Public domain

Anyway, I learned enough to help me with my historical fantasy; I've never regretted my time with the Ripponlea Renaissance Dancers. 

2 Comments on In Which I Time Travel...In More Ways Than One: The Early Arts Guild Performs!, last added: 12/29/2016
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4. A Waffle About Tolkien's Horses

Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Have you noticed how many of the horses in The Hobbit end up dead? And that's the children's book of that universe!

I don't know why I have suddenly been thinking about this subject, but it's one that enters my mind now and then. As a child, I had walls covered with posters of horses and horse figurines(mostly plastic) on every level surface. A normal little girl, of course. I lived in a flat, so no chance of owning one and anyway, they were expensive, so even finding an agistment paddock would have been out of the question. 

But I dreamed of horses like Shadowfax. Oh, yes!

If I've got any of the details below wrong, please forgive me, Tolkien experts, and don't write rude comments about it! It has been a while since I read these books, though it was multiple time, and I just wanted a pleasant Sunday morning wander through them.  

In The Hobbit, most of the horses are ponies. When Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves leave Hobbiton, only Gandalf is tall enough to ride a full sized horse. And Tolkien gives his ponies personalities. And then he has the lot of them eaten by the goblins, when the company sleeps in that cave above the goblins' halls. 

As if that isn't enough, several of the ponies lent to them in Laketown are eaten by the dragon, 

The only ponies to survive to the end are Beorn's, lent to the Dwarves when he has hosted them and sent them on their way - and that's only because he insists on their return at the edge of the forest and lurks in bear shape to make sure it happens. He's not silly! And considering what happens to the company in the forest, it's even more sensible! Giant spiders, for starters. Beorn would know about them and other scary things in Mirkwood, even if it does also contain a colony of Elves. (But these are not aristocratic Elves like the ones in Galadriel's realm or Rivendell. They're the lower class of the Elven community.)

I suspect Tolkien got rid of the horses because he needed the Dwarves and Bilbo to be on foot when they encountered the various dangers along the way. If the goblins hadn't eaten the ponies in those dark caves, Gollum would have done so. And you can't lug them up the Lonely Mountain, can you? 

In Lord Of The Rings, he's not so awful to his equine characters - and they are characters and they mostly have names. Who can possibly forget Shadowfax, king of the Mearas? Or Bill the pony? When the hobbits' ponies are scattered at Bree, the only horse they can get is a skinny nag bought at an outrageous price from an awful man called Bill. Bill the pony has to be left behind eventually, but he is reunited with his adoring master Sam Gamgee and even gets revenge on his former owner with a kick in passing. The other ponies, following Fatty Lumpkin, Tom Bombadil's pony, are not eaten or burned by dragon fire, as they would have been in The Hobbit, when the author needed to lose themThey end up quite happily employed at the inn in Bree. 

In LOTR we meet an entire nation of horse lovers, the Riders of Rohan. Their horses are their life and soul. They are the best among ordinary horses, though there are also the Mearas, which are a truly special breed, stronger, faster, more intelligent than the regular variety. And the best of those is Shadowfax, who ends up carrying Gandalf. He is dazzlingly white and was performed by two Andalusian horses in the film version, as I was hoping and expecting. 

Horses from Rohan, black ones, are stolen from the herds for the use of the Black Riders. They are brought up in Sauron's realm, so become used to it, but I always felt sad for those animals born to the light and the plains, living in the darkness of Mordor and carrying the Black Riders - and then being swept away at the ford along with their masters. After all, they were just ordinary horses, if the best quality, not flaming-eyed demons. And I do wonder whether the nasty Black Riders were at least kind to their horses, which, after all, they had to rely on.  

The Ranger horses are special too. They aren't pretty, but they're tough. Rangers need that. And when they came to the terrifying Paths of the Dead, the Ranger horses were fine with it, while the Rohan horses had to be blindfolded, as I recall. 

Apart from those poor Black Rider horses, the only equine death was Snowmane, King Theoden's mount, who died in battle and fell, crushing his master under him. The horse got a grave and a memorial anyway. Not his fault! 

There were Tolkien elements in the SF TV series Babylon 5, in which the Black Riders were captured humans in black spaceships, unable to be separated from their "mounts". Even the villain, Bester, grieves over a beloved woman who had had that done to her. 

Interesting, isn't it, how even Tolkien's horses made their way into our culture?

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5. Happy Dance Time Again! A Contributor's Success!

Courtesy of GIPHY
My contributors to ASIM 60 have been doing well, it seems. First it was the delightful Michelle Goldsmith, whose second ever published story, which appeared in ASIM 60, was reprinted in The Year's Best Australian Fantasy And Horror

Now I have learned, quite by chance, that the amazing C. Stuart Hardwick, whose first sale was "Callista's Delight", published in ASIM 60, has sold a story to the world's top SF magazine, Analog. If you get into Analog, your career is really on its way. And I see that it has had good feedback so far, even the word "Hugo" being muttered by some. 

Well  done, Stuart! 

It seems always the way, though, that when you get them early, that's the last you hear of them. I mean, who wants to submit to a semiprozine paying about a cent a word when they have sold to the likes of Analog and Fantasy And SF?

ASIM has published the early fiction of some Big Names. Jim Hines. Aliette De Bodard. Rachel Swirsky.  Ann Leckie. People who went on to win Nebulas and Hugos. 

Mind you, we have had some stories from already-well-known people. Felicity Pulman. Sean Williams, who sent us a short, short story set in his Twinmaker universe. Sean McMullen. John Birmingham, better known these days for his journalism. Graeme Garden of The Goodies fame sent us a poem. I even had a poem by Darrell Schweitzer in my issue. 

But mostly, they go on to fame and fortune(or at least the chance to write full time, not to be sniffed at) and that's that. 

Well, I published six first sales and some second sales. I wonder if I should invite them to visit The Great Raven and let us know how they're going? 

And congratulations, Stuart! I am so proud! 

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6. On Busineses Trying To Get Into The Blog Market

I get some strange requests. There are the freelance journalists who have come up with a novel way of making a living: they email you to offer a post on the topic of your choice, absolutely free - provided you let them slip in links to their sponsors. I delete those unanswered nowadays after putting something into my guidelines saying so. When I was answering I told them I don't advertise on this site, unless you count the promotion of great new books which I have read and loved. And occasionally I give a guest post to a probably self-published author who has taken the trouble to read my guidelines, without requiring a copy of the book, which I would then have to review, and what if I hated it? Besides, they're usually in the U.S. or Britain(mostly the U.S.) and postage costs are wicked! Everyone deserves a break. If the book sounds interesting I think perhaps it will interest my readers.

But I don't advertise accessories or furniture companies or any of the other stuff these journalists want to slip into my blog. This is a book (and sometimes movie) blog!

And there is another kind of inquirer who wants advertising. It's the kind who emails asking if you'll do a post on a theme that might interest their customers.  It might be on an appropriate theme, but in the end, it's about promoting their business. And I don't do that. Ever. See above about the links to advertising sites. I even had to start moderating comments when I was getting a lot of  spam comments that led back to advertising sites.

The last time I got an inquiry of the "would you post about this?" variety it was from an adventure travel company wanting a post about adventure. I said yes, but only as long as they understood I would not be linking to their web site or even mentioning their company. I suspect they didn't like that and I bet they never put in a link to my post on their web site. ;-)

This morning I got an inquiry from a business that hires out cars, wanting me to post about the vehicles of Harry Potter. I said no. I don't drive, so I have never fantasised about the flying Ford Anglia, and I don't promote businesses. I suppose I could have given them the same answer as I did the adventure travel company, but I just wasn't interested. And these people never follow my blog and rarely read the guidelines. If they do, they kind of hope I'll make an exception(and yes, I got that once or twice in an email too). This one could have worked out I like Harry Potter by the post on the side of the page, without ever reading the post itself, let alone any of the rest of the blog.

I suppose I'll have to rewrite my guidelines yet again, to make it clear what I do and don't post about, but it probably won't help. Sigh!

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7. Coming Soon To The Great Raven ... An Interview With Gillian Polack!

Gillian Polack, historian, History Girl, teacher, novelist and fabulous cook, has kindly agreed to pay a visit to The Great Raven to discuss her novel The Wizardry Of  Jewish Women, reviewed on this blog. We will be discussing in particular the Jewish elements, which are vital to the story, and not only because of the title. It is an amazing novel!

I'm about to start preparing questions, so if you've read the book and have questions of your own, get in touch either by email or in the comments section below. If you haven't read it, perhaps it's time to start! 

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8. Holes By Louis Sachar...Rereading Just Because...

So, I was thinking about something else, as you do, when the novel Holes crept into my mind. I used to teach it to Year 8, before the decision was made to do Literature Circles at Year 7 and 8. Then I gathered a few copies as a potential Literature Circles text. It's a novel often studied at primary school, but really needs good readers to study it and understand it properly. We also had kids who requested it the year after it went off the booklist, so I checked it out to them. 

I simply love that story about a boy who is sent to a punishment camp for a crime he didn't commit, where the boys are required to dig holes in the desert, because the Warden is looking for something that is connected with the history of the place, which used to be a thriving town by a lake, instead of a desert. There's a wonderfully fantastical element  to it, as there tends to be in Louis Sachar's YA fiction.

It was also a good film, a classic in its own right. The young Shia LeBeouf played the role of the hero, Stanley Yelnats. In the novel, Stanley was overweight and took off weight during the story, but that was a bit hard to arrange in a film that is made out of order. They decided to go for a "young Tom Hanks" type instead. 

The delightful Eartha Kitt played the gypsy Madame Zeroni, who placed the curse on the Yelnats family in the first place, because their ancestor had failed to carry out his agreement with her.

 Stanley's gently nutty inventor dad was played by Henry Winkler, whom the older among us remember as "the Fonze" from Happy Days

The onion man from 19th century Green Lake was played by Dule Hill, who may be familiar to you as President Jed Bartlett's aide, Charlie(West Wing)and in one scene you see him selling an onion tonic to a townsman who was played by Louis Sachar himself. 

Sigourney Weaver, who has played many a heroine in her time, was the evil Warden, the villain of the film.

It's just such a wonderful novel that I had to read it again. So I downloaded it from iBooks and you know what? I'm finding myself slipping comfortably back into it. It will be a definite case of comfort reading. 

Not to mention a bad case of inability to defer gratification! Ah, well, them's the breaks. 

Anyone else have this problem with ebooks? 

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9. Now Reading... The Golden Apples Of The Sun by Ray Bradbury

Can there be anyone who has read Ray Bradbury and doesn't love his stories? They are beautiful and poetic and speak to your soul all at once - and they're entertaining too! I remember reading Something Wicked This Way Comes in one sitting, and being swept into the world of the story, hearing the sounds of that night circus coming into town, feeling the fear of the characters...

The other day, we were talking about short stories at an English faculty meeting. The decision has been made to scrap Year 10's Romeo And Juliet unit yet again, and replace it with short stories. Easier to teach, more time to get through it. So yet again the kids miss out on Shakespeare and most of them will never have the chance again, and will go through life knowing - or believing, anyway - only that some girl called Juliet is asking where a boy called Romeo is, and that will be their only perception of the man who added so many words to the language and whose plays inspired so many of our modern stories and culture... And they were only doing the films anyway, not reading it. Oh, well. 

Anyway, there was some discussion of what the stories might be - still going on. And one of the suggested stories is the famous "Sound Of Thunder" - the one in which some man steps on a butterfly in prehistoric times during a carefully planned dinosaur hunting safari(they only kill dinosaurs that were about to get killed anyway)and completely changes the future. So as I sat around the table I opened my iPad at iBooks and bought The Golden Apples Of The Sun, the Bradbury anthology in which the story resides.  

And what a treasury of classic stories it is! I spotted a couple of his Family stories in there - the Family are a sort of extended Addams Family - and such classics as "The Fog Horn". His stories range from the regional America of his childhood to spaceships of the future, all wonderful stuff! 

And don't forget, he was friends with another amazing Ray, Ray Harryhausen, the wizard of movie special effects.

I was reading the anthology in bed this morning and had to share!

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10. Just Finished Reading...Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch

I bought this recently, after having heard the author talk about it on the ABC. Apparently, it's been around for some years, but hey, I'd never heard of it. Who would have thought someone I knew best from Dr Who would be writing urban fantasy? Though I can see the Doctor getting involved, with Peter Grant as a companion...

Peter Grant is a young policeman who has just finished his initial period of service and is about to be slotted into a section of the London Metropolitan Police. To his disgust, he has been put into the administration section, where he will be a glorified data entry clerk so that real coppers can get on with their business while someone else does the paperwork. 

Then he is spotted by the mysterious Inspector Nightingale, talking to a ghost, something most policemen can't do, and becomes a part of the smallest section of the London police force, one that includes only two people, himself and Inspector Nightingale. As an Apprentice wizard he learns spells, Latin, Greek and other wizardly things, and helps to solve a mystery that involves people's faces falling off after they have committed acts of violence. Supernatural forces are at play... and so are river gods and goddesses, most of the latter being stunning African women...

I couldn't get enough of this book. The characters were a delight - I can imagine Peter Grant played by a young Craig Charles - and the storyline over-the-top delicious. There are things I can't tell you because of spoilers, but read it, especially if you enjoy Neil Gaiman. It has the style of a Gaiman urban fantasy and the charm.
Oh, and if you want to know how the Thames river goddess is an African woman, you'll just have to read it and find out.

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11. Student Poet ... Another happy dance!

Today, young Dylan told me that he had won the secondary section of the Kororoit Creek poetry competion. It's a local thing, connected with the area where I work and he goes to school. I don't recall who gave me the competition posters, but I put it up on the library door and hoped someone might enter.

And it was this Year 7 boy. I don't teach him(yet. Maybe next year?) but he's a regular lunchtime library patron. A bit of a nerd, but he doesn't borrow much, because he reads books from home. He's been reading the Obernewtyn series by Isobelle Carmody, and after five books, he's ready for a break. Perhaps I can recruit him for Book Club next year.

Tomorrow he is having his photo taken, possibly for the local paper.

Anyway, it isn't the first time one of our kids has won a writing competition. One boy won a place in a writing workshop with Anthony Horowitz, his hero. The poor boy froze, however, as people do in the presence of their heroes.

Then there was Kayla, who won the Year 9 section of the annual Write Across Victoria competition. I went to see her pick up her prize at the Wheeler Centre, in th last day of school before the summer holidays. I remember that night, when it was pouring and I was thankful for the Principal's gift of a taxi voucher. I took lots of photos, as did her proud father!

Hopefully, we'll have another joyous experience of this kind next year! 

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12. An Evening Of Classics...Prince Valiant

I have a confession to make: I have had this DVD for ages and only just got around to watching it. The last time I saw it was on late-night TV. 

It has quite a cast: Robert Wagner(best known for some later TV shows), Janet Leigh(who had a tendency to play golden-haired medieval heroines), Debra Paget(who went on to play Hebrew maiden Lilia in The Ten Commandments a couple of years later and got to play a Native American girl in Broken Arrow), with Sterling Hayden as Sir Gawain and a smoothly evil James Mason, who played a lot more villains than good guys. The music is by Franz Waxman and very familiar - I'm sure I've heard it recently. 

I can't resist having a giggle, though. The story is set during the reign of an elderly King Arthur, but the castles are Norman and the women's costumes are more Hollywood glamour than mediaeval. Most of the actors are American, and, Viking or Briton, the characters speak American English, something that was common in films made at this time. James Mason spoke with his own accent, of course, but he was the villain. Villains in those days did tend to be British.

The tournament was fifteenth century, but the knights jousted without much armour and Val, knocked off his horse, staggered to his feet, not much hurt. Actually, not hurt at all. 

And those Vikings! The evil ones go mostly bare-chested, the good ones(Valiant's people) cover up a bit more, but both varieties wear those horned helmets we used to believe Viking warriors wore before later discoveries were made. 

I'm watching a late scene now. Val is fighting the evil Sir Brack with his father's singing sword, and, by gum, the sword is singing a Franz Waxman tune! 

One more thing: the name of the fictional Norse kingdom from which Val comes is Skandia. I wouldn't be surprised to find this is where John Flanagan got his own Skandia, the Norse equivalent in the world of The Ranger's Apprentice. 

Why not? Flanagan's England equivalent has the name of a town in New South Wales! 

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13. On Tears Of Joy!

Oh, joy! On my way into work(still on the train)I have received an email from the literacy co-ordinater, Janis. "This will make you smile. Great!"

And it did. It was the results from my literacy students' on-demand tests. All of them have improved, one of them vastly. Mind you, the girl who had not been attending many classes could have done even better if she had, but never mind. She has improved by a couple of year levels.

My real pleasure is the boy who supposedly went backwards last time. He's gone up four reading levels. I thought so. He's been reading a proper novel. Not a thick one, but a novel, not the high-interest-low-reading-level books we use.

I'm shedding tears of joy.

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14. On Blogger And Comments

Hi, would-be commenters!

Google in its wisdom has rejigged Blogger's layout. I can no longer open my dashboard, scroll down from my list of blogs(I have two of my own and another one I set up for the purpose of using a no-longer-available free ebook service to ebook my students' posts. But it gets hits, so I've left it up.) and read the blogs I follow. It's all separate now, no more dashboard at all.

I don't know how it's affected comments, because they used to be there on the dashboard next to the blog concerned. You have to click into the "comments" link now. I did do a fiddle yesterday, changing my readers thing from "Google accounts" to "Registered users" in case people without a Google profile had been trying to comment, but that may have nothing to do with the fact that one regular commenter has not turned up this weekend. Or it may, so for now I've put it back to "Google accounts".

If you wish to be helpful, I'd appreciate a comment on this post, so I can see if I'm doing something wrong, or if I just haven't had comments. For now, Google profiles only, then I'll try "Registered users" again.


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15. Slush Grumbles...From My Newest Slushpile

I dropped out of the ASIM cohort about a year ago, but I'm still reading slush. I've been very strict on what I send through to the next round. Even a story I think is almost publishable doesn't go through. Almost publishable still isn't publishable. And the rules have become stricter since my time. The score, I am told, has to be around 3, which doesn't make sense to me, since the very best stories we've had in the past received a score of 4. It means all three readers have to give it 1, something I rarely do - very rarely. If you're going to give it a 2, which is a very good score, you might as well reject it outright and let the author find another market without waiting. But I give most of my passes 2 anyway, in hopes that what I was told was not the case or it has changed again.

But this isn't often an issue for me. Most of the slush I receive has been unpublishable, no ifs, no buts. And this morning I received a story that was not only unpublishable in general, it was not even speculative fiction. I had to read all 7208 words to discover this. I wish teachers of creative writing would explain more often to their students that they need to check their markets, instead of simply throwing their seeds to the wind and hoping that one of the markets on the long list given them will buy their magnum opus. I have the sinking feeling that the teachers actually advise them to submit widely, and let the market decide. Hey, I do this voluntarily. I don't even get a free copy! This is my precious time and I resent getting someone's creative writing exercise.

I also wish that more authors would do their research. I remember a story whose author thought a tsunami was a big wind, perhaps a synonym for "hurricane".

This one had not researched a certain type of animal and got it completely wrong. It wasn't even something obscure, but something pretty well known, which I bet turns up in trivia quizzes.

Look, people can get physics wrong in space stories, but physics is complicated - and one story I had in my issue of ASIM did get a bit of physics wrong; he knew about it, but hoped we wouldn't notice, because he liked it as it was. I made him rewrite, though only a bit, just enough to get it right.

But a basic bit of natural history that could be looked up on line? Come on, now!

And then there was the story that looked as if it was plucked from the middle of a novel and probably was. I had no idea what it was about. Four thousand words later I had finished the story and still didn't know what I'd read. I hated to say no to a local author, but it was just not readable, let alone publishable. The only story I let through  today was American. I thought it just might be publishable, a nice bit of humour to slip between the deadly serious pieces bound to turn up.

It was the first story I have not rejected in about the last twenty-five I have been sent. And no, I'm not over-picky, I just don't want to make the next reader have to read rubbish and then the author gets it thrown back anyway. Better for everyone to have it rejected right away. 

I'm still dreaming, every time I open a file, that this will be next year's Ditmar or Hugo winner. Really!

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16. November 26: On This Day!

1476: A battle is won by Vlad the Impaler, better known to us as the real Dracula, making him ruler of Wallachia for the third time. 

1789: Thanksgiving becomes a national holiday in the U.S., under George Washington. Apparently, before that there was just a harvest festival at the time.

1922: Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon enter the tomb of King Tut. Imagine, Tutankhamon wasn't even a major Pharaoh and his tomb was crammed with amazing riches. Of course, if he'd been buried in a pyramid, the tomb would have been robbed and cleared out long ago. In any case, it inspired a lot of terrible horror movies and fiction. By the way, some years ago at my school, we had a student whose great grandfather had been with Howard Carter at that tomb, a chemist, I think. He said the family had been trying to get back a photo of great grandad and Carter from the museum in Cairo. Meanwhile, he kept hunting through our books and on line for any possible photos of his ancestor - and found one, at last, in a children's book about the discovery. 

This day has some author birthdays I simply have to celebrate, and here they are: 

1909: Eugene Ionesco, author of some truly over-the-top absurdist  plays. Two of the best-known were Rhinoceros, in which everyone in town is turning into a rhinocerosI believe that was a comment on Nazism - and The Bald Soprano(I had to read that in high school French as La Cantatrice Chauve.

1919: Frederik Pohl. Famous science fiction writer. If you've never heard of him, you just aren't a fan! He lived well into the days of the Internet and I believe he did a fanzine, which made him eligible for the best fan writer category of the Hugos. 

1922: The wonderful cartoonist  Charles Schulz, without whose genius we would never have had Peanuts, no Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder or Snoopy! And the world would be a much poorer place. 

And, for the kids, on this day in 1972 was born James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner series and The Eye Of Minds(forget which series that is, but it was a nice bit of fiction about being in a virtual reality world). Teenagers just love it all. Boys and girls alike borrow his books from my library. 

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17. What I'm Reading And Rereading

Over on the Tor website, they're having a reread of Dune. I thought I might join in. I have it in ebook now, because I really don't want to stuff up my battered - and signed - paperback. I got it autographed when the author was visiting Melbourne. He had been a guest of honour at Swancon, an annual Perth convention, and was travelling around. That was at Space Age bookshop(long gone, alas!) which often hosted Swancon guests after they'd done their official gigs. Frank Herbert had a beard at the tine and looked like Santa Claus(and was just as jolly). I haven't read the rest of the series, but if you've read and loved Tolkien, you'll enjoy this - and it's the ONLY book of which I will say that. There are no Elves or Dwarves or immortal Dark Lords, but the world building is every bit as complex, the characters as fascinating, the adventure breathtaking. It's a believable universe, with good reason. I asked whether he had done his research first or begun writing and done it along the way - it's the way I do things, because otherwise my story never gets written. Other writers say the same - Robert Silverberg said so at a Worldcon I attended. But Mr Herbert snapped, "I didn't write a word till I'd researched everything!"

It is deservedly a classic.

I've bought and started reading - in ebook - Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers Of London, which is a crime fantasy novel, first in a series. So far, it's a hoot! The hero is a police officer who wants to do all the thief taking stuff and has found himself stuck with the paperwork section of the force, so that real cops can do the thief taking. In the first scene he has encountered a ghost who witnessed a murder. How do you use that information, for goodness' sake? Ben Aaronovitch is a Dr Who writer, among other things. I did hear him talking about it on the radio, but have only just bought it.

I've just finished rereading Kerry Greenwood's Electra, an enjoyable book. It's fantasy, with gods and the Erinyes, scary vengeful beings sent to punish a matricide. Mind you, strictly speaking, Orestes isn't a matricide. Electra is his mother, having been raped by her mother's lover. Clytemnestra is his grandmother, who has been posing as his mother, and he knows that. But if he has always thought of her as his mother, maybe he sees it as matricide. Anyway, Kerry Greenwood has fun rejigging Greek mythology. As usual.

I downloaded The Golden Apples Of The Sun, a Ray Bradbury anthology, because it had the story "A Sound Of Thunder" - that famous story where a time traveller steps on a butterfly in prehistoric times and everything changes in his own time - because there was some discussion of making it an English text at my school. I can always read some more Bradbury. I'm so glad he finally agreed to having his books in ebook, before he died. He was not a fan of the Internet. 

And then there are all those books I need to finish. All those on my TBR pile...

See you back here soon! 

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18. When An Agatha Christie Novel Is Meh...

Last week I popped into Dymock's  to buy a gift voucher and simply couldn't resist picking up a couple  of Agatha Christies. I haven't read them all, and probably won't. It means that now and then I can indulge in a "new" murder mystery by the Queen of Crime.

One of the two was The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side, a Miss Marple story, set in her later years. She's been a little old lady since we've known her - but she does get older. And the world around her changes. She is a bit sad about that, but understands that life is like that. And she's sharp as ever, as everyone in St Mary Mead knows well. In this one, she's annoyed at being unable to garden any more, with a gardener who doesn't work much and does it his way when he does, and stuck with a live-in carer who treats her patronisingly, like a child with dementia. She has to be polite because the woman's wages are being paid by her ever-generous nephew, the bestselling writer Raymond West. 

None of this gets in the way of her being able to solve the mystery of a local murder at Gossington Hall, site of The Body In The Library, now owned by a glamorous Hollywood star and her director husband. 

I enjoyed it. Miss Marple understands human nature, and that helps her solve her mysteries. Plus she knows people she can call on for their expertise - but she only needs them when she already has a theory. I suspect if she ever met Poirot, with his "little grey cells", she would be polite but not think much of his ways, while he would underestimate her. 

The other book I bought was a Poirot novel, Hickory Dickory Dock. I quite liked the beginning - Miss Lemon, that pearl of a secretary, who never makes typoes, has made three in a simple letter. She is worried about her sister - hey, Miss Lemon has a sister! The sister, Mrs Hubbard(known as Ma or Mum to her students) is running a student hostel for an over-the-top - almost caricature - Greek woman. Things have gone missing, things that don't belong together and it all makes no sense. Poirot decides to check it out and sure enough, there's a murder. Then another... I sometimes think I'd run a mile if I saw Poirot coming, although, to be fair, he usually isn't called in till the murder has already happened. Well, in Murder On The Orient Express it happened while he was travelling, but there was a build up.

But that was a classic. This one ... meh. Not her best. And while I was aware of her racism and classism, it really showed in this book. It's not a KKK type of racism, just the casual kind of her era and her class. The African student is played for comic relief. It's not spoilerish to say he isn't even taken seriously enough by the author to be a possible murderer; there's no way the reader would think so! And here was I thinking that the beauty of a Christie tale was that the killer could be anyone, from the gruff Colonel to the sweet young thing(who turns out to be not so sweet). He's just dumb. He does  provide an important clue, but it's not at all because of his "little grey cells". He hasn't got any, except in the physical sense. 

I suppose it says something about English attitudes of the time that people who aren't English speakers are referred to in these novels as "foreigners" even on their home soil, when the English character is the one who is the foreigner! 

Fortunately, Poirot thinks it's hilarious. 

Still, I'm not sure I'll be rereading this one. Not for some time, anyway. A disappointment, alas!

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19. Back From The YABBAs 2016

Yet again the YABBAs(Young Australian Best Book Awards) were held somewhere I couldn't get to by public transport, but this time, I had a lift, from my friend George Ivanoff, who had a shortlisted book. I would have loved to take my students, but the one time I was able to take them, I could only take my Year 10 book club members because they were the only ones who could meet me at the station. You have to be early and that would have meant going to work, picking up the younger students and going out again. We barely made it to the city on time fir the Melbourne Writers' Fesrival this year, let alone travelling out to somewhere far off. That year, it was at Trinity Grammar, which we could reach by tram, although it was still a long way off. But really, it's not meant for Year 10 students and they looked like Gullivers in Lilliput. Still, they had a good time and one of them even made it into a video on the web site. I told them that time, "I'm signing. Meet me back here in an hour," and they went around to get autographs from their favourite writers. Then we all went back to the city and had lunch together.

This time the event was held at St Thomas More Primary School in Hadfield. The kids were utterly adorable cherubs, as primary kids tend to be - well, not all, but for an event like this you only choose kids who will enjoy it.

There was a nicely set up library, with pictures of the authors on top of the shelves. The library was run by a library technician, who had been involved in setting up the event for the day and wore a YABBA t-shirt. When the session was over, I donated a copy of Crime Time to the school library. I'd brought some copies in hopes of asking the booksellers to put them on their stall, but there wasn't time. The booksellers didn't arrive till after morning tea, because the first session filled the hall with chairs. The school put together a delightful performance with little ones reading poems about the books, singing a song and others in a costume parade, dressed as characters from various books. Very sweet! The illustrators did the usual "Mr Squiggle" act, inviting kids to come up and do a doodle, to be turned into a cartoon. The awards were presented - as usual, Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton won the junior section, for The 65 Storey Treehouse. The two of them did an act to amuse the kids, including Andy pretend-kicking Terry, who had promised to do the speech and burbled, before saying, "Thank you."

Two prizes were won by Aaron Blaby, who couldn't be there. Also not there was Morris Gleitzman, who was overseas, but his wonderful book Soon won the YABBA for older readers. 

I had wanted to buy a copy of the new Treehouse book for a book club member, Priyanka, who was having a birthday, but the new one was sold out, as was the Treehouse diary, so I figured she would settle for an earlier one, if signed (She did. When I gave it to her at her party today, she hugged it in delight).

It was going to be hard to get it signed, though. The queue was so long that I gave up and went to lunch - and at that, I was signing for quite a while after the others went, because kids who had had their Treehouse books signed came over to me before I could get up and leave myself! I mostly signed the official autograph cards, but also gave away mini-posters and bookmarks. And those kids who had helped out with the day came up to get their t-shirts signed! One young man tried to persuade me to sign his school cap. I didn't think his teachers would be happy and I wasn't sucked in by, "Oh, my teacher says it's okay." But he did settle for a signed mini-poster.

When I finally was ready to go to lunch, poor Andy and Terry were still signing, with a mile-long queue. I left anyway and thought they might come soon, but as George told me he needed to go, to drop off his daughter at gymnastics, I returned to the hall, where they were still busy. Someone explained tothe kids at the front of the line that I had to go and they courteously waved me ahead of them, so I could get Priyanka's book signed, "Happy birthday, Priyanka!" from Andy and a drawing from Terry.

On the whole, a pleasant day and the school was lovely. They fed us three times - the start of the day, morning tea and lunch - and treated us as welcome guests. The kids had a great time and so did I, especially as, when I was leaving the hall with my signed book, a small girl ran up and hugged me. Nice!

Thanks, YABBA committee, for inviting me, and thanks, school, for hosting us all!

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20. Halloween Coming...A Reading From Me

There is actually a Samhain scene in my novel Wolfborn, but that isn't the scene I read on YouTube. It was a scene in Xhapter 4 where my hero, Etienne, is lost in a storm while riding home through the forest. He meets a few supernatural folk along the way...

I thought as long as the day is on its way, I'd offer you a link to my reading of a shivery scene in my book.

And maybe I'll have a go at reading the Samhain scene on to YouTube sometime this weekend, in honour of the festival.

Meanwhile, here's that link. Follow and enjoy!

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21. The Journal Of Infinite Possibilities: A Book Launch

Lindy Cameron and Kerry Greenwood

I just love Australia's small presses. They publish stuff the bigger presses won't take a chance on and lift wonderful books from their out-of-print status back into print, usually with nicer covers than the originals. Ford Street has done that with some of Isobelle Carmody's books that had been languishing out of print for some time. Ticonderoga did that for Lucy Sussex's The Scarlet Rider, which never sold as well as it deserved when it was published by Tor - and gave it a much, much better cover, using a photo, borrowed from a local library, to which they got the usage rights in exchange for some copies of the book, I think, or something equally simple. Trust me, it's better than the Tor cover, I have both editions.

Yesterday it was the turn of Clan Destine Press, a small publisher run by Lindy Cameron, who is a crime writer and major member of Sisters In Crime. Clan Destine Press was originally set up for crime fiction, but has expanded quite a bit. The launch yesterday, held at the Rising Sun Hotel in South Melbourne, was for the purposes of launching the abovementioned JIP. I ended up buying one, although it was really a sort of diary/journal with lovely illoes, because it was also for playing around with ideas for writing and I think I may be able to use it in class. Too pretty to actually write in(one reason why I hesitated), but I can always photocopy the bits I want to use. There was an adult colouring book which I didn't buy. Sorry, but I think the notion of adults colouring in stuff a bit silly. Okay, it's a soothing activity, but when they're for kids they cost about $2.50 and you buy them at the newsagent. When they're for adults, you pay the price of a novel for something that was designed especially to suck you in, but is, in the end, not really much different from the kids' version, in that you get some coloured pencils and colour. 

They also had, of course, a table selling past publications such as the reprints of Kerry Greenwood's Delphic Women trilogy, Cassandra, Electra and Medea. They're all feminist versions of the Greek myths and when Kerry decides she's going to change the ending of a myth you sort of cheer, because it's the way you would have liked it to end. And when Kerry says, "Jason was an idiot!" you can't help agreeing. 

I'd held off getting these because I did have, somewhere, the original big-press editions - signed, even! I didn't know Kerry personally back then, but when I met her on the stairs at the Melbourne Writers' Festival, she kindly signed my copy of Medea

But there they lay, so much prettier than the big-press editions, I hadn't a clue where those were and there was Kerry at the desk, wearing her witch hat, and I couldn't resist. I bought the lot and started reading Cassandra last night, enjoying it all over again. I didn't buy Out Of The Black Land, her Akhenaten novel, written for Clan Destine, which I already have. (That's another one where she ends it the way she wants it, using the fact that we don't really know what happened to Nefertiti)

Kerry signed the three books for me. She was looking a bit thinner than usual. Kerry is usually a large lady, but she has been very sick over the last year, which has been quieter than usual - no novel under her name has come out, neither Phryne Fisher nor Corinna Chapman. She told me she'd had a stroke. Ouch! Plus there was her mother's death. Than I knew about by accident, from an online search to see if she was writing anything. Jeannie was very close to her family, and she was one of Kerry's researchers. I emailed Kerry a photo I'd taken of her mother at a launch, to show my own Mum, who can't be persuaded to come with me to them. "See? This lady is about your age and she's going!" 

I met some friends there - Chuck McKenzie, that very funny man, who has a book coming out from Clan Destine, told me he is currently working for another shop, and that the year he had to close his own bookshop, two others in the same strip also closed, one of them a Dymock's! 

Alison Goodman was there too. She has had a crime novel published by Clan Destine. Such a nice lady! We caught up. She's now a full time writer, something unusuał in Australia. But she now has publishers outside Australia and that makes a difference. Alison's first school visit was to my school when she had only one book under her belt and was teaching Creative Writing at RMIT. She wanted to get practice, but was too nervous, so I invited her to talk to my book club, which at the time consisted of four Year 12 kids. I got in the local press for that visit. I remember she brought along her planning sheets and showed them to the kids as I squeaked at how elaborate it was. I am a pantser myself, but she is such a plotter, she'd give J.K Rowling a run for her money. (Last year I showed my students a JKR plotting sheet which I found online. I assured them they didn't have to do anything that detailed)

Alison told me she had done a writers' workshop at a school in Sydney and was absolutely in awe of teachers, who have to do this sort of thing every day. That got her on my good side. I am so sick of reading on author blogs smug descriptions of a school visit they did and how wonderful their writers' workshop or whatever it was must be for those poor kids who don't get that from their teachers. You know the kind. I sometimes put in a polite comment pointing out to them that it's all very well for them, who come in for an hour or two, run their workshop under controlled conditions and depart, collecting their fee, but how would they like to have to look after those kids every day and be responsible  for making sure they improved their writing and reading skills and be blamed if the kids failed to improve? Not so easy! (And then there was the one who complained of the stupidity of kids who couldn't respond to his writing prompt of what would you do with a huge sum of money they couldn't even imagine.) 

She also mentioned that she had done one free visit to a disadvantaged school on the request of her publisher, which was nice of them, while she was in Sydney, and spoke of her admiration for the TL there. 

I left after my chat with Alison, promising to buy her latest novel, the Regency one. She's also hoping to do another novel in the universe of Eon/Eona. I told her I'd keep an eye out for that too. 

A highly enjoyable afternoon! 

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22. Downloaded This Week... Some New Goodies!

Last night I impulsively downloaded Dr Zhivago. I'd been curious to read it for a long time and the film was on TV, so... There were a number of translations on offer. I suppose I should have looked online to see if there were any recommended ones, but what's the point of impulse if you then think about it? I bought the one which, to be honest, took up the least space on my iPad, then did a bit of reading about the author, Boris Pasternak, and learned that his childhood home was filled with famous composers, such as Rachmaninoff and Scriabin and authors such as Tolstoy, who was a personal friend of the family. His Dad was a painter, his Mum a concert pianist. So there was this very Bohemian flavour about the place, although they were a rich family.  

He was a poet and translator - that saved his life when Stalin was doing purges later in his life - he'd translated some poems by a favourite of Stalin's and that lovely dictator had his name crossed off the list. 

But he wasn't appreciated too much in the USSR till long after his death. When he won the Nobel Prize for Dr Zhivago, he was pressured into turning it down. I believe his son collected it many years later, well  after his death. 

Another thing : the novel is semi-autobiographical. I've only read the first couple of pages, but that will make it all the more fascinating for me. 

I've also bought 1066 Turned Upside Down, an anthology of stories about what if things had gone differently when William the Conqueror came to England. I read a bit about it on the English Historical Writers blog and it sounded interesting - as you probably know from my ramblings, I simply adore alternative history. And it was very reasonably priced. I've only read the first story so far. Still, it should be good.

The Hypnotist, a YA novel by Laurence Anholt, was in a box of books that was delivered to my school by the lovely Sun Bookshop for display. It's set in the 60s in the South and has issues of racism. I didn't want to take it home when it didn't belong to me, so I bought the ebook. I think this will be a very readable book. 

Another book in the box was The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillonan Australian book set in a refugee detention centre. I try to read as much local stuff as I can, anyway, and this one may well end up on the CBCA Notables or even short list. It's a good idea to read them before the short list hovers on the horizon and not have to catch up in the last minute on a pile of books you haven't read. 

So, that's my recent reading pile. What's yours?

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23. Just Finished Reading... The Hypnotist by Laurence Anholt

The time: 1963. The place: Dead River Farm in the American South. 

The people: Pip, an African American orphan, whose only possession is his beloved copy of Great Expecations, given to him by his schoolteacher  mother, who named him for the hero of that book. Pip has been brought there by a Mr Zachery, who needs someone to read to his bedridden wife. The Zacherys are decent enough people, but their son Erwin is a prominent member of the local Ku Klux Klan - and he's crazy. 

Hannah, a beautiful young Native American girl, is the cook. She has been mute for some time, with good reason, as we discover. 

Jack Morrow, the hypnotist of the title, is an Irishman currently teaching at the local university, where he has been experimenting with helping servicemen to overcome their PTSD. He has strange eyes that scare people, but which help him in his work. He has been using his hypnotism for good, though he has a theatrical flair due to his parents, who did it as stage acts in their youth.  However, while teaching Pip and Hannah, he realises that there are some nasty things going on in the area, that there are colleagues who are in the Klan.

 This is the era of the Civil Rights movement. Things are happening that the Klan don't like at all. Martin Luther King is appearing on television, making his historic "I have a dream," speech. No, the Klan don't like it at all. They have plans...

The characters are people the reader can care about. The story is strong. I admit, I almost felt sorry for the crazy Erwin Zachery, who is used, first by the U.S. Army when in Vietnam, then by the Ku Klux Klan. But then, he has been strange since childhood and his actions in Vietnam got him thrown out of the army. 

I did wonder if it is really possible to use hypnotism in quite the way Jack does, since at times he sounds like Obi-Wan Kenobi murmuring, "These aren't the droids you're looking for... We can go about our business." But given that he has those strange eyes that are a part of his system, which he calls the Gift, I suspect this is a fantastical element, not intended to be taken as a real-life thing. I can't back this up, because spoilers, but I do think it's just a tiny element of fantasy. 

The book has been marketed as YA, but it might fit better in the category of "New Adult" or even adult. 

Whatever you call it, it's well worth a read.

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24. Mikhail Strogoff - The Launch!

                Sophie launches!

If you wish to buy this book, you will still find some copies  on the imprint website, but hurry! It's a limited edition of which they have sold about three quarters. 

Last night I went to a much-belated launch for the Jules Verne novel Mikhail Strogoff, newly translated by Stephanie Smee, illustrated by David Allan and published by Christmas Press. It's unusual to have a Christmas Press event in Melbourne, as Sophie Masson lives in northern NSW, but she was in town for a small press publisher conference and thought she might as well do it here.

And what a lovely place she chose, too! The Alliance Francaise de Melbourne is in a beautiful 19th century building in St Kilda, right across the road from where I lived as a small child. 

See the grey flats? I lived there!

I admired the light and airiness inside, the cream-coloured high-ceilinged rooms. Apparently, it was restored by a modern architect, who was there last night.

There were a lot of people chattering in French before the launch began. Not all of them were native French speakers, some just felt like speaking it. I was asked a number of times if I spoke it and had to explain that while I had studied it till second year of uni, I had forgotten a lot. I can read it without trouble, but you have to speak slowly if you want me to understand. A lady I was speaking to told me, "Well, I'm a professional translator and even I sometimes have to say, 'Can you repeat that?' "

Alas, the translator was stuck in Sydney with a bung back and the illustrator also couldn't be there, but Sophie held up the side for everyone. She was introduced by the head of the AF, a gentleman called Gilbert Ducass, who bought two copies of the book later and got Sophie to sign the introduction, which she had written. 

For those of you who don't know, Mikhail Strogoff is hugely popular in France, where it has never been out of print, and regarded as Verne's masterwork. It has been translated into English twice before, but poorly, and in the Victorian era. Sophie Masson, who read it five times in a row as a child, in the original French, was determined to give it a good translation. 

One thing she said was that Christmas Press is currently in negotiations with Puffin in the UK for the rights. If it works, a whole lot of children will be able to read this translation. Fingers crossed! 

Afterwards, I went to dinner with Sophie and a Russian reader called Anna Popova(pronounced Papova) who lives in Melbourne but comes from Perm, the setting of part of the book. She said that Verne was huge in Russia. He got the geographical details absolutely right, despite never having been in Russia. 

We went to Topolino's, a very popular pizza/pasta restaurant. I just had a small basic Margherita pizza, as it was getting late; my stomach wouldn't have held more. Sophie had a Bolognese, which she said was very good, a compliment from her - Sophie Masson is an amazing cook, judging by her food blog. It was a pleasant meal and chat. Anna and I saw Sophie on to her tram to the city and went to catch our own tram, as she lives on the same tram line as me. I got home quite late, but I don't regret the lengthy day. It was worth it! 

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25. Writing Modern Faeries: A Guest Post From Hazel West


Today's guest author is Hazel West. Hazel is the author of many, many novels of historical fantasy and fiction. Her latest books, however, are urban fantasy, with Faeries and fast cars. You might enjoy them if you like the Wicked Lovely novels of Melissa Marr.

Currently, Hazel is doing a blog tour for Book 2 of this series, but before her guest post, why not take a look at the blurbs for both books? 

In an Ireland that mixes high kings, faeries, and modern warriors who drive fast cars, Ciran, a descendant from the famous warrior Fionn Mac Cool, bands together with a company of young warriors to go on a quest to recover their missing family members who were captured on patrol by the Goblins during a shaky peace between the two kingdoms. Ciran and his companions must figure out not only how they are going to rescue the prisoners, but how they are going to complete their mission without killing each other. This first book in the new urban fantasy series by Hazel West is a story of brotherhood and friendship against all odds, that mixes the ancient Irish legends with a modern setting for an action-packed read.

Following up where Blood Ties left off, Ciran and company face not only a possible Faerie rebellion in the works, but getting their High King married off. The adventures of the modern day Fianna continues in this exciting sequel with hints of the legend of Tam Lin.  

Without further ado, here's Hazel to tell you all about An Earthly King!

Since the Modern Tales of Na Fianna series is set in a world that is slightly neo-medieval and has a mixture of modern things and ancient things, I had a lot of decisions to make when crafting the world. One of which was how to portray the Faeries and the Fae courts, which is what the plotline of Book Two An Earthly King is based upon.

I have read a lot of Faerie books and a lot of times I noticed that whether they’re fantasy, urban fantasy, or historical fantasy, they all seem to keep the Fae pretty traditional. I kind of wanted to take a different approach with that. Obviously the Fae are an ancient race, but why can’t they keep up with the times? 

When I introduced the Goblin race in Book One I kept them sort of off the grid, mainly because they are living at the very northern point of Ireland where in this world, they have few resources for electricity and whatnot but yet they still had their preferred transportation method, motorcycles and wear their leathers and biker boots. When I got to thinking about how to portray the Fae courts in Book Two I kind of went the same rout and made them sort of somewhere in between. Yes, when they are in their own realm, there is little to no need of modern conveniences, but that doesn’t mean they can’t drive a car or use a mobile phone. 

Probably my favorite part of writing this series is the fact I get to take what I want from traditional folklore and blend it into a modern setting. In this case, I kept quite a lot of traditional Faerie lore but at the same time, I changed a few things here and there to sort of fit better into a world more like ours. Why can’t Faerie princes wear Armani, after all? That also led to the BPAFF organization (Bureau of Protection Against Fair Folk) who are sort of the human/Fae liaisons. They deal with Faerie related crimes but also help to keep the peace between the humans and the Courts.

One of the main story lines in An Earthly King is that it’s based a little off of the Ballad of Tam Lin, which I even reference in the story, because, of course, Tam Lin would be a historical account to them. That meant a good part of the story focused on the Faerie ride on Samhain’s Eve and the Wild Hunt and how you win someone back from the Fae. It’s one of my favorite stories ever because it has so much traditional lore crammed into it, and it was really fun to sit down and actually deconstruct the story, looking for clues throughout it and figuring out why Janet did what she did. Like meeting the Faeries at a crossroad, or waiting until the strike of midnight and wearing a green cloak. 

Then of course, I also did research into how to ward against Faeries and there is a plethora of knowledge on that from the traditional iron and rowan, to pure silver and running water. I even researched traditional ‘Seeing’ potions and found an actual recipe from the 1600s. 

As a long time fan of Faerie lore I have been having a blast on researching this series, and I can’t wait for you guys to see what happens in the next one!

Thanks for sharing, Hazel! If you think Modern Tales Of Na Fianna might be just right for you, here are the links below. 

(And since she mentions Tam Lin, here's a link to a wonderful Tam Lin web site I discovered some time ago. It has the words to the ballad, the story outline and plenty more  information about it.)

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