Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I'm away from home today...

I'm over at The Shake today, reviewing / discussing M.L Stedman's book, The Light Between Oceans, for the fortnightly Interleaves book column. Please to read, if this book interests you at all!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Hum (Poem)

and life is a roaring floodwater
treacherous and willful, snaking wet fingers into every quicksilver minute

beginning with a dog bite and a car accident, the week refuses
to slacken pace for two breaths together.
autumn muses coolly, while laundry
stays on the line for five days, touch-dry but cold.

school runs, kinder runs,
gymnastics dancing guitar piano craft club swimming theatre
charging hither and yon, measuring out the space
til the next foray. this does not consider of course
the homework, practice and projects to be aided
lurid pink medicine to be administered four times daily to prevent infection
the mediating of fights and brokerage of armistice
(and addressing existential fears and longings -
"Why am I here?" asks the middle child, while the youngest
wants me to stop death, permanently).

and leave aside the foundational house-businesses -
the meals prepared, the clothes laundered,
the stains scrubbed at and the porcelain disinfected,
the scattered attempts at tidiness
doomed ultimately to failure because I do not care enough to trade sleep for neat rooms

and oh don't get me started on the administrivia -
the tedious hours on the phone and Internet bless its heart sorting out bills and bookings,
forms and details
the raffle tickets and chocolate drive boxes, excursion notes, school photo orders

the minutiae of us, reproduced in triplicate, and witnessed by two independent persons -

with this, let's not forget, work
an infant mountain of it - a hill, perhaps? - to be thought of and built
documents from air, turned into bytes
for clients to eat and then, in time, pay for -

never out of the main current for a second
no quieter eddies here

things are missed, of course -
a meeting forgotten, an article unwritten
while other unauthorised pleasures are stolen from duty -
walks in the softening sun, an hour with a book
too many cups of tea to count
a movie, watched with the youngest, in a half-doze -

and life hums on, the murmur of the hive
a daze of action and movement
from which I still force
the tiniest of gaps for dreams.

- Kathy, 26/4/13

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Reading Notes: The Last City

This review is book 4 for me in the 11-book Aurealis Awards science fiction and fantasy novels finalists list. The next two books I will be covering are Garth Nix's Confusion of Princes (sci fi) and Jo Spurrier's Winter Be My Shield (fantasy).

Nina D'Aleo's debut novel is being pitched by the publisher, Momentum, as Perdido Street Station meets Blade Runner, something that I'm glad I didn't know before reading it, because it enabled me to feel all clever and edumacated when I picked the stylistic and thematic link to Perdido Street myself halfway through the book.

The whole feel of this text reminded me of China Mieville's classic - the dystopian city, the assortment of species and subspecies living and loving together, the threat of evil that involves the theft of minds and spirits, the sense of law and order being the thinnest of veneers over a mob-ruled underbelly, the mismatched team confronting the menace head on. Scorpia, the city of the story, reads so much like New Crobuzon that it almost felt like coming home to a brutal, but beloved, story-home. (I have *lots* of story-homes; I've been a lot more places in my reading life than I'll ever go in body, and that is one of the things I love so much about fiction).

However, I don't see a Blade Runner heritage at all in The Last City. This book is, for want of a better word, much more alive than Blade Runner. OK, yes, it features a hunt (or sorts), but it lacks entirely that peculiar greyness, that noir-ish coldness, that searing, biting truthiness, that sets Blade Runner apart among its kind. There will only ever be one Phillip K. Dick, and Nina D'Aleo is not his reincarnation.

This is not a criticism, though, because this is an extremely good book, worthy of its own garlands on its own terms. The character development is extraordinarily good - all the ensemble main cast in the Trackers team are vividly realised and engaging, which is no mean feat given how much plot and world-background D'Aleo gets through. There is a LOT, it starts immediately, and it's achieved without too much protoganist-puppet exposition (although there is a bit of that - one or two "And this is how X works" soliloquies spring to mind).

Plunging us into the central crisis more or less immediately is a bold move, as it means that the reader spends the first quarter of the book in a state of spin, trying to follow the rapidly unfolding drama while wrapping your head around the rules and norms of Scorpia, its history, the functioning of science and magic, and the people we are thrown in with in this boiling pot of story.

The Tracker team and the key hangers-on they collect on their way are wonderful. There is team commander, human-breed Copernicus Kane; fairy-breed Fen, the electrosmith Diega; imp-breed Eli Anklebiter, inventor and resident softie/ conscience; mixed-breed Androt-human breed prince-in-hiding, Jude; and new recruit Silho Brabel - who turns out to be the key to everything, oh what a surprise, fulfilling that oldie but goodie story trope of "The Mysterious New Guy has A Special Secretness That Is The Key To Everything." Eli was far and away my favourite character - I really took to that little guy, and he's the one I *needed* to survive to keep me on board. (Spoiler alert - He does :-)

But outside the team themselves, the add-on characters are equally strong. Outlaw Ev'r Keets, gangster bosses Christy Shawe and Caesar K'Rul, the Midnight Man spectral breed whom Eli saves, Androt rebel leader Kry, the sad but determined  spectral Raine. Getting me to care about that many characters is truly a rarity, but D'Aleo pulls it off; I actually was invested in all of them at once, and vitally engaged with the story because I wanted a good outcome for them all, however unlikely. (Well, except Kry, maybe. He's a bit of a bastard).

If I was to criticise this book, it only would be on the grounds of complexity and an embarrassment of riches. There are times when the layers-upon-layers gets a little bit much to bear, and I felt like the number of Skreaf battles was more than I needed to underline the seriousness of the threat. To be fair, I have a habit of becoming quickly bored with battle sequences, no matter how relevant or well written, but even in this context, I could've stood an arrival at the point a trifle earlier than we actually got there.

That said, I realise that D'Aleo had to do a lot of world and plot establishment in this book to prepare the way for the sequels to come (which I'll be eagerly awaiting). I expect less dizzying novelty in future Scorpia books and a continuation of the terrific plotting, fascinating characterisation, deep world engagement and clever, stylish writing. If that happens, this will be a series to stand beside the very best of the past 20 or even 50 years in this genre.

Please note: From today onwards, this blog will be on a temporary book- and serious-blogging hiatus for 2 weeks due to work and family commitments. I may post a poem or two in that time if the mood strikes :-) In the meantime, I will be over at The Shake next Tuesday (30th) with the next Interleaves column, which will be a discussion of runaway success and controversial Miles Franklin prize nominee, The Light Between Oceans.

I will be back into book territory on 6 May with hopefully a double book review  covering Nix and Spurrier's books, and intend to try to get as many of the Aurealis finalists read and reviewed as possible before the prize announcement on 18 May.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sovereign Hill

This needs to be said upfront: This is NOT A SPONSORED POST. I have no connections whatsoever with Sovereign Hill or any of its affiliates; I paid for every service and item discussed below; and Sovereign Hill is not aware that I am even writing this post. I just like to write about our holiday doings sometimes, that is all.

We spent two days last week on a mini-break at Sovereign Hill, the outdoor museum / historical township in Ballarat that evokes the  Goldrush era (1850s-60s) in Victoria.

Sovereign Hill, being only just over an hour from where we live, represented a good compromise for us. Having been on a family holiday to Warrnambool only 6 weeks ago, it was not likely that we were going to get away anywhere very far, expensive or major in the school holidays just concluded.

We did, however, want to do *something*, and after much family discussion, we settled on one of Victoria's most popular tourist attractions that we had never been to with the kids - Sovereign Hill. It's fair to say that a great time was had by all, with one glitch (mostly for me), which I'll discuss below.

We decided that a single day at Sovereign Hill was not likely to be long enough to see and do everything, and so I found a deal on the Internet which gave us a night's accomodation at the Comfort Inn next to the park, two days' entry to both Sovereign Hill and the Gold Museum, breakfast and dinner, and the evening sound and light show, Blood on the Southern Cross (about the Eureka Stockade miners' rebellion).

It cost $580 for us as a family of five, which I think was pretty reasonable. If we had just paid separately for the 2 days admission and the dinner & show, it would have cost us $510, and then we would have had to either go home for the night (painful) or pay for accomodation separately, which I can't imagine we would have found for under $70 (including breakfast!)

Sovereign Hill, for those unfamiliar with it, is a fantastically detailed, engaging recreation of early goldrush Ballarat. It has a main street of shops relevant to the time, which are great (and which the kids loved), but the heart of the set up is in the manufacturies (of sweets, equipment, gold and candles), miner's villages and the mines themselves. There is also a Chinese village, with a temple and lots of information about how the Chinese miners were treated on the goldfields (hint: not well).

Here, knowledgeable, expert staff, both paid and volunteer, help to resurrect the world of 1850s Ballarat, explaining (while in costume) what life was like for the miners, their wives and children, the soldiers, the shopkeepers and the various hangers-on that flocked to the new wealth of Victoria.

We were extremely impressed with the depth of knowledge and passion for their craft displayed by the staff. Everyone seemed to have more than one role- for instance, we recognised people dressed as soldiers on the second day who we'd encountered in the sweet factory the day before. The narratives that they supplied were engaging, detailed and very informative. My husband was particularly taken with seeing the gold pour, where $150,000 worth of gold was turned into a gold bullion bar in front of our eyes. The kids thought the lolly-making was fairly special, while I enjoyed watching wheels get made - a fascinating process.

We did lots of fun things, including:
- Multiple carriage rides in the stagecoach around the township
- Lunch in the old-style "New York Bakery"
- Panning for gold at the river
- Getting our photograph taken in sepia in old-style costume (we look scarily like a proper middle-class 19th century family!)
-  Shopping in the old apocathery shop
- Watching a surprisingly hilarious pantomime in the theatre of Beauty and the Beast (it had me in stitches as well as the kids)
One of the big questions we had to determine was whether we would do one of the paid underground mine tours. These go 45-60 minutes and involve going way underground to look at the old workings.

Because the kids were keen, we decided we would, and this turned out to be a *very* over ambitious decision on my part. I am claustrophic - quite severely so - and at the moment my spinal nerve problems are playing up, which makes me often dizzy and vertigo-afflicted. If this sounds to you like a recipe for disaster, well, you'd be right ... 

The first stage of the mine tour involvers a 2-minute plunge in a cramped carriage in utter blackness to get to the mine floor, and I completely dropped my bundle. By the time we arrived and the underground lights came on, I was breathless, spinning, and having a major panic attack. To my amazement, my two elder daughters were both fine and had found the dark drop intriguing rather than scary. My 4 year old, though, wasn't happy and wanted to leave too, although she was more composed than I was.

I think I must not be the first person to have this happen, though, because the guide was clearly au fait with how to manage lily-livered patrons. He quietly and kindly guided my 4 year old and I to an exit door that let us out onto a winding path, from where we were able to climb back slowly to the park, entering through the Chinese village (which she and I enjoyed looking at). When we emerged into the sun, my legs gave out for a minute and I flopped onto the ground. My 4 year old came over and hugged me and I cried like the sook that I am for a minute. But then we got up and walked back slowly and it was all OK.

My husband and the big kids continued their tour and reported that it was really interesting and they'd had fun, so I was glad everyone didn't have to miss out because of me. I would caution, though, if you are going to Sovereign Hill, to be wary of this if you are claustro or dark-averse (or have children who are). Personally I do not think they gave adequate warning as to the intensity of the experience and I think they should exercise more diligence about this for sensitive visitors.
The final thing to talk about is the sound and light show in the evening, Blood on the Southern Cross. We had reservations about this, given how affected the girls were by the sad show at the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum in Warrnambool. 

 However, we needn't have worried, as this show was both terrific and also way less emotionally draining than Shipwrecked. It was so well put together - clever, engaging, amusing, informative and excellent. It wasn't overlong, and it had enough changes of scene and location to keep the 4 year old from getting restless. (She was mightily taken with the snore sound effects in the miner's camp :-) We all really loved it and would like to see it again one day. My elder daughters left with a lively interest in the Eureka Stockade and in the gold diggings generally, and a determination to do their own research and find out more, which is really the highest form of compliment to the success of the show.

We ended our two days away by meeting up with my parents for dinner at a bistro beside Lake Wendouree, as they happened, serendipitously, to be in Ballarat that day for a friend's book launch. We had a lovely meal and watched the sun go down over the water, which was a nice way to end this mini break.

So, overall - high recommendation for Sovereign Hill as a family venue. There is really something for every age group and no chance of boredom that we could see. Just be careful about the mine tours if being tightly packed underground ain't your thang.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Reading Notes: Bitter Greens

Next up on the Aurealis list for me was a book from the Fantasy Novel nominees - Kate Forsyth's retelling of the Rapunzel story, Bitter Greens.

I've been pairing books from the Sci Fi and Fantasy lists in my reading, which can be a little dizzying, but also really helps me to assess books on their merits rather than in terms of "are they exactly like the previous title which I enjoyed or hated??" which is a bit of a trap when reading solidly in one genre. So far, I've read 2 from each list - Sea Hearts and Bitter Greens from the fantasy list, and And All the Stars and The Last City from the sci fi list. Review of The Last City at the weekend if I get time! I've just started Garth Nix's Confusion of Princes, another sci fi title, and Jo Spurrier's Winter Be My Shield (fantasy), but with the next three weeks looking a bit craptastic in terms of time, I don't expect to finish and review them until mid-May.

Enough of that - on to Bitter Greens.

The first thing to be said about this book it is that it is one of that rarest of achievements in fiction - a really successful genre-blender. Told through the lens of the life of real French aristocrat and author at the court of the Sun King, Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the story is a vivid, engaging and entirely satisfying historical novel, picking apart the conventions and limitations of Charlotte-Rose's social milieu and the terrifying religious persecutions that Louis XIV inflicted on France's Hugenots (Protestants).  At the same time, it is also a beautiful, savage retelling of the Rapunzel story, set in a historical-yet-magical Venice of the sixteenth century. The hook that ties the two together is that Charlotte-Rose was, in reality, one of the first popular writers of the Rapunzel myth, bringing an older folktale to the attention of the court (and, subsequently, the world).

What I loved the most about this book was the powerful, persuasive characters who drive it. To me, the main protagonists are unquestionably Charlotte-Rose and Selena Leonelli, La Strega (The Witch). Margherita, the Rapunzel of the mythic half of the story, seems straightforward, almost muted, beside these two magnificently messy, mixed up, vibrant, living women, one basically good, the other ... well, it's complicated.

In fact, it is in the character of Selena that I think Bitter Greens reaches its peak power. It is no mean feat to create a character who is at once really repugnant - selfish, brutal, sinuous, and yes, evil - and is still human, still driven by fear and past scars, and filled with the belief that what they do is justified (so does not see themselves as evil, although is uneasily aware that their actions have unwanted consequences for others). Giving us the backstory of the witch is the narrative decision that, to me, sets this book higher than several other fairytale mash-ups I have read. Selena's mother's fate (warning note here: strong stomach needed, this section is extremely confronting and horrific) casts an inescapable shadow over the whole of Selena's life, right til the moment that the spell is finally broken. It is a sign of how deeply Forsyth has been able to persuade us of Selena's humanity that when Margherita is able to break the enchantment, the sigh of satisfied relief is for Selena's release as much as for Margherita and her lover.

Overall, this was a really excellent book. I read it quickly, found it engaging even when confronting, and possessed of the requisite appropriate ending that a story melding history and myth should have. I'd recommend it to "traditional" fantasy lovers and historical fiction fans alike.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Three things (A poem)

I was going to blog about our trip to Sovereign Hill today, but I have not had time to finish sorting my photos, so I'm going to leave that til Thursday. I also have a backlog of books that I've read but not yet reviewed for the Aurealis and Miles Franklin Awards reading challenges, but they will have to wait too, after I saw the prompt on Twitter for today's #NaPoWriMo. The prompt is: "write a poem full of things you'd never tell your daughter."

three things I will never tell my daughters -
one from the buried past (let the dead of my heart sleep quiet);
one blanketing the world beyond our door, a lie heavy, bitter;
one glimpsed in dreams and story, wraith-fingers beckoning the future.

three things -

I will never tell them that which is not theirs to know, that came before,
the ghosts of my life, straggling  in scraped corners of my mind,
their haunting half-hearted, muffled, muted by a life lived in openness to joy.

I will never tell them that they are less-than, limited,
that their bodies have meanings that they did not choose, to which they must adhere
that the frank loveliness of their eyes, their limbs,
the eventual coming of curvature and blood
is what they must measure themselves against.
I will never tell them and I will fight the world in every ditch when it tells them
that they are innately this or that thing
that they cannot do the other
that those two paired Xs, rotating in double helix
gave them something incomplete, imperfect, vulnerable.

I will never tell my daughters that the future is either assured or doomed
how would I know? besides, it is theirs to shape and salvage
not mine. when they, in their passion, rail against the darkness
that threatens the sun, I will not tell them they are overreacting
or wrong.
I will not tell them tomorrow will be better than today, or that it will be worse
I will not tell them not to dream, to abandon hope
for themselves or for their strained world.
I will not tell them what they should think, or hope for,
or trust in, or believe.

these things I will not tell my daughters.

instead, I will tell them -

whatever came before, now you are, and the stars shine on you.
whatever the world says, you are wonderful, fully human and fully yourselves,
and can walk with giants, if you choose it.
whatever the future brings, I will love you in it
with fierceness and constancy, to the day of my death
and if something of me remains thereafter
forever and ever and ever
til the end of time and space and breath

that is what I will tell my three daughters.

- Kathy, 16/4/13

Monday, April 15, 2013

What we did on our holidays

The kids are back to school and kinder today, and we have an even busier week than usual, with husband having work functions on two nights, interstate friends visiting on Wednesday, me attending the Stella Awards on Thursday night and a party catch up with friends at Werribee Mansion on Saturday. This, in addition to the usual rounds (school, kinder, gymnastics, dancing, swimming, guitar, piano), a full working week for hubs, and a reasonable, although not crippling, amount of paid project work booked in for me.

I think we will be OK with this merry whirl, though, because we're fortified with what ended up being a really nice term 1 break. Although hubs only had one week day off work (last Friday), I was able to organise my projects so that I worked hard through Easter but was then work-free from 5pm on the first Tuesday of the hols til the following Monday afternoon, then working at a moderate pace only (3-4 hours a day) for a few days, and off work again Friday-Sunday for the final stretch. This meant I had lots of time to do fun things with the kids, which was great.

We didn't do anything too earth shattering for most of it. The kids had sleepovers at their grandparents, went to a schoolfriend's birthday party, did crafts, played together, watched TV and read books. I took them to see Zambezia at the cinema and we played video games in the arcade. We had pizza delivered and went out for Thai. We rode bikes and scooters and went to the park. They came with me shopping, to the physio and to the library. The big kids went to a CSIRO Double Helix Club science day, while I took the 4 year old to Collingwood Children's Farm for a few hours. We had an Easter egg hunt and went to Easter Sunday church, as it our wont. We had playdates and catch ups with quite a few different friends, which was really nice. We also had one little (2-day, 1-night) trip away, to Ballarat, which I will be posting about tomorrow, but suffice to say that it felt like a lot longer than two days away, in a good way.

The good thing, for me, was that this was the first school holidays where I feel like I was able to properly and effectively balance ongoing work with having the kids here fulltime. I didn't work over the summer hols at all, and I worked far too much (ie fulltime) in week 2 of the July hols, and all of the September hols, last year. Before that, I wasn't working nearly as much or as consistently, so it was less of an issue.

I'm not as booked with work now as I was last September - for which I give heartfelt thanks! - but I do have two projects live, one nearing its final phase but the other just really getting started. Neither project is small, and the potential for another "lost" holiday was there.

What was great about *these* holidays, though, is that I really feel we did not lose them, as time together and as downtime. I had to push it pretty hard over Easter - I did 43 hours in 5 days, and that's with losing most of Good Friday to social things and Easter Sunday morning to egg hunts and services - but the prize for doing so was some very nice quality time with the kids in the week following, and the ability to comfortably integrate the work after that into times when the kids were sleeping, at grandparents, playing together or reading.

I don't know what will happen for me work-wise after the conclusion of one of my current projects in May, when I start to actively source new work; but whatever way it goes, I hope I can manage the term 2 break as effectively as this one.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Reading Notes: And All the Stars

I picked And All the Stars as my first title from the Aurealis Awards finalist list for two reasons - one, because it's self-published, and I like self-published titles; and two, because it is double-nominated in the YA novel category, and I have a lot of time for YA fantasy / sci fi if done well.

Having read it, I'm pleased to say the randomness of my selection process didn't let me down - this is a terrific book, a worthy prize nominee and a serious contender to take it in both categories.

The book is very reminiscent, to me, of the Australian YA classic series, John Marsden's Tomorrow books. Although And All the Stars features an element of classic sci fi soup that's absent from Tomorrow - bad, bad aliens, who do bad, bad things to human bodies - the central construct is remarkably similar, featuring a group of teenagers forced together by necessity to try to confound an imminent threat to their lives and their whole society.

Like Marsden, Host has the knack of drawing teen characters that are not only believably their age, but also strong, resourceful, purposive and well rounded. Madeleine Cost, the central protagonist, is a likeable and relatable character, and the supporting cast are vividly realised and differentiated. Part of the success of Host's ensemble is in her natural, unforced and effective evocation of multicultural Australia - the teenagers are obviously, but not ponderously or awkwardly, from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but are all united in their grief, anger and determination to fight back against the aliens who have invaded their world and their bodies.

I interviewed Penni Russon, another Australian YA fantasy author, recently in my other life as the literary correspondent at The Shake. One of the things that she said that struck a chord with me, and is very true of And All the Stars, is that one element true YA must have is hope. No matter how dire the situation or how thin the thread, there needs to be some sense that there is, or will be, light. That is, of course, why many - most? - YA books end with reasonable resolutions for at least the central protagonists, although YA authors are not shy about killing off beloved supporting characters (think Finnick and Prim in The Hunger Games books, two of the best-loved sacrificial lambs of all time).

This is where And All The Stars really comes into its own as a YA title - it is, despite having moments of great tension, ultimately a very hopeful book, and I was never in any doubt that things were going to end well for Madeleine, Fisher and their cohort. The storyline is pretty linear and straightforward, but Host's grasp of pace and plotting makes this an asset rather than a letdown - there is nothing not to like about a ripping good story told well from end to end without fancy tricks. And, to be honest, after getting through the awesome but fairly highbrow Stella Prize shortlist, reading a story that's focused on the story and not the symbolic weight of every frown and nose-pick was really enjoyable. Which is not to say there are no big ideas in this book - there are plenty, and Host handles them really well. It's just that this is a book that doesn't spend a lot of time contemplating its own navel, but rather keeps moving briskly along; and more power to it for that, I say.

I found the ending quite satisfying, although perhaps a tad too neat and rushed for my taste - there is an awful lot of Big Plot Exposition in the last three chapters! - and I will happily recommend this book to teen friends and adult sci fi fans alike.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Reading Notes: The Sunlit Zone

This review forms part of my commitment to complete the Australian Women Writers Challenge in 2013 and to read the shortlist for the 2013 Stella Prize. This book is the last of the Stella shortlisted titles. Links to reviews for the other 5 titles can be found under the Reading Challenges tab.

The Sunlit Zone is a verse novel, a form with which I am not overly familiar - in fact, I think Browning's The Ring and The Book and Dorothy Porter's Akhenaten are the only two I have previously read.  I don't remember much about the Browning, but I found Porter's book quite powerful. The idea of telling a long story through verse appeals to me, as both a reader and an aspiring poet myself.

Unlike Porter's book, Jacobson's isn't so much a series of sequential connected poems as a flowing narrative, told in verse rather than prose but no less linear for that. For me, it hovers between poetry and free-form prose, and captures the best of both. This is verse being put to the service of story and revelation; the narrative structure emerges under Jacboson's gifted hand with  fine, deft precision.

The Sunlit Zone is the futuristic - possibly science-fictional, possibly dystopian - story of North, born a twin in 2020 and fated to eventually become, in 2050, a biological investigator and broker of sorts, monitoring and reporting on the abundant genetic mutations flowering in the ocean by her Victorian coastal home. This is a world of genetic manipulation and mutation, of climate change and extreme weather, of skinfones embedded into hands and ultra-fast transportation. It's a world where things look like a hyper-accelerated version of the world we recognise, where many things are the same but some things are irrevocably altered. It is a strange, but not-strange, world, troubled but not doomed; a non-catastrophic, but still grey, projection of where the path we are walking might lead soon.

It's North's story, but it's also the story of her parents, Flora and Richard, and their lives; of genetically engineered perfect neighbour child, Cello Green; of North's first lover, Jack; of her co worker and friend, clone baby Waverley. Most of all, it's also about North's twin, Finn, who, it's suggested, herself represents some kind of mutation, with her webbed limbs, her gills and her strangeness that manifests as extreme neuro-diversity. Finn, who vanishes into the ocean in 2035, is the constant companion in North's story, and pulling off the poignancy and uneasiness of this shadowing, without ever resorting to sentimentality, is one of the true triumphs of this book.

It is often said by people who don't see themselves as poetry lovers that verse is less accessible, denser, than prose. This book puts the lie to that notion extremely effectively, to my mind. It is immensely readable, intelligent but also intelligible storytelling, deploying the full potential of verse to nuance mood, affect and flow. Jacobson effortlessly peppers the narrative with future technology and concepts and manages to explain, in a line of verse, what prose science fiction writers often take ponderous pages to cover. That these futuristic references never interfere with the human heart of the story - they lend it a sadness, a foreboding, without becoming the focus - makes this a beautiful example of how to do science fiction as well as how to write verse.

I really, really loved this book. I loved its spareness, its beauty and its strangeness. I loved the smell of the ocean that permeates through every word and every line, the sense of true things unfolding in deep places. One of my favourite passages is:
And dreamt a recurring dream
of a river trailed by weeds, its banks
as soft as cake, and crumbling.
It is always soft, and always I fall.
My skin transformed by scales.
My cheeks clefted with gills.
My coccyx elongated into a tail.
Finn beckons from the open sea
in a language I almost, but not quite,
hear. The current draws me in.
So now I have two favourites from the Stella shortlist - Sea Hearts and The Sunlit Zone. I'll be hoping one of them takes the prize, and I'll also hope that many people read these incredible books (and the other four shortlisted titles, which are also very strong) and get as much delight from them as I did.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Another award list out, and my grip is slipping...

The finalist list for the Aurealis Awards, Australia's literary awards for science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction, was announced a couple of weeks ago, and I decided to screen it out because I was busy doing Stella, Nebula and Miles Franklin, and also, ahem, life. But now I have completed the Stella shortlist (review of The Sunlit Zone up tomorrow!), have abandoned the Nebula list after 2 novellas because it's been too hard to get hold of titles, and am 4 books into the Miles Franklin longlist (review of The Light Between Oceans later this week, just for Justine!), I thought it was time to turn to my attention to the Aurealis list and see what treasures might be lurking therein.

The Aurealis recognises both long and short form across the three genres, and also has children's and YA categories. (The wonderful Only Ever Always, which I reviewed last year, won the YA category in 2012).

Because the reach of this award is so wide, there is obviously no chance I can, or would want to, read it all before the prize announcement on 18 May. Besides, I do not like or generally read horror, so that screens out a third of the list right there. The categories that I thought I might have a go at, therefore, are Fantasy Novel and Science Fiction Novel. The finalists are:

Fantasy Novel

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (Random House Australia)
Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff (Tor UK)
Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
Flame of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Winter Be My Shield by Jo Spurrier (HarperVoyager)

Science Fiction Novel

Suited by Jo Anderton (Angry Robot)
The Last City by Nina D’Aleo (Momentum)
And All The Stars by Andrea K Host (self-published)
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina (Walker Books)
Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix (Allen & Unwin)
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (Harper Collins)

Some good-looking titles on there, one I've already read (the beautiful Sea Hearts, which is shortlisted for the Stella) and two by writers I have read and enjoyed before (Juliet Marillier and Garth Nix). I also note, with interest, that there is a self-published title, Andrea K Host's And All the Stars; I love seeing self-pubbed titles succeed, not least for the self-interested reason that I am currently preparing two books for possible self-pubbing :-)

So the Aurealis challenge is on - 10 books by 17 May, to beat the announcement. Can I do it? Maybe - depends on how readable they are, and how busy I get with work after a big double project meeting tomorrow. I'm going to start with Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens and Andrea K Host's And All The Stars. Reviews not this week, given that The Sunlit Zone review is tomorrow and The Light Between Oceans on Friday, but hopefully mid-week next week or so.

Off I go again on a new bookly voyage. Crap I am *such* a book nerd :-P

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Not enough rooms, or not enough room? (Alternative title: Awash in a sea of stuff)

Today has been a slightly stressful day, and I knew it would be, because today was the day designated for doing a clutter reduction, sort and clean on the three bedrooms in our house.

At present, my 9.5 year old and almost-8 year old nominally share a bedroom, although the almost-8 ends up sleeping in the 4 year old's bed with her at least half the time. 4 year old has a room, and hubs and I share the master bedroom.

Each of the rooms was pretty much a mess at the start of today. The 4 year old's was probably the least so, because it was all surface mess (unmade bed, books and toys on the floor etc) but her cupboards and toy boxes are pretty well organised as I got stuck into them quite recently. The two shared bedrooms were both volcanic with potential for junk overflow - overstuffed drawers, little junk piles secreted in corners, cupboards in which the Ark of the Covenant could have been hidden in complete safety, buried under an impenetrable mountain of ... stuff.

We seem to get to this pass every 3-6 months, no matter how diligent I *think* I'm being about keeping up. And every time we do, restoring some kind of order is painful, protracted, involves tears and frustration, and is, in a nutshell, stressful.

Friends have told me that the fundamental problem is that 9.5 year old and almost-8 don't have enough space - that they need a room each. My husband tends to the view that I have provided them with too much storage - he asserts (and with some justice) that their Stuff expands to fill the available area, whatever that area might be, and that more storage doesn't equal a tidier or more functional space.

I think lack of room *is* part of the problem, but I'm not sure that it's lack of roomS as such. While we have discussed possibly extending the house at some future point, at the moment building an extra bedroom would be a wasted investment, as my almost-8 won't sleep alone at any price, and my 4year old isn't keen on it either, leading to a result that often only two bedrooms are slept in (Miss 4 sometimes goes in with the big girls, or Miss almost-8 and Miss 4 come to our room). That said, we are seriously considering changing up the room sharing so that my 9.5 year old, the only one expressing any desire for solitude, is by herself and the other two share.

But actually, I think the notion that every child needs a bedroom of their own is a very modern Western idea. Room-sharing and indeed bed-sharing was the norm in our culture a generation or two ago, and is still the norm in many other cultures today. I think what people need is not necessarily a separated sleeping space, but just *a* space for their activities and to give them a retreat point.

So what we are going to do is this.

We have a brick double garage with windows, sliding door access to the house, tiled ceiling and slate floor (it's very nice actually - like a little house). It is powered, plumbed, and is currently 1/3 used for shelving storage, and 2/3 full of junk that needs to be disposed of.

We are going to clear out the garage, put down rugs on the floor and set up trestle tables, toyboxes, bookshelves, art supply drawers and an old TV and DVD. It won't get signal out there, but will be OK for watching DVDs on. Our old fabric couch, which is somewhat awkwardly placed in the house, will go out there, as will my rocking chair and a large radiator. We are going to make it cozy, and use it as a family room where the kids can spread out art projects, puzzles, lego or homework and leave things set up; where anyone can go for a bit of quiet to read or study; where the kids' book and paper overflows can find a home; and where, as they get older, they can hang out with their friends with a modicum of privacy.

This won't cost much to do - the main things I'm proposing to buy are a good strong floor lamp and some wooden screens to hide the storage shelving section - and if it doesn't work, or we eventually move, it's easy to dismantle. I just think it is worth trying before we remortgage the house to build a bedroom that we might not even need, just because the common wisdom says we need to.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Reading Notes: Mateship with Birds

This review is a triple outcome for me - it forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge, my Stella Prize Challenge and my almost certainly unsuccessful attempt to read the Miles Franklin longlist before shortist announcement.

Carrie Tiffany's Mateship with Birds is a very illustrious book at the moment. Shortlisted for the Stella Prize, it has also found a place on the Miles Franklin longlist. (One other book has achieved this double feat - Michelle de Kretser's Questions of Travel). For me, it is the fifth of the 6 books on the Stella shortlist to be read (I'll shortly finish and review the last one, The Sunlit Zone) and third of the 10 books on the Miles Franklin longlist.

So I suppose the first question that I brought to this text was a fairly simple one -is the book as good as all that? Does it deserve to be on two prize lists at once? Is it a game changer in Australian literature?

My answers, now that I've read it, are: Probably; Probably; and No. It *is* a good book, no question - engaging and beautifully written and to me quite gentle (not a quality I was expecting from its blurb, which I feel does the book a disservice, hinting at darkness and twistedness that I just did not find in this story at all).

It has the rare (for me) distinction of being a book set exclusively in farming / small town Australia in the postwar period that isn't tired, overly reliant on "great brown land" cliches, or romanticised. I generally do not cotton to farming-life books and novels set in the postwar period to 1970s are without doubt the hardest to pull off, in my mind - perhaps because the aesthetic and voice is tremblingly close to our modernity, but not really of it.

The story is, plot-wise, extremely simple - farmer befriends single mother and her two children living next door, minor crises ensue, all is resolved in the final chapter. Within the constraints of this small plot,Tiffany manages to fully realise not just Harry (the farmer), Betty, her son Michael and her daughter Little Hazel, but also the natural world in which they live, and to make some fairly decent points about life, love, sex and growing up along the way.

One of the central themes - the one that's hyped in the publicity, which makes it sound salacious - is Harry's decision to share his wisdom about male sexuality with the teenage Michael. It would be possible to read this as threatening and vaguely wrong, but one of the book's greatest achievements is in allowing Harry to be quite explicit in what he says and writes without ever coming off as skeevy. The quasi-paternal relationship between the man and boy is sketched in few sentences and scenes, but somehow it's enough - combined with Harry's essential decency, which is underlined constantly - to make these communications seem poignant and a little sad. Harry, unlike the neighbouring farmer Mues, is never perceived as malignant or a threat, rather, in many ways, protective, kind and stumbling. His bird family diary, his care for his small dairy herd, his carefully doled out memories of happiness, illuminate him more clearly than any amount of interpersonal interaction could have.

Whether it's a *great* book ... I'm less sure on that count. Tiffany does really interesting things with her characters (Harry, in particular) and her linking theme of the kooaburra family, from the old bird watching book the title references, works extremely well as an elegant metaphor to tie the plot together. She does a lovely job writing a seemingly small story with large themes, but whether there are any earth-shatteringly new observations in it ... I'm reserving judgement on that.

Overall, should this book win the Stella? No - Sea Hearts and Like a House on Fire are definitely better books, and The Burial and Questions of Travel, in different ways, are both more innovative than this one. However, it is nonetheless a very good book, one I'd recommend, and shows yet again the incredible strength of the Stella list (and of Australian women's writing in general).

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

When I get glutened

On Good Friday, at the Royal Children's Hospital Easter Appeal fair with my family, I ate some chips from the Nando's outlet at Etihad Stadium (in Melbourne).

I ate the chips because I was hungry, and because I have eaten Nando's chips before and never gotten sick from them. Nando's doesn't have any fried products that contain gluten, so, theoretically, the chips should be fine.

Except they weren't. Whether by crumb contamination or from some other cause, my chips had enough gluten on them (and it really only has to be a small amount) to set off my immune reaction.

I am a Coeliac. Coeliac Disease is an auto immune disorder, which is co-mordid with a range of other auto-immunes, some of which I also have. A friend and I were joking just yesterday that it's like a really sucky game of pick up sticks, having auto immune problems - she, a sufferer of Crohn's, has a few hanger-on immune problems like I do, and our collective array of medicaments and management strategies is simultaneously impressive and depressing.

So anyway, being Coeliac, when I eat gluten, here is what happens to me. (Everyone's reaction differs; that's why it can be so hard to diagnose).

- Within an hour, I start to feel nauseous. I rarely actually throw up, but the strong sicky feeling will hang around for 1-3 days without respite.
- Within three hours, I have bad abdominal pain and cramping. This is usually only a 2-5 hour phase, ending when it is succeeded by
- *Ahem*. The toilet part. Without being too explicit, I then spend 1-2 hours glued to the porcelain god as the first wave of reaction passes through.

I'm sort of lucky among my kind in that my gut upsets are usually all done within 12 hours. But that's not it; next we move on to Wave 2.

- The day after glutening, I wake with a kingpin headache, the kind that Panadol does not touch. This will last anywhere from 1-5 days depending on how much the universe hates me. This time, it was only 2 days, so that was a mercy.
- Late on this day, or sometimes the day after, I become aware of joint aches. They can be mild or severe. (This time - severe).
- It's also on this day that extreme fatigue sets in. As in, narcoplepsy-type random falling asleep, zero energy to do anything, and unrestful rest. This will peak on day 3 but I won't be back to normal energy for at least a week.
- My ability to concentrate on anything is shot six ways to Sunday. I find it hard to maintain linear thought, and harder yet to write. This is worst on days 2 and 3 post-glutening, and I am usually rediscovering a brain cell or two by day 5. (Which happens to be today).

I'm writing this today because I am tired of being asked why I insist on gluten free food, why I won't eat food I'm not confident about,  and why I now decline restaurant invitations if the venue cannot cater safely for me.

I'm writing this to hopefully explain that when I say, "It needs to be gluten free", well, IT ACTUALLY NEEDS TO BE GLUTEN FREE. I am not willing to sacrifice a week of my life just to avoid someone else's momentary inconvenience or social discomfort with my "pickiness".

I'm writing this because it is not fair or reasonable to ask me, or anyone else, to attend a food based function if my dietary needs cannot be met. No, it's not OK for me to "just eat before I come" (Yes, I have had people suggest this) or "just take a punt" (NO.) I do not want to sit watching other people eat while I sip my water. I refuse to risk being made sick because it's too much trouble to make my food safe.

This glutening was my own doing, sort of (I ordered the food, I trusted it based on past experiences, I ate it. These things happen). But I have been caught multiple times in the past by other people's lack of concern or lack of interest, and you know what, bugger that. If this makes me a bad guest, so be it. I'm not doing it anymore. The sequelae of being glutened is just too revolting.