Sunday, June 30, 2013

Reading Notes: San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats

This post is part of my commitment to read and review as many nominated works in the Hugo Awards (Science Fiction Awards) as possible before the prize announcements in early September.   Today I am looking at one of the five nominated novellas: Mira Grant's San Diego 2014 - The Last Stand of the California Browncoats.

The first thing to note about this book is that it's set within the world of the wildly popular Newsflesh trilogy, Mira Grant's enormously successful zombie series. This novella is neither prequel nor sequel, but rather side-quel / a detail story expanding a particular moment in the established history of the Newsflesh world. In brief, it deals with the beginning of the real incursion of the zombie apocalypse - at ComicCon, San Diego, in 2014.

Grant is the horror-writing pseudonym employed by urban fantasy writer Seanan McGuire, and under both guises, she ishighly awarded and acclaimed, and has being gaining momentum since her 2010 Best New Writer award. I admit that although I have heard of McGuire / Grant, I haven't read anything else by her, probably because I am not generally a horror fan or a zombie aficianado (although, how ubiquitous are zombie stories at the moment? the ravenous undead are the vampires of this decade, for sure).

Having read this novella, though, I understand why she has received such acclaim, and I'm keen to read more, even pushing past my horror aversion to do so.

The story is full of wonderful character touches, which Grant manages to sketch in very few words - even the seeing eye dog has a personality, and evokes pathos, which is no mean feat given how much else is going on here.

The setting of ComicCon as the locus for the zombie virus is at once brilliant (it provides a premium vein of easy pop culture references, free of effort) and surprisingly effective; to create a sealed environment with a bunch of idiosyncratic but savvy nerds, she couldn't have asked for better. As a Firefly tragic myself, I was especially appreciative of the central role of the California Browncoats, the Firely fangroup whose tragic demise is central to the plot.(Hint - and this is not really a spoiler, as it's a zombie apocalypse book - everyone has a tragic demise. No happy endings for zombie victims, I'm afraid.)

Plot-wise, this is not especially complex - it's a linear, reportage-style narrative, filtered through the memories of Lorelei Tutt, the daughter of two of the browncoats, who survives because of a serendipitous headache that sees her returning to her hotel before the zombies start up. I wasn't particularly enamoured of the retrospective style, finding Lorelei a bit of an unnecessary intrusion, but perhaps this is because I haven't read the books - I suspect there are resonances there that I missed entirely.

Bottom line - I liked this one a lot more than I expected to, given its subject matter. It is pretty horrific, but it's in no sense mindlessly so, which is quite ironic really as the whole point of the zombies is that they are mindless. As the third Newsflesh book, Blackout, is on the novel nominee list, I've decided to read the whole trilogy so I can do it proper justice in the review.

I did not locate a legitimate free source for this one either, and bought it on Kobo for $4.


So - just one novella to go, four novels, plus all the novelettes! Next up will be the last of the novellas - on Tuesday, if I get time. After that I think I'll do the novelettes as a set - all 5 if I can get hold of the last one, or the 4 I have found if the elusive "Rat-Catcher" remains unobtainable.

The remaining four novels will probably be the biggest challenge. I'm reading 2312 and Throne of the Crescent Moon at the moment but both are going slowly, probably because 2312 is very dense and I'm not really enjoying Crescent Moon. I'm still waiting on a library copy of Blackout and its two predecessor books, and haven't found either an ebook to buy or a library copy to loan of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance yet (and I am not going to spend $17.95 to buy the paperback of a book and author I'm not familiar with).

Other Hugo reviews can be found here:
Short stories (all)
On a Red Station, Drifting (novella)
After the Fall, During the Fall, Before the Fall (novella)
The Emperor's New Soul (novella)
Redshirts: A Novel and Three Codas (novel)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Beauty in suburbia

dusk walk in winter;
three girls, a dog and the dad
above, the sky glows.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Reading Notes: After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall and The Emperor’s Soul

This post is part of my commitment to read and review as many nominated works in the Hugo Awards (Science Fiction Awards) as possible before the prize announcements in early September.   Today I am looking at two of the five nominated novellas: After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications) and The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications. 

I read Nancy Kress's After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall some time ago, when I was making a very half-hearted attempt at  reading Nebula Awards nominees. I have long been an admirer of Kress's work - Beggars in Spain being one of those stories that stays with you forever - so I was looking forward to this novella, and expected to like it.

It was therefore a surprise to me to find that I actually didn't end up liking it all that much. Certainly I didn't hate it, but I found it underwhelming, and I was very surprised that it won the Nebula, nominated as it was against at least two clearly better works (in my opinion, anyway) - Aliette de Bodard's On a Red Station, Drifting and Robert Reed's Katabasis.

I am slightly perplexed, even now, as to what it was about this post-apocalyptic time-travel tale that I found so ... meh. It's classically constructed, well written, with fairly strong characters (although not, I thought, particularly sympathetic or relatable ones - maybe that was part of the issue for me). The plot devices are smoothly executed, the logic is internally consistent, the description is tight and evocative. So...?

In the end, I can't express it other than by saying - it read, to me, like an old-style moral-message-under-the-cloak-of-story tale. The conclusion beats home with a heavy hammer the "lesson" of the entire book - Humans are a cancer on the earth. This must be fixed. It's not that I necessarily disagree with the uber theme, but I am not keen on being force-fed it in what I found to be a remarkably unsubtle way.

Brandon Sanderson's novella, on the other hand, was a very pleasant surprise.

I have never read anything by him before, so I came to this with no preconceptions. This self-contained and beautifully executed story, of Shai, a thief and a Forger, who's tasked with doing the impossible - Forging (or in fact recreating) the soul of the Emperor, whose brain has been wiped clean following an assassination attempt.

I am not always a massive fan of highly complicated magicks in stories; the pay-off has to justify my investment in wrapping my head around the internal rules of the system and how it works. Sanderson gets away with this, I think, for two reasons.

Firstly, the palette and landscape of this story is severely contained (with more than three-quarters of it taking place within a single room). This allows a seamless concentration on understanding the process and magic of Forging - this is the story, so to speak, rather than an adjunct to it. Secondly, Sanderson makes excellent use of the well-worn but effective narrative technique of "exposition via conversation between expert and bystander". There aren't many ways to as efficiently and non-boringly elaborate a complex system, and Sanderson doesn't drop the ball with it - the explanation flows naturally within the story.

All in all, I found this novella to be a really good read, and I'd recommend it. I believe it is set within the same world as Sanderson's Elantris books, which I may also be hunting down now!

Unfortunately I couldn't find either of these novellas legitimately free on the Internets - I bought both of them on Kobo. They were cheap, though - about $5 each.


So - two novellas and five novels to go, plus all the novelettes! Next up will be Redshirts: A novel and three codas on The Shake next week, then the remaining two novellas, both of which I've read, probably next week sometime. After that I think I'll do the novelettes as a set - all 5 if I can get hold of the last one, or the 4 I have found if the elusive "Rat-Catcher" remains unobtainable.

Other Hugo reviews can be found here:
Short stories (all)
On a Red Station, Drifting (novella)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Blogging a novel: The journey so far

I followed a link on Twitter yesterday to a blog piece called "Should You Blog Your Novel?" Given that I am, in fact, blogging my novel, I thought this would be an interesting and pertinent read for me.

As I expected, the article and its comments were pretty solidly in the NO camp on this one. Some of the identified downsides are ones I also have reservations about - such as the irritation to readers in having to read episodically and read backwards; and the restriction it places on wholesale revision-as-you-go or major plot rectconning. Both of these issues have already reared their heads in the month I have been posting to my novel blog, and there's no doubt they represent real problems with the blog-novel model.

However, the main reason most of the commenters were anti-novel-on-blog was that once a work is published on a blog, it's *published* - out there in the freeverse, and therefore not attractive to commercial publishers unless you have some epic number of readers / followers and can show an existing, ready-made market (and maybe not even then).

This is no doubt true, and I think if you are aiming at mainstream publication, you'd be ill advised to do what I'm doing with The Ark at the End of the World. I respect the argument that blog published = published; legally, practically and ethically, it absolutely does. While I don't see myself as a fiction writer primarily, and have no ambitions towards a fulltime career in that direction, I do on occasion have a shot at competitions or publication, usually for short pieces (poems and short stories); those pieces are never blogged, or even blogged about, until I have determined that traditional publication is unlikely to occur.

However, I have said all along, and still maintain, I never saw traditional publication as the end game for The Ark. It's a heart project for me, not a wallet one, and it's more than partly about trying to find my own way into a writing mode that suits me. I still intend to offer the completed work as a PDF for free download from here once it's finished, and to decommission the blog at that time. I have a vague idea for a sequel; if I pursue that, in due course, I may opt to write that one offline and self-pub an ebook for either free or very cheap. But that's a future goal and I still don't see it as being primarily about income.

I am, let's face it, a dilettante with my fiction and poetry writing. I can afford to be; my career and my income is elsewhere (although utilising a linked skillset - I'm a technical and policy writer by trade). I write fiction because I want to, and because I think I have stories to tell. I very much want to be read, but I'd be happy to be read for free forever. That would be OK with me, and it liberates me from having to worry overmuch about the commercial implications of blogging my novel.

As to the mechanics of it, I'm finding the episodic character of blog posts quite helpful in chunking my story. It suits the cadence of my writing, which tends to come to several small peaks within each chapter (which I'm breaking down into 4 blog posts). I'm finding that it's much more achievable, and less intimidating, to tell myself that I'm going to write an instalment (typically 600-800 words) rather than a chapter or more in one sitting. On that level, it's working beautifully for me.

I have an (offline) plot sketch now, which helps to guide each instalment as I know the broad outlines of the events that need to occur and when certain characters are introduced. However, I am tending to let the characters guide the interactions and the dialogue. I've been surprised by a few things - a character I had intended to be very rough and folksy has turned out to be smooth, cynical and highly intelligent, and has resisted every effort I've made to drag him back to the idea I had of him. Characters who I thought were going to be central currently aren't, while background characters are a lot mouthier than I'd intended. I'm finding this quite interesting as a process, and enjoying seeing it unfold.

Probably the biggest drawback I've found is the inability to go back and change bits that aren't quite right without driving my kind readers (there are a few! I get emails!) batshit insane. This means The Ark, when finished, is going to need a savage edit before being offered as a PDF download. That's OK, though; I said I was going to do this out loud, mess and all, and I can live with my cringey bits hanging out there.

For me - a blogger for so long - novelling on a blog works. It motivates me and shapes my work in ways that I find productive and useful. It would not be this way for everyone, and I sure wouldn't do this if I had ambitions to traditionally publish this work. But as a creative exercise, as a learning process, as a platform - I like it, for this story.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two score (A poem)

so when I was ten, I thought that by the time I was forty
I would have done deeds of greatness, and changed the world
(also that I would be old and heading for the checkout, so to speak).

by the time I was twenty the grand visions were a bit faded, but I was still looking
down the barrel of a brilliant (and sequential) career, I thought.
by forty, I'd be a established, successful, something-or-other.
(and still old, although not quite as close to death as I'd once supposed).

I don't remember a great deal about thirty that doesn't involve nappies,
leaky boobs, tears, snuggles and being dragged under by a king tide of love and hormones
in fact, that might as well go for the five years that followed as well;
my brood mare years, if you like.
If I thought about forty at all, and I don't recollect that I did,
I expect I thought of it as a distant beach, somewhere beyond the ocean of babies
where a person might scramble ashore, with books, a job of some sort, and a quiet half hour or two
to reflect and recover.
(and be old. be very, very old).

and now, ask not for whom the bell tolls
as I wake on my fortieth birthday, very much as I did yesterday
when I was thirty-nine and still technically young-to-middlin'.

standing at the likely midpoint of my life, I have no grand observations to make, but this -
turns out, you're not on the way out the door at forty!
luckily, not being Paleolithic, and possessing lives neither nasty, brutish, nor short
we don't live just long enough to pass on our genes, then peg out
(at least most of us don't).

so I think that I might take my shot at doing something, in the next forty years
being a something-or-other, whatever that turns out to be
being part of the lives of the children I birthed, and raise in love
writing, because why not? why shouldn't I, if I want to?
poems and stories and blog and what-have-you
writing on the world I walk, naming it,
for the next forty years
(until I am old, and tired, and full of sleep)

now that I am forty, and ready
to not care about being old anymore
but just to revel in being here at all.

- Kathy, 19/6/13 (Yes, it is my 40th birthday today)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reading Notes: Hugo Award short story nominees

This post is part of my commitment to read and review as many nominated works in the Hugo Awards (Science Fiction Awards) as possible before the prize announcements in early September. 

I've read the three Hugo short story nominees now: Aliette de Bodard's Immersion, Kij Johnson's Mantis Wives and Mono no Aware by Ken Liu. Having only the three to get through made this a light evening's reading, as I'd expected. I'm still a little puzzled as to why there are only three - seriously? there were no other sci fi shorts worthy of a nod this year? but having read them, I can't argue with the appropriateness of them being shortlisted. These are three very different stories but all of them are excellent.

I started with Aliette de Bodard's Immersion, purely because I've recently read, reviewed and loved her novella, On a Red Station, Drifting (which is also nominated for a Hugo in the novella category). Immersion is set within the same universe / master plot established in On a Red Station, Drifting, and deals with the same sort of humanity / addiction / technology interface issues.

de Bodard's frame is a spacegoing, space-dwelling advanced human population that has developed from a Vietnamese base, with some influences from Chinese culture (the Dai Viet Empire). As I remarked in my review of On a Red Station, Drifting, it's immensely enjoyable to see a beautifully realised future world that is not remotely Anglo-Celtic / American in its ideology, culture or frame of reference. There is no reason why the future will be a technologically-hyped version of 21st century America; in fact, there are many reasons to suppose it won't be at all. de Bodard is able, in both novella and short story, to deliver a universe founded on cultural assumptions, norms and behaviours that are not grown from the usual triumphalist US seed, and that in itself is awesome.

Immersion takes on the story of a woman trapped by a technology designed to assist, but with the strangling potential to subsume the personality; and the curious, mould-breaking hope represented by a pair of sisters who don't want to conform and embrace the tech. It's not a completely easy story to get around, switching as it does between the second-person narration of the trapped woman, Agnes, and the buoyant third-person view of the two sisters. Once the penny drops as to the relationship between the two narratives, though, it's an incredibly poignant little story, underlining in thick black ink the dangers of any tech (or, it's implied, any practice) that works by suppressing the soul.

Kij Johnson's Mantis Wives is the shortest of these stories, and manages to be both the most creepy and the most "alien" in its brief journey across the page. The premise is extremely simple - Johnson is imagining a culture that either is praying mantises or is extremely like them (not clear which, and it doesn't matter anyway). She's then unpicking what it means for the way that society operates that the females kill and consume their mates.

The story is creepy insomuch as it's entirely about death, killing and cannibalism, but is also chillingly insightful, and quite beautiful, in its delicate treatment of what such killing might mean for both the females and the males. Johnson is able to construct a web of artifice and ceremony around the culture of death that is at once mesmerising and repulsive. While I wouldn't go so far as to accuse her of outright equivalence, I caught a hint a few times of a gesture towards war and violence in human culture (the reification of death, the sense of ultimate purpose that is really nothing but a shade over the reality of lots of dead bodies).

As for the ending of the story, I won't spoil it for you, but if you read it (and you should), and if you are a sci fi fan, tell me if you agree that it has strong resonances of Ursula Le Guin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.

My favourite story of the three, though, is Ken Liu's Mono no Aware. It is, in many ways, the most "straight" of the three - a recognisable earth-destruction small-group-of--spacegoing-survivors plot, that has been explored many times by many different writers. But Liu, in his protagonist, delivers a character who is both relatable and incredibly affecting. The plot is not twisty or tricky, running in a straight line to its (anticipatable) end. I think it's all the stronger for this lack of artifice; it amplifies the strong sense of sadness and sacrifice that permeates the plot and raises the ending to the level of true pathos. I had tears in my eyes as I finished this one, which is a high compliment as I am often a bit cynical about weepy stories generally.

So if I was the judge, I'd give it to Mono no Aware, but really none of the three would be a disappointing winner; they are all great stories, and all well worth your time.

The three stories can all be read for free online. This post from Worlds Without End provides links to find the free copies.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reading Notes: Destination Saigon

I have a mostly happy relationship with travel writing, although I would not describe myself as an avid reader of the genre. I've read many of the modern, and older, superstar writers - everyone from Mary Wollstonecraft, Jonathan Swift and Isabella Bird to Bill Bryson, Tahir Shah, Paul Theroux and the problematic (for me) Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame.

Come to think of it, I'd even count writers like the inimitable David Sedaris as partially travel writers - much of Sedaris's humour comes from place, language and culture, and he mines every new location with panache to create his unique result.

I generally enjoy travel books, provided they are not one of three things:

1. A catalogue of train stations and bus stops, vistas and coffee shops, without any reflective or narrative engine. I call these books "hopped-up travel guides" and I don't really like them. Travel guides per se can be useful, but it's not what I'm looking for when I read a travel book.

2. Patronising, sneering or contemptuous of the places and cultures they come into contact with. I have no time for what I like to call "the tourism of superiority"; it sets my teeth on edge and I immediately question how reliable is any observation such a blinkered writer would make.

3. Trying to be funny, but not actually funny. As Walter Mason, the author of the book I'm reviewing today, pointed out in a talk at the Emerging Writers Festival, humour is a tricky beast in travel writing. Unless the writer is very skilled (and very funny!), and has a genuine affection for the places and people about whom they write, it often falls flat or comes off as shallow, cheap shots. Some writers pull it off - Bill Bryson is a particularly masterful example - but when it's done badly, it's a very negative thing.

I came to Destination Saigon predisposed to like it, both because I had the privilege of hearing Walter speak at EWF and chatting to him, and also because it is about Vietnam, a country I have visited and to which I have family ties through my grandfather, who lived there for over a decade.

I expected this to be a whimsical, insightful book, and indeed it is - Mason's style is gentle, self-deprecating and conversational, while being artfully underpinned with historical and cultural detail. What I hadn't fully expected, and what makes this book such a lovely read, is the depth of the affection, respect, understanding and beauty that Mason brings to his subject. It's captured in the very first line of the introduction, where Mason reveals the path that brought him to Vietnam: "I fell in love with Vietnam, because I'd fallen in love. I suppose you could say love followed love." Mason's life partner is Australian-Vietnamese, and through this relationship, Mason came to know the incredible place that is Vietnam, in all its diversity, and became fluent in not just Vietnamese language but Vietnamese culture and spiritual practice as well.

The book doesn't have what I'd describe as a plot arc or a journey motif - like Mason's writing style, it ambles gently, seemingly at random, around Vietnam, visiting all the major (and lots of minor) cities and towns in a way that looks, at first, rather haphazard. As I read further in, though, a kind of meta-structure revealed itself, or perhaps a guiding theme might be a more appropriate way to describe it. This book is an exploration, through place, people, friendship, food, and language, of the value and role of spirituality in not just Vietnamese life but in human life.

Mason's profound interest in the spiritual content of life informs this whole book and the way in which he navigates being a large Western man in Vietnam. His friendships, and study, with Buddhist monks, his curiosity about Cao Dai, his unpicking of the ways in which spiritual understanding suffuses daily life in an ostensibly secularised Communist county - all these things are constant concerns and referrents, giving the book a shape that suits its reflective style. It's apparent that spirituality is a core concern of Mason's, and his interest in it never reads as voyeuristic or shallow. Rather, he's able to convey, in this book, all that Vietnam has provided to him as a spiritual person, all the gifts he's received at the hands of this beautiful country. That's a very precious thing to be able to convey to the reader.

As an introduction to Vietnam, I think this book would be accessible and enjoyable to most people. It has lots (surprisingly lots) of detail, which would help those with no knowledge of the country acquire some, but it's essentially a highly readable personal memoir, with Mason as the relatable narrator, which makes it a lot easier to read than straight historical texts. In fact, I've now added this to my list of books that I'd give to people who are travelling to Vietnam for the first time, along with Duong Thu Huong's Paradise of the Blind, Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Grahame Greene's The Quiet American.

All in all, a very highly recommended travel book. I look forward to the next one, which will be set in Cambodia.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

On the not-recession and how it is playing out, down our way

I keep reading that Australia is doing well economically. That we weren't bashed up by the GFC in the way that the US and much of Europe was; that our dollar is strong (clearly!), our GDP has not declined (OK); and that, overall, inflation is restrained at a manageable level. Our economy is considered credit-worthy and stable, and this is undoubtedly a good thing, and the result of a steady hand on the monetary and economic policy tiller over the past 5 years (all hand-wringing and mud-slinging to the contrary).


We may not be, technically and by the books, in a recession - GDP hasn't declined in any serious sense, and that's the gold standard for recesssion measurement. But for a lot of people around here, an increasing number in fact, it's starting to *feel* awfully like a recession. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then what other kind of waterfowl is it?

In the past six weeks alone, I know of 15 people just within my personal circles who have been laid off or had hours of work or salary reduced. Payrises are a thing of the past in many industries, and small businesses are struggling. Cost of living continues to rise, and every mortgagee is living in fear of interest rate rises, and hoping they won't gallop like they did in the notorious 80s. Tenants are getting squeezed by rent increases, insurers are putting up premiums, etc etc etc.

By far the best explanation of why it feels recession-y, even though it isn't, is provided by Greg Jericho at The Drum. Basically, he argues that GDP might be the measure that economists use to determine if we are in recession, but for most people, employment trends is a more realistic and useful measure. (As he writes, "you don't pay your bills with GDP"). He shows, with quite compelling evidence, that when you look at labour market participation, the downward trend is palpable and painful. In fact, "the decline in the percentage of adults in employment is now worse than that experienced in the 1980s recession" - which makes it a lot less surprising to hear that more and more people are struggling with their circumstances.

The thing that Jericho doesn't even discuss, but that I'd identify as another massive structural reason for the *feeling* of harder times, is underemployment. While I do have three friends and two acquaintances who have been made redundant (lost jobs altogether), the more common story around here is of people having hours cut, pay reduced, or failing to get much work if they are casuals or contractors. All of these people - myself included - do not appear in unemployment figures, but that does not mean that a large number of them are working either to their capacity or to a level to support their needs and commitments.

No-one is immune to the effects of this kind of labour-recession. Sure, lots of people still have fulltime jobs - indeed, a majority of those jobs will survive, depending on your industry. But as more people have less disposable income, doesn't this imply a slowing of the economy, and soon, with all the knock on effects this has?

So yeah, we're not in recession, technically. We've been carefully husbanded past the worst dangers of the GFC, and the regulation of our financial market has protected us from the horrors of subprime and all its dismal children. But for a lot of people, especially non-professional people and those without permanent fulltime positions, it is feeling a lot like recession, as we all tighten belts a bit harder.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

My misogyny bowls, and why I love them

A very exciting package turned up for me today from the talented Kim Foale (she of @frogpondsrock fame, for all Twitter people). This was a present to myself for my fast-approaching 40th birthday, something I'd first talked to Kim about months ago and ordered about 6 weeks ago, something I put time and thought into planning.

It is a set of 8 ceramic bowls, made by Kim, as beautiful and individual as you'd expect from her as an artist, but also with a little something from me in them.

Each bowl features a quote from a person in public life that I selected. Six quotes are from men, one is a newspaper headline, and one is from Bette Davis. What every quote has in common is that it demonstrates, and not very subtly, a common theme of sexism.

Here are the bowls:

Quote: "I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas..." Source: Tony Abbott

(The rest of the quote, which had to be omitted for space , reads "simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons".)

Theme: Biological Differences Mean It's Men FTW, amirite?

Quote: "When a man gives his opinion, he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch." Source: Bette Davis

Theme: Uppity Women are the WORST.
Quote: "I listen to feminists and all these radical gals - most of them are failures. They've blown it." Source: Jerry Falwell

Theme: Feminism. It's a consolation prize for the bitter ones.
Quote: "We've got real issues to talk about not the latest bimbo eruption." Source: Jon Huntsman

Theme: Women's concerns are trivial. Stop bothering the men with your silly lady business already.
 Quote: "Let's hope that the key conferences aren't when she's menstruating or something..." Source: Gordon Liddy about Sonia Sotomayor

Theme: Those irrational hormonal women. Sigh.
Quote: "Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access
to the mainstream." Source: Rush Limbaugh

Theme: Yes, only ugly women who can't get the menz are interested in pesky things like *rights* and *equality*.
Quote: "Another Angry Woman Wins Senate Nomination." Source: Headline in The New
York Times during the campaign of 1992.

Theme: Men are assertive and confident. Women, though? Aggressive. ANGRY.
Quote: "I went to a number of women's groups and said: "Can you help us find folks," and they brought us whole binders full of women." Source: Mitt Romney

Theme: Women are just NOT AS GOOD AT STUFF as the men, alright? Don't yell at me, I tried! 

My husband, who thinks the bowls are physically beautiful, is confused about why I wanted them. He says that the statements make him want to smash them - except not, because they're beautiful, and that makes it all confusing. He's clearly bemused about why I want these visual reminders of how deeply and pervasively sexism is ingrained into the structures of influence and power.

Well, I want them *because* they are risible, foolish statements. I want them *because* they point up the kinds of attitudes that my three daughters will have to contend with when they go out into the world. I don't want to pretend that these ideas and attitudes, and the structural prejudices they give rise to, don't exist just because I am lucky enough to be somewhat insulated from their full effects by being a professional woman married to a feminist man. I don't want to forget, when watching the savage attacks on Julia Gillard, that something very nasty lies beneath a lot of it. I don't want to fool myself into thinking this story is over, or even well begun.

And I want them because the punchline hasn't yet arrived. I'm also getting a large serving bowl to go with these eight, and here's what it's going to say:

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.  (Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler)

And that's the sentiment that I want to serve out to each and every one of the themes expressed in my Bowls Of Sexism. That's the meta message, the answer, the pushback to each and every one of them.

That's what I want for my daughters to see.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A new reading challenge: The Hugos

The nominee list for the Hugo Awards is out, and I'm ready to crack my knuckles and get reading, so I'm going to give it a (limited) go.

The Hugos, which are one of the longest-established of all the speculative fiction awards,  are voted on and awarded by the members of WorldCon (the World Science Fiction Convention). Although they're often US-centric, this is becoming less true as time goes on, which can only be a good thing for the genre more widely. Many of my favourite Golden Age sci fi writers - about whom I may write a panegyric, one day - were Hugo winners, often multiply, and the Awards have a history of supplying terrific reading material.

The full list is here. I, however, am going to limit my reading to the first 4 categories: novel, novella, novelette and short story. The list is:

Best Novel
  • 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)
  • Blackout, Mira Grant (Orbit)
  • Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen)
  • Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas, John Scalzi (Tor)
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed (DAW)
Best Novella
  • After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications)
  • The Emperor’s Soul, Brandon Sanderson (Tachyon Publications)
  • On a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (Immersion Press)
  • San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, Mira Grant (Orbit)
  • “The Stars Do Not Lie”, Jay Lake (Asimov’s, Oct-Nov 2012)
Best Novelette
  • “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Postscripts: Unfit For Eden, PS Publications)
  • “Fade To White”, Catherynne M. Valente ( Clarkesworld, August 2012)
  • “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out for Sushi”, Pat Cadigan (Edge of Infinity, Solaris)
  • “In Sea-Salt Tears”, Seanan McGuire (Self-published)
  • “Rat-Catcher”, Seanan McGuire ( A Fantasy Medley 2, Subterranean)
Best Short Story
  • “Immersion”, Aliette de Bodard ( Clarkesworld, June 2012)
  • “Mantis Wives”, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, August 2012)
  • “Mono no Aware”, Ken Liu (The Future is Japanese, VIZ Media LLC)
I am not starting from zero - I've already read (and reviewed on The Shake) the wonderful On a Red Station, Drifting, and I've also read Nancy Kress's After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, which I found slightly disappointing. I haven't, however, read any of the novel nominees, any of the novelettes, or any of the short stories. So there is a fair bit to get cracking on! Thankfully I have a fair while - the Hugos won't be announced until LoneStarCon (29 Aug - 2 Sept), so that gives me a bit of a window.

The rough plan is to start with the short stories -Worlds Without End has handily located free links for each one, which makes life easier! - and review them as one block late this week. As there are only three stories, I think a side by side review is not only appropriate, it's the best way to approach them.

Then I'm going to hit a couple of the novels - I'll tackle Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 for review here, and I might cover John Scalzi's Redshirts for The Shake. I read Robinson's Mars trilogy years ago and remember enjoying it but finding it quite demanding as well (he expects you to work for your epiphanies, does Robinson!) As for Scalzi, I've read and vaguely remember enjoying his Old Man's War, but my main familiarity with him is via his hugely popular blog, Whatever. I've heard a good buzz about Redshirts though so we'll see how it stacks up.

I don't have specific timeframes for novel reviews and I may not even review all of them, depending of how exciting I find them (I often don't review things I find simply meh, rather than good, interesting, thought provoking or, on the other side, really awful). However, I'd be aiming to be done with reading the novels by end of July, to allow a month for the novelettes and the rest of the novellas.

So here we go again - shaped reading FTW! Should be fun.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Possum Magic, lunch and play: A one on one day with my baby

Another anti-disclaimer: I did not get theatre tickets for free, I bought them. Was not asked to write review, was offered no incentives to do so, and the Wyndham Cultural Centre doesn't even know I am writing it. It was just fun, so I wanted to write about it. Similarly, I received no incentive or request from Sanctuary Lakes Hotel to write about my meal - I just firmly believe that restaurants that get dietary needs right should be recognised and celebrated!

Today I took my 4 year old, the lovely C, out for a special morning together.

We had tickets to see the musical show of Possum Magic, based (very faithfully, I should note) on Mem Fox's wonderful classic storybook of the same name, at the Wyndham Cultural Centre at 10:30am this morning - a perfect timeslot for us, as we could travel on directly from school drop off and have heaps of time to park close, enjoy a hot drink together, and explore the theatre before kick-off. 

C loves many of Mem Fox's books, although her favourites, before now, have been the beautiful Hunwick's Egg and the sweetest Christmas story in the world, Wombat Divine. But as her excitement has been building over the past week, she's requested Possum Magic every night as one of her bedtime stories. She's pretty much word perfect with it now, which gave me a moment of pause, as I wasn't sure how she would react if the play departed too much from the text. (She's a purist, is C.)

As it turned out, I needn't have worried, as the one-hour performance followed the story with an exactness that C found very satisfactory. The addition of music and the inevitable physical comedy ("Behind you! Behind yoooooooooou!" audience participation FTW!) only added to her enjoyment of the whole thing. She was besotted with the funny kangaroo and the blue wombat, loved the kookas, and thought Hush was "so cute!"

As for me, I really enjoyed the performance, and more, the time with C. I turned my phone off when we arrived at the venue, and really focused on talking with C while we had our hot drinks, listening to her as we explored the theatre, and giving her lots of cuddles as she sat on my knee and squeezed me tight during the show. It was a wonderful experience, and I loved it.

I should add that one of the things that made the whole business so great was the professionalism and consideration of the box office staff at WCC. I had booked these tickets online months ago, when the program first came out, and thought no more of it. On Tuesday, a very nice woman from the theatre rang me to let me know that in the interim, a number of schools had booked, and we were now going to be seated within 6 solid rows of schoolchildren and teachers. She offered to exchange our tickets for ones further forward in a reserved row that was being offered to people with preschoolers only. I gratefully accepted, knowing C would find the noise and presence of a whole sea of unfamiliar schoolkids a bit intimidating. We ended up in a (relatively) quiet, spacious row, with a spare seat on either side, and I am certain this helped us enjoy our time more.

After the show, we decided to go out for a nice lunch.  I've heard great things about the lunch offering at the Sanctuary Lakes Hotel, so we gave it a try.

The meal at the hotel is essentially a luscious buffet, which can be problematic for Coeliacs because of utensil crossover and the like. I asked if there were gluten free options, and I was treated with such respect and consideration - it was wonderful.

The chefs advised that I could eat from the buffet if I wanted, but that they'd feel happier if they could make me something fresh, in their separate gluten free only cooking equipment, so I wouldn't have to worry about contamination. I selected a yummy green chicken curry, and by the time I'd loaded C's plate with rice, roast beef, pumpkin, chips and a bread roll, my steaming fragrant plate, with fresh pappadums, was in front of me. It was completely delicious and it's now almost 2 hours since I've eaten, with no ill effects in sight (I usually know by now!)

C also enjoyed her meal a great deal, especially the chocolate ice cream she got for dessert, and the whole caboodle cost me a staggering $19.95, as kids under 5 eat free at lunchtime during the week. It was great value and we had a lovely time.

Once home, C and I read Possum Magic again, played together outside, and she is now playing with toys while I write this and send a couple of emails. It's been such a beautiful day together and I'm so glad we did it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On the learning of children (Poem)

I decided to choose a writing prompt this morning to spark a poem, and being a denizen of the Twitterverse, the natural one seemed to be this: Create a poem using the first sentence of the top three tweets in my timeline when I open Twitter. Here is the strange result. The Twitter quotes are the first lines of each stanza.

I spy with my little eye
through a keyhole, you squint and catch the edge of scenes
a domestic outerworld, framed in iron,
cold as old bones in the jaws of winter.
children, running, shouting,
tormenting and delighting each other in savage play
cutting teeth on the flinches and laughter of their peers

Your child is calling someone a disrespectful name.
It's a name you say you've never used, never wanted to hear in your house; and yet
here it is, spilling out of this child
who's old enough to understand how it hurts, and says it anyway.
(Or, perhaps, because).
Since when do we call people fat? you flail, helpless, horrified
caught inevitably in the insult to ego that you could raise a child
who buys, and sells, the line of contempt.
Maybe it's time to let go of that idea that you control anything about this child
(or any child).
Time to realise that empathy, respect and kindness
are modelled and learned, not forcibly taught
and that your child's words are theirs to own, theirs to moderate
not a mirror to your hopelessly optimistic soul.

Complete this sentence.
When your child grows, you want them to be ____
the blank space gestures possibilities, and exclusions,
and you think, as you watch the warmth around her enfold her playmates,
watch her reach out with gentleness as well as acid
that the answer is, has to be,
whatever she is made to be
a whole person, drawn on the stars
carrying her own light and her own darkness before her
as she surmounts the world.

- Kathy, 4/6

Saturday, June 1, 2013

A winter arts Saturday in the city

Disclosure: I received complimentary tickets to the MSO Classic Kids: Magic and Monsters performance for review purposes courtesy of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. No financial payment was offered nor accepted for this post. All opinions expressed are purely my own. 

After a cold afternoon and night of unremitting heavy rain - winter has arrived! - we awoke this morning to a thin drizzle and the prospect of a day in the city, enjoying some of the winter arts activities that Melbourne has to offer.

First up, we went to the Melbourne Town Hall to see the latest in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's Classic Kids series. We have been to these before, seeing the show with Jay Laga'aia last year and the Clowning Around with Melvin Tix show in 2011. We've always really enjoyed them, and the theme of this year's - Magic and Monsters - sounded intriguing.

Once again, the MSO came through with a great show. The comedy and crowd presence of British percussion performers, O Duo, really added to the experience for my kids, especially the 4 year old, who thought the antics of the "Monsterologist" and his assistant were just hilarious. My big girls, who are musicians themselves, were very interested in all the instruments and how they work together to create orchestral sound.

At 45 minutes and with a vast spread of floor seating, these shows are always perfectly pitched to accommodate the short attention spans and wriggliness of the little kids, while still providing plenty of exposition for the older ones.

It is a rare event these days that I can honestly say fully engages my preschooler and my almost-10 year old; they are at such different developmental stages and their interests are very different. One of the things I love every year about the MSO Kids shows is that they really do have something for everyone, and we can enjoy them together.

After coming out of the MSO performance, we wandered down to Federation Square for lunch. Minor peeve - why do so few Fed Square restaurants offer a decent gluten free selection? Chocolate Buddha, with its dedicated gluten free menu, is the main exception, not that I got to sample it, as the kids were not up for sushi et al today.

We came out of the cafe just in time to catch the first 45 minutes of the free opening show of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival, hosted by Tracey Bartram. The kids promptly found some other kids to make friends with (and cadge food from, despite having just finished a meal) and we all settled in to enjoy the performances of swing group Leigh Barker and The New Sheiks with the Swing Patrol Dancers. The music was fantastic, the kids were happy, and we all learnt some basic Charleston steps :-)

Walking back to the car, we wandered through Hosier's Lane, one of Melbourne's main street art locations. The girls were all fascinated by the artwork, even more so as there were artists working on new pictures as we were there. This provoked a discussion with the older two about public art, creation and production, and with the 4 year old about why we couldn't immediately go and buy some spray cans so she could start her own art project :-)

All in all, it was a great arts day in Melbourne for a family of five, for the cost of lunch and parking. Granted, we got the MSO tickets for free, but even so, it just underlines how much arts-based stuff there really is to do in this city with kids in the wintertime.