Sunday, July 28, 2013

Reading Notes: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, and a note on Throne of the Crescent Moon

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 the last two the five nominated novels: Lois McMaster Bujold's Captain Vortaptril's Alliance, and briefly at Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon.

There are few pleasures in life to rival the excitement  of discovering a wonderful author, new to you but well established and possessing of a deliciously inviting long backlist. It's like being a kid in a candy shop, thinking about all the reading pleasures in store, and knowing you don't have to wait for them, because look! the books already exist!

That sentiment captures in its entirety why I loved Captain Vorpatril's Alliance disproportionately to how good a book it is, if considering it as a single text. Oh, independently of context, this is still a really, really enjoyable book - great characters, a lighthearted but not trivial plot, plenty of colour and movement, and a sure, steady hand with pacing - but the reason I fell head over heels for it is the knowledge that there is a whole universe of Vorkosigan books out there, many of them even stronger than this one (so I am told by Vor enthusiast friends), within which Ivan Xav's story plays out.

In essence, Bujold gives us the story of how Ivan Xav Vortpatril, amiable if slightly bumbly aide de camp, meets, rescues, becomes embroiled with and eventually falls in love with his wife, the Jackson's Whole aristocrat Tej. That's the meat and potatoes of the plot, but it's set within a vibrant, fully realised spacegoing future, with the Vor empire (Russian-derived) on Barrayar transposed with the different cultures of space outpost Jackson's Whole, the technologically and socially advanced Beta, and the genetic tinkerers of Cetaganda.

I may have mentioned once or twice that I don't really like romance stories, but this book, although clearly both science fiction and humorous, also has an undeniably romantic and whimsical feel to it - yet I loved it. The strange thing is that I didn't love it in spite of the Ivan / Tej plot trajectory; I loved it because of it, and was barracking hard for the two of them to reach their happy place intact as the storyline increasingly descended into chaotic farce around them. Perhaps what I've learned from this is that actually I am OK with romantic stories, provided they are a) funny b) not soppy c) have a good enough overall plot and d) have great characters who I can really like. Bujold pulls this off with the casual mastery of a seasoned writer who writes awesome work. I can't believe I've somehow managed to miss her before now, but I will most definitely be making up for lost time now!

As for Throne of the Crescent Moon ... This is a book that I made three attempts to get into but failed each time. I found the writing style remarkably hyperbolic and overheated, and if there is one thing I dislike more than gratuitous romance in a book, it's gratuitous torture, especially as an opening gambit. No, you don't convince me you're really serious and dark and whatnot by dismembering someone alive on page 3; you just convince me you're trying to make shock do the work of engagement. That said, I can't write a fair review on this book, because I never got past chapter 5. Suffice to say, it wasn't for me, although I know others have liked it.

So, with 4 of the 5 novels read and one abandoned because I didn't like it, I'm prepared to pick my winner.

For me there were two clear front-runners: Redshirts and Captain Vortpatril's Alliance (the first and last books I read, as it happened). I thought 2312 was extraordinary in many ways but also quite dense and difficult, with insufficient pay-off; and while I enjoyed Blackout for what it was, and think it's streets ahead of usual thriller fare, it didn't quite rise to the heights of enjoyment, twistiness and humour of Redshirts, or sheer affection that Captain Vorpatril inspired in me. As for Throne of the Crescent Moon, it was just not at all my cup of tea.

If I was picking a winner based on which book I feel the most affinity for and attachment to, I'd go with Captain Vorpatril - now enmeshed in reading all the Vorkosigan books, I can see, with great happiness, that I'm going to enjoy it even more on subsequent readings. However, on balance, I think Redshirts is a more complete achievement, and I admire the self-contained nature of it immensely in a genre addicted to long series fiction. So, my novel category winner would be Redshirts, but I would not be sad if Captain Vorpatril pipped it either.

This brings to an end my Hugo journey. I am conceding defeat on the novelettes - I am now embarked on my Man Booker reading challenge, and also have three other books to get read and reviewed, not to mention my happy journey through the Vorkosigan universe. However, I didn't do too badly - all the shorts, all the novellas and the novels is a pretty good effort! I will check out the results with interest in September.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

New reading challenge: The Man Booker Prize longlist

The longlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize was announced yesterday, presenting an interesting 13-book selection. Featuring less debut authors than last year's list (there are three - Eve Harris, NoViolet Bulawayo and Donal Ryan), the list is nonetheless pretty diverse in terms of country of origin, theme and style. And unlike last year, there aren't any obvious heavy-hitters on the list - sure, Colum McCann and Jim Crace are strong, known performers, but at most of these writers have been niche successes at best before now. Here is the list:

Tash Aw,  Five Star Billionaire (Fourth Estate)
NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names (Chatto & Windus)
Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (Granta)
Jim Crace, Harvest (Picador)
Eve Harris, The Marrying of Chani Kaufman (Sandstone Press)
Richard House, The Kills (Picador)
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Bloomsbury)
Alison MacLeod, Unexploded (Hamish Hamilton)
Colum McCann, TransAtlantic (Bloomsbury)
Charlotte Mendelson, Almost English (Mantle)
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate)
Donal Ryan, The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland)
Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (Viking)

As I did last year, I'm going to give it a go to read and review the longlist before the announcement of the shortlist on 10 September. Given that I have, at this point, read ZERO books, and I start a new job next Tuesday, this is absolutely going to be a failed attempt, but I'll get as far as I can, then do any that are shortlisted that I haven't picked up on the longlist project before the prize announcement on 15 October.

Last year I came to the longlist with a strong suspicion that Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies was going to be the best book on the list, and win the prize. Sure enough, this proved to be the case; head and shoulders above the rest, it shone like the diamond it is, and deservedly took the honours. This year I can honestly say I have no particular preconceptions. I note that I like Jim Crace's work a lot, but as all the other authors on the list are new to me, I really am coming to this as a cleanskin, which is quite refreshing in a way.

I've bought Five Star Billionaire and Harvest for my Kobo to kick off - the first because it sounds really interesting, the second because I have previously enjoyed books by the author. I have decided to leave A Tale for the Time Being, TransAtlantic, The Kills and The Luminaries in the probably-not pile, to be read only if a miracle happens and I get through the rest - this is based on factors like reasonably priced availability (A Tale for the Time Being is selling as an ebook for a whopping $25) and lack of appeal based on their blurbs. So as an initial, and probably hopelessly optimistic, goal, I'm trying for 9 of the 13 over the coming 7 weeks. Really, I'd be happy to get through 6 and get reviews up of each, but we'll see.

I am starting Five Star Billionaire as soon as I've finished and reviewed three other things I'm almost through, but before I do any Booker reviews, I need to close the loop on the Hugo nominees (1 novel review and the novelettes to go). My first Booker review, therefore, will probably appear as part of the Interleaves column on The Shake in 2 weeks' time.

Anyone else planning to hit the Booker list, or, better yet, have you already read any of these? If so, please, steer me towards the gold (and away from the turkeys, if any!)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Time for a post about something gross

Recently, we've been spending a horrific amount of time in a war of attrition with the remarkable, persistent and apparently unkillable human parasite, the intrepid pediculosis capitis.

That would be HEAD LICE, to all you non Latin scholars out there.

While we have had lice before, we've always been able to get rid of them with the standard two-step treatment - poison the crap out of them, conditioner and comb, and repeat 7-10 days later. I think we've had three go-arounds in the 6 years since my eldest started kindergarten, which isn't terrible with three girls, I suppose. And before 3 months ago, we hadn't had any problems for close to 2 years.

About 10 weeks ago, though, my 10 year old was scratching her head fit to bust one night and I decided I should check her hair. She and the 8 year old often have itchy scalps from dandruff; it's not usually a cause for concern.

This time, as soon as I parted her hair to look at the scalp, a monster-sized louse scrambled for cover under her thick, almost bum-length, hair.

After many exclamations of ewwwww and gross (from both her and I), I applied the poison, washed it out, conditioned and combed. There were about 6-8 dead bugs, a handful of eggs, plus (with hindsight being 20/20, this should've been a red flag) a half-dozen bugs in various sizes that were still moving. Although I quickly killed them with my fingernail, I admit I felt a qualm or two. Why hadn't they died with the poison?

We got the dismal answer to *that* when doing the repeat treatment 9 days later, by which I time I had started to itch as well. On treating both daughter and I, I dislodged multiple bugs, babies and eggs from her head; just two bugs from mine, but an ominous cluster of eggs. And they were mostly still twitching. Slow-moving, stunned - yes. Dead - NO NO NO.

I knew then that this wouldn't be the end, and so it has proved. In the succeeding 9 weeks, I've:

- done the poison treatment every 7 days at a minimum, alternating two different preparations with different actives (Banlice and KP24). I stopped getting any bugs from my hair 4 weeks ago, and have just stopped getting eggs in the past week (although I assume most of those I've been combing out have been already dead). I am STILL getting bugs from daughter's hair, EVERY TIME.
- conditioner and comb, conditioner and comb, every 3 days on average
- used the hair dryer on both our hair, although probably not as consistently as I should (really must do it daily, and we haven't been)
- used the electronic lice comb, which zaps big bugs but misses babies and ignores eggs
- cut daughter's hair, twice - it's now a shoulder length bob, at her request. It looks awesome and it is much, much easier to treat and maintain ... or at least it *will* be, if we ever manage to finally get rid of the damn things.

This morning, having last done a treatment on Monday of last week, I got a call from school to come get her as they had done a lice check and found bugs. I stomped off in high dudgeon to get her, brought her home, did a full treatment, and took her back to school 2 hours later. I have to assume that either my method is incomplete (despite the fact that I'm getting really good at it now!) or that these lice are resistant to the treatment (and / or are zombies. Either one works).

What is driving me nuts is three things:

1. Fear: When I start my fulltime job next week, I just *will not* be able to drop everything once a fortnight to come get her for lice. I am terrified of the disruption to both her and I.

2. Frustration: My strong suspicion is that we HAVE got clear at least a couple of times, but that she's getting reinfested at school. Her entire cohort of friends (all 5 of them) were sent home for lice today, and I know for a fact that one of the parents involved is exhausted with multiple treatment cycles and financially strapped, and has declared her intention (to other parents, not the school) of just using a hairdryer, rather than investing in insecticides again.

3. Distress: Daughter is pretty good about the poisoning step, but HAAAAAATES having her hair combed through and hates the hairdryer being used on it. We have tears, yelling, name-calling (her to me!) every single time. It is wearing me down emotionally, not to mention physically - every treatment takes 1-2 hrs minimum, and it's all awful.

So the things we haven't tried yet are going to be deployed, in escalating order, to try and finally get in top of it.

Firstly, I'm paying to have a lice removal service come and do a heat-based treatment on her hair. It's not cheap, but on the other hand, if it works, I wouldn't care if it cost a week's salary.

Secondly, we're going to start using a dilute tea tree spray on all the girls' hair as a preventative. My research suggests that tea tree works well as a preventer but less well as a front-line treatment, but anything that makes it less likely they will come back gets a big tick from me.

Thirdly, if both the above fail to prevent reinfestation, I am going to get off to the doctor and ask for a script for oral Ivermectin, which works very much like the newer brands of flea treatments that we put on our dogs and cats (Frontline et al). It is an insect neuro disruptor, harmless to mammals, and highly effective. It's a last-ditch effort as it can make some patients nauseated, which is terrible, and why I'm saving it for last. But if we have to go there, we will go there. It's just creating so much stress for the whole family now.

(Just out of interest, the two younger girls have missed being infested at all - I check them every 5 days, but not one sign is found, and 8yo indeed was checked at school today and all clear. It's only me and 10 year old who are victims :-(

What do you do to treat head lice? What's worked / hasn't worked? Do you think these buggers  are the first wave of the Insect Zombie Apocalyse, or is that just me?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

To a lost love (poem)

I remember when the river, in flood,
carried me like a coracle fast downstream,
lifted above the murk by the force of motion.

not so long ago, it seems, depositing me
in the sea of the world, stars glaring fire on my back
every barbaric yawp tasing me into response, every pain
dragging soundbites in furious streams

the seduction of the illusion
that to talk in 140 characters is to taste truth
that to give and receive *hugs* and easy emoticons
is to give, and receive, love.

such a river. a life-force, almost,
a carrier of intent, a shapeshifter of purpose
only words on screens, but what else is there, for meaning
for we sentient postmoderns and the future that is here

a hive mind, or no, not that -
a megaphone for the masses.
I should love the democracy of that, the egalitarian energy,
the immediacy, the power -
I do.
I did.
I really did.

but all the power, all the rage, all the hearts and smiles
all the urgent need to check in, all the time spent unbottling
all of it left me - tired? Perhaps, spent.
a little sickened, mostly with myself
ashamed, too, of the time stolen from pursuits of creation
(of both the humankind and wordkind)
and fed to this maelstrom of a thing

what is left when love, but not longing, is gone?
what, when the fear is that even sometimes means inevitable all-times
what then?

(loves that make you heartsick, says my friend the philosopher,
can only be resolved two ways: Accept your malaise, embrace it, become it,
or cut it away entire.
there are no halfway houses for sad, dark love; no medicines to heal it whole).

so foolish, this; to write a poem about love
when it's not about love at all. (there's another word, starts with an ...)

so foolish, I; to try to twist words around it, make it complicated,
when really I know what I ought to do. (But not whether I will do it).

so here in this wine-dark sea I sit, my bark coracle afloat
and hope I will recognise the sun, when it comes.

- Kathy, 21/7/13

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reading Notes: Blackout

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 the third of the five nominated novels: Mira Grant's trilogy closer, Blackout.

If it were not for the Hugo novella category, and the bijou chills of early Newsflesh prequel San Diego 2014, I would have came to Blackout knowing nothing whatsoever about it. The third book in the Newsflesh trilogy, Blackout is the kind of book that would, without an award-list prompt, have entirely passed me by (as had its prequels, Feed and Deadline).

Why? Because I am a prejudiced reader, and I can admit it.

I would never have picked up the Newsflesh books because they are marketed as being horror / thriller, or horror / suspense, and because they are about zombies. I have, in the past, not enjoyed horror books - the notable exception being Stephen King's early works, which I do like a lot - and I have an allergy to books about re-imagining supernatural monsters, especially ones with lots of feels (lookin' at you, all-vampire-stories-but-especially-Twilight...)

And see, this is where prejudice takes you, whether it's with books or in any other area of life. You make a decision that something won't be good and you won't like it, because other things that are labelled the same have not appealed to you in the past, and then you miss out on some really good things.

Because Blackout is a very good - not flawless, but good - book. I quickly skimmed Feed and Deadline, in order to be fair in my reading of Blackout, but I read Blackout itself closely and I really enjoyed it. I found Grant's style witty, engaging and readable, her plot brisk and not any less plausible than most speculative fiction, and her characters surprisingly highly developed.

I say "surprisingly" because I think that, although the zombie element certainly adds horrific aspects to the story, I strongly believe that Blackout in particular is a suspense / thriller, rather than a traditional horror book. Perhaps it's the future-science / political conspiracy elements which are critical to the plot and absorb much of the characters' attention (I'm trying to avoid plot spoilers, so forgive the vagueness). Perhaps it's that, because Grant has combined her interest in virology with her horror focus to create a medical / immunological explanation of zombie-ism, the zombies seem less - I don't know, spooky? Still scary and weird and tragic, but not supernatural in the ghosties and forces-beyond-nature way.

So the characters being actual characters rather than puppets to move the plot along came as a pleasant surprise to me. I have read my share of thrillers, and don't mind them, but I'll go out on a limb and say one thing the genre is not renowned for is its deep and realistic character development. Grant does substantially better with her people than most, and this certainly adds depth and punch to the story.

I also really liked Grant's vision of the future media - the fragmentation of voices, the rise of the bloggers, the shifting gaze. As in her treatment of pop culture in San Diego 2014, it's apparent that Grant knows and embraces both nerd and blogger culture, in a way I haven't seen much of in other mainstream authors. I think her landscape is not only plausible, it's possible, and I liked watching how she teased out the ramifications of that.

Three quibbles with this book (and by extension, the series): Firstly, the conspiracy denouement was a bit overheated and melodramatic, and felt out of kilter with the self-consciously restrained and deprecating style of the books as a whole. Secondly, the "secret" that Georgia reveals to persuade Shaun of her identity was telegraphed so loudly and luridly that it was the flattest balloon  ever in turns of plot twists. And finally, I thought there were times when Grant lost her way a bit with the points she was trying to make; some of the meta messages, particularly those about science and government, were quite muddy in Blackout, and this got confusing.

Nonetheless, it's a good book, rounding out a good series. And you don't even need to be a horror person to appreciate its virtues.

I wonder if this means I should give romance fiction, my other main genre-based EWWWWW, another chance now...?

Novellas are done. One and a half novel reviews to go, plus all the novelettes! Next up will be 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.

I've finished Captain Vortpatril's Alliance, and will review it soon. I'm not going to do a review of Throne of the Crescent Moon, because I really don't like it and didn't finish it, but will add a few notes into the Vorpatril review indicating what I didn't love about it.

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)  

San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats (novella) 
The Stars Do Not Lie (novella)  

2312 (novel)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Reading Notes: 2312

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 the second of the five nominated novels: Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312.

Kim Stanley Robinson is, in my opinion, one of the most literary of all science fiction writers, contemporary or otherwise. His work deals with politics, humanism, technology and futurism in ways that are complex, intellectual and often quite demanding.  His written style, while not impenetrable, is fairly dense; it's not unfair to consider it highbrow, in the same way that literary fiction is highbrow.  2312, his latest work, is, if anything, the most advanced exemplar of this literariness that I've encountered in his work, and I have read several of his previous books (most notably his justly renowned Mars trilogy, which are, in fact, prequel to the world that 2312 explores).

I make this observation at the outset partly in admiration, and partly as a cautionary note.  I found 2312 quite a slog, much more so in fact than the Mars books, and this is at least in part due to the very descriptive, very technical, and very meta style that Robinson employs. Some of his devices are equal parts intriguing and offputting - the interspersion of stream of consciousness "lists", for example. The overall effect of the book, to me, is cool - detatched - impersonal, which is odd given the passion that Robinson clearly wants us to feel from and for some of the central protagonists.

Indeed, it is the key characters themselves that failed to sit well for me, and this is the most important reason that I found this book less attractive than the Mars books. In the Mars trilogy, vibrant, interesting characters abounded, both ones with whom readers could identify and bond (such as my own favourites, Arkady, Nadia and Sax) and excellently nuanced irritants and villains (such as Phyllis, to a lesser extent Maya, and for some people, Frank).

In 2312, the action, such as it is, focuses around Swan Er Hong, a native of the human settlement on Mercury (in the rolling city of Terminator), and Fitz Wahram, "the Frog", a native of Titan who Swan works with to uncover a conspiracy that was suspected by her deceased grandmother Alex, the director / boss of Terminator. I think - I'm pretty sure - that Robinson wanted Swan to be a flawed but ultimately relatable hero, but to me, she isn't at all. Perhaps it's just my reading, but, despite Robinson's interest in and exploration of sexual dimorphism, Swan exhibits a lot of classic "over emotional / hysterical woman" tropes. The ways the other characters deal with her is very much in terms of controlling her erratic reactions and hosing down her ladyfeels. The fact that she is a gynomorph doesn't impact for a second the fact that she is written, and read, as "She", and all that seems to be shorthand for.

Even putting aside the typecasting, Swan is just not a great character, in my view. She's petulant, selfish, immature (no mean feat, and not particularly believable, in a woman over 150 years old), and not always overly bright in her assumptions and interactions, which is inconsistent with what we are constantly told about her brilliance. This would all be fine if counterbalanced by other factors, but I didn't feel that it was. I get that part of Swan's failings were meant to be down to Pauline (no spoilers, read the book to find out what Pauline is!) but I still didn't find her a successful character in any way.

Ultimately, I felt Robinson's valiant and largely successful attempt to craft a vast, scientifically complicated interplanetary world in the solar system is not well supported with characters of sufficient verve and presence, or a plot that was organic enough to the environment, to create a compelling, readable story. I feel like a Philistine for writing this, but when it comes to any fiction - but perhaps especially speculative fiction - there is such a thing as being *too* clever. When unpicking an impossible knot of social / scientific / political complexity becomes more focal than actually making people or having stuff happen, a lot of readers get left behind. And while I did finish this book, and remain admiring of it as an achievement, I didn't love it - I didn't always even like it - and I'm certain I'd not read it twice.

Novellas are done. Three novels to go, plus all the novelettes! Next up will be 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.

With the remaining novels, Blackout will be next, sometime next week, followed by Captain Vortpatril's Alliance, which I'm reading now. I'm undecided what to do about Throne of the Crescent Moon, because I really don't like it and don't want to finish it, but then should I review it? Not sure. We'll see.

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)  

San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats (novella) 
The Stars Do Not Lie (novella)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Winter staycation

Last week was the first week of the winter school holidays here in Melbourne, and it was the occasion of a long-anticipated week off work for both G (my husband) and I. Having been away in February (to Warrnambool) and in the Easter holidays (to Sovereign Hill), we decided not to go away to stay, but rather had a planned home staycation. It turned out to be really fun.

The big plan for the week was to finally achieve an outcome we've been promising the kids for a while now - clearing out the garage and creating an outdoor play / family room. This was always going to be a big job but it was one we really wanted to undertake, for our sake as well as theirs. So I got a skip delivered on the Friday night of the week before, and with the kids' help, we spent Saturday merrily chucking out junk and doing several runs to local op shops to donate still-useable goods.

We had a busy Sunday out and about, and then the real transformation bit began, after my Mum collected the three kids on the Monday afternoon to take to her house for a 2-night sleepover. G and I immediately tore off to Beacon Lighting, to buy the one new item we needed for the new room (a standard lamp) and to JB Hi Fi because we NEVER get to browse at the shops and we wanted to :-) We did a bit more moving stuff around on Monday, but mostly enjoyed some downtime. I made a favourite spicy beef salad for dinner and we watched a movie (Thor, which was OK, although not brilliant).

On the Tuesday we worked our butts off, cleaning, clearing, moving furniture, setting up shelves, going through more boxes of junk that had remained unopened since we moved into this house 9.5 years ago. I reckon we lifted and hefted stuff around for about 8 hours all up - well, G did, I took a 2-hour break at lunchtime to send some emails and do dishes & laundry - so by the time we collapsed with our pizza at 7pm, we were exhausted and muscle sore.

It was all worth it, though, to see the looks on the kids' faces when we brought them home Wednesday afternoon and showed them their new room. To say they were (and are) excited would be a massive understatement. They *love* it and it's already getting heaps of use. We've set an old TV up out there that can play DVDs and the XBox, but gets no reception, so the kids can watch an occasional movie or (as is more their wont) play Harry Potter Lego or Toy Story on the XBox from time to time. There are books, puzzles, games, scooters and hobby horses; dress ups, play doh, painting supplies and a craft table. It feels like a friendly place and woo hoo! it even gets wifi. All very good.

On the Thursday we spent the morning in the family room then went to the movies and saw Epic, using tickets I'd got with my Fly Buys, and did a little shopping. Then on the Friday, we went on the train into the Melbourne Aquarium, again using passes I'd got from Fly Buys. This has really been the Holiday of The Fly Buys - I saved over $150 on entries / tickets thanks to them, and I reckon it's a terrific use of points. After the Aquarium, which we all enjoyed, we strolled over to Southbank for ice cream at Trampoline, then home again on the train and straight back to the family room for the kids - they are still very enamoured :-)

Saturday we went to swimming as usual but planned extra playtime afterwards, spending the entire morning at the pool having fun. A little light gardening, some crafts, reading, game play and walk with the dog rounded off the rest of the weekend, before G's return to work yesterday.

It was a lovely week - an almost perfectly balanced staycation, with out and about activities, productive tasks that have made our home more useable and less cluttered, hanging out time, whole-family time and couple time, grandparent time for the kids. I think I cherished all the more knowing that, once I start fulltime work on 30 July, such opportunities are going to be very rare for a few years. This will be a good week too - I have lots of fun stuff lined up with the kids - but last week was pretty awesome for all of us.

Monday, July 8, 2013

On the expansion of clans

I am the eldest of the cousins on my Dad's side; all told, my Dad and his three siblings had 12 children, who now range in age from myself at 40 down to my youngest cousin, who's 19. There are four of us bunched up together at the start of the birth order, myself and my late brother and two female cousins who are all within 3 years of each other. Then there's a bulge of boys, 6 of them all up, about 7-10 years younger than me, and the clan is tailed by two more female cousins who are a fair bit younger again.

Of this coterie, I was the first married by a long margin (the next wedding after mine was 7 years later); I had my three children at ages 30, 32 and 35.5, at a time when it seemed like I was going to be not only a trailblazer but possibly a lone ranger. No one else, including the close-age married cousins, showed any inclination to childbearing. So my girls, who were never realistically going to have close-aged first cousins (given that my surviving brother is 7 years my junior) were also looking unlikely to have close-age second cousins.

However, this trend was reversed with the birth of one of my close-age cousins' daughter, 3 years ago next month (she's 18 months younger than my youngest, C). As is often the way, a trickle has turned into a modest flood - as well as the soon-to-be-Miss 3, there is a Mr 2 (son of one of my Perth cousins), a Miss 14 months (daughter of my closest-age cousin, who's only 9 months my junior) and a brand new little boy, a brother to Miss 3. And I just heard from my Mum that at Christmastime there is going to be another new baby - my cousin who was married last year is expecting a child with his wife in December.

I wonder if our pattern is somewhat typical of changing family expansion these days, size and all. With the one anomaly of my Perth cousin, who was 27 when his son was born, we've all been in our 30s when beginning families, as compared with our parents, who were all in their 20s when having us.

We've all had sizeable gaps between marrying and reproducing, on average 5 years, whereas all of our parents had their firstborns within 2 years of marriage (in all but one case, within 18 months).

My Grandma (Dad's Mum) was one of three children, but was raised by her own grandparents in amongst their family of 9. My Dad, her second son, was one of a family of four. While each of my Dad and his siblings had 3 children, and at least two of them would have had more if medical circumstances had not precluded it, in my generation I am the only three-child parent (this, of course, may change, but of the 4 cousins who are thus far parents, all have expressed firm committments to stopping at one or two children. With the younger ones, who can say?)

For me, more than three children was not an option - 3 caesarean sections is all that one body should be asked to endure in a lifetime, and I would be frightened to go through another year like the one I had after the anesthetic accident at C's delivery. I am more than happy to be at this point where I can focus on parenting a preteen, an 8 year old and a preschooler (although I will admit to being a little melancholy at the idea that C will be a school kid next year). Especially as I am going back into fulltime work, another pregnancy now would devastate me - both of us, I think. So it's lucky that this will not happen, really!

I do think that I *think* about it - family planning, pregnancy, birth, childrearing - differently to how my parents and their siblings did. (I intentionally did not get into the family tree on my Mum's side - she of the 5 siblings with 20 combined offspring ...)  I get the sense, from listening to my Mum and aunties talk, that childbearing was not necessarily less intentional, but perhaps seen as less discretionary - if you could, you did, and that was that, for women and men of their background and interests, anyway. The painstaking planning that so many members of my own generation put into timing and number of children didn't seem as prevalent for them.

I am, of course, mindful of the privileges that my parents and my aunts and uncles had - they are all married, heterosexual, reasonably able bodied, fertile, white and Australian born. My Dad and his siblings were also from a well off home and had private school educations (my Mum's background is very different, and could fairly be described as wandering between  "working class" and "working poor"). Just as they were privileged, so too are we their children - we may have varying levels of financial stability and careers, but none of us are disadvantaged in any meaningful way.

I note this just to say that I am not trying to universalise our family's story or make sweeping sociological generalisations based on such a small sample. I do think it's an interesting vignette though, to observe how one particular family's approach has changed within three or four generations.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Reading Notes: The Stars Do Not Lie

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 the last of the five nominated novellas: Jay Lake's The Stars Do Not Lie.

The first thing to be said about this novella, for me, is a warning: if steampunk isn't your thing, I don't think you'll like this. It's not a classic steampunk formulation, although it does have the obligatory airships; this novella isn't set (necessarily) on earth and isn't tied to any real historical period. However, the whole - for want of a better word - mouthfeel of the text is very steampunkish. Technology and repression, bizarrities and futurism, the red-gold antiquarianism of it; it's all very Alan Campbell to me.

I am neither a booster nor a hater when it comes to steampunk. I have loved some notable works in the genre (Perdido Street Station, The Difference Engine, and recently, Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorarama) but I have also disliked or been bored by quite a few others. For me, it's a chancy genre - do it well and it's awesome, but stuff it up and the fall is very far.

I've not read anything else by Lake, although my friend Professor Google tells me he is prolific (I may have some catching up to do!) One thing this novella immediately makes clear, though, is that he is a practised and clever practitioner of steampunk. This story is smooth as glass in the way it integrates technology and machinery into the plot, and the aesthetic it achieves. I found Lake's style engrossing and mellifluous, which made the story enjoyable to read.

The plot of this novella hinges on a theme that could fairly be described as An Oldie But a Goodie in speculative fiction - the conflict between science and religion. The discovery by a scientist of what appears to be an orbital spaceship, and the implications he draws for the belief system of the world, leads to the kind of frantic religious flailing that would have been quite familiar to, say, Galileo. Indeed, although Lake makes up a religion (based around worship of the Increate) for his story, it is an extremely thinly veiled fictionalisation of the Renaissance Roman Catholic church. So fine is the distinction that when I mentally substituted clerical ranks from the Catholic church for the names in Lake's story, it made even better sense.

The story is well executed, but I thought ultimately non compelling. I have read many, many other versions of this theme in speculative fiction, a lot of them more engagingly rendered than this one. I also thought the novella came to a very vague and unsatisfying ending - it almost felt like it stopped halfway, which is a risk of course with novella but one that the best works avoid.

All in all, it's worth a look if you like steampunk, but to me it's not the category winner.

So now I have read all five novellas, which one should win, in my very irrelevant opinion?

I'd give it to either On a Red Station, Drifting or The Emperor's New Soul. Both of them are excellent works that show brilliantly the virtues of the novella form rather than its shortcomings. Both are original, engaging, moving and vivid. If I had to pick one, I'd go with On a Red Station by a nose, only because I love the world creation so much in that story. But the Sanderson would be a good winner too.

There is a free copy of The Stars Do Not Lie available for download at


So - that's a wrap for the novellas. Four novels to go, plus all the novelettes! Next up will be 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.

Then on to the novels. I'm almost finished 2312, so it'll be next - hopefully next week sometime. I may not do a full review of Throne of the Crescent Moon because I'm not enjoying it enough to finish it, and I think reviewing a book you haven't finished is a bit dubious. I'm halfway through Blackout, which I will review, but haven't found either an ebook to buy or a library copy to loan of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance yet.

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)  

San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats (novella)

Friday, July 5, 2013


About 6 weeks ago, I applied for a job that I saw advertised. I did it, pretty much, on a whim. The organisation, which is a university, is one I like a lot, is very local to me; the job parameters and description lined up very closely with my past professional experience; and the level and conditions sounded good. I thought, hey, I could do with the practice of writing a job application again, especially as my freelancing work has been on a steady slowdown and I’ve been contemplating whether salaried employment might be a better bet for me once C is in school next year.

The thing is, I like freelancing. I like working on different things and having a lot of flexibility about how I deliver work. I like fallow periods and I cope (although not always well) with the flipside, ridiculously busy periods. But the truth is this – the instability of the income and the unpredictability of the market has been hard on me. In a broader sense, it’s been hard on my family, who barely got anything useful from me in terms of time and attention in the last 6 months of last year (but we had pots of money!) and have felt a financial pinch again this year as my workload has been patchy and slow, and the stresses that creates.

So a return to salaried employment was something I’d been seriously considering for a few months now, and I envisaged myself starting to look around properly after the summer holidays, once C was settled in school. This job would be a good little practice exercise for me; a chance to clean up my CV and remind myself how to write application letters.

Thus, I sent off my application in very early June, was quite happy with the text I’d put together for it, and promptly more or less forgot about it. The long weekend came and went; my freelance projects wound towards their end, with no new bookings in sight; and I did my parenting thing.

Then, two weeks after applications closed, I got an email asking me to come in for an interview. I found this galvanising; being shortlisted for interview was a serious boost to my flagging confidence, and I prepared thoroughly for my interview, still not expecting anything to come of it.

The interview went well and I was happy with how I’d acquitted myself, which did not keep me from being shocked when called for a second interview on the Friday of the same week. 

To cut a very long story short – a week ago I was offered, and accepted, the position. While it was advertised as a fulltime role, my new employer was very receptive to my request to work partly from home in the 6 months remaining before C starts school. Until the second week of February, I’m going to be working one day of my time from home, with two normal length days and two timeshifted days (with early starts and early finishes) in the office. We’ll re-evaluate how that’s going in March.

I have a combination of grandparent care, partner moving to a 4-day working week, and a babysitter one morning and one afternoon a week in place to cover the gaps this year. And, importantly for me, I’m keeping my Thursdays – my Mummy and C day, when C has no kinder and we can really enjoy time together – as my home day. Although I’ll still need to work during that day, my employer is happy for me to fit this in time-wise around C’s needs. So I am aiming to try to get a solid 3 hours done early in the morning by getting up at 5am, allowing me to buy back some quality daytime hours to spend with C, and if necessary I can also carry over hours to complete at the weekend, if there are times when C needs my attentiveness most of the day.

This is kind of a high-powered job. If I am honest, I don’t think I really expected to get a job at this level of seniority ever again; not after 10 years of career taking a backseat to parenting. (A choice I have never regretted, and feel thankful for every day). I am going to need to really put my back into it, and there will be a lot of late nights and a lot of learning in my future as I get a grip on what’s required. I’m sure the delicate ecosystem that is our family life will need to adapt, and that might not always be comfortable.

But this is a really good job. It’s interesting, it’s significant, it’s challenging but still uses my expertise so I don’t start from scratch. The conditions are first rate, it’s local, and one of my friends already works there. And it means my income is known and secure, and we can plan and budget on that with confidence.

I start in my new role on 30 July. I will be heavily occupied in the next 3 weeks with school holidays, completing current freelance obligations, trying to do some more Hugo reviewing, and preparing the family for change. I’ll then be trying to learn my new role. I am also firmly committed to completing my blog novel, The Ark at the End of the World, and keeping up my fortnightly Interleaves column at The Shake … and there is only so much a person can do, if that person wants to still focus on being a present parent. 

As a result, when my job starts I am putting this blog on weekly posting only - probably Sundays, I think - and bowing out of my beloved but timesucking Twitter on weekdays as well. I’ll also be ceasing reading other blogs for now. So if you are not a weekend social media reader, and it thus should chance that we do not cross online paths for a while, please allow me to wish you and yours all the very best for the weeks and seasons to come. It’s been an absolute pleasure.