Monday, March 31, 2014

Self inflicted: A play in one act

[after school. the scene is a suburban house, in a moderate state of disarray.]

Nearly-9 year old: Mum! Mum! Come quick! I vomited again!

Me. hurrying to scene of action: Oh no honey, that's awful! I thought it was just a once-off since you haven't thrown up again after yesterday afternoon, but maybe it is a virus ... [pause] E. Why is your vomit blue?

Nearly-9: Oh, I dunno. [thinks] Maybe because I was eating, you know ...


Nearly-9: Oh, just some blue salt I found in a jar in my room.


Me: Salt. YOU ATE BLUE SALT. How much did you -

She: Ahhhhh ... three spoons? Or four?

Me: [sigh] E. That is why you threw up. Salt is an emetic. You should never, never eat that much at a time.

Nearly-9: An eme...

Me: ...tic. "Thing to make you vomit."

Nearly-9, by now thoroughly perky again: Oh wow, that's pretty cool!

[skips off to play]

[mother cleans puddle of chuck from bathroom floor]


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Reading Notes: Fairytales for Wilde Girls and Hunting

This double review covers book 1 and 2 of my commitment to try to read and review the YA nominee list for the Australian speculative fiction awards - the Aurealis Awards. 2 down, 3 to go, and the clock is ticking as the prize is announced in 6 days! I hope to get another double review up on Wednesday, all being well.

These two books are not greatly like one another, but as I read them back to back, I thought I might indulge in a little comparative reviewing, just because I can.

And come to think of it, although the style, themes, voice and tropes are quite different, both are books about strong young female protagonists who are not rescued by anyone (in fact, do a good deal of rescuing themselves), who struggle with difficult, malignant magic, who create affective bonds with friends and lovers on their own terms, and who, despite all indications to the contrary, get their happy (ish) ending.

In other words, both are quintessentially YA fantasy stories - full of moral quandaries, excellent characterisation, and hope in the face of trying circumstances.

Hunting is decidedly the "straighter" of the two as fantasies go - it's a fairly uncomplicated, although not un-nuanced, magical-danger-quest-redemption story, set in a competently realised cosmos that is briskly and efficiently explained.

It revolves around main protagonist, Ash Lenthard, who has a secret to which we are privy immediately but the cast of the book spends an inordinately long time failing inexplicably to grasp. Ash and her posse's struggles to diagnose and then cure the magical woes of their kingdom are not exactly the most amazing or original storyline I have ever read, employing quite a few standard sword-and-sorcery tropes in a way that struck me occasionally as just a tiny bit paint-by-numbers (although having said that, they were all technically accomplished in their delivery).

So that's my main criticism, that the plot isn't incredible or surprising - we are talking a fairly dead run from presentation of problem to standard solution here - but what makes this book so good (and it really is very good) is Host's sure touch with her characters and her dialogue. All the characters in this book are vivid and enormously appealing, and the relationships that unfold between them are immensely enjoyable and authentic. Ash herself is a terrific character, and the relationship that grows between her and Thornaster is simply brilliant. Their banter reminded me of something - something very well beloved - as I was reading it, but I couldn't pin it down until I read Host's own comment on Goodreads and realised - this is fresh, modernised Georgette Heyer, a witty and feminist take on the delights of that dialogue that completely entranced me.

Fairytales for Wilde Girls is a cat of another colour in terms of its style and storyline, and its protagonist, Isola Wilde, is a very different girl to Ash, battling stickier and trickier demons. Whereas Hunting is set in a fantasy cosmos, which enables Host to give it whatever rules she wants, Near does something a little harder to pull off, which is locate Isola in the "real" world but with one foot in an unseen (to most) magical sub-realm. Fairytales is, I think, more innovative in its plotting and perhaps more interesting in its tangled, weirded style, although it does use one enormous gotcha of a plot device that would probably be much more effective if you don't spot it about 1/3 of the way through like I did. (I can't help it, I'm a mystery reader; I'm used to unpicking the clues).

Isola is a great character, as are several of the supporting cast in this story too - I particularly loved Alejandro, Ruslana, Grape, Jamie and Edgar. Isola's strength is of a different type to Ash's straightforward heroics - facing massive internal as well as external pressures, she fights a subtler, but more dreadful, war. In all ways Fairytales is a darker and more disturbing book, and - yes, I think so - a less enjoyable book than Hunting, in that purely reading-for-pleasure way. That is not to suggest that it's a lesser book, because it certainly isn't - I think it's a more complicated achievement in many ways. It requires an emotional effort and investment that isn't demanded by Hunting, that's all.

Overall, these are both extremely good. They're different books for different moods, and it's hard to say one is better than the other per se, because it would depend entirely on your frame of mind. I think Fairytales is more complex and probably more original, but I found Hunting so purely enjoyable in its Heyer-esque frolics that I'm more likely to read it again. Two excellent contenders for the YA prize, and I would not be sorry to see it go to either of them.

Note: I mentioned in my earlier post that one of my motivations for choosing the YA category to read was to scope new books for my almost-11 year old. On balance, I would advise against Fairytales for the tween reader - it really is quite disturbing, and I know that my own almost-11 would find it upsetting. Hunting, on the other hand, is a great choice for advanced readers from that age upwards - any kid that's able to keep up with and enjoy Harry Potter or Percy Jackson would be well able to take this on.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

On living under

I am wound tight at the moment.

There are too many stressors and too many things impacting me that I cannot control or even really influence. There are too many needs, coming at me too fast. There is too little time and too little support, and every day feels like a marathon, one I end exhausted and mentally wrecked. Too many of my non-primary relationships, across all sectors of my life, are fractured and fractious, and there are moments where even my closest relationships are showing the strain.

I am dropping the ball far too often - forgetting things or half-doing them, racing from place to place or task to task without even pausing for breath. I'm not very well, without being able to name my malaise - it's a virus of energy vampirism, if anything. I feel jaded and angry most of the time, and mostly with myself; I'm not doing well, by my own standards, never mind anyone else's.

That this is but a season, and will pass, I am well aware. There may not be many advantages to being 40, but here is one - I have enough depth of experience to appreciate that life has its ups and downs, and that what seems darkly intolerable today may ease to nothing tomorrow.

I try to keep self-care in front of mind as I weather this stage. I walk, and I spend time noticing things as I do - the changing sky, flowers on a hibiscus bush, the facades of houses. I read, both my own books and to my kids, and I sink myself into texts as a brief respite from reality. I am trying to eat in a way that best supports my body - which means, for me, more protein than normal, more planned snacking so I don't get hungry / faded in the afternoons, and virtually no dairy, because my body only copes with dairy when it's at peak effectiveness (ie not now!) I do my nails and I take long showers and I plan the purchase of delicious winter boots.

I will sit with this for a while, trying every day to do the best I can within the circumstances I have, and to not allow my suboptimal affect to negatively impact those around me. Fortunately, I have a very welcome break coming up soon: in two weeks, the kids and I will be getting out of the city and away to the beach to spend 5 days with friends, which will be awesome and I am so looking forward to it. I am very much hoping that this, followed by the renewal that always comes with Easter, will help lift me and reset my clock somewhat. In the middle distance, too, looms (in a good way!) our coming Great Barrier Reef holiday, which is something which the whole family is eagerly anticipating. These are bright sparks on my horizon, and I am warming my hands already at the relief they offer.

I won't wait forever before making alterations in my life, though, if patience, time and holidays do not weave sufficient magic. If I have to change things up in the second half of the year to make things better, then I will. Sometimes even minor tweaks can be enough to turn the trick; sometimes more fundamental changes are needed. I am not closed to considering any options if I feel they are necessary to protect my wellbeing. I think my wellbeing is extremely important, not just (in fact, not mostly) because of I, myself, but because it impacts so materially on my girls and my husband.

For right now, though? Right now I'm putting one foot in front of the other, soaking in books, children and the ever-changing sky, eating eggs and meat and dark green vegetables, and tending the burgeoning garden of my life as best I can.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Reading Notes: Boy, Lost

This review is my second from the Stella shortlist. You can read my review of Burial Rites at The Shake

Kristina Olsson's book, Boy, Lost, is a memoir that is more than a memoir, a personal story with resonances far beyond the purely individual, a living, breathing case study of the far-reaching and long-lasting impacts of family violence, child theft, and what happens when you sunder children from their mothers.

That Olsson manages to make this both a compelling story in its own right and also a riveting commentary on broader social issues, while never forcing the narrative to carry moral messages beyond its capacity, is a tribute to her enormous facility as a writer, and the care, indeed love, with which she embraces her subjects.

That the subjects are her family makes the story more visceral but also, in many ways, harder to tell, and that she has managed to tell it so very well is the core achievement of this moving, powerful and memorable book.

Boy, Lost, is, in brief, the story of Kristina's mother, Yvonne: her ill-fated first marriage to illiterate Greek immigrant, Michael Preneas, which proves to be an abusive nightmare; her attempted flight, while secretly pregnant with a second child, with her infant son, Peter; Michael's effective kidnapping of Peter from her arms when on board the train that will carry her back to Brisbane; her attempts to get Peter back, thwarted by the legal and social structures within which she works and then blunted by the demands of caring for her daughter Sharon and her career; her second, happy, marriage, to Kristina's father, Arne Olsson, and the three children born to her in that marriage; and the shadow, the absence, that hangs always over her, even in her happiness. As Kristina puts it, the presence of four lively children never cancels out the awareness of the fifth, the absent one; there is no replacement or substition, just learning to mourn more quietly.

At the same time, this is also the story of Kristina's brother Peter, the lost boy of the title, and the brutal, neglected life he experiences with his father and later his stepmother. Peter's suffering, his undoubted abuse, is never sanitised or minimised in the story, but neither is it made THE story; Kristina never falls into that trap. The web she is weaving is complex and nuanced, but always honest, and always respectful, at its heart, of Peter as a person.

While Kristina occasionally lets some of her childhood confusion and angst towards her mother show, she never treats Peter anything other than gently. Partly, I suspect, this is because she only met him as an adult - their relationship has none of the slings and arrows of juvenilia to taint it. And partly it's just that women (some women?) often resent and love our mothers in  unequal measure, resentment riding high at one turn, overwhelming, fierce love at another.

Kristina's choice to tell the story in the present tense is an interesting one for a memoir, and I think it's mostly very effective, creating an immediacy that helps punch the emotion of the story home. Occasionally I found it distracting, but on the whole, I liked it as a narrative choice.

So what's the book about? It's about loss. It's about mother-child bonding. It's about family violence. It's about cultural dissonance. It's about the long fingers of family fracturing. It's about a boy, surviving abuse, becoming more than his circumstances. And above all, it's about a woman learning her mother as a woman, learning the story of that woman and being able to truly enter with empathy into that mental world.

"I cried for my mother then, not the dull self-pity I had wept with when she died, but a full and proper grief for what she had suffered. I knew something about the woman I was grieving..."

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Read it and see just how good a memoir can be in the hands of a skilled and engaged witer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Parenting. I haz won you.

The problems, in no particular order:

- 5 year old is struggling to learn to read, and needs lots and lots of practice / assistance
- I am heinously busy with work at the moment, and can't spend as much time as she ideally needs
- Nearly-9 year old and 5 year old haven't been getting along at all well
- Nearly-9 is nagging incessantly for a tablet as her big birthday present

The opportunities, again in no particular order:

- Nearly-9 is a fantastic reader
- Nearly-9 is also a very good and patient natural teacher, and is always positively inclined to those she teaches
- Because I think a tablet is an over-expensive gift for a child, I have indicated to Nearly-9 that if she wants one, she'll need to defray at least 50% of the cost herself. She's got around $80 squirreled away from Christmas and other money from relatives, but she's still pulling up short of her target.

The solution (this almost writes itself, doesn't it?)

Hey Nearly-9, do you want to do Miss 5's reader with her? The fee is $2.50, but you have to spend at least 10 minutes and be patient.

She: Yes! Yes I DOOOOOOOO!

The outcome

- One 5 year old encouraged and supported with her reading, with a session with me AND a session with big sister
- One Nearly-9 reinforced as a skilled teacher and complimented on her skills
- Two sister getting along very nicely through the magic of education
- More work done for me
- Money earned by Nearly-9 to put towards her goal and also reinforce that if you want pricey things, you need to be prepared to work for them

Look, it isn't often I come up with something as utterly diabolically brilliant as this. Let me enjoy it for a bit :-)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reading Notes: Nebula short stories

I'm over at Global Comment today, talking about the short story nominees for this year's Nebula Awards. Hope you like it!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Literary award season, aka Oh the Books I Will Read!

It is showtime, or nearly, for quite a few of the literary awards that I follow, which means that combination of stress and happiness that only a prize list junkie understands as I try to race the clock.

1. The Stella shortlist is out, and it's a very interesting one:

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Night Games by Anna Krien
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson
The Swan Book by Alexis Wright
The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

I'm at 3/6 read on this, based on my longlist reading - I've read and reviewed Burial Rites, and I have reviews almost finished on Boy, Lost and The Swan Book. I reckon I should comfortably cover the other three before prize announcement on 29 April. So all good there.

2. Next up is the Nebulas (the Sci Fi Writers awards) the nominee list of which is here. I get til 15 May to attempt these, but realistically, there are a lot of categories, and a lot of text. I've decided to do a category restriction and attempt the novels and the short stories:


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (Morrow; Headline Review)
Fire with Fire, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
Hild, Nicola Griffith (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Red: First Light, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island)
A Stranger in Olondria, Sofia Samatar (Small Beer)
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker (Harper)

Short stories

‘‘The Sounds of Old Earth,’’ Matthew Kressel (Lightspeed 1/13)
‘‘Selkie Stories Are for Losers,’’ Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons 1/7/13)
‘‘Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer,’’ Kenneth Schneyer (Clockwork Phoenix 4)
‘‘If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love,’’ Rachel Swirsky (Apex 3/13)
‘‘Alive, Alive Oh,’’ Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (Lightspeed 6/13)

Even that is pretty challenging in the timeframe, as I have currently read exactly NONE of the items on these lists  (although I have bought the Gaiman and it's on my TBR pile). I'm going to do the shorts as a bundle and review them for Global Comment, hopefully really soon. The novels will be a work in progress!

3. The biggest challenge of all really is the Australian speculative fiction awards, the Aurealis awards, because I missed the boat and only caught up this week on the nominee list (which has actually been out since February, but hey I HAVE BEEN BUSY). These awards are announced on (gulp) 5 April, which is 13 days from now,  so my attempt here is going to be limited perforce to one category only. After perusing the list, I'm going to take on the YA Novel category, which is:

The  Big  Dry by  Tony  Davies  (Harper  Collins)
Hunting by  Andrea  Host  (self published)
These Broken  Stars by  Amie  Kaufman  and  Meagan  Spooner  (Allen  &  Unwin) 
Fairytales  for  Wilde  Girls by  Allyse  Near  (Random  House  Australia) 
The  Sky  So  Heavy by  Claire  Zorn  (University  of  Queensland  P

I've picked this category partly because it's got another of Andrea Host's self-pubbed books, and I enjoyed her And All the Stars last year very much, and partly because I have a tween daughter who punches out of her weight in terms of reading material, so I'm trying to scope new stuff for her.

So this commits me (sort of) to:

- 5 short stories
- 3 Australian women's works
- 8 adult sci fi novels
- 5 YA novels

over the coming 7 weeks. It is probably unachievable, sure, but it's good to have goals! I expect to review some of them here, some at The Shake, and some at Global Comment, as the opportunity offers.

4. To make matters slightly more complicated, the longlist for Australian fiction's biggest award, the Miles Franklin, is out on 3 April, and the nominee list for the Hugos, SFF's premier fan-voted awards, sometime in early April too. Rot roh!! On a practical level, there's often a fair overlap between Nebulas and Hugos, and Stellas and Miles Franklins, so I may end up not starting from scratch there. Nonetheless, it is a crowded reading schedule ahead of me until mid-year ... and shortly thereafter I'll be swinging into the Booker list in its first year as an unrestricted prize, which could be very interesting.

If anyone else is going to read to these lists, let me know, hey, and we can compare notes as we go!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reading Notes: The Misogyny Factor

I am over at Global Comment today, discussing Anne Summers' new book The Misogyny Factor. This is book 3 read (and book 2 reviewed) on my Stella longlist journey. I'm hoping to get a review of book 4, Kristina Olsson's Boy, Lost, up here by Thursday, but it'll depend on the week.

My first review from the Stella list, of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, can be found here at The Shake. Happy reading!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Happy (Poem)

a dish of green things,
a weekend away,
sun, and the laughter of children.

calf muscles on fire from a circular climb,
a beach in summer,
the shade of pine trees.

boats at anchor on a lazy sea,
red ruby winking on my neck,
sixteen years wed, and still kisses to give.

stalking the dying sun,
ringing the change with pacing in cool air,
the youngest trotting alongside.

Oscar Wilde and tears at breakfast,
Percy Jackson and thrills for bedtime,
a family blissfully lost in the vast empires behind each cover.

the warmth of being loved,
the privilege of plenty,
the incalculable gift of safety.

many pinpricks pierce the velvet,
existential angst cannot suffocate
the triumphant stars.

- Kathy, 10/3/14

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Reading Notes: Burial Rites

I am over at The Shake today, with my first review in this year's Stella longlist - Hannah Kent's wonderful novel, Burial Rites. Hope to see you there!

Next cab off the rank will be Kristina Olsson's memoir, Boy, Lost, which I will review here on Friday.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

With benefits (poem)

she says to her lover:
but it's not love, you realise this.
I am not in love with you. I am merely manifesting limerence
and a touch of midlife panic
using life to ward off the night -

oh yes, he says absently, tracing circles on her forearm,
of course. I don't love you either.
but you are very much my -
never mind.
kiss me.

the sky falls away above them.

- Kathy, 4/3/14