Monday, June 29, 2009

Dystopia Challenge Review #6: The Declaration, Gemma Malley

In the year 2140, no one dies. No one Legal, anyway. Longevity drugs have allowed everyone to live forever, but at a price. To stem the crowding and strain on the world's resources it has become illegal to have a child. Those that do are imprisoned and their child taken to cruel institutions like Grange Hall. Anna is such a child, a Surplus, and it is her duty to feel guilty for every breath she takes, every mouthful of food, as it is stolen from a Legal. Her penance is to learn to be Useful, to become the servant of a Legal, and Anna has tried her very hardest all her life to Know Her Place.

That is until Peter comes to Grange Hall and begins to question everything Anna knows about Surpluses and the outside world. Thoroughly indoctrinated by Mrs Pincent, the cruel House Matron, Anna resists Peter's blasphemy at first. But his insistence that she is Anna Covey, not Surplus Anna as she has always thought, and that she doesn't belong in Grange Hall gives Anna the strength she needs to hope for a life on the Outside.

Anna is beautifully realised. She's quiet and sweet, a "good girl" who has been exploited by the system. She's thoroughly indoctrinated, but as she nears the end of her time in Grange Hall she keeps a secret diary. This is a huge act of rebellion for any of the Surpluses. I rather think that if I had been locked away in Grange Hall, I would have turned out something like Anna--but Malley probably intended for all girls to think that! Grange Hall abounds with Dickensian cruelty--whippings, short rations and stretches in Solitary. Think Lowood but run by Nazis.

The diary as a story-telling device is popular in books for teenage girls, but can easily become tedious and redundant. The Declaration begins with Anna conveniently filling in the reader with the back story, which unfortunately feels rather fake. The narrative switches between the diary format and a close third, and often the entries go over things that the reader is already privy to.

But that's the only gripe I have with The Declaration. I was unsure about the cover at first, the prettiness bound with barbed wire, but it works perfectly with the tone of the book. The romance is sweet and the escape is gripping. This is a perfect novel for anyone who wants to begin with a gentle dystopian to ease them into the genre. After reading it I would recommend Obernewtyn or some John Wyndham.

There's a sequel just released in May, The Resistance, which continues Anna and Peter's story.

Friday, June 26, 2009

My Library Haul (2)

A few requested items came in this week, which is always exciting!

First up, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. Richelle is coming to Australia later in the year, so I hope I enjoy this one!

I saw this reviewed on a fantasy blog, and the back cover describes it a "romantic heroic fantasy". Just what I like.

Ditto. Seen on blog and have to read.

Brave New World is on my Dystopia Challenge list, and I also convinced my book club to read it for next month.

Another bloggy recommendation. There's a poem on the inside cover that reads:

When the dark creeps in and steals the light,
Bury your fears on Sorry Night.

For in the winter's blackest hours,
Come the feasting of the Vours.
No one can see it, the life they stole,

Your body's here but not your soul...

How creepy is that? And I love the smokey cover with the girl in tears. Very moody.

Agents update: since sending out my MS to aforementioned agents, I have had two rejections and one full MS request. All I can say about this is: !!! and I hope the agent who asked for the whole thing reads like greased lightening. And then of course signs me up and gets me the best damned book deal a debutante like me could ever hope for. But if not and Lharmell goes no where, inspiration struck last night and I've started work on a standalone that I'm very excited about indeed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Dystopia Challenge Review #5: On the Beach (Film Review)

Based on Nevil Chute's novel of the same name, One the Beach was released in 1959. It's set in 1964, just after WWIII. The northern hemisphere has been destroyed by atomic bombs and a cloud of nuclear radiation is advancing south. The last frontier? Melbourne. Yay Melbourne! A strange telegraph signal has been picked up, originating in San Diego, where everyone is believed to be dead. Gregory Peck gets in his sub Sawdust (the mind boggles) to go check it out. The government gives everyone suicide pills in case the nuclear cloud reaches them and they all get radiation sickness.

That's about all I can report. I stopped watching this film. I couldn't take the boredom any longer. And the ridiculousness.
It consists mostly of long, pointless conversations, the occasional hysterical or drunk woman, and old boys sitting in their clubs lamenting that they'll never have enough time to drink all the port in the cellar before the whole world goes belly-up. There's a few scenes on the beach, with everyone acting carefree and polite, and all look like they're having a jolly good time. Hello?? It's the end of the freaking world! Jolly good times post-apocalypse are supposed to consist of looting and pillaging! Where's the fear? Where's the panic? Where's the eight-ball and bevvy of hookers that are gonna make Gregory Peck's last night on this good earth?

Don't watch this film. The only reason you should (and in this case I advise you to borrow it from a friend) is if you live in Melbourne and enjoy having a squeal every time a b+w Flinders Street or GPO pops into view. Otherwise, avoid like the apocalypse itself.

Dystopian Challenge Review #4: The Death of Grass

When a highly contagious virus erupts in Asia killing the rice crops and causing widespread famine in China, the rest of the world watches as the country descends into barbarism and cannibalism. Reminiscent of Australia's rabbit-proof fence, the Chinese in Hong Kong are barricaded into their country and left to die. While England and Europe tut and tell themselves that if only the "Asiatics" had come to them for help in the first place they wouldn't be in this mess, a strain of Chung-Li emerges that kills not only rice, but all grass: wheat, rye, oats. Everything. That means no bread, no cattle-fodder, no cattle. Just about all of Western farming, except for things like potatoes, is wiped out in one fell swoop. The Death of Grass follows two families' escape from London and northwards to Westmorland, where one man's brother owns a valley, a farming oasis that can be protected from the starving, panicked, rioting population.

This novel is unusual for its genre in that at the novel's opening, everything's normal. In the Western world, at least. Written in third person that switches between omniscience and a close following of John, leader of the group travelling northwards, the reader gets wide-angle and close-up shots of the epidemic and subsequent social and political fall-out. Set in 1956 (also the year of its publication), the novel is a reflection of the times. Just about all of the male population can use a gun as they went through WWII. Also, the telling is rather male-centric. This is probably due partly to the author's bias, and partly the era. In 1955, feminism had had it's first wave decades earlier and wasn't due for it's second for several more years. When society collapses due to Chung-Li, decades of progressive thinking are undone and women and girls are again at the mercy of men who want to either rape them or rule them.

Looking past Christopher's assumptions about gender, this book is one of the best written of the challenge so far. A virus that kills grass isn't all that far-fetched, and the fact that it could (and has, but on a smaller scale) happen makes the The Death of Grass is a chilling and fascinating read.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lharmell Update: Agents, Synopses and Endless Cups of Chai

This is the week I pull together the last of the things I need before sending sending Lharmell off to agents. This morning I have been finishing synopses, not only for Lharmell, but for books two and three as well, The Harmings and Queen of Lharmell. I want to have these readily available if Lharmell gets requested. I've written about a third of The Harmings but I don't want to go too far with it in case a) editor-induced rewrites change the plot of book one in some way (I hope not though!) or b) it turns out to be a total flop and isn't picked up by anyone. Pray that the latter isn't the case!

I have a handful of agents who take on YA fantasy that I plan on sending query letters to for starters. My list is:
  • Kristen Nelson
  • Jenny Bent
  • Jim McCarthy
  • Jill Grinberg
  • Jenoyne Adams
  • Daniel Lazar
  • Fay Bender
  • Ethan Ellenberg
  • Zoe Fishman
What do you think of these? Am I missing any that you think I should include in my first round?

I'm off to make another black chai and put thing finishing touches on the synopsis of book three. Thank goodness I've switched from coffee as I can drink a million cups of chai and not get the shakes!


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Not on my post! + News

Is there a phrase or word that you overuse when reviewing, especially when you can't think of anything to say, but as soon as you do use it you gag at your own predictability? Whenever I'm struggling, and sometimes when I'm not, the phrase "peppered with" spills from my fingertips and onto the page. E.g. "The narrative is peppered with allusions to mallards." (Now wouldn't that be an interesting narrative?) I'm gagging right now just thinking about it. I don't think I've even used the phrase "peppered with" in a review--I'm just unreasonably loathsome of doing so.

Conversely, is there a word or phrase that you are particularly fond of including in a review? I was reading over at Nathan Bransford's blog that he has a friend who insists on the phrase "veritable cornucopia" in all his writings. It does sound rather pleasant on the tongue.

This post was inspired by Bib-Laura-graphy and her review of Liar by Justine Larbalestier, in which she uses the word "machinations". And she definitely deserves props for such a fabulous word. I don't have a favourite review word myself, but I do have, as you can see, a phrase I abhor.


If you hadn't heard already (and I didn't know until yesterday) John Marsden's Tomorrow, When the War Began is being made into a film! Thereby proving that dystopian is so hot right now--due to, amongst other things, The Hunger Games (including the movie adaptation) North Korea, the global financial crisis and Britney's worldwide tour. (Okay maybe not that last one.) It's being directed by Stuart Beattie, a screenwriter making its directorial debut (30 Days of Night and Australia fame). May I just voice my reservations now about the choice of director? Please, movie-gods, I want no corn for Tomorrow. Can you hear me, Beattie? No corn. And Australian actors, please. No handful of up-and-coming Americans to play the key roles to give the movie "international appeal", with locals filling in the second-rate parts.


I re-installed Creative Suite and made my Dystopia Challenge button. Here 'tis:

Spooky and unsettling, right? Unfortunately whoever posted the image didn't say where they got it/where it was taken. But I'm guessing it's China after a quake, sometime between now and 1970. If you want to put it on your blog (just like Theresa at Fantasy & Sci-Fi Lovin' News & Reviews) and participate in the challenge, please do! You can read the challenge details here. Also, I've got one guest dystopian review lined up for August, but I'd love to have more of you! If your keen to do a book on my list or any other of your choosing, just let me know in the comments.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Review: Teach Me by R. A. Nelson

Carolina "Nine" Livingstone, an apt name for the daughter of a physicist, takes a poetry unit for her last semester of high school thinking it will give her a broader scope on life. It does that all right. For while Nine has plenty of smarts, she's not so accomplished when it comes to relationships. Nine falls for the new poetry teacher hard and fast, and it isn't long until Mr Mann begins to respond to Nine's hankering to be taught.

What surprised me when I picked this book up from the library shelf was the number of glowing reviews it received in its year of publication (2005), not only from bloggers and authors, but from librarians. With its provocative title and subject matter, I expected titillation from Teach Me, perhaps even smut. But how smutty can a book be if the Iowa City School District gives it the Best Young Adult Literature Award?

The writing in Teach Me is exquisite. Incomparable. Utterly original. I'm finding it hard to write anything but platitudes right now. The writing is razor-sharp but never miserly; stuffed full of science and historical anecdotes but never tedious; emotional but never, ever cliched; extreme but never cringe-worthy.

I think my emotional response to this book can be best summed-up by Nine herself:

There is not a name for what I'm feeling. There is no description for it. To call it yearning would be like calling the ocean water. Whatever this thing is, it shoves you inside itself and you can't measure its boundaries because they go too far and you don't have enough time. Or you move toward the boundaries and they move away. There has been an earthquake in my life. Catastrophic, civilization-ending.

This book is shocking, haunting, erotic, beautiful. It will make your throat ache with its sheer perfection.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Dystopia Challenge Review #3: The Carbon Diaries 2015

It's the year 2015 and England has been put on mandatory carbon rationing. Laura Brown, a Londoner, documents the year's events in her diary: the shortages, the fear, the natural disasters. She's a teenager struggling with school, a family falling apart, first love (of course) and the impact of rationing. In short, it's teenaged-Bridget-Jones-meets-climate-change.

I vacillated a lot while reading this book--do I like it? Am I finding it a bit average? I just finished it and I'm pleased to say that the overall reaction was like, with certain reservations.

A large chunk of the book is Laura's (often boring) day-to-day affairs: keeping her band together, flunking school, pining over the boy next door. But where the novel really shines is when things go wrong. The droughts, the floods, riots and massive storms. The Gulf Stream is shutting down* and Europe is being subjected to extreme and unpredictable weather patterns. Underpinning this is Laura's anger at the generations that came before her: with every justification, she rails at past polluters and energy-wasters as it is she and her contemporaries that have to pay for their excesses. In effect, she's had her life taken away, with little hope of any sort of (contemporary) career or possibility of travel.

I'm surprised there aren't more novels with climate change as a theme coming out right now. It seems all anyone wants to do is bury their head in the sand with books about vampires, and I'm just as guilty. (No sparkles on my vampires though.) Maybe the whole thing is just too close to home. (As "home" is Earth, it's seems rather ridiculous that we're avoiding the problem, but there you go.)

The Carbon Diaries 2017 will be released in September this year.

*The Gulf Stream is a warm ocean current that heats Europe. As the ice at the poles melt due to global warming, the seas become less saline which could do something nasty to the current and shut it down, possibly triggering the next ice age.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Dystopia Challenge gets logo!

You might have seen these around, on t-shirts and mugs and your mother's tea towels: they're a parody of the English WWII poster of 1939. Here's the original:

Here's a slightly more tense version, for use in case of swine flu or a Thursday morning hangover when you're due to sit a rat dissection exam:

But here's the big one, only for use when you spot the zombies on the horizon, the the mushroom cloud over New York--the end of the world becoming not nigh but now:

Hehe. In other words the Windows re-install I did wiped Adobe Creative Suite from my system and now I have to pilfer logos rather than make them myself.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Dystopia Challenge

There are several definitions of what constitutes a dystopian novel, none of which I have found to be definitive. It's a sub-genre of science fiction, and is sometimes called speculative fiction. But unlike a lot of sci-fi, dystopian novels are set firmly in this world, often in the near future; but always, always in a world that has gone awry.

I'm drawn to works of dystopia but I'm not really sure why. I'm not a "hard" sci-fi fan; nor do I like "hard" fantasy, which is probably why I enjoy YA so much: you get the themes, the worlds and the characters of fantasy but without all the complicated names and structures. Also, you don't get the cold, sometimes sadistic, sexual practices in YA fiction that you do in adult sci-fi and fantasy, which I find to be pretty off.

Looking back at some of my favourite books, I realise that a good chunk of them are dystopian, such as Isobelle Carmody's Obernewtyn Chronicles, John Marsden's Tomorrow series and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I want to read more books like these! So while many of you in the northern hemisphere are lapping up summer romances on the beach, here at Rhiannon Hart in the southern hemisphere I'll be slipping into something a little more gloomy to get me through the Melbourne winter...*

Over the next three months I've set myself the challenge to read and blog about the following 31 books by August 31. Some have been on my reading list for some time, others I've come across while researching this challenge. Others I've read but want to revisit, and others still I've read earlier this year and am counting as part of the challenge. All are YA, or will appeal to young adults, or are classics that are for everyone, such as Nineteen Eighty-Four. Plus I've included titles from the supposed beginning of the genre (the late nineteenth century, such as The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, published in 1895) right through to the present day.

Here's the list so far:

Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
The Death of Grass, John Christopher
The Declaration, Gemma Malley
The Children of Men, P.D. James
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
On the Beach, Nevil Shute
How I Live Now, Meg Rosoff
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
Bend Sinister, Vladimir Nabokov
Cloud on Silver, John Christopher
The Trial, Franz Kafka
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick
Logan's Run, William F. Nolan
This Perfect Day, Ira Levin
The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner
Emily, Dana De Young (released in 2010 but the first three chapters available on her website)
Battle Royale, Koushum Takami
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Attwood
The Bar Code Tattoo, Suzanne Weyn

Novels read this year and thus count towards the challenge:

The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Carrie Ryan
Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O'Brien
The Chrysalids, John Wyndham
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
The Carbon Diaries 2015, Saci Lloyd
The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Mary E. Pearson

Novels read but to be re-read as it's been a while and I loved them:

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Attwood
The Obernewtyn Chronicles (book 1 only), Isobelle Carmody
The Tomorrow Series (book 1 only), John Marsden

Total number of books:31; to read: 25. That's do-able. I'll be dispersing my reading with non-dystopian books as well, so if your not a fan there'll still be other sorts of YA books posted about over the next three months.

Some of the above I fear might be out of print/rare, but I'll see how I go! As well as reviews of all the books I manage to read, I will also post mini-essays on topics to do with dystopian novels. Your welcome to join me in this challenge and share thoughts/posts/comments. In fact I encourage it!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil: Humbert vs. Lolita

Reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955) has to be the only time I've considered a pedophile's actions and thought, "Hey, I'm okay with that!" In fact, I wasn't just okay with Humbert Humbert and his quest to seduce Lolita, I was gunning for him.

I know I'm not alone when I say this--others have confessed, with guilty, delighted smiles on their faces, that they too were in some measure on Humbert's "side".

Lionel Trilling, an American literary critic, puts it rather eloquently when he writes "we find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents [...] we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting."

From the 1997 film adaptation of Lolita

The question is, how does Nabokov make us "condone the violation"?

After a Pooh-like ponder, I'm going to put it down to this:
  • Humbert Humbert is narrating the story. We're intimate with his history and inner workings, therefore can't immediately write him off as inhuman.
  • He's just so damned honest with the reader.
  • Then there's the trauma of losing his childhood friend. Trauma = sympathy.
  • The trauma also explains his attachment to little girlies, making it rational and somehow understandable.
  • Lolita is just so damned annoying. And spoilt. And manipulative. And I rather think she's quite sadistic.
This said, I don't think Lolita deserved what happened to her. Neither to I think Humbert was justified in his actions--in fact he is totally reprehensible. He's right to feel guilty when he realises he robbed Lo of her childhood. What I'm fascinated with is Nabokov's seemingly impossible feat of making rational, sympathetic, law-abiding citizens--even momentarily--"condone the violation".

I'm trying to remember other works of literature in which we end up sympathising with the devil, so to speak. Hannibal Lecter's rather honourable and gentlemanly as far as serial killers go. After all, he chops off his own hand rather than Clarice's when they are cuffed together, a moment I find to be supremely romantic for some reason. (I never read the second book but I'm assuming it happens there as well as in the movie.)

There must be more examples than this but I'm mental blanking right now. Basically, I'm in awe of any writer who can pull of the my-character-is-heinous-but-you'll-love-them-anyway trick.

Friday, June 12, 2009

My Library Haul

We're twelve days into winter and Melbourne is officially colder than a witch's titty. To get myself through the next four freezing wet days (I love you part-time work, let's elope before my bf gets home) I picked up the most awesome haul of books at two of my libraries. (I'm a member of three separate library services, and considering a fourth. One is not enough.)

Expect reviews of the following over the next week. Now follow me and try not to drool...

I've heard good things about this Frankie Banks. I have no idea what it's about. Love the cover.

From 1983. I've heard the movie is awesome. Hope this is too.

THIS book, The Death of Grass from 1956, is tipped to be one of the best post-apocalyptic books of all time. It's just been re-released and I managed to snare it first at my lib. I'm nearly wetting my pants with excitement.

I haven't read enough pupil-and-teacher-have-affair books. I just haven't.

This is speculative/dystopian I believe. Don't know about the cover. Excessively girlie with barbed wire. Hmmm.

Larbalestier is an Aussie and she's all over the web--two decent reasons for reading her books. I really don't fancy the look of How to Ditch Your Fairy, but this magic trilogy looks promising.

So whaddya think? What fabulous books will you be filling your weekend with?

I'm putting the finishing touches on a post exploring the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Lolita so look out for it later this weekend.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

CYA Conference, plus competition

The CYA Later, Alligator Conference 2009 for Children's and Young Adult Writers and Illustrators will be held at the Brisbane Writers' Festival in September. Writers include Jackie French, Paul Collins, Colin Thompson, Meredith Costain, Mark Guthrie, Patrick J. Jones, Peter Carnavas and international author Brian Falkner. There's also manuscript assessment and pitch sessions.

I don't think I'll make it to Brisvegas, but as part of the festival there's a writing competition that is so perfect for me I think I wished it into existence! It's a young adult novel writing competition, and is assessed by the first 1000 words of a manuscript. The prize-money is inconsequential, but a short-list of entries is forwarded to a children's publisher. Woo-hoo! Competition closes June 30. I'm definitely entering Lharmell.

For all you other unpublished Australian YA writers out there, the details are on the website.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Retro Review: Z for Zachariah, Robert C. O'Brien

The thing I hate about writing reviews is not being able to discuss what happens in the end!

Okay, that doesn't always bother me, but in the case of Z for Zachariah it does. Because all I want to do right now is sit down with someone and say, "Oh my god, how about when blah took the blah blah," and for them to say, "I KNOW! What about when blah did blah--I soooo didn't see that coming."

But I don't want to ruin this book for you so I'll try and restrain myself.

Z for Zachariah (1975) by Robert C. O'Brien reads like a Judy Blume book, post-nuclear apocalypse. He also wrote Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, which sounds pretty naff but the bf tells me it's brilliant. Way smart rats, apparently.

Ann Burden is fifteen and the last person left alive on Earth--or so she thinks. She's sheltered from fallout in a valley somewhere on the east coast of America. (My US geography is pretty shaky but a local could probably work out exactly where. Boston was mentioned.) One day a man in a plastic suit comes to the valley. He's in his early thirties and seems normal enough from a distance. When he keels over from radiation sickness (the stupid man goes swimming in a stream before checking it with his Geiger counter) Ann nurses him back to health. Feverish for days, the man--Mr Loomis as Ann so old-fashionedly calls him--raves about someone called Edward. It seems Mr Loomis and Edward made the suit, it's the only one in the world, they both wanted it and now Edward is dead. Ann checks the suit and, sure enough, there are three patched-over bullet holes in the chest.

On page 100-101 of my 192-page edition, Ann realises that Mr Loomis has killed Edward, but she does "not know just how bad it is." She writes in her diary, "In a way it depends on what Edward was like." She reasons that if one was acting unreasonably, or dangerously, then the other might be justified in killing him--the suit, after all, offers the only protection available when moving around the wastelands.

Now, if I was an English teacher, the essay question I would pose is: "Do you agree with Ann? Discuss."

In fact, if you want to answer this question, whether you've read the book or not, please feel free below! If you have read the book try not to let later events influence your answer (or give anything away).

After that, things turn deliciously dark.

I read this book in a day and then watched The China Syndrome, so I'm all nucleared out for a wee while! But go to your library and get Z for Zachariah. It's a must for dystopian fans, especially those who like John Wyndham and Isobelle Carmody.

I'm now turning (again) to The Carbon Diaries 2015, another dystopian. I say again cos I had to review some other books and then mislaid it. But it's feeling rather bland and frivolous after Z for Zachariah. Shame.

Last of all, a shout-out to my three followers, Steph, Aimee and Neve. Hello followers! *waves* I can't tell you how happy it makes me to see you there, and know that I'm no longer talking into empty cyberspace :)

REVIEW: Poison Study, Maria V. Snyder

On the morning of her execution, Yelena is offered the job as food-taster to the Commander of Ixia. Assassination attempts not being uncommon, Yelena faces the possibility that her reprieve will be short-lived and end with a death by poison that far more painful than one administered by the hang-man's noose. She is trained by the Second-in-Command, Valek, a steely, proficient fighter who poisons her with Butterfly's Dust. She must stay close to him on order to receive her daily dose of antidote. Yelena dreams of escape and freedom from Reyad's ghost, the man she killed for torturing and raping her, but things aren't destined to be simple for her.

Maria V. Snyder has built an excellent world. Too often fantasy writers bewilder the reader with a slew of complicated names and social structures in the very first chapter (e.g. Anne Bishop, Daughter of the Blood), something I can't stand. But Snyder takes the softly, softly approach, coaxing her world into life alongside the characters, the grit and the dramatic tension. And what a world it is. Set post-revolution, Ixia has become a communist-like nation: everyone is assigned a job and a uniform (but not a vote), provinces are now numbered and called Military Districts (MD-1, MD-2 and so on) and no-one is allowed to travel without the right papers. Sounds pretty strict, right? And we all know that communism doesn't work, right? But in Snyder's Ixia, it's all going pretty smoothly.

Oh, apart from all the poisons. As well as the world itself, Yelena learning about poisons from the simmering Valek is pretty entertaining. There's no henbane and strychnine here; Snyder has created a cornucopia of amusing ways to shuffle off ones mortal coil, the most vicious being Have a Drink My Love, so called as it is favoured by disgruntled wives.

This is sold as adult fiction rather than YA, but as the writing style is (blessedly) uncomplicated and the protagonist is nineteen it really fits in both age groups. I do have one teensy grumble: as it is primarily for adults, and Snyder did such a good job at building up the sexual tension between Yelena and Valek, and because Valek is such a physical, earthly character, when the inevitable love scene came I was expecting a bit of, well, physicality. I don't expect porn. Just a hint of something that I can get my teeth into. What I got was two metaphorical paragraphs about air and magic and melding of minds. Radical politics and puritan sex. Pfft.

That said, I still highly recommend Poison Study. It's one of the most cohesive and satisfying works of fantasy that I've read in a long time. I'll be picking Magic Study up from the library very soon.

Editorial grumble: paragraphs after section breaks were indented rather than full-out (aligned to the left margin). This is incorrect but as it was done consistently, and my copy is a first edition, I won't hold it against the editor too much.

Monday, June 8, 2009

It's not you, Oscar. It's me.

I'm inspired by Emily's "Books I felt I ought to have liked but didn't" post over at Underage Reading.

The following are books I feel I should love, but just leave me cold. I rather think that, in these cases at least, it's my fault.

The first is Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. How many of you have actually read Alice in Wonderland, rather than just watch the Disney version? I just could not get through it. I blame my first-year novel writing class. They were allergic to adverbs (a modifier: thoughtfully, slowly; they usually end with -ly but not always) and handed my manuscripts back with every single one circled in accusing red pen. This was a good thing for them to do as I've since learned that amateur writers rely too heavily on adverbs. Since flagellating myself nightly and intoning "show don't tell" like that albino from The Da Vinci Code, I've even managed to cure myself of adverb abuse. Every now and then I allow myself one, just a small one, as a treat. (But my grammatical drug of choice these days are gerunds. Ah, sweet, sweet gerunds...) As I've been conditioned to shun adverbs, reading Alice in Wonderland, which is buried three-feet-deep in them, set up a Pavlov's dogs-esque eye-twitching and drooling that is reminiscent of certain individuals on Tram Route 57.

Verdict: the book is ruined for me.

The second is The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. I want to howl with disbelief too that I didn't get through it. I'm so ashamed. It's about a young, handsome man who wishes that he might never get old, that his portrait absorb all the side-effects of his aging and vice. I wish I'd thought of it myself.

Wilde's frivolous writing style works wonders for me in The Importance of Being Earnest (love love love this play), but I wanted Dorian Grey to be darker, like Salome, and it wasn't. The silliness grated on me and I could only get through half.

There are plenty of books I can't stand and feel no qualms about, like The Great Gatsby and The Bronze Horseman. But Alice and Dorian I feel I should have liked. I believe whole-heartedly that it's my own preconceptions that have ruined these great books, so if/when I've gotten over myself sufficiently, I'll revisit them.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Retro Review: Labyrinth, the movie

Give me the child. Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the goblin city, to take back the child you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great...

Girls and boys, hands up who believes that David Bowie in Labyrinth was responsible for their sexual awakening? I see many hands! And hands up all those who thought Toby would have been so-oo better off as a goblin and Sarah as Goblin Queen? And hands up who thinks Sarah is a whiny bi-atch and needs a good slap? And who *shudder* saw that final scene in Requiem for a Dream and screamed "Sarah, Sarah, what have you done???!!"

I first saw Labyrinth as a seven-year-old while studying Greek myth at school. I think the teacher thought it might be a PG way to introduce us to the minotaur myth (as it doesn't have all the, you know, rape) but really, the similarities between the two stories are tentative to say the least. And may I just say there's very little that's PG about Jareth's leggings ...

When I was in high-school Channel Two re-ran Labyrinth and my friends and I fell in love all over again. There was a great deal of quoting in the playground that week! "Sarah frieeeeend" "It's not fair" "Get through the Labyrinth? She'll never get through the Labyrinth!" "Fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave". Oh, swoon.

Labyrinth is one of those magnificent productions: it's just weird enough, just scary enough, just beautiful and erotic enough. Despite Bowie's big 80s hair and Sarah's leg-of-lamb sleeves (above), it's sort of timeless, too. And utterly, utterly romantic.

It's also one of the oddest love stories I know. I'm not even sure it is a love story. Despite all the "romance" it's more a coming-of-age tale. Sarah lives in a child's world of toys and imagination and irresponsibility, of which Jareth is the personification. There's more than a few Alice in Wonderland references--the drugs, the manipulation of space and time, the odd creatures that follow their own bizarre logic. In fact, I'm not at all sure it isn't a modern retelling of the classic, with Jareth as the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire cat rolled into one. With some snappy, snappy dance moves!

I did hear recently that there was supposed to be a kiss between Jareth and Sarah (in the ballroom scene, I'm guessing, just before the poisoned peach starts making her spin out--best scene hands-downs. That dress. That serenade) but they cut it out because Jennifer Connolly was too young. Too bad for her!

How you've turned my world you precious thing
You starve and near exhaust me
Everything I've done I've done for you
I move the stars for no-one
You've run so long you've run so far
Your eyes can be so cruel
Just as I can be so cruel
Oh I do believe in you
Yes I do
Live without the sunlight
Love without your heartbeat
I, I can't live within you

Friday, June 5, 2009

Spread thin. Like Vegemite.

Only two more books to read and review before I can dive back into my "just for fun" reading pile. I don't have a great deal of time for it these days, what with deadlines, editing work and my own novel! Hence being spread thin like Vegemite...

The Carbon Diaries 2015 has been on my sidebar for about two weeks now, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder is due back at the library after three renewals and I still haven't started the Mortal Instruments series. Noooooo!

I've cleared my plans for the next week and am hugging myself with joy at the prospect. Tonight I'm going to sip vodka cranberries in pink-rubber-gloved hands and bleach-speckled leggings and get down and dirty with housework and The Ministry Annual 2009. Then finish off Riding the Black Cockatoo (John Donalis) and start the review for Magpies. Tomorrow is devoted to reinstalling Windows and Microsoft Word as it's gone mental. This is seriously affecting my ability to work on my novel. The bf's best mate Pete is a computer whizz and he's going to help me nurse the damn-silly hunk of microchips back to health.

Then it's write write write! Thank goodness for the recession and getting my hours cut at work. Otherwise I might never find out what all the fuss is about Jace.

No don't tell me! *covers eyes*

Does any one else love reviews and blog topics about their most anticipated books, but then can't bring themselves to read them?

How do I know which books I'm excited about then, you ask? Well, sometimes they're the second in a series, like Catching Fire, but sometimes I've just seen a cover, read a tidbit of blurb and fallen in love, like Swoon by Nina Malkin. Only a tidbit, mind. Blurbs give far too much away, in my opinion--sometimes as much as the first half of the book!

So for this reason I'm not watching any trailers of Catching Fire, and I'm not reading anyone's predictions. Adele posted hers the other day. I read one, felt my stomach flip over and immediately closed the browser.

I have the bizarre idea that a book will somehow be "spoiled" if I know too much about it. Which is why I am simply aghast at that curious breed of reader who reads the last page first.

This fear of mine, you might have guessed, often leads to a lot of disappointment. I've gotten all sorts of cues from the cover (spooky trees! bows and arrows! sumptuous medieval gowns!) and then the book doesn't follow through with its promises.

But better a book put down in disappointment than a fabulous book spoiled. (Do I need therapy??)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Excuse me, you have something on your face. Plus Typesetting.

I spent several hours this evening completely oblivious to the fact that I had a blue Hitler mo' plastered across my upper lip, and no one thought to tell me. I left work at five in pristine (if damp--thank you Melbourne) condition, bought dinner, bought a mars bar (both from real people, not vending machines) received a sidelong glance from some man as I applied my lipstick with no mirror (I thought he was checking me out--turns out he wasn't) turned up at the Afghanistan 2009 Forum like a good little publicist with my box of books to sell and greeted the organiser. Then I set up my little table, and just before people started to arrive I nipped to the loos. And there it was. This was not a faint mark. It was full-on Groucho. I looked like a shoddy drag-king who'd just stumbled out of the Greyhound Hotel next door between rounds of gender-bending bingo. Crushing.

What made it worse was no one though to tell me I had ink all over my face. (Goodness knows how it got there. I blame the rain and cheap fabric dye.) I would tell someone that if they bought a mars bar from me. Wouldn't you? Even if they were a total stranger??

Today's post was meant to be a whimsical exploration of my thoughts on typesetting, to coincide with the State Library of Victoria's The Independent Type exhibition (24 April--25 October). I'm rather shattered, but let's press on.

I love short books. Think Metamorphosis, and On Chesil Beach. They're absolute jewels that barely run to 200 pages. I can just picture Ian McEwen slavishly shaving adjective after adverb off his sentences, long into the night, until he is left with the sparsest, most beautiful prose.

If you pick up a short book and open it, it's almost as if the letters are breathing a sigh of relief. They're taking their time, sauntering from left to right across the page without a care in the world. New chapters get their own page breaks and start low on the page. Line breaks are filled with sumptuous curlicues. There's no need to crack the spine to read the innermost sentences--margins have been set deep.

The reason you don't see such expansive typesetting on longer books is because of a bah-humbug known as the Production Manager. He or she is the one who keeps everyone in a publishing house on budget. "No you may not have embossing and a spot varnish on that cover! 70 gsm bulky will do for the paperstock! Go ask the author to cut 50,000 words out of their masterpiece, every word costs money!"

I picked up a mass-market paperback the other day and could see right through the paper, making it impossible to read. A similar abomination was all four of the Ursula Le Guin Earthsea books squeezed into one paperback with a one-inch-thick spine. I needed a magnifying glass to see "Chapter One".

To me, books are things of beauty, which is why I can't abide these Kindle things, at least not for the trade. Scientific papers, textbooks, maybe. But a book that exists purely for pleasure? It deserves some pampering, a measure of uniqueness. And above all, a generous typesetter.