Monday, November 30, 2009

Dream blurbers

These are the authors that I fantasise about writing some pithy, admiring words to be splashed across the cover of Lharmell. If it sells. I'm on day eleven* of being on submission so the fantasies and neuroses are coming thick and fast.

  • Kristen Cashore. I loved Graceling. I just started Fire. I'm in awe. She got Tamora Pierce to blurb Graceling, lucky bitch.
  • Tanith Lee. Her Claidi journals books (book 1 Wolf Tower/Law of the Wolf Tower) are funny and dark, and probably the most similar to Lharmell for tone and sense of humour. The Black Unicorn trilogy is fantastic too. I love Lee's stuff for young adults, so I really must read Piratica.
  • Suzanne Collins. Oh, I would just die. Collapse like a Victorian woman with a spot of the vapours.
  • Isobelle Carmody. Fellow Aussie. Amazing fantasy writer.
  • And, of course, the high priestess of YA fantasy for girls, Tamora Pierce. I want to be Britney to her Madonna. But with less kissing.
Who do you blurb-fantasise about?

*Approximately. I want to email Ginger and say "When? EXACTLY when did you send out Lharmell? I want to sent a timer! Mark it on my calender! Obsess over each second!" but I fear that could be too neurotic-author.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Review: Liar, Justine Larbalestier

Micah is a liar. She lies to her classmates. She lies to her parents. A boy at her school has just been murdered--a boy Micah's been involved with, a boy who is someone else's boyfriend. Micah has decided it's time to stop all the lies. She's going to tell the truth, to you. The whole truth. Honestly.

Going into this book was a very unusual experience. I usually begin a book with an open mind, ready to fall in love with the protagonist and his or her voice and character; ready to sympathise with them and see the world through their eyes. Liar was a very different experience. I went in on my guard, even with stirrings of hostility towards Micah. It says right there on the cover: she's a liar. Forewarned is forearmed. She won't catch me out.

Wrong. Micah pulls the wool over your eyes completely. And then she crows about it. You're left feeling a little hurt and moronic as she says, "You probably saw right through me, you guessed my lies, didn't you?" I was duped. Micah burst my smug little bubble. But it gets worse. Later in the book she openly mocks you. "How could you be so stupid as to believe that? Are you crazy?" I paraphrase, but you get the idea.

It would be pretty easy to dislike such an unreliable, unfriendly narrator. Wrong again. Larbalestier makes that impossible. Liar or not, Micah is intriguing and oddly likable. A lot of people have asked the author what really happened, but Larbalestier has refused to tell. I think what really happened is beside the point. What's fascinating is the journey Micah takes you on, the two narratives with their very different endings. In fact, I don't think even Larbalestier knows which one is the "truth". I don't think it was her intention for there to be a discernible truth.

Liar is a clever read, and certainly one-of-a-kind. Even though what really happened isn't the point, I can't help but speculate. This is what I believe really happened: (contains about a million spoilers, only read if you have read the book, highlight text)

Micah ended up in a mental institution. She did kill Zach, her brother and the others. She is not a werewolf. She used a knife. The filthy white boy is her alter ego, stuck at age twelve, the age at which she killed her brother. My reasoning is this: Micah's compulsive lying makes sense if she is mentally ill. It doesn't if she's a werewolf. The lies she tells aren't just to protect her and her family's wolf secret, which is the reason she gives for lying in the first place. They're to amuse herself, like the lies about kissing Sarah and Tayshawn a second time. If she's a werewolf she has no reason to lie about these things to us. Blaming all her lies on her family's history of lying doesn't make sense as they lie to protect their secret, not for fun. They are the lies of sane people with something to hide. If Micah is a werewolf, she has no reason to make up all these other lies. They just don't make sense. On the other hand, if she's a killer who likes to lie, she has every reason to make things up. Logically, then, it is more likely that Micah is a killer who lies than a werewolf.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

In My Mailbox (13)

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

Good morning/afternoon all! I'm very chipper today as I got Zapp (not his real name) out of bed before 9 am on a Saturday to go shopping. I know, I was scanning the sky for pigs myself. I got indoor plants and candles and various doo-dads, plus a new book case! New books lately have been stacked on the floor, poor things. I'll be introducing them to their new home tomorrow.

A modest one this week. Bought:

The Maze Runner, James Dashner. (Book Depository) From the passages I've skimmed and reviews I've read, I reckon I'm going to enjoy this one.


A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card. I'll read this after I'm done with Ender's Game.

Mortal Engines, Phillip Reeve.

Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban. This is a classic dystopian/sci-fi recommendation from my boss.

Tonight I'm seeing Moon. Not New Moon. Moon. It's a sci-fi thriller. I'll let you know tomorrow if it's any good!

An image just released from the filming of Tomorrow, When the War Began. Ellie and Homer getting a look at the bridge to Wirrawee.

Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.

OMG. Can't wait.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Books for Writers (2): Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

This book was recommended to me by Teri Hall, author of the forthcoming The Line, out next March from Dial. I hope you excuse my name-dropping--I'm just so excited for Teri's book to come out!

Anne Lamott is the author of many books of fiction and non-fiction, none I have ever read or even heard of unfortunately. She's also a book and restaurant critic and teaches writing classes. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life evolved out of these classes. The writing style is very informal, as if you're sitting at the back of her class, short story clutched in one hand, coffee in the other with a headful of ideas and enthusiasm.

You won't find the rules of paragraphing in this book. Or adverb-sledging. Or a discussion of speech tags. What you will get is an homage to writing and writers and the joy being an artist can bring. Lamott doesn't see reading and writing as a mere hobby, something to pass the time in between moments of "real" life. Rather, writing and reading is life for some people, and if you're lucky enough to make it yours you are opening up a world of richness and fulfillment. Stephen King in On Writing acknowledged that some people need permission to do nothing but read and write all day, so he said "There you go! I'm giving you permission. Sit your goddamn ass down." (I paraphrase. He didn't use those exact words. He probably said f***ing ass.) In Bird by Bird, Lamott not only gives you permission, she sings the praises of the craft so sweetly that your bum will be in your writing chair so fast you won't know what happened:

Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you ... My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I am grateful for the ocean. Aren't you?

But refrain from slapping the book down and jumping straight into a blank page of Word. Read on. There are so many beautiful passages in this book, not least the one from which the book gets its name:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilised by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulders and said "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

Lamott handles the big-picture stuff in this book: taking things bird by bird so you don't get overwhelmed, shitty first drafts, viewing your scenes through a one-inch frame. Then there's sections on jealousy, writer's block and libel. The book is worth reading for the passages on jealousy alone. I'm not unfamiliar with the green-eyed monster myself. If I believed in astrology I'd blame it on being a Scorpio. But I'm a non-believer, so I'm stuck with blaming myself. With her singular humour, Lamott relates her own instances of being afflicted by jealousy and how she dealt with it. There's some beautiful advice, some sensible advice, and some snarky advice. I like the snarky advice best, it being two lines of a poem by Clive James entitled "The Book of my Enemy has Been Remaindered". I like it so much, in fact, that I tracked it down and will reproduce it at the bottom of this post so we can all return to it the next time our short story doesn't win a prize, our article is knocked back or we get a form rejection from an agent who requested a full or partial. (This is a heinous crime. I'm happy to receive a form rejection from an agent I've sent a query to, but from someone who's requested and read my work? It's like saying "This was SO bad I can't even face talking to you." The green-eyed monster then erupts from her tomb, howling These Things Are Not Happening To Other People, Clearly I Suck.)

Whether you had a happy childhood or an unhappy one, there are doubtlessly moments you look back on that you'd rather didn't happen; that cause pain or embarrassment or shame so acute that you'd like to cut that part of yourself right out of your body. My own childhood contained the trauma that you'd expect a middle-class white girl to have: divorce, pimples and social awkwardness between the ages of about eleven to, oh ... now, peaking at roughly fourteen and steadily decreasing since then. I can think of about a million things that happened and a million emotions that I was privy to that I want to cut right out of my body or squash down so deep that they transfer by heat to VHS, crawl out of the television and murder unsuspecting teenagers who watch it on summer camp. I've done so well at pretending my childhood never happened these last few years that the sad thing is, I'm starting to forget it. And if I don't start remembering soon, it'll be gone forever. Lamott had her own painful childhood that she wanted to repress, but instead she has mined it for material. Therapy and countless novels, all rolled into one!

I could go on and on about the fantastic stuff in Bird by Bird. It's very funny and very real, and I recommend it to everyone writing a novel and hoping to be published. Which I suspect is all of you, judging by all the NaNoWriMo-ing going on.

Here is the poem by Clive James, one of the many ways in you can quiet that green-eyed monster we all are from time to time.

'The Book of my Enemy Has Been Remaindered'

The book of my enemy has been remaindered 
And I am pleased.

In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.

Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles

One passes down reflecting on life's vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one's enemy's book --
For behold, here is that book

Among these ranks and banks of duds,

These ponderous and seeminly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered

And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,

The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week

His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys

The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,

The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper

Bathes in the blare of the brightly jacketed Hitler's War Machine,

His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyart with a forlorn skyscraper

Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,

His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed by others,

His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretense,
Is there with Pertwee's Promenades and Pierrots--

One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment,
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,

His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor's Book of Boobs,

A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
"My boobs will give everyone hours of fun".

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,

Though not to the monumental extent

In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error--
Nothing to do with merit.

But just supposing that such an event should hold

Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

Clive James

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Meatloaf and Beauty and the Beast

I've been thinking a lot recently about the things I loved in my childhood and how they relate to the things I love today. I'm not much of a Meatloaf fan, but one of his tracks has stuck to me like glue over the years.

One of my favourite Saturday morning things to do when I was a kid was watch Rage. Rage is a long-running music video program that begins around 1 am on Friday and Saturday nights on the ABC. On Saturday morning they do the top twenty or so songs of the week and my brother and I would always be up to watch them. This was the East 17 era, The Rockmelons ... and Meatloaf. I remember the clip for 'I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)' with such clarity. It must have aired for weeks and weeks when I was about ten. It's an epic clip, nearly eight minutes long. I've always loved the song and had this vague idea that it had something to do with Beauty and the Beast. I of course saw the Disney adaptation of this fairy tale at the time like every other Barbie-wielding ten-year-old girl. In Beauty and the Beast, an ugly, beastly man is redeemed by the love of a beautiful girl, transformed back into the prince he always was and they live happily ever after. In 'I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)' Meatloaf is the Beast, complete with uglifying make-up (insert snarky comment here), motorcycle and Gothic mansion.

What I've found curious over the years are the lyrics: what is the "that" that Meatloaf won't do? And what's the Beauty and the Beast connection?

They're actually quite beautiful lyrics:

Maybe I'm crazy, but it's crazy and it's true
I know you can save me, no one else can save me now but you

As long as the planets are turning, as long as the stars are burning
As long as your dreams are coming true, you better believe it

That I would do anything for love, and I'll be there til the final act
I would do anything for love, and I'll take a vow and seal a pact

I do love fairy tales, but I do find some of the assumptions that accompany them irritating. Beauty equals goodness, for instance. And the notion of happily ever after, as if it's as easy as falling in love and happiness forever after is a given. I'm a romantic but I like a bit of reality with my romance.

During Beauty's solo towards the end of the song, she asks the Beast all the things he'll do for her:

Will you raise me up, will you help me down?
Will you get me right out of this Godforsaken town?
Will you make it all a little less cold?

Will you cater to every fantasy I got?
Will ya hose me down with holy water, if I get too hot?
Will you take me places I've never known?

He says vehemently that he will. Of course he will! He's dying to be redeemed, and besides, she's smokin'. So, happy ending on it's way! All that's left is for Beauty to do is leap on the back of that motorbike.

But she continues, rather accusingly:

After a while you'll forget everything
It was a brief interlude and a midsummer night's fling
And you'll see that it's time to move on

I know the territory, I've been around
It'll all turn to dust and we'll all fall down
And sooner or later, you'll be screwing around

And that's the "that" that Meatloaf is referring to. He declares he won't screw around, he won't cast her off or move on. After he's declared this, he's transformed into the prince, proving that he's not lying, and they ride off into the sunset together.

The clip retains its romance and happy ending, without the hero and heroine casting themselves blindly into happily ever after.
How lovely is that?

'I'd Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)' reached number 1 in Australia on September 4, 1993 (two months before I turned ten) and stayed there for eight weeks. Beauty and the Beast was released in cinemas in 1991.

I'll leave you with the film clip. Rock out with your heart out.



Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review: Crank, Ellen Hopkins

When Kristina visits her estranged, low-life father in another city she encounters Adam, a baby-faced boy who introduces her to the monster: crystal meth. A normally shy, studious girl, Kristina morphs into Bree, a wildly unpredictable girl who can only think as far as her next fix. Her family don't understand what happened to their sweet little girl, and Kristina doesn't know if Bree will ever let her come back.

Getting a character from straight-As, shyness, and conservative friends to meth-addicted party girl is a challenge for any writer. Going back over the first eighty pages or so of Crank reveals how skillfully Ellen Hopkins transformed Kristina into Bree. She's in a new city with a lax parent, away from everyone who knows her as the good girl, the virgin, the smart one. She's also resentful of her mother for taking her father away from her (as she perceives it), so what better time to act out? Plus, there's the cute boy who's noticed her, and it's impossible not to have your head turned by the first boy who shows a proper interest. There's this "coulda happened to anyone" feel about it.

This is my first Hopkins book and I loved it. I'm not a big fan of poetry and only read one or two other verse novels. As someone who writes and reads prose I find poetry too miserly, too obtuse, too self-conscious. And bad poetry is something akin to food-poisoning: a revolting experience. Crank is good poetry. Fantastic poetry. It's so easy to lose yourself in it. The pages turned without me even noticing and I was pulled quickly into the story.

I've heard Tricks, Hopkins latest verse novel about teenage prostitution, is pretty horrifying and while Crank deals with some heavy subject matter, it's not upsetting or overwhelming. When I was a teenager crystal meth hadn't surfaced in Australia (or was just surfacing). Heroin was the demon drug. They ran the heroin toll alongside the road toll in the newspaper. Nobody was curious about heroin where I came from. The needles and the junkies and the films we saw were a huge turn-off, and protected us from being even mildly curious about the drug. But crank (ice or crystal as it's known here), while it has a pretty bad reputation, has only relatively recently surfaced as the new drug demon--as opposed to opiates like heroin that have been around for hundreds? thousands? of years. And whether the horrors of addiction have filtered down to teenagers like the horrors of heroin addiction did when I was a teenager, I have no idea. But packets of little white powder that you put up your nose (like coke, and how glam is coke! Let's all be Kate Moss!) are far more palatable than a syringe full of heroin that you put up your arm. Which is why I'm angry Ellen Hopkins was banned from speaking at an Oklahoma school earlier in the year. Knowing how a popular, highly addictive and easily administered drug can affect you can only be a good thing.

There's gushy text-speak in a few of the poems I found jarring and dated, but Crank was released in 2004 so was probably on the cutting-edge of publishing at the time. Hopkins was inspired to write this book after her daughter became addicted to crank, and I suspect that the events of the novel closely mirror real-life events. What an experience for Hopkins to go through.

When I was in high-school I had a mental list of Things Not to do When I Lose My Virginity, garnered exclusively from the woeful first-times had by girls in books. If I'd read Crank at the time I would have added 5. Not on drugs. Crank is highly recommended to everyone. Especially if you live in Oklahoma.

The sequel, Glass, was released in 2007 and the next book, Fallout, is due for release in 2010.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: The Road, Cormac McCarthy

I don't usually post the jacket copy when I review, but it's just so perfect I can't help myself:

A man and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing but a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food--and each other.

The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which a father and a son, 'each the other's world entire', are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

There's no names in The Road--the characters are simply 'the man' and 'the boy'. There's very little punctuation either. All apostrophes and unnecessary commas and capital letters have been stripped out, as if the niceties of polite punctuation have been obliterated. In contrast the man and the boy are achingly polite to one another. The man is determined to keep a brave face for his son. Conversations are clipped and brief, often utilitarian, sometimes soothing, and even, on occasion, funny. I didn't expect to smile much reading this book, but the man's gentleness with the boy often gives way to exasperation at the boy's naivety and stubbornness and their circular conversations. There are some genuinely amusing moments.

The man insists to the boy that they are the 'good guys', and they have to be on the lookout for the 'bad guys'. The euphemism became clear as I read: the bad guys are cannibals. The pair are traversing the bleak landscape to search for other 'good guys', i.e. other people who don't eat people. The boy is very young, perhaps five, and the man tries to protect him from the horrors of the road, often unsuccessfully.

I've read many post-apocalyptic books, often set during the disaster or just after, or thousands of years in the future, but never one just a few years after. McCarthy has envisaged humanity's darkest hour, a time when everything is dead, even the sea. Trees fall over, dead. There are no birds. The sun is obliterated and the nights black as pitch. It's impossible to be unaffected by the world he's described, especially seeing it through the eyes of a dying man desperate to care for the survival and morality of his young son. The reason for the destruction of the world is a great fire, cause unknown to the reader, but it is a metaphor for ecological disaster of any kind. It's chilling to imagine that this could be our future.

The Road is an ungodly place, or as McCarthy puts it, 'coldly secular'. In this book, God can be interpreted as God himself, or as a metaphor for goodness and humanity. At one point the man thinks of Death, the Grim Reaper, and imagines a time in the near future, when Death will find himself alone, having reaped every last soul in the world. The Road is a wasteland, physically and spiritually. It's a heavy-going read, but recommended. As the man says to the boy at one point, you can't take things out of your head (horrible things) once they're in there. It's good advice: there are several horrifying moments in this books, and once they're in your head, they'll stay there. The language can be obtuse also, one of the reasons why this book didn't get a perfect five on Goodreads. Some of the description lost me, and one scene meant little to me until I read up on it on Wikipedia.

It feels funny to say 'I enjoyed this book', but I did. Have a good think about whether you're ready for it before you pick it up. Once it's in your head, it won't go away. It's worth reading for the last paragraph alone, one so beautiful and so shaming. (Don't cheat and just read the paragraph. People who read the last lines of books without reading the rest of the book first are disrespectful book criminals!)

The Road won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2006.

The film is out in the US on November 25, 2009, UK on January 4th 2010, and Australia on January 28th. I think it will make a great film, and probably be more shocking and more heartbreaking than the book. Something to look forward to, no?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

In My Mailbox (12)

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

I can't find my camera in the MESS that is my house, so here's a Photoshop montage of this week's books:

  • Cordelia's Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold.
  • Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card. Library.
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry. Book Depository.
  • Eternal, Cynthia Leitich Smith. Review.
  • Tempted, PC and Kristen Cast. Review.
  • A Breath in May, Robyn Hogan. Bookmooch.
  • The Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson
  • The Vampire is just not that into you, Vlad Mezrich. Review.
  • While I Live, John Marsden. Op shop.
  • Touch not the Cat, Mary Stewart. Op shop.
  • My Sweet Audrina, Virginia Andrews. Op shop.
  • Gossip Girl, Love the one you're with, Cecily von Ziegesar. Review.
  • Alien Secrets, Annette Curtis Klause. Better World Books.
  • Shiver, Maggie Stiefvater. Review.
  • Perrault's Fairy Tales. Book Depository.

Must. Go. Clean.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Trap Doors and Vampire Ducks

These are the television gems of my childhood, the shows that aired between five pm and the 6 o'clock news on ABC, or on weekday mornings home sick from school. Thinking about my favourites, I notice a certain consistency with my current tastes ...

Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place, lives Berk (Allo!), overworked servant of "the thing upstairs" (Berk! Feed Me!) But that's nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out...

The Trap Door was a four-minute claymation cartoon produced between 1984 (my year of birth) and 1986. In each episode the trap door is opened and a nasty thing escapes into the castle. There's lots of worms squirming about and the most disgusting food is concocted. Boni sits in his corner making sarcastic comments, dry observances, and generally being useless. So my favourite character! The show has a huge cult following and is available on DVD. *Resisting the urge to eBay*

The opening credits are very horror-film spoof:

Another horror-film spoof was Duckula, based of course on Dracula. This show ran for 22 minutes and I remember that it and The Trap Door would often be aired in the same half hour. Such happy times! Duckula is a reluctant blood drinker as he was resurrected using tomato sauce instead of blood due to one of Nanny's many blunders. To Igor's horror, instead of hunting for victims, Duckula strives for wealth and fame. Duckula's nemesis, Doctor Von Goosewing (named after Dracula's enemy, Doctor Van Helsing), refuses to believe he's harmless and appears in many episodes trying to stake him with this weird stake-slash-gun.

Count Duckula is perhaps the original tortured, angsty vamp, created long before Anne Rice's Louis made moping cool.

This was a series that I loved as an older child when I was home sick from school. It was filmed between 1985 and 1992 and was my introduction to the girl-goes-on-a-quest-narrative. There were about thirteen seasons of T-bag shows, but my favourites were T-bag and the Rings of Olympus and T-Bag and the Pearls of Wisdom. In each episode both the girl and the evil witch T-bag are searching for pearls or rings scattered across space and time--T-bag to obtain world domination and the girl in order to defeat T-bag. T-bag's reluctant sidekick often ended up helping the heroine, and I think became a love interest for the questing girls in later episodes when he was a teenager--but don't quote me on that, I may be remembering incorrectly!

My all-time favourite was, of course, Doctor Who. Everyone who loves the show had a favourite Doctor, and mine's Tom Baker. He defintely comes under the category of weird-looking-but-oddly-attractive men. No? Just me? (Unlike Christopher Eccleston, the first next-generation Doctor, who's just downright hawt.) Tom Baker actually married on of his companions (Romana, pictured) during the show, but it didn't last. I loved the drama of the Doctor Who, all the hand-holding and rushing hither and thither. Eccleston and Billy Piper did a great job of recreating all that I loved about the show (and OH! the final episode, so romantic and so sad!) but this new Doctor's totally lame. Doctor Who, in my opinion, should be freakishly tall and quirky. I just don't get quirky from him.

The show also wins my Best Opening Theme of All Time award. Classic.

Now do excuse me while I go relive my youth on YouTube.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In defence of writing courses

Last week I finished RMIT's Professional Writing and Editing diploma. I did it full time for two years in 2007 and 2008, and part time for 2009. During this time I worked on six novels, finished one and plan to finish three of the other five; many short stories; countless essays and articles; been paid to freelance; had many reviews published; expanded my reading comfort zones in many directions; interned with a publishing house; worked in publishing for two years come February; and got an agent. I also Found My Niche, which is perhaps the most important thing of all. Oh, and I started this blog. I also inspired my mother, who also loves to write, to sign up for a similar course, and I take credit for my father beginning to write a sci-fi novel. Now if only he'd finish it. (Of course, to their faces I hollered "Get out of my goddamn niche! Find your own hobby!" Terrible, ungrateful child that I am.)

My writing credits before I started the course were a lot of academic essays and reports, a failed Mills & Boon, several abortive attempts at novels, a handful of short stories and some fan-fiction, lost out there on the great swamp of words that is the internet, never to surface again. I hope. I was also a waitress and depressed at the idea that an Honours in Psychology would lead me to a life working with stroke and car-crash victims. As an undergrad, behavioural neuropsych sounded fabulous, until last semester rolled around and Reality Set In. What? You mean I won't be sitting in a cozy lecture theatre forever more? I'll be in a clinic? No thank you!

If I hadn't completed this course, I wouldn't be here today. I don't mean I'd be dead. I mean writing this blog. I also wouldn't have the job I do and I seriously doubt I'd have an agent.

My writing before I started this course? Pretty atrocious. I could string sentences together and write an interesting scene or two, but I had no idea how to revise or edit or plot, or the million other little things that are important when writing novel-length fiction. I had this weird idea that once I'd written something down it was as good as set in stone; that if it didn't come out brilliant the first time, it was always going to be rubbish.

But worst of all, I was afraid. Afraid of people reading my work. Afraid of anyone even knowing I was writing. A key part of the course, especially the novel writing subjects, is work-shopping: reading out your thousand words or so to the twenty other people in class and then having them critique it. On paper and out loud. The first time I work-shopped I was a wreck. Even the act itself was an eye-opener: passages that seemed like Shakespeare only the night before turned to drivel before my eyes as I read them aloud. The pages came back with adverbs circled, clumsy metaphors questioned, passages dotted with question marks and tactful "I can see what you're trying for here, but..."

I went home and I rewrote. And I came back to class a few weeks later with something about a million times better. By the end of the year I had twenty thousand words of a novel that had petered out into nothing, but they were good words and I was proud of them. I still remember fondly the day I made everyone fall about with laughter at something I'd written. It was the first time that had happened, and it's just the best feeling.

Now, after three years of critiquing and being critiqued, I am well on my way to what I believe is the Holy Grail of writing: being able to put into words exactly what I set out to say. This is my litmus test when I write: is this what I intended? Is this how things look and feel when I see them in my head? I'm still working on this skill and sometimes my characters go off and do things seemingly of their own accord--but when they do this I'm pleased to find that they are right and I am wrong; they sound pissed off because they are pissed off, and not ready to get on that horse or go to sleep or forgive their best friend thankyouverymuch.

Along with critiquing my own work I got to critique others. This is an invaluable experience. When you read novels you're reading the end product of years of work. Mistakes and inconsistencies (hopefully) have been ironed out, and there's only so much you can learn from them. Being able to pin-point why something isn't working is invaluable, and is best learned by reading other people's unpolished work. It also teaches you tact and respect, and how much work the unsung heroes of the writing world--editors--actually do.

There were all sorts of other skills, contacts and opportunities I gleaned during my years at RMIT, but these are the most important. Especially losing my fear. It was worth it just for that.

But then there are the cons. I learned so much from the lovely people in my course, but not all of them were as lovely as I could have hoped. Some were pretentious. Some were loud. And some were downright crazy. You can't choose who is in your class, and you're stuck with them for a whole year. Worst of all, the pretentious, loud, crazy people give advice along with the forthright, calm, sane ones. Sometimes they can be very persuasive. They can get into your head and make a mess of all the good things you've learned. And they're not immediately identifiable, these insidious creatures. But one way to spot them is to ask their opinion of one or two of your favourite writers, especially if you model yourself on them, and see how they react. If they spout a whole lot of crazy, feel free to politely ignore their advice for the rest of the year. Also, even your non-crazy classmates won't get what you're writing if they're not familiar with the genre. Weed them out too. This last year in Writing for Young Adults, the critiquers I trusted were reduced to about three individuals as everyone else read contemporary realism. The class was free of pretentious crazies, however, and everyone was loads of fun, which leads me to believe that people who write for children are far more palatable than those who don't.

In addition to the crazies, watch out for complacency. Once you're in a writing course it's easy to feel like the pressure's off: just being in class is enough. Your masterpiece will practically write itself. When I actually started to write everyday like I was supposed to, I realised how lazy I had been until then. Lazy and complacent.

Stephen King has a dig at writing courses in On Writing, especially at the crappy advice that comes out of work-shopping and the complacency they cause. But that's really a case of User Beware: if you're on your guard, you'll be impenetrable to bad advice. King didn't have a nice thing to say about these courses, which was a shame. I hope I've persuaded you otherwise if you were of a similar mind.

One more thing: In Australia we have creative writing courses at university and at TAFE. TAFE is perceived as the blue-collar, cheaper, inferior version of university, but don't be too swift to judge. TAFE is ideal for learning a trade, and writing is a trade.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sci-fi for Girls

I'm over at The Book Smugglers today reviewing The Warrior's Apprentice for a guest dare. I gave Ana and Thea a list of genres outside my comfort zone and they suggested a book that would hopefully change my mind. I tend to avoid male protagonists, sci-fi and epic tales (among other things) and they came back with the third(ish) book in Lois McMaster Bujold's space opera. I loved it! I'm now a sci-fi convert (what do you know, it's not just for nerds!) and am on the lookout for more sci-fi of a YA bent, especially featuring female protagonists. Here's what I've come up with so far:

Enchantress from the Stars, Sylvia Louise Engdahl (1970)

Elana, a member of an interstellar civilization on a mission to a medieval planet, becomes the key to a dangerous plan to turn back an invasion. How can she help the Andrecians, who still believe in magic and superstition, without revealing her own alien powers? At the same time, Georyn, the son of an Andrecian woodcutter, knows only that there is a dragon in the enchanted forest, and he must defeat it. He sees Elana as the Enchantress from the Stars who has come to test him, to prove he is worthy. One of the few science fiction books to win a Newbery Honor, this novel will enthrall teenage and adult readers.

Podkayne of Mars, Robert A Heinlein (1962)

While accompanying their uncle, a wily politician, on a trip from Mars to Earth, Podkayne and her brilliant, but pesky brother are caught in a plot to keep Uncle Tom from an important conference.

This Place has no Atmosphere, Paula Danziger (1986)

It's the year 2057 and fourteen-year-old Aurora couldn't be happier with her life on Earth—she's part of the "in" crowd, her best friend is a celebrity, and Matthew has asked her to Homecoming. But Aurora's parents have new jobs on the moon, and she and her little sister must leave their friends and schools to go with them. Aurora is sure she will hate life on the moon, because there are only 750 people in the whole colony. What if none of them is a cute boy her age?

Friday, Robert A. Heinlein (1982)

Engineered from the finest genes, and trained to be a secret courier in a future world, Friday operates over a near-future Earth, where chaos reigns. Working at Boss's whimsical behest she travels from far north to deep south, finding quick, expeditious solutions as one calamity after another threatens to explode in her face....

Alien Secrets, Annette Curtis Klause (1993)

Puck, expelled from boarding school on Earth, is on her way to stay with her parents on the planet Shoon. On board the spaceship she befriends Hush, a native Shoowa who is also returning home in shame. He is desperately seeking a stolen treasure that was entrusted to him, a symbol of freedom for his people.

Puck and Hush must find the precious Soo before they reach Shoon. But who can they trust? And how will they save their own skins as they hurtle through space on a ship haunted by terrifying ghosts?

Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey (1968)

To the nobles who live in Benden Weyr, Lessa is nothing but a ragged kitchen girl. For most of her life she has survived by serving those who betrayed her father and took over his lands. Now the time has come for Lessa to shed her disguise—and take back her stolen birthright.

But everything changes when she meets a queen dragon. The bond they share will be deep and last forever. It will protect them when, for the first time in centuries, Lessa’s world is threatened by Thread, an evil substance that falls like rain and destroys everything it touches. Dragons and their Riders once protected the planet from Thread, but there are very few of them left these days. Now brave Lessa must risk her life, and the life of her beloved dragon, to save her beautiful world. . . .

Cordelia's Honor, Lois McMaster Bujold (1996)

In this two-part story, Cordelia Naismith, made an outcast after being forced into marriage with her arch enemy, finds further trouble when her husband is made the guardian of the infant heir to the imperial throne.

Beggars in Spain, Nancy Kress (1993)

Leisha Camden was genetically modified at birth to require no sleep, and her normal twin Alice is the control. Problems and envy between the sisters mirror those in the larger world, as society struggles to adjust to a growing pool of people who not only have 30 percent more time to work and study than normal humans, but are also highly intelligent and in perfect health. The Sleepless gradually outgrow their welcome on Earth, and their children escape to an orbiting space station to set up their own society. But Leisha and a few others remain behind, preaching acceptance for all humans, Sleepless and Sleeper alike. With the conspiracy and revenge that unwinds, the world needs a little preaching on tolerance.

Thanks to my dad for a few of these. Who else has recommendations for me? I sense a reading challenge coming on!

Monday, November 16, 2009

In My Mailbox (11)

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

I'm somewhat late this week, but I have a good excuse, honest. It was my birthday on Friday. Yup, Friday the Thirteenth. Unlucky for some. But not me! I had a lovely dinner with my friends and drank lots of margaritas.

Then on Saturday I attended the wedding of a school friend at Melbourne Town Hall--very schmick! We were ushered onto the balcony overlooking Swanston Street while the bride and groom had their picture taken, and served canapes and champagne while we "lorded it over everyone" from on high, as my friend Nick put it. We got our boyfriends looking very slick indeed. I even got dear Zap to tuck his shirt in, though he refused a tie on account of the hot weather.

Melbourne Town Hall, Swanston Street

Late on Saturday night we went to The Emerald Peacock for another friend's birthday drinks (though he turned up very fashionably late from Vue De Monde) and then on to Silk Road for a Pacha night. Sarah Main from Ibiza was playing and while I loved the gorgeous venue, I was pretty disappointed with the music (ultra commercial--remixes of the Kings of frigging Leon is NOT house music) the venue managment (drunk, trouble-making people should be kicked out) and the number of toilets for the ladies (TWO. Count them: TWO. I was in the queue for nearly an hour. There were about 600 people in the club.) They cleared the place at three because fights were breaking out. I won't be going back there.

The Emerald Peacock, Lonsdale Street

Silk Road, Collins Street

I spent Sunday afternoon in the Botanical Gardens for a friend's 23rd, which was a lovely way to finish the weekend. Not a lot of reading got done, as you might have guessed!

These are the books I got this week.

  • Rampant, Diana Peterfreund (bookstore special order)
  • Declarations of Independence: Empowered Girls in Young Adult Literature, Joanne Brown & Nancy St Clair (Amazon)
  • 101 Places to Have Sex Before You Die, Marsha Normandy & Joseph St James. Several suggestions are at a wedding (no, we didn't try it!) in a hot air balloon and while playing Second Life. Avatars need some fun too, it seems!
  • A Year of Writing Inspiration, Suzanna Male
  • The gorgeous black book on the left was made for me by my friend Sarah who is the graphic designer where I work. She's also a book binder. On the wrapping paper she wrote "Happy Birthday Fangbanger!" We're both loving True Blood and are obsessed with Bill Compton, and are having a Season Two binge next Sunday. Can't wait!
And I also got Battlestar Galactica and started watching it. Love it! So much better than the crappy crappy film I saw earlier in the year.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

She Bop: Masturbation in YA Lit

They say that a stitch in time saves nine,
They say I better stop, or I'll go blind.

This post has taken many days to write and almost never got to see the light of day. I tend to put a lot of the "I" in these blog essays so a post about masturbation is a difficult one to write. But my point, as you will see, is that it should be written about, so it would be silly of me to want others to do so if I can't myself. As members of my family sometimes read this blog I won't stray into the realms of TMI. (Too Much Information.) I wouldn't anyway, come to think of it!

There's always been lots of discussion about sex in YA books--how much is suitable, whether it's suitable at all, whether books containing sex should be in the school library. But what about masturbation? Like most words of a clinical nature that deal with sex, I'm not fond of the word "masturbation", but we have a limited vocabulary when it comes to sex and "masturbation" is vastly preferable to "rubbing one out" or any of the other slang terms, so I guess I'm stuck with it.

I never read a YA book as a teenager, if my memory serves me correctly, that contained or dealt with masturbation. For girls, anyway. I think I may have read one or two with male characters that did. I did read adult books (not xxx adult, just regular adult) that mentioned masturbation in passing, but in hindsight I see that they didn't deal with it in a very sensible way. They were mainstream popular romances by Diana Gabaldon and Elizabeth Chadwick and Jean M. Auel. These books are absolutely stuffed with sex, especially virgin deflowerings of both the male and female variety. In one Chadwick book it was remarked that Guinevere/Elisabeth/Marietta or whatever her name was never masturbated; it was implied that this just Wasn't Done. Of course dear Guinevere/Elisabeth/Marietta came in five seconds flat on her wedding night. Jean M. Auel handles things similarly to Chadwick: her heroine Ayla is turned on watching some mammoths go at it, but doesn't do anything about it until Jondalar comes along. Jondalar "relieves himself", as it's euphemistically put, near the end of The Valley of Horses and feels an incredible sense of shame and loss at having wasted his precious fluid. Diana Gabaldon's Jamie professes to detest the act as well, in Drums of Autumn if I remember correctly.

These are all historical novels, so perhaps the authors believed that this was the way their characters would think due to the times in which they lived. But this explanation doesn't sit well with me. Really, grown men being precious about their fluids? Eighteenth-century lusty Scots detesting the act? I was probably fourteen or so when I read these books, and instead of scoffing (as I am doing as I type) I took it all to heart. The sex-ed teachers only made it worse with their silly cartoons about kids being ashamed in their beds and being struck by lightning. (I had a secular upbringing and I suppose the lightning was meant to represent God, though I didn't realise it at the time. Lightning itself was alarming enough.) These vids were meant to assuage any fears ("don't worry, you actually won't get struck by lightning"), but they had the opposite effect on me. We watched them when we were about twelve, I think. My reasoning went something like this: "if those kids on the tape are ashamed, and the teachers assume we're ashamed, there's probably a good reason for it; ergo, these videos are meant to prevent the freaks who do masturbate from killing themselves. Masterbation is therefore the lesser of two evils. No one normal must be doing it. All right then."

I really did over-think things that much, and being "normal" was a big deal for me at the time.

I outright asked my closest male friend around this time whether he "did it" not and he cried "No! Of course not! How could you ask me such a thing?" Years later over beers I called him out on that. He replied, "What did you expect me to say? We were thirteen. 'Wanker' was the biggest insult around."

You could argue that it's my own fault for being confused due to the books I was reading as they really weren't meant for younger teenagers. Chadwick and Gabaldon and Auel are written for grown-up women and I should have stuck to LJ Smith. But where's the fun in that? I was looking for smut, and there sure isn't any in LJ Smith! I say smut in the most affectionate way, might I add. I loved the Chadwick and Gabaldon books. I still do. I just didn't have any thoughtful YA lit to counteract these ridiculous romantic ideologies like Sex Is For Married Virgins and Love And Babies, and all that rot that goes along with it. Like, Masturbation is Wasteful and Wrong.

You could also ask why on earth I took anything seriously that I read in mainstream romances. Again, I was fourteen and books, even fiction books, were like my religion: therein lies the Truth. I knew that vampires weren't real of course and my wardrobe didn't lead to Narnia (*cry*), but the characters in my books were like real people and I tended to pay attention to what they thought and felt.

I also may have responded, "Really?" the first time someone said, "You know, they've taken 'gullible' out of the dictionary, Rhiannon." I was a dear, trusting child ...

All this muddle could have been undone by one or two thoughtful Blume-esque chapters on the subject in the many hundreds of YA books I was also reading at the time. But no, there was not one book I read that dealt with the subject of masturbation, at least for girls. And we all know that boys get up to far grubbier things than girls do, right? (Which is how I thought then, and occasionally do still think now. Like the other day when I found my dear boy washing his feet in the bathroom hand basin. Thirteen or thirty-five, boys can be bloody gross.)

Around this time I read Tiger Eyes, my very favourite Judy Blume book. I reread it earlier in the year and still loved it, and read the Wikipedia page about it for trivia. Imagine my disappointment when I read this:

Judy Blume states in her book Places I Never Meant to Be that this was the only book she has written that she has voluntarily censored. In the original draft submitted to her editor the character Davey masturbates while thinking about Wolf. Her editor pointed out that the book was likely to be read by many more young readers if the scene was left out. After agonizing over the decision, Blume agreed and removed the passage. This remains the only occasion in which the often censored author has removed a controversial passage from one of her books.

I'm still fuming about this. Younger readers wouldn't have given a damn if that scene was left in--if the book had been allowed into school libraries, which it probably wouldn't. If there is any author that can sort out the confusions of an adolescent in a few neatly penned chapters, it's Judy Blume. If only I'd read Deenie, a Blume book that does deal with masturbation. But I didn't. I don't think I ever crossed paths with Deenie. Maybe the libraries I used didn't stock it for some reason. Funny that.

I managed to sort things out on my own and never did get struck by lightning (phew!), but I'm feeling rather betrayed. Not by Blume as such. Heavens know that she's pushed enough envelopes and copped enough flack for her books over the years. She's done so much good with books like Forever, a book I'm personally grateful for. I'm annoyed at the whole squeamish system; that books that deal with subject matter vital to a certain age group aren't being given to that age group. Are people even writing YA about masturbation now? I certainly haven't come across any.

This might turn into a case of "Fine, I'll write it myself!" But I'm going to have to come up with a more elegant turn of phrase than "rubbing one out."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Books for Writers (1): Stephen King's On Writing

There are a ton of books out there that give writing advice; some good, some bad and some awful. In this new feature, Books for Writers, I'll be reading a few of them so you don't have to (if they're awful) or pushing them on you like crazy if I think they're worthy of your time.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is, shocking as it is to admit, the first Stephen King book I've ever read. I know, take me out back and shoot me already. I blame a string of bad film adaptations (The Langoliers, for one. Oh, OH it's bad), and complete ignorance until recently that King wrote The Green Mile and The Shoreshank Redemption, two brilliant films. I knew he wrote The Shining but put down the awesomeness of it to Kubrick, not King.

I read this book on a recommendation from my boss. He teaches a publishing and editing degree and has shelves full of books in the office with austere titles like The Elements of Style and New Hart's Rules, so I was a little surprised to see him photocopying out of On Writing for a class one day. It was this page:

The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o'clock because that somehow says to him 'Put it this way and people will believe you really know.' Purge this quisling thought! Don't be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write The meeting's at seven. There, by God! Don't you feel better?

And I was hooked from then on.

The first half of On Writing is anecdotes from King's early life that he thinks accounts for the writer he became. I skipped over this as I wanted to get to the meat, which starts around page 113 in my edition, a chapter called What Writing Is. King draws analogies between what should be in a writer's mind and his uncle's formidable toolbox: vocab and grammar up top, elements of style underneath and so on. With grammar in particular, King takes things back to basics. What he relates is by no means Grammar 101 (you'll have to read another book for that--I'll let you know when I find one that doesn't make my gnaw my limbs off in despair) but he does talk about the basic parts of a sentence and what order to put the words--subject first, of course. ("The meeting's at seven!")

There's always some adverb-bashing to be had in books like this and King doesn't hesitate to put the boot in. Adverbs often end in -ly and are used to qualify verbs, like strangely and roughly. But he makes the point that not all adverbs are Satan's little helpers. I heartily agree. (There, now, that didn't hurt, did it?) Sometimes nothing but an adverb will do, and if Lharmell is published it will contain a smattering of adverbs. You have been warned! But each and every adverb (thanks to the vicious red circles on my pages made by my writing class peers) that I typed was accompanied by a flash of Pavlovian fear, half a second's consideration, followed by a swift deletion or rush of heady defiance. But the one time, King says, that adverbs should be shown the door are when you are writing speech tags, ie. "Never," she said firmly. I'm reluctant to use them in this case myself, but I recall that "Rodden said roughly" made it into my draft of The Harmings yesterday. It may be edited out. Further consideration is required.

What I like best about On Writing is the big-picture stuff: how King uncovers his stories, how he writes and how he feels about the craft. He likens the writing process to uncovering a fossil. A story is to be excavated, not plotted. Stories are discovered whole, in his opinion, but begin with a single spark, a What if? and as a writer it's your job to uncover it. He also believes that you should start with a situation, rather than a theme or character or so on. I'm not convinced that excavation is entirely different from plotting, but it's an interesting chapter.

King's not a great believer in writing courses. I can see his point but am inclined to be defensive. Two days ago I finished my three-year stint undertaking RMIT's Professional Writing and Editing diploma, and I am without a doubt a better writer, both in my method and my manner, for having done it. I want to explain how and why this is, and also the dark side of writing courses, but I'll save it for another post.

On Writing is an informative and cracking read. King's first and foremost an entertainer and I recommend this book to people who are interested in books in general, not just writers, and also for people who are interested in King himself. There are plenty of personal anecdotes, including a blow-by-blow account of what happened when he was hit by a van in 1999. His descriptions of his wife, his Ideal Reader (who he writes for) are very touching.

When I write scenes that strike me as funny I am also imagining my IR finding it funny. I love it when Tabby laughs out of control--she puts her hands up as if to say I surrender! and these big tears go rolling down her cheeks. I love it, that's all, fucking adore it.

My IR is a mix between me at fourteen and my partner. Especially the jokes. The jokes are all for him, and when he reads my pages I hover in the next room shouting "What bit was that?" every time he laughs. And he laughs in all the right places. It's a bit harder to access me at fourteen, but when I get that overwhelming sense of longing and wistfulness, usually accompanied by a voice in my head saying "That's soooooooo romantic", I know I've found her. She finds the oddest things romantic, like that scene in Hannibal when Lecter cuts his own hand off and not Clarice's when they're stuck in cuffs together. "Above the bone, or below?"

On Writing is highly recommended for everyone bookish.

I'm taking Stephen King book recommendations. Please leave one in the comments! His dystopian/fantasy works preferably, not the horror/psychological ones. I really want to read Under the Dome, which was released here yesterday, but it feels all wrong to start with this end of his career.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Waiting on Wednesday: The Line by Teri Hall

The Line by Teri Hall is another one of my most anticipated books of 2010, and chapter one has just been put up on the author's website! Available March 4. It's also been optioned for television. How cool is that?

From extract:

The Line itself was invisible. There was a barren ribbon of soil running along the meadow as far as the eye could see, where the grass couldn’t grow. And Rachel thought she could see a funny sort of haze, but even that was only apparent in certain lights—right before dusk, or early in the morning.

Though the Line was almost imperceptible, it had
affected many lives. It affected Rachel’s too. In a sense, the Line was the reason Rachel ended up working in the greenhouse, instead of just playing.

Her mom would have said that wasn’t true. Rachel could hear the lecture in her head: It is always a person’s own actions that bring about any real change, good or bad. Vivian would have said a lot more than that if she knew what really happened.

What really happened was that Rachel tried to Cross.

I wondered about the significance of the greenhouse on the cover. This one sounds like it's going to be an exciting read!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Reviews: Return to Labyrinth Volumes 2 & 3

Now that my beating heart has returned to a somewhat normal pace, my review of volumes 2 and 3 of Return to Labyrinth should be more coherent than the blubbering fan-girl mess that was my review of volume one. Effeminate, rail-thin Englishmen with atrocious teeth don't usually have that effect on me. It's a Bowie thing. Well, a Goblin King thing.

Spoiler free.

At the end of volume 1, Jareth named Toby his heir. (That's not a spoiler because Jareth tells us that's what he's going to do right from the beginning.) But we'll get to Toby in a minute.

Volume 2: It's thirteen years previously and Jareth's having nasty dream about Sarah beating him at his own game all over again. He goes to see the witch, Mizumi, whom he rejected a thousand or so years earlier after toying carelessly with her heart. Is she bitter? HELL yes. But either that doesn't occur to Jareth or he's too Sarah-addled to care because he asks her for a favour: an ablation. Sound nasty? It kinda is. But we don't get to find out why until volume 3.

Back to Toby and the present day. Most of volume 2 for Toby is exploring the Labyrinth and learning what his new role as king will entail. The creepiest bit is when he discovers the Museum of Toby, created by this tall, stringy goblin with spiny fingers and pointed teeth. This dubious character has fashioned a life-sized dummy of Toby ... out of Toby's dead skin cells and toe-nail clippings collected over the last decade. Ew.

Moppet, the girl/goblin who can't remember who she is, discovers a room in the castle which seems familiar, and has a flashback to Jareth doing the fear me/love me speech. (I bet he says that to all the girls.) Alarm bells are a-ringing! There's also an armoire. An armoire was practically mandatory in all Lab fan-fic I read as a teenager. The "it" word. Filled with flouncy dresses, of course. Good to see the tradition lives on.

No questions are really answered in volume 2, but there's a sense things are building up to something, and it ain't necessarily good. The story kinda faffs around a bit (why do I care if Hana gets her wings back, really?) but it's all worth it for the very last page. I squealed. I really did.

Volume 3, then. I got excited all over again reading this installment. I realised that the burning question isn't "Will Sarah and Jareth declare their undying love for one another and make the dreams of little-girls-all-grown-up round the world come true?" but "Is Jareth good or evil?" And really, as much as I'll swoon if I get my happy ending that's been twenty years in the goddamn making, I'm getting pretty antsy to know the answer to question 2.

So, volume three goes something like: coronation coronation, Mizumi and her daughters being bitchy, yukky goblins being yukky ... the ablation is explained. Oh, it's good. Well, actually it's pretty evil, but you get my drift. And it makes the closing scenes pretty darn sinister. I was wrong about the predictions I made about Moppet. I love it when I'm wrong and the real answer is so much juicier.

I think what I like best about these comics is that they feel very similar to to the film. They're quirky and odd, and, if I may quote, things aren't always what they seem. (Jareth even breaks into a tortured serenade at one point. How Labyrinth is that?) Sure, the transition between frames can be clumsy and the dialogue's pretty naff and most renderings of Jareth and Sarah are way off. But the characterisation's done well and the story's certainly an interesting one. It was always going to be hard for what is essentially fan fiction to live up to the film. And hats off to you Jake T. Forbes and Chris Lie. You've done a pretty all right job.

And I'm dying to know. Jareth: good or evil?

Volume four out ... sometime soon I hope.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review: Wild Magic, Tamora Pierce

Thirteen-year-old Daine flees her home when raiders attack and kill her family. Hiring on with a horse-mistress who supplies the Queen's Riders, Daine puts to use her unique--and strange--knack with animals. Her attempts to hide the extent of her wild magic fail when she rescues a falcon fleeing from Stormwings. The falcon is really Numair, friend of Alanna (yay Alanna!), and the most powerful mage in Tortall. Under his tutelage, Daine begins to master her magic--and not a moment too soon as there's trouble brewing in Tortall: Immortals, banished to the Divine Realms four hundred years previously, have found their way back into the human realm and begin to wreak havoc.

Reading this book I felt thirteen years old all over again: Daine's uncertainty, awkwardness around men in their twenties, useless frustrating tears. Oh how I remember! It can be a dubious pleasure to revisit this age, but Tamora Pierce makes it so darn exciting. I was worried that I wouldn't get the same pleasure from Pierce's books this time around, but I needn't have worried. I had a ball.

Wild Magic is set about a decade after the end of the Song of the Lioness quartet. Alanna, star of this earlier series, is all grown up. She features heavily in this book, as does Queen Thayet. Alanna has paved the way for women warriors, but there is a heavier focus on magic in these books than the earlier quartet (if I remember correctly; it's been even longer since I read the Alanna books). Daine and Numair are two of my favourite Pierce characters. They're funny and sweet together, have a great scenes--and I make no secret of the fact that I have a big dirty crush on the tall, dark and handsome mage. "Stork-man", as Daine's pony calls him.

This isn't so much a review as a gush: I could sooner chew off my left arm than say bad things about this book. I loved reading it again! If your unfamiliar with the world in which Pierce sets her novels, you could start with The Immortals, but preferably with the Song of the Lioness quartet and learn about the history behind Alanna, Jonathan, the King of Thieves and all the other characters, not to mention the complex world Pierce has created. The first book is Alanna: The First Adventure.

This is one of my many favourite scenes in Wild Magic, early on when Daine's still learning and everyone's a bit twitchy because of all the Immortals crashing around:

Thayet yelled, trying to get Daine's attention. Daine turned, but before she could answer a heavy form slammed into her. Down she went, mouth filling with brine. Trying to rise, she was slammed again and thrust deeper into the water by the animal's impact. She opened her mouth to scream, and breathed seawater.

Miri and Evin later said she popped into the air to hang upside down from an unseen hand, pouring water as she fought ... Then the hands that weren't there whisked her to the beach where Onua waited with a blanket. Daine was put gently on her feet, but her knees gave.

Numair strode down the beach towards them, his face like a thundercloud. Black fire shot with white light gathered around his outstretched hand. Sarge grabbed a quiver of javelins, Buri her double-curved bow. Both raced to attack the brown creature lumbering up onto the shore.

Daine saw them just in time. "No don't!" She threw herself in front of the animal. "Don't!" she screeched when fire left Numair's fingers, flying at them. He twisted his hand, and it vanished.

The Immortals quartet was published between 1992 and 1996 and isWild Magic, Wolf-Speaker, Emperor Mage and The Realms of the Gods.

Now go. Go and read them.