Saturday, January 30, 2010

Guest Post: Aurealis Award Nominee Kate Forsyth with the skinny on the awards

The Aurealis Awards celebrate the best in Australian speculative fiction. I am a firm proponent of Australian speculative fiction, as you might have guessed, so the Aurealis is something I get excited about. I was thrilled when Kate Forsyth, author of The Puzzle Ring, shortlisted for best YA novel in the 2009 Aurealis Awards, offered to do a rundown of the night. I recently read The Puzzle Ring and will review it early in February as part of a blog tour. In the meantime, if you check my Goodreads widget below and to the left you can see how much I loved Kate's book! I can highly recommend The Puzzle Ring and it certainly deserves its nomination.

Nominations in the YA category for 2009 are:

  • The Puzzle Ring, by Kate Forsyth
  • The Museum of Mary Child, by Cassandra Golds
  • A Small Free Kiss in the Dark, by Glenda Millard
  • Leviathan Trilogy: Book One, by Scott Westerfeld
  • Scarecrow, by Sean Williams

Now, over to you, Kate!


The 2009 Aurealis Awards were a gorgeous, glitzy affair at the Judith Wright Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane last Saturday night. The auditorium was crowded with writers, illustrators, book sellers, editors, and publishers, many of them making an effort to dress up and enter into the spirit of the night. Sadly I did not win the Teenage Book of the Year – that honour was conferred on Scott Westerfeld and his wonderful alternative history novel Leviathan – but I had fabulous fun anyway. Here are some photos:

Zoe Walton, Children’s Publisher at Random House, with Kate Forsyth, and Pamela Freeman, winner of the Best Children’s Short Fiction category.

Sean Williams and Kate Forsyth (both nominees for Best Teenage Novel) with the winner, Scott Westerfeld. The other nominees, Cassandra Gold and Glenda Millard were unfortunately not there at the award.

Kate with Kaaron Warren, whose novel Slights was shortlisted for the Best Horror Novel (won by Honey Brown)

Kate and Kim Wilkins

Kate with Glenda Larke, whose novel The Last Stormlord was shortlisted for Best fantasy Novel (won by Trudi Canavan)

A few highlights of the night include:

* Andrew McGahan winning best SF Novel with ‘Wonders of a Godless World’ – lovely to see authors who are normally considered as writers of contemporary realism spreading their wings into the speculative fiction genre

* Justin Ackroyd winning the Peter McNamara Convenors’ award – I remember my very first Aurealis Award ceremony was held in his shop in Melbourne. It was in 1997 when I was short-listed for my first novel Dragonclaw­ and he was very warm and welcoming to a rather shy new girl on the block

* the establishment of the Kris Hembury Encouragement Award for Emerging Artists, which was won by Kathleen Jennings.

Here is the complete list of winners:

Best Science Fiction Novel
Andrew McGahan, Wonders o
f a Godless World, Allen & Unwin

Best Science Fiction S
hort Story
Peter M. Ball, 'Clockwork, Patchwork and Ravens', Apex Magazine May 2009

Best Fantasy Novel
Trudi Canavan, Magician's Apprentice, Orbit

Best Fantasy Short Story (joint winners)

Christopher Green, 'Father's Kill', Beneath Ceaseless Skies #24
Ian McHugh, 'Once a Month, On a Sunday', Andromeda Spaceways Inflight M
agazine #40, Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-operative Ltd

Best Horror Novel
Honey Brown, Red Queen, Penguin Australia

Best Horror Short Story (joint winners)

Paul Haines, 'Wives', X6, Coeur de Lion Publishing
Paul Haines, 'Slice of Life - A Spot of Liver', Slice of Life, The Mayne Press

Best Anthology

Jonathan Strahan (editor), Eclipse 3, Night Shade Books

Best Collection
Greg Egan, Oceanic, Gollancz

Best Illustrated Book/Graphic Novel

Nathan Jurevicius, Scarygirl, Allen & Unwin

Best Young Adult Novel
Scott Westerfeld, Leviathan Trilogy: Book One, Penguin

Best Young Adult Short Story
Cat Sparks, 'Seventeen', Masques, CSFG

Best Children's Novel
Gabrielle Wang, A Ghost in My Suitcase, Puffin Books

Best Children's Illustrated Work/Picture Book

Pamela Freeman (author), Kim Gamble (illustrator), Victor's Challenge, Walker Books Australia

I’m so happy for all the people who won, it is such a tribute to the diversity, energy and sheer talent of the Australian speculative fiction community. There was, however, a lot of talk over the announcement that the awards will no longer be run by Fantastic Queensland, the group that has been organising the ceremony for the past six years (and, I think, have all aged about a thousand years as a result – the work load must be immense!) Apparently an announcement is soon to made about who is to take over the awards. Check out the website for more info:


Thanks so much Kate! Look out for my review of The Puzzle Ring shortly.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My new hobby, inspired by WIP research

For some reason there's a lot of dance in my writing. In Lharmell there's a Pride and Prejudice-inspired reel, in another WIP there's ballet and in book two of the trilogy, The Harmings, there is sword dancing, courtly dancing and bellydance. I love to dance and took lessons in jazz, tap and ballet for about eight years as a child. I was never any good, really, and never got higher than a credits in my exams. I remember when I attended one ballet school, one which I loved and actually pushed the dancers to excel--it being the only time when I could almost, almost do the splits--the girls who got high distinctions for their exams were awarded these magnificent golden trophies with a ballet dancer atop a crown. Needless to say, I hankered after the pretty, pretty things. But never got one.

YouTube is one of my favourite places to research things like glassblowing and castles and dance. When I was researching bellydance, a video I came across was this one, featuring famous US bellydancer Sadie:

I mean, wow. How do you make your diaphragm vibrate like that? I showed Zapp this clip and he said bellydance had always made him uncomfortable as he thought of it as a purely for the entertainment of men and likened it to stripping. He was surprised that I, who bristles over pole dancing going mainstream, was interested in it. Hollywood has certainly depicted the dance in this way: slave girls and harem girls in classic films entertaining men, wearing very little. But I've done some research and the iconic bra and belt combination (know as a bedlah, Arabic for "suit" pictured below) is actually a Western invention that has been picked up by not only dancers in the west, but Middle Eastern dancers as well.

This is the sort of outfit that springs to mind when someone mentions belly dance. The bra and belt combination is actually a Western invention that has been popularised in the last hundred years or so by both Western and Middle Eastern dancers. The girl in the picture is Sadie again. Lord, but she's stunning!

I was curious as to the history of bellydance and couldn't find much about it that was comprehensive on the net. I borrowed two books from the library that were very helpful, Tina Hobin's Belly Dance: The dance of Mother Earth and Bellydance by Keti Sharif.

Both books are highly informative and give a history of bellydance. Hobin's is the most comprehensive, going back over thousands of years of history to discuss depictions of dance in rock paintings and in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Sharif's book is shorter but contained the best explanation of the the "cabaret" style of bellydance that Westerners are familiar with compared to the localised forms of Middle Eastern folk dance. She also has a very good description, and pictures, of traditional dress. To comply with Islamic law, the costumes are high necked and long sleeved, and always include a head scarf and a covered belly, but are often as glitzy as the bra and belt combinations.

Hobin discusses with great detail the origins of the dance. In Ancient Egypt, dance was performed at weddings, funerals, religious festivals and private feasts. Throughout antiquity and into modern times, the dance has been linked to prostitution, but also with birthing rights. The snakelike movements were meant to ease the baby into the world and were performed by the mother and the women close to her. Women were allowed to dance until they were married, but not afterward. During the Ottoman rule in Turkey, around 500 AD, women in the harem practised the dance to alleviate boredom. "Harem" is the name for the women-only part of the household, the room to which the wives, daughters, concubines and slaves of rich men were confined. It sounds like a very tedious, catty existence.

Many contemporary bellydancers reject the idea that the dance had anything to do, at any time in history, with prostitution or the entertainment of men. Rather they claim the dance evolved exclusively as a birthing ritual. Some of these dancers can be seen on YouTube in skimpy cabaret outfits dancing as men tuck money into their belts. The performances seem to have remarkably little to do with birth--the latter stages of, at least.

Bellydance's diverse history has allowed the evolution of many styles. I love Rachel Brice's fearsome take on the dance, and the many sword and candelabra dances that I have seen.

Rachel Brice performing a heavily stylised drum solo. I love how she manages to convey grace and beauty with a sense of touch-me-and-I'll-break-your-arm.

To complement my usual yoga and pilates, I've enrolled in bellydance classes at Azura's Oasis in Brunswick. I had my first class last week and it was so much fun! Yoga and pilates are all well and good, but conquering a particular pose was beginning to seem rather dull. Pilates is hardly a skill, whereas learning a new style of dance is. And bellydance is one of the very few styles of dance that grown women can learn. Also, you can do it by yourself, unlike partnered dances like salsa and flamenco. Having a new hobby is also helping to take my mind off Lharmell being on submission!

Does anybody else take dance lessons? What sort of dance do you enjoy? Also, has novel research flowed over into a new hobby for you before?

Monday, January 25, 2010

North and South, the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel

Last week I detailed my Classic Crushes: who from classic literature I find irresistible. Pirate Penguin told me about one of her crushes that, for her, trumps Austen's leading men: Mr Thornton from Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. She urged me to track down the BBC adaptation, and I'm ever so glad I did.

The title refers to the industrial north and wealthy south of England. Margaret Hale, the heroine, moves with her family from the south to the fictional town of Milton, modeled in Manchester, after her father, a minister, disagrees with an edict from the church. She hates the smoke and close confines of the city, and the cruelness of the masters towards their workers. One such master is Mr Thornton, played by Richard Armitage. If Armitage, Colin Firth (as Austen's Mr Darcy) and Timothy Dalton (as Bronte's Mr Rochester, 1970s adaptation) were pitted against each other in a scowling competition, it's difficult to say who would come up trumps. Armitage's severe nose gives him an advantage, but up against Firth's arrogant sneer and Dalton's cold blue gaze and shock of black hair, I don't know who to put my money on!

The scowl in all its glory

The beauty of a good scowler is that when they actually smile, it's like the sun coming out and you swoon all over again.

Like Rochester and Darcy, Thornton has his soft and lovable side, and is of course improved and redeemed by the strong-willed heroine. It takes a woman, of course, to write a man we will all fall so violently in love with. Apparently Byron does it quite well too, as these sorts of men are called "Byronic", but I'm yet to read any of his work.

North and South has a great deal more conscience and social awareness than most nineteenth-century novels I have read/watched BBC adaptations of. The central theme is the romance between Hale and Thornton, but there's also a great deal about working conditions at the time and the misery that the industrial revolution caused for the working classes. There are some brilliant shots of the inside of the cotton mill, the air thick with snowflake-like cotton that all the workers, including young children, breathe in on a daily basis for long hours.

I knew I'd seen Armitage in something recently. He played the vicar's dishy love interest on The Vicar of Dibley several years ago. Too freaking cute.

North and South is one of the best costume dramas I have watched. It's perfectly cast, has beautiful cinematography and one of the most heart-wrenching moments I've seen. Highlight for spoiler: the moment in episode four when Margaret departs Milton for London, and Thornton is looking for any sign that she loves him and whispers, "Look back at me" as her carriage pulls away. Gah! Tears and hand-wringing.

Thanks again to Pirate Penguin for turning my attention to North and South! My appetite for more costume dramas is thoroughly whetted. Are there any more I should know about?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In My Mailbox (21)

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

Oh, it's so pretty! I'm very excited to receive The Dead-tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan for review. It's been too long between zombie books. (Available April 2010 in Australia.)

Also for review I got About a Girl by Joanne Horniman and Lord Sunday: The Keys to the Kingdom book 7 by Garth Nix.

From eBay I received Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, a favourite book from my childhood, and the lovely Velvet sent me a copy of Genesis by Bernard Beckett because she was shocked and appalled that I hadn't read it. Thanks so much Velvet!

Yesterday I reviewed The Lotus Caves by John Christopher, some vintage sci-fi for middle-graders by the author of The Death of Grass.

It's early Sunday morning and I've got a soy chai and some orange juice. There's croissants in the fridge I'm going to fill with ham and cheese and bake later (look! See me cook). I've got a review of The Road, both the book and the film, to write for X & Y Magazine, plus some posts for this blog.

And then, dear readers, once I've done all that, I am going to read some more of The Puzzle Ring. There'll be an extra special post by the author, Kate Forsyth, coming up later this week.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: The Lotus Caves, John Christopher

Marty was born on the Moon, in the Bubble. His knowledge of Earth comes from documentaries and history classes at school. Life in the Bubble is defined by limitations: on resources, on space. When Marty's best friend is sent to Earth unexpectedly, he befriends the loner, Steve, and the two begin to cause mischief to alleviate their boredom. Finding a key left in a crawler by mistake, they take the vehicle out onto the surface of the Moon. Their journey becomes more than idle exploration when they discover the diary of a man who went missing more than seventy years previously.

The Lotus Caves (1969) is by John Christopher, the same author of one of my favourite reads of last year, The Death of Grass. The latter is a dystopia for adults; The Lotus Caves is sci-fi for children. It will appeal to middle graders, the main characters being two twelve-year-old boys, the writing very accessible and the length short.

I found this book rather slow to start but the pace picks up quite nicely as soon as the boys take the crawler beyond the limits of where children of the Bubble are supposed to venture. This isn't one of Christopher's many dystopian works but he creates a wonderful creepiness as Marty begins to discover the truth about what resides in the Lotus Caves. It was difficult to get a full sense of any of the characters, but through the course of the novel Marty develops from a somewhat bland, easily-led boy into an intelligent free-thinker. Steve, on the other hand, who in the Bubble seems to be the independent one, if a tad reckless, is revealed to be weaker willed than his friend.

The novel shines in the last third. The vivid descriptions of the Lotus Caves and the unpleasant truth behind what the boys--and the missing man--call the Plant makes for interesting reading. The action is wrapped up a little quickly, and the beginning is a touch slow, but The Lotus Caves is a worthy addition to a middle-grader's sci-fi library, or as an introduction to the genre.

I'm pleased to discover there's meant to be a film version of this book released in 2010/11. It will certainly lend itself to adaptation. The phosphorescent world of the Lotus Caves reminds me a lot of the glowing world of Avatar's Pandora.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Classic Crushes

Note: This post is a little spoilery.

Girls all around the world are unfaithful to their partners on a daily basis. We fall in and out of love weekly and are generous with our affections. But we are also fickle and even forgetful. I rarely think of Henry from The Time Traveler's Wife any more, or Michael from Anne Rice's Mayfair Witches trilogy, but I crushed heartily on them for a time. We can transfer our affections from one of the heroine's love interests to the other from one book in a series to the next. How many Team Peeta girls became Team Gale after that kiss? What's the bet that Team David girls become Team Tamani after reading Spells by Aprilynne Pike? (For the record I'm totally Team Tamani. It's the Jareth effect.)

Classic literature abounds with crush-worthy heroes. What better way to while away an English class than in blissful contemplation of Atticus Finch or stormy Heathcliff? (This doesn't work quite so well for Macbeth or Camus' Mersault or Hardy's Angel Clare, unfortunately. Unless you like your men tragic, murderous and/or despicable.)

I adored Odysseus in high school. Ten years away at the Trojan war (where he performs quite brilliantly, by the way), it takes him another ten years to find his way back to his beloved Ithaca and to his wife Penelope. Pissing off Poseidon was rather rash considering, as the sea god points out, Ithaca is an island and he must cross the sea to reach it. But with the use of his sparkling wit and at the sacrifice of his entire crew, he makes it home and gloriously kills--with the bow that only he can string--all that sully his dear wife by daring to court her. The Odyssey is a fantastic read, better than The Iliad, in my opinion. It's time I read both again.

Odysseus and Penelope

I'm rather fond of Mr Darcy, and lord knows he has legions of adoring fans, but who can go past Captain Wentworth and his beautiful letter? After having been persuaded (hence the title, Persuasion) that Wentworth isn't a proper match, Anne rejects his proposal and spends the next eight years as a spinster. But he returns from the Napoleon Wars a rich man, still in love with her as ever and pens possibly the most beautiful love letter of all time:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.

I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never.

The letter, of course, does the trick.

Two Captain Wentworths from dramatisations

My personal favourite is Edward Fairfax Rochester, he of the mad wife, bigamous intentions, dark past, but is redeemed by his love for Jane Eyre:

To women who please me only by their faces, I am the very devil when I find out they have neither souls nor hearts — when they open to me a perspective of flatness, triviality, and perhaps imbecility, coarseness, and ill-temper: but to the clear eye and eloquent tongue, to the soul made of fire, and the character that bends but does not break — at once supple and stable, tractable and consistent — I am ever tender and true. (Mr Rochester to Jane.)

The story is passionate, Gothic and tumultuous. Some of the most beautiful love scenes lie therein, and the most sparkling conversations.

Two Edward Rochesters from dramatisations

Who are your favourite literary crushes?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

In My Mailbox (20)

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

More '09 and earlier books from the library this week. There's so much catching up to do!

The Devil's Kiss, Sarwat Chadda

Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld

A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray

Have you been over to The Last Blog in the Universe yet? It's a new blog with more than 20 contributors all posting on dystopian books including little ol' me. There's going to be reviews, interviews, essays and all sorts of cool things. See you there!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thoughts on Short Stories

I've put Lharmell and The Harmings aside. Lharmell is on submission and I've written about 80% of The Harmings, book two in the trilogy. I don't want to steam too far ahead. It seems unwise as changes might need to be made. Ginger is reading what I've done of my standalone urban fantasy right now to see if it has potential. I'm very excited about it so I hope she thinks so!

So what's a writer to do? It seems silly to start a fourth novel when I'll only have to turn away from it in a matter of weeks. I'm hardly the world's biggest fan of the short story, for various reasons, but writing one seems to be a good way to fill in some time. (I've also just started a new hobby that I'm loving, inspired by some research I did for The Harmings. But more about that next week!) And really, how hard can a short story be for a novelist? 3000 words? Pfft. With eyes closed, my dears.

Uhhh...No. It's sending me batty. It's so hard! The plotting itself was a dream. I spent a day researching Norse mythology for some story ideas. I love getting inspiration from obscure fairy tales and myths. I found my chick, smooshed her story together with a few other stories I'd come across, added a liberal dose of poetic license to give it the sort of ending I was after and voila! An outline for an entire story in one very casual day.

The next day I started writing. I wrote the opening paragraph...over four hours. Then I had to eat a mighty slab of Christmas cake to soothe my jangled nerves. I don't know much about short stories, but I do know that word choice counts. Word choice always counts, of course. But in a novel, if I feel like describing an outdoor scene for two pages I bloody well will. Ain't gonna cut it in a short story, though. It's an interesting task, seeing with how few words I can set a scene. My lavish comma use has had to stop as well. I've turned into a veritable Gertrude Stein when it comes to punctuation. Not a semicolon in sight, and all short sentences.

Also, by the time someone picks up Lharmell in a book store it will have had an army of people to do its hair, make-up and lighting. It will be fierce! The short story, however, is just me. And maybe one or two friends pointing out my most glaring errors. Eep!

The current word count stands at 1,300, a woeful number considering that I'm not working at the moment. (Waitress for hire! Can carry three plates and almost never drops beer on people.) But they are 1,300 very well chosen words, and while the characterisation is still in its infancy, I'm liking how the world is shaping up. And I've got a scene for Mireyah's Fighting Scene Blogfest on Feb 1, yay! If you haven't signed up yet, do it here.

I planned to have the damned thing done by now to post here in three parts. Not gonna happen! Next week.

What do you find to be the differences between novels and short fiction? Readers and writers, opinions please!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Rapping at my chamber door: Edgar Allan Poe and MC Lars

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore —
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visiter," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door —
Only this and nothing more."

This (above) is the first verse of Edgar Allan Poe's 1845 poem "The Raven". An unnamed narrator sits poring over "fogotten lore" when there comes a "rapping at my chamber door".

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;

But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,

And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"

This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!"
Merely this and nothing more.

Lenore is the man's dead lover whom he mourns. Then there comes a rapping at his window, and upon opening it a raven flies inside and sits upon his bust of Pallas Athena (the Greek goddess of wisdom, which indicates the man is a scholar or student.) The man begins talking to the raven, who replies only "Nevermore", causing the man's increasing agitation and frustration. It's a rather ominous picture, a raven showing up in the middle of the night and croaking "Nevermore" at a grief-stricken, bookish and lonely man.

After several repetitions of "Nevermore", the man can bear it no longer and cries:

"Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting —
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!

Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"

Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."

The bird is a stubborn creature and at the end of the poem the narrator tells the reader that it is still sitting in his chamber:

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,

And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore!

Traditionally, the raven is a messenger and sometimes a harbinger of evil. In several stories, ravens were white, but turned black as punishment for not delivering a message on time, or delivering an unhappy one. It's perhaps a personification of the Grim Reaper in this poem. I haven't found an interpretation that satisfies me, however.

"The Raven" is one of the most famous poems ever written, even being parodied in a Simpsons Halloween special. (When you've been immortalised on The Simpsons you've totally made it as an artist.)

Now to the music portion of my post. Several years ago MC Lars released "Mr Raven", a parody of Poe's poem:

Kick it! Once upon a midnight dreary, while I kicked it weak and weary,
Dark and cold just like Lake Eerie, Brand New sample, someone clear me.
While I nodded nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping.
Up like, "What?", this thunder clapping in my brain like graphic Halflings.
Staffing me, I put down Milton. Cell phone mute like Paris Hilton.
Open window, halfway built-in. Times a changing like Bob Dylan.
Twenty-pound bird black as could be, cold feet cold eyes aimed straight at me.
Grim face, grim stare, death carnivore, quoth that raven "Nevermore."

Kick it! indeed. MC Lars likes his literature, two more of his songs being inspired by Shakespeare's Macbeth and Hamlet.

It doesn't seem like a film clip was ever made for "Mr Raven" but here's a good quality version to listen to. I defy you not to dance where you sit.

"Who's house? Raven's house!"

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Review: Swoon, Nina Malkin

The publisher's blurb is too perfect. I must use it rather than write my own summary:

Sin is coming... Prepare to Swoon.

Torn from her native New York City and dumped in the land of cookie-cutter preps, Candice is resigned to accept her posh, dull fate. Nothing ever happens in Swoon, Connecticut...until Dice's perfect, privileged cousin Penelope nearly dies in a fall from an old tree, and her spirit intertwines with that of a ghost. His name? Sinclair Youngblood Powers. His mission? Revenge. And while Pen is oblivious to the possession, Dice is all too aware of Sin. She's intensely drawn to him—but not at all crazy about the havoc he's wreaking. Determined to exorcise the demon, Dice accidentally sets Sin loose, gives him flesh, makes him formidable. Now she must destroy an even more potent—and irresistible—adversary, before the whole town succumbs to Sin's will. Only trouble is, she's in love with him.

Just when I think I'm done with paranormal romance--the predictability, the frakking love triangles, the paper doll heroines--up pops a book that takes my breath away. What is that past tense of "swoon"? I'm swun. Totally floored. Floating away on a fluffy white cloud.

Unconventional heroes are a risky business. I felt no love or sympathy for Nick of The Demon's Lexicon fame. Micah raised my hackles--though in the end I did find Liar to be an interesting read. I admit to favouring righteous, upstanding but charmingly flawed protagonists. Rather vanilla of me, right? I should get out more. But Dice is flawed all right. She treads the line between flawed and downright reprehensible through every chapter of Swoon, and I lapped it up. Nina Malkin charmed the socks off me. Swoon is told in Dice's rhythmic, luscious and unpretentious manner. She levels with you. She doesn't sugar coat anything or ask for your approval. Sinclair Youngblood Powers has made her go a bit nutty. Which is perfectly understandable as I went a bit nutty for him too.

Some people are just going to hate, Dice. I've never seen so many one-starred reviews for a popular 2009 YA book on Goodreads; so many "did not finish" tags. Swoon is also rather racy, something I don't mind at all when it's part of the story and written well. Malkin writes it very, very well. Hats off to anyone who can write about sex and lust in a way that isn't clinical, cringe-worthy or dull--and still suitable for a teenage audience. Racy it is, graphic it is not.

Then there's Sinclair himself. Sin. Lets get the frivilous part out of the way first. He's described as tall, broad, half Caucasian and half Native American. I'm not on Team Jacob but I was picturing Taylor Lautner post-steroid binge the whole time. Hawt. But what makes him fascinating throughout Swoon is being unable to tell whether he's good or evil, or whether to believe a word he says. Dice, the smitten kitten, is inclined to trust him almost to a ridiculous degree. But Malkin keeps her characters on the side of believability and reels Dice back each time she strays too far into dumb-lovestruck-heroine territory.

But this book isn't called "Sin" or "Dice". It's called Swoon, and the town of Swoon is just as important as the protagonists. Many of the families who lived in the town and that were responsible for Sin's lynching (or at least, what amounts to a lynching--the trial was hardly fair) are still living in Swoon, and it's them he wants to exact his revenge on. He wants them to shed their polite, guarded exterior and expose their true nature: cheating wives, abusive fathers, repressed sexuality. There's that delightful ambiguity again: is it revenge, or is it liberation?

Swoon is a very touching tale in the end--though some of you seem to have trouble getting that far. If you can lose yourself in Malkin's lively prose, fasinating plot and wicked sense of fun, you'll have a ball. I loved this book.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

In My Mailbox (19)

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.


  • The Divorce Express, Paula Danziger (eBay)
  • Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? Paula Danziger (eBay)
  • This Place has no Atmosphere, Paula Danziger (eBay). These three books I read when I was about 13 and I remember liking them a lot. This last one is about a girl and her family who go to live on the moon. It's one for my sci-fi for girls unofficial challenge.
  • Academy 7, Anne Osterlund (Book Depository). I bought this after I saw Tamora Pierce raving about it on Goodreads. It's set in space too!
  • A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle (eBay).


These are all reborrows, books that I got out last year that I never got too but just have to read. I want to get most of my 2009 reading before I turn in earnest to 2010 books.

  • Shadowed Summer, Saundra Mitchell. I really liked this one. Review here. I made beans and rice in honour of this book last night (it being a Creole Louisiana dish, and Louisiana is the setting) and it was so yummy! Definitely be making it again.
  • The Dead and the Gone, Susan Beth Pfeffer.
  • Swoon, Nina Malkin. I'm reading this right now and it's a very unusual book. I have to say I'm really liking it so far--lust and jealousy and ghosts that look like Taylor Lautner. Malkin writes it so well!

It's so hot here, the air-con is on and I'm cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast. I know, hardly hot weather food, but I am STARVING. Happy Caturday!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Review: Shadowed Summer, Saundra Mitchell

Fourteen-year-old Iris Rhame accidentally awakens the ghost of boy, Elijah, dead these last twenty years. Elijah's disappearance from the small Louisiana town remains a mystery that the townsfolk are reluctant to talk about, so Iris, her best friend, Collette, and Collette's boyfriend, Ben, set out to solve the mystery, armed with a Ouija board and a book of spells.

It's Iris and Collette's last summer to indulge in childish things. They're on the cusp of being too old for make-believe and ghost stories, but what starts of as a game of pretend turns into something real. Iris has a hard time convincing Collette and Ben that Elijah really is haunting her, and the rest of the town would rather let secrets stay in the past, especially Iris's father and Elijah's mad mother. I love stories about this in-between time, where characters are caught between childhood and adulthood. There's great tension between Iris and Collette, as Collette is the one dying to grow up while Iris still likes to indulge her childish side.

To an Australian who loves Anne Rice's books and adores Anna Paquin's twang in True Blood, Louisiana is a deliciously exotic setting. The heat, the lemonade, the way people talk. The manners! Everyone is so polite. "Yes, sir" to your father! Saundra Mitchell is an excellent writer and has great economy with words. Every sentence is a delight as each has purpose, and the dialogue is spot on. The relationship between the two girls is very realistic and amusing.

Shadowed Summer is short and sweet. Though it's a ghost story, it's more mysterious than scary. The mystery itself is easily guessed at but this book is still a delightful quick read. I think I shall make beans and rice for dinner! (A traditional Louisiana dish.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: Rampant by Diana Peterfreund

Astrid Llewellyn comes from a long line of the best unicorn hunters. When these venomous man-eating monsters reemerge from supposed extinction, the Cloisters in Rome, the traditional training ground for unicorn hunters, is reopened, and Astrid is sent reluctantly to fulfill her role in protecting humankind.

Rampant is thoroughly researched and plotted. Characterisation is excellent and there's much intrigue. The setting is rich and authentic. Much of the action takes place in Rome and there is a great sense of history and tradition, plus the attractions of gelato, fountains and Italian boys. I thoroughly enjoyed the antics of the little zhi, the house unicorn that is part pet, part training device. She's like a My Little Pony with fangs.

But overall I'm disappointed with Rampant. About halfway through I began to be frustrated by the sudden slowing of pace, Astrid going on dates rather than training for her calling, and her thorough dislike and negativity towards it. Reluctant heroes are interesting and often very relatable, but it got to the point where I felt that if Astrid doesn't care, why should I? The disorganisation of the Cloisters and the lack of training was critical to the story but meant that there was little driving the story forward except for the dates. I didn't buy Rampant to read about dating.

I also don't enjoy it when characters become a mouthpiece for the author's tastes. At one point there is a discussion of a particular sexual act that is neither inherently immoral nor dangerous, but is pronounced so by Astrid. (Pages 144-145.) The reaction, "Gross!", is exactly what you'd expect the characters to think, and it's amusing, but I'm disappointed Peterfreund couldn't just leave it at that.

Rampant was too slow. I had high hopes for it--perhaps too high, and I'm always harder on books that start brilliantly but fail to deliver.

Waiting on Wednesday (4) and a Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker

Brightly Woven, Alexandra Bracken (March 23, Egmont USA)

When Wayland North brings rain to a region that's been dry for over ten years, he's promised anything he'd like as a reward. He chooses the village elder's daughter, sixteen-year-old Sydelle Mirabel, who is a skilled weaver and has an unusual knack for repairing his magical cloaks. Though Sydelle has dreamt of escaping her home, she's hurt that her parents relinquish her so freely and finds herself awed and afraid of the slightly ragtag wizard who is unlike any of the men of magic in the tales she's heard. Still, she is drawn to this mysterious man who is fiercely protective of her and so reluctant to share his own past.

This sounds too, too pretty! It's been getting rave reviews on Goodreads too, nothing less than four stars.

And because one pretty thing deserves another, I thought I'd share with you my very favourite dance and piece of classical music from a ballet, the Final Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky. I saw this performed by the Australian Ballet School in their yearly showcase at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl several years ago (free ballet on picnic rugs! I love attending) and I was blown away by how good they were, and how magical this piece is. There were tears, but thank goodness it was so dark no one could see me having a bit of a weep. This French pair are lovely. (They shake just a teensy bit at the beginning and I almost passed this clip over, but the rest is lovely and as far as I can tell, the music is being performed live, and it's perfect.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Literature in Songs: Romeo and Juliet, Dire Straits

I've already talked about the Beauty and the Beast references in Meatloaf's "I would do anything for love (but I won't do that)" and shared The Greens Keepers' "Lotion", which draws in the book/film The Silence of the Lambs. This is becoming an unofficial series, methinks!

You promised me everything, you promised me thick and thin
Now you just say "Oh Romeo, yeah, you know I used to have a scene with him"

Today I was humming "Romeo and Juliet" by Dire Straits, a rather sad song from 1981 about lost love.

A love-struck Romeo sings the streets a serenade
Laying everybody low with a love song that he made.
Finds a streetlight, steps out of the shade
Says something like, "You and me babe, how about it?"

Juliet says, "Hey, it's Romeo, you nearly gave me a heart attack!"
He's underneath the window, she's singing, "Hey la, my boyfriend's back.
You shouldn't come around here singing up to people like that...
Anyway, what you gonna do about it?"

Rather than a literal interpretation of Shakespeare's play, the lyrics indicate that a man is pining for a woman who once loved him--presumably the love of his life--though it didn't work out. The Romeo and Juliet in the song didn't die; rather they broke up and lived on. The first two verses (above) are the man remembering how things used to be. The line, "He's underneath the window, she's singing, 'Hey la, my boyfriend's back' " is a reference not only to the balcony scene in "Romeo and Juliet" but also a 1963 pop-song by The Angels, "My Boyfriend's Back". If the song is at all autobiographical (and I haven't found any indication either way) the Angels song might indicate when the original romance took place, ie. in the sixties. Now it's the eighties, and poor old Romeo hasn't gotten over Juliet yet.

I've often thought the relationship described in "Romeo and Juliet", if it had been allowed to run it's course rather than been cut short by the characters' untimely death, would have burned out. A different interpretation of this song is that it's a sort of sequel, Mark Knopfler's (singer/songwriter of Dire Straits) extrapolation of events if things had turned out differently for Romeo and Juliet, ie. they had lived.

Juliet, when we made love, you used to cry.
You said, "I love you like the stars above, I'll love you 'til I die".
There's a place for us, you know the movie song.
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?

Grab a tissue and have a listen. The clip's a little corny and stiff, but the song itself is a gem.

What do you thing the song means? Is Juliet getting a bad rap here? Perhaps Romeo would have be the one to fall out of love first--back in love with Rosalind, whom he loved at the start of "Romeo and Juliet".

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lost in Space: Assumptions of setting in genre fiction

If I'm reading a book and and the author drops the words "joust", "castle", "squire", "knight", I can immediately place myself at a medieval joust. Knights in shining armour. Girls tying ribbons to their suitors' lances. The steep walls of the battlements. The colours, sounds and smells. I don't need too much more description. I'm there.

On the other hand, if on the first page of a book I read "jump-ship", "holoscreen", "phaser", "air-lock" all I see in my head is vague grey shapes. How big is the jump ship? What colour are the uniforms? Where in space are we? What time period? What will the phaser do to someone and what the bally dickens is a holoscreen?

As most of you know, I've started reading sci-fi recently: some Lois McMaster Bujold, Orson Scott Card and so on. It's very exciting as there's a whole new genre for me to explore. I've always been fond of sci-fi television shows and movies such as Doctor Who, Sliders, Earth 2, Battlestar Galactica and most recently V (V is so freaking awesome. More please!); the Aliens films, Event Horizon, Contact, Moon and so on. I expected that making the switch from sci-fi visual media to books would be easy as pie, but not so. I'm rather lost. The problem seems to be that authors assume that the person reading their book has read hundreds of sci-fi books before picking up theirs and they only need to drop one or two descriptive words so the reader can retrieve right sort of sci-fi setting in their mind. Um, not this little black duck. But not only that--I'm used to dealing with settings of a few hundred or thousand miles square like those in fantasy novels, not multi-planet systems and deep space. The size of things and their relation to one another is critical to my understanding and enjoyment. If the MCs travel from Vertlop to Pillon 5 by jump ship, I'd like to know, for example:
  1. Where the two planets are in relation to one another; the distance between them; their size; their atmosphere/population/composition/social organisation etc.
  2. What a jump ship looks like/how big it is/how it works/the sounds and sights that the crew will hear/how long it will take
  3. Where the crew sits/what they're doing while on board/what their uniforms look like and so on and so on.
How much time an author spends on each of these, or whether they devote any time at all, will depend on the sort of story they're writing. Of course, I don't need to know these things every time a ship makes a jump, but if the author has their MCs making jumps every few chapters, I'd like to get a sense of what it looks like, at least the first time, instead of "the ship made a jump to Pillon 5" which is wholly unsatisfying and horribly frustrating.

I think I find myself lost when reading sci-fi compared to fantasy because so much of a sci-fi setting is man-made and extra-terrestrial (ie. not of Earth). Fantasy, on the other hand, is often set in Earth-like places with historical structures, ie. the castle in a psuedo-medieval setting. Add some magic and robes and other trimmings and we're done. But battle rooms and space stations and holoscreens, they either don't exist or very few people have seen them up close. No one has been past an asteroid belt, or seen the dark side of the moon (actually someone has seen this!), or skimmed the rings of Saturn in a space ship. All these are very interesting things and places and I would love to be taken there in a book, but I need to know what they look like. If I don't, I can't imagine it and the book just flops.

I imagine my current experience would be similar to a teenager's: they won't have read hundreds of sci-fi books either; Ender's Game, for example, might be the first book of its type that they pick up. (I don't have many gripes about setting in Ender's Game, by the way, but it would have been nice to know what the human's space station was orbiting, what colour the flash suits were and a little about the bugger system. But this stuff wasn't critical to understanding; it would just have been interesting to know.) The only assumption a young adult author writing sci-fi should make about their audience, then, is that this is probably the first, or one of the first, books of its type that a given reader is picking up. Therefore, setting is critical. I've read one sci-fi book that didn't even bother to tell the reader if, in this universe, Earth exists, how far away it is and what time period it's currently at. Maybe I'm a high-maintenance reader but I think this information is important.

Consider if Isobelle Carmody, author of the Obernewtyn series, had assumed that all her readers were familiar with The Chrysalids by John Wyndham and Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien, two key post-nuclear apocalypse books for young adults, and had also lived through the Cold War--as she had. She wouldn't need to talk in detail about the wide-scale destruction of nuclear war, the mutations caused and the threat of the rediscovery of the war machines. Obernewtyn was written at the tail end of the Cold War, but one of the reasons it's still so popular today (and when I was a teenager) is because you don't have to know anything about the threat of nuclear war to understand the book. Carmody includes everything you need to know in her descriptions of the setting.

Last week I read Alien Secrets by Annette Curtis Klause, a middle-grade novel from 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?

This shall suffice as my review: it wasn't a very good book, but kudos for the cute cats and the setting. Klause gets her characters onto a space station from which their jump ship is launched (Card points out in How to Write Sci-fiction and Fantasy that this is a fuel-effective way to launch as the ship is already in space and just needs a wee push to get it going); then they fly along for a while before making the jump into hyperspace. The jumps themselves are critical to the story and Klause gives quite a lovely description of the mechanism:

"And this is the place where our jumps are co-ordinated," the captain said. "The nerve center for hyperspace navigation."

They were in front of a raised dais that held a heavily padded chair fronted by a wall of instruments that gently curved toward the seat. The arms of the chair were studded with controls.

"The hyperspace navigator negotiates the jump from here," the captain explained. "It's a delicate operation that requires vast skill and intense concentration. During the jump a force field is generated to protect the navigator from distraction ..."

"Where does he see hyperspace?" Puck asked ...

Then there's some more description and explanation, and later in the book a description of what it's like for a jump pilot in hyperspace. I could "see" everything and didn't get confused once. (Though I did get rather bored and I don't recommend this book.)

I think that making assumptions about audience is something young adult authors in particular should be careful about, whether you're writing sci-fi or fantasy or even contemporary realism. By mere fact of their age, readers will not have read as broadly as an adult. By no means should concepts be dumbed down or eliminated; but it's important to consider how they are presented.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

In My Mailbox (18) + top ten 2009 posts

This meme is hosted by The Story Siren.

This week I got one book for review, The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth (available now). Yay, Australian fantasy! Cat has already told me how good it is. It's one of my resolutions this year to read and review more Australian speculative fiction.

Hannah Rose Brown is twelve years old when she finds out that her family is cursed. Desperate to find the truth about her father' disappearance, she travels to her ancestral home in Scotland, and discover a chain of dark secrets that plunge her into different worlds, timeframes and dangers. This is another magical historical novel from the author of "The Gypsy Crown".

Top Ten Posts of 2009 (from May, when my blog started, not counting In My Mailbox posts)

1. AussieCon4: 68th World Science Fiction Convention

2. Review: The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

3. She Bop: Masturbation in YA Lit

4. Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

5. Review: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

6. REVIEW: Prophecy of the Sisters

7. INTERVIEW: Patrick Ness

8. Why I gave My Soul to Take an automatic fail

9. Review: How I Live Now

10. Dystopia Challenge Review #12: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Thanks for making 2009 an awesome year, and extra special thanks to all my followers and commenters. You rock.

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a fantastic time, whatever they did. Better Days yesterday was a lovely intimate music festival--just two stages and one bar. The rain held off until just after we left, and boy, then did it storm! If you get the chance to see a Fred Falke (France) set in the future, do. He is a very talented producer and his remixes are lovely, all hands waving in the air and smiling faces. Very gentle and sweet. Here's Fred Falke remixing Will Young's "Tell me the worst".