Thursday, 31 July 2014

G is for Green

In A Fantasy Alphabet, G is for Green by Jay Lake.


I have to admit, my interest was piqued almost as much by the negative reviews I’d seen as by the blurb of this one. So there’s proof for worried authors – even bad reviews can sell books! Since people have varied tastes, one reader’s reason for disliking a book may be exactly what someone else is looking for.

In this case, several people complained of the structure of the novel, others didn’t like the protagonist, while still others bemoaned the sado-masochism. Okay, there may have been a touch of that, but that person who complained of “bestiality”? That word – I do not think it means what you think it means, to quote Inigo Montoya. I didn’t hear any cries of “bestiality!” about the movie Avatar when the hero got it on with the pretty blue lady with the tail. In fantasy, possession of a tail doesn’t necessarily make you a “beast”.

However – moving on! Green is the story of a girl sold into slavery as a very small child and raised to be the concubine of a tyrant, and how she manages to wrest her destiny back from the control of others. “Green” is the name she gives herself when her owner names her “Emerald”, as she refuses to accept his label but has been addressed simply as “Girl” so long she’s forgotten her own name.

This is typical of her fighting spirit. Though she loses most of her native tongue and retains only the barest memories of home, she is determined to get back there. She is ruthless and single-minded, and despite all the punishment a harsh system throws at her, she never lets go of her defiance and purpose. It is ironic that those who have enslaved her are actually creating the means of their own downfall in the skills they beat into her.

I had to take a couple of runs at this one. What I expected would be the plot for the whole novel came to a sudden climax about a third of the way through. Then it seemed a whole new story started as Green moved to a different continent where she met completely new characters and developed new story goals. It was oddly unsatisfying, and I stalled there on the first read. So those reviews complaining of the structure did have something of a point.

But the writing was good and the themes interesting, so I gave it another go a few months later, and found that the story did eventually circle back around to where it started, and what had seemed a little disjointed and episodic in fact was not. You have to trust Lake on this one. He's not a formulaic writer, but he does produce a satisfying ending to an interesting story if you stick around for the whole ride. Worth persevering with.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Savage writers and gentle readers

You know how you’re reading along, enjoying a book, and all of a sudden the writer kills off your favourite character. Or something really terrible happens, and horrendous suffering ensues. Or maybe a really cute puppy gets kicked – but something the author does makes you think they must have absolutely no soul.

And when you look at the number of books out there where something gruesome and/or tragic occurs, you could be forgiven for thinking there’s a whole lotta soulless writers running around out there.

I’ve come to the conclusion (admittedly only based on a sample of one, so the data could be off) that we writers do come equipped with both hearts and souls. But writers keep their writer-selves in a separate box to their reader-selves. The kick a writer gets out of writing something horrific is very different to how they might feel confronted with reading that in someone else’s book. When you're writing you're thinking about plot and cool twists, how to make your characters suffer (because stories about happy contented people are boring), and all the technicalities of doing that in the most effective way. You're not experiencing the story and all its emotional highs and lows the way a reader coming to it fresh does.

Case in point: I’ve started revising The Twiceborn Queen, the sequel to Twiceborn. When I wrote the first draft I killed off a major character from the first book. There were good story-related reasons to do so, but honestly? I was just bored with him. I could have worked to make him more interesting, but killing him off was fun.

As a reader I hate it when sad things happen in books. I know if I bought this book expecting a fun fantasy read, only to have a favourite character from the first book die on me, I’d be disappointed and angry. It might turn me off the series.

So now I’m torn. Do I let writer-me win and keep the death? Kill, maim, destroy! Or do I bow to my gentler reader-self, and revise him back into health and happiness? No wonder people think writers are crazy: not only do we spend half our time playing with imaginary people in our heads, but we argue with ourselves too.

What about you? Does it put you off a series when a favourite character dies?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Book covers and headless bodies

How do you feel about headless bodies on book covers? Not as in decapitated and spouting blood, but the kind of cover where part of the model’s head is cut off by the top of the book.

Like this:




Or this:


Love ’em? Hate ’em? Never even thought about ’em?

There are some people (and Drama Duck is one of them) who will pass over a book if the cover shows the model’s face. They don’t like the image interfering with their own imagining of what the character looks like. I don’t know how many of these people there are, but there are enough to have spawned a trend in cover design for obscuring the model’s features. Sometimes that’s done with shadows or positioning the head at an angle, but quite often the top of the face is just chopped off.

I like both those covers I showed you, but I must admit I’m more of an “eyes are the windows to the soul” kind of person – I like to see a face. Not that it influences my buying habits at all. I’m usually drawn to colours first anyway, and if I stop for a closer look it will be the blurb and a sample of the writing that decides whether I buy or not.

But now I’m working with a designer on the cover for Twiceborn. The great thing about self-publishing rather than going with a traditional publisher is you get complete control over what your cover looks like. Trad-pubbed authors get little or no say in their cover design, and are sometimes stuck with covers they hate.

But having to make all the decisions can also be the bad thing about self-publishing! Headless or full-faced? Which do you prefer in covers? Or isn’t it important to you? (I could well be over-thinking the issue, I realise. Maybe most people really don’t care and I should just take a deep breath and move on.)

What do you think, Internets?

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Creativity just for fun

Ever get that feeling that you have too many things you have to do? Too many responsible and grown-up tasks grinding you down? That feeling can be death to the creative urge.

That’s when you need to bust out and do something completely pointless, just for fun. I found just such a thing on Lynn Viehl’s blog recently: the instructions to make a cute little “journal” of eight tiny pages from a single sheet of A4 paper.

So for a couple of hours I gave the to-do list the flick and played with pen and watercolours instead, decorating some of my favourite quotes.
  

You can see how little it is.




This was the perfect-sized project for an underdeveloped attention span like mine – quick enough to finish before I got bored and chucked it in the pile with the fifty bajillion other unfinished projects I have.


And here’s a photo of the whole thing opened out again. 



You could make copies of it this way if you wished. Pretty neat, huh? Or you could do the whole thing on the computer in the first place, and insert photos and/or text, as Lynn did in her example. Lots of possibilities for creative play!

Friday, 20 June 2014

Getting closer



My novel Twiceborn is another step closer to finding its way into the world. Yay! Do you like the new supermultigrated blurb?

I’ve just finished a big revision job: going through and adding more details.

I’m a lean writer (sadly that’s a metaphor – my jeans are getting too tight again. Damn things must have shrunk in the wash …). My natural instinct is to get to the point, not waffle on about the scenery or what people look like. Of course no one wants to read five pages describing the view, but all my beta readers agree that I go too far in the other direction.

So what started as a 60,000-word first draft, which became a 72,000-word revision and then an 82,000-word revision, is now fast closing in on 88,000 words as I flesh out the world and the story of Kate and all the other characters I’ve grown to love. (Well, some of them I don’t love, but that’s okay. You’re not meant to like the bad guys!) By this time next week this final revision should be finished, and Twiceborn will be off to a professional editor.

It’s getting closer! Close enough to start getting excited, though there’s still a lot to be done. Close enough to start imagining what it will be like to hold a book in my hands that has my name on the cover.

I could get used to this authoring stuff!


Wednesday, 18 June 2014

In which I discover the importance of checking the camera battery




This year, for the first time, we went into the city to see Vivid, which is a light show where several public buildings are lit up with spectacular effects. The most notable of them is the iconic Sydney Opera House, but naturally my camera battery chose to die the very moment I raised my camera to start taking photos of it. If you’d like to see it, check out the gorgeous photos on Patty Jansen's blog.

My goodness, you should have seen the crowds! I knew it was popular, but I didn’t expect the sheer number of people. Talk about bigger than Ben Hur!

This is Customs House, looking very different to its usual prim nineteenth century self. The kids had been unenthused about the prospect of going into town just to see some buildings lit up, but they were enthralled by the ever-changing displays.


You can hardly tell this is the same building.



This is the Museum of Contemporary Art:


It was really very clever. The Opera House was particularly beautiful. Those big white sails lend themselves very readily to this kind of thing. Shame I HAVE NO PHOTOS. Stupid battery.

I’m determined to go back next year. I might even take the good camera and tripod.

What the heck – I might even charge the #$!!@# battery.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Review: The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson


Like all Brandon Sanderson novels, The Rithmatist features an innovative magic system. The story is set in a school for young magicians, or “rithmatists”, but there are no spells and wands in sight. Instead, the implement of magical choice is a lowly piece of chalk.

With a piece of chalk, the trained rithmatist can draw all kinds of defensive and attacking circle patterns. As the name implies, these depend on good mathematical skills. But there’s also room for creativity – chalk monsters, called chalklings, can also be drawn and sent to attack the opposing rithmatist’s defences.

The budding rithmatists practise their skills in duels while at school, so they’ll be ready to use them in earnest when they graduate. There’s a war going on against wild chalklings, and the elite schooling and a life of privilege are to prepare the next generation of warriors for this war.

Our young hero, Joel, knows more about the theory of rithmatics than most of the rithmatics students, but sadly, though his chalk drawings are near-perfect, he lacks the vital spark that brings them to life. He receives mundane tuition at the pretigious Armedius Academy as a charity case, and does his utmost to sneak into rithmatics lectures, as he’s desperate to find another way into the longed-for world of the rithmatists.

When rithmatics students start to disappear in frightening circumstances, it seems he might get a chance at last. The principal assigns him to assist Professor Fitch and the police in the investigations, where Joel’s quick mind and wealth of rithmatic knowledge soon prove useful.

But it also makes him a target, and Joel soon finds there’s a lot more to rithmatics than he realised, and that the war is not so distant after all. With the help of Professor Fitch and Melody, a struggling rithmatics student who nevertheless draws very powerful chalklings, he must solve the mystery before he and Melody become the next disappearances.

It was a fun read. It’s called Young Adult, but it feels almost closer to middle grade, despite the word count and vocabulary not being middle grade level. Perhaps because, despite the sometimes dark subject matter, it never feels particularly dark? Maybe I was too distracted by my enjoyment of rithmatics, but the tone felt light, as if Joel was never in any real danger.

It’s a fairly straightforward plot, without the intricacies of a massive tome like Words of Radiance. The door is left well and truly open for a sequel, but there’s a nice resolution of the immediate story, so it’s not a cliffhanger.

Very selfishly, I wish Sanderson would stop writing everything else and just focus on the Stormlight Archive! – but if and when there is a sequel to The Rithmatist, I’ll certainly be reading it, to find out if Joel’s dreams ever do come true. An engaging fantasy, suitable for ages ten and up.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Would you read this book?

Okay, suppose you’re looking for a new urban fantasy to read. Would this blurb entice you to pick up the book?

“Whoever said ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ had never been in courier Kate Donohue’s shoes. She can’t remember anything from a special rush job this afternoon, but whatever happened must have been pretty wild, because now there’s a werewolf in her kitchen trying to kill her. And he’s just the first in line. Suddenly Kate’s running for her life, but if she doesn’t remember what happened soon, more than her life will be at stake.”

In case you haven’t guessed, I’m working on the blurb for my upcoming book, previously only known by the highly imaginative title “Dragon novel”, but now tentatively titled Twiceborn.

I feel as if that last sentence needs work. It seems to kind of fade off, but I don’t want to give too much away. Blurb-writing is harder than it looks!

Here’s another, slightly longer version, with a different last sentence:

“Whoever said ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ had never been in courier Kate Donohue’s shoes. She can’t remember anything from a special rush job this afternoon, but whatever happened must have been pretty wild, because now there’s a werewolf in her kitchen trying to kill her. And he’s just the first in line. 
It’s a nasty introduction to the hidden world of the shifters, but the news gets worse. It’s a world at war, and Kate will be a casualty if she can’t remember what happened – but first she has to live through the night.”
Any better? Worse? What do you think?

Thursday, 29 May 2014

F is for Fire

Today in A Fantasy Alphabet we arrive at the letter F. F is for Fire, by Kristin Cashore.


I read this when it first came out, and remember being lukewarm about it, but on rereading it for this series, I think that was because I wanted more of the story we got in Graceling, her first book, whereas Fire heads off in a different direction with a new set of characters, though rather loosely set in the same world.

On rereading for this series I see much to admire in the story of Fire, a human “monster” in a world where brightly coloured versions of normal creatures are insanely seductive to others, and are known as monsters. Fire’s allure is so extreme she can’t even look at herself in a mirror, as she too feels the pull of her unnatural beauty.

Everyone wants to either kill her or kiss her, and her whole life revolves around dealing with other people’s perception of her and trying to mitigate the danger to herself and others. She is seen, particularly by men, as a thing to be possessed, not a person. Hers is an extreme case, but I can see parallels with the life of even ordinary women, ever-conscious of the male gaze and its effects, how society insists on defining women as women first and anything else second, whatever their achievements.

Fire’s case could be read as an interesting metaphor for that, but this is only one of the issues Fire must grapple with. As a monster, she also has powers to coerce people to do her will, which her dead monster father used to devastating effect. Fire is terrified she too will turn out like him, a “monster” in the true sense of the word.

When Fire is forced to travel to the capital city she becomes enmeshed in the affairs of the royal family, who are working desperately to stave off civil war. The weak young king is drawn in by her beauty; his brother Prince Brigan at first despises Fire, because of the association with her father, who aided and abetted the previous king in his atrocities. Yet Fire feels a growing attraction to the prince.

But there’s little time to consider romance, whatever her heart tells her, with spies to interrogate, a civil war to avert, and many personal revelations. Fire learns that little in life is black and white, as she grapples with difficult moral questions. Is it right to use her powers, which might be considered evil (and were often used for evil by her father) if she uses them for good, to try to save the kingdom? Or does that still make her a monster? How far can she go and still live with herself? On the other hand, can she live with herself if she doesn’t use her unique abilities to save lives and help the people she cares about? She’s also concerned with questions of free will and destiny. Does her genetic heritage define her, or can she be her own person by making different decisions to those her father made? Can she atone for her father’s atrocities by her own sacrifice?

If I’m making it sound as if the book is all about debates on morality, don’t worry, there’s plenty of plot too, and some great characters. In fact the only character I could complain about is Brigan himself – he’s just too damned perfect. I love him – but the guy has absolutely no flaws, unlike nearly everyone else in the cast, who are more nuanced and believably human.

But the fact that the leading man is so wonderful is hardly a turn-off, and there’s plenty of crunchy philosophical questions to consider if a fast-moving plot isn’t enough of an enticement. I’m going to give it to my daughters to read. A very thoughtful book.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Crochet beanie

One of the best things about being a parent is getting to embarrass your children. Think of it as payback for all the scenes they caused as toddlers, or the times they repeated something they shouldn’t have, or behaved more like small ferocious animals than human beings.

I felt the urge to crochet the other night, and finished off a beanie I started last winter.


I loved the subtle colour changes of the yarn, but felt it needed something more, so I dug through my bag of flower experiments and came up with this pink and blue one. Good match, huh?

So I sewed it on, then went prancing round the house modelling my new beanie for everyone. I may have gushed a little about my pretty flower.

Drama Duck rolled her eyes in loving scorn.

“Sometimes you act just like a five-year-old,” she said.

Note to self: Must wear beanie in front of all her friends.


Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Review of The Edge of the Woods by Ceinwen Langley


On Emma’s fifth birthday, she and Mama picnic in the meadow near the village. It’s an idyllic scene, surrounded by wildflowers and dancing fireflies – until Emma strays too close to the woods and earns a smack and a stern warning. No one goes near the woods. Young girls who do have been known to disappear in the middle of the night.

But when Mama falls asleep, the fireflies lead Emma to a strange young boy making music in the woods.

By the time Emma turns seventeen she thinks the boy in the woods was just a dream. Now she’s more concerned with the very real dilemma facing her. Everyone must marry at eighteen or face a life of poverty and being shunned by the villagers. For the girls of this sexist society, it’s marriage or nothing: “Almost every adult in the village is referred to by their job, and for the women that means ‘wife’.” The problem is, there are only two boys turning eighteen, and four girls, and all the girls have more money and social standing than Emma and her widowed mother.

The village is well and truly under the thumb of the mayor, whose son is one of the available boys. The mayor is one of those people who use the rules of their religion as a weapon to control everyone else, instead of embracing its actual teachings as the compassionate and principled Emma does.

Two such opposite people are bound to clash, and at first it seems as though the mayor has all the advantages on his side. But Emma has love – the love of her mother, of her outcast friend, even of the mysterious boy in the woods – and love can be a great force for good.

This isn’t an epic story with great magics and kingdoms at stake, but Langley will have you caring very much for the fate of Emma and her little world. Her characters are real people facing difficult decisions. Some of Emma’s choices are particularly hard as they affect not only her own life but the fate of her beloved mother, and I really like that about this book. Parents are often conveniently absent in YA books, leaving the heroine free to pursue whatever excitement and/or romance she wishes without consequence, which is very unrealistic.

There is a romance, but it’s only one aspect of Emma’s life, not the be-all and end-all. Langley shows that other kinds of love are just as important, and that it’s the ties that bind us to our families, the promises we make to our friends, that really make us who we are. Emma is a strong character and a great role model. She’s tempted by the easy path, she’s almost seduced by magic, but in the end she remains true to her values and finds a way forward not only for herself but her whole community.

And what is in the woods? Perhaps not what you might expect – or, if you’ve read some of the older, darker fairy tales, perhaps it is. I was very glad there were no easy answers waiting for Emma under the trees. I enjoyed The Edge of the Woods very much. It has a very likeable heroine, a little magic and a lot of heart.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Does my butt look big in this???

The Carnivore was sorting washing when a horrified look came over his face. Horrified and really guilty.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I put your running shorts through the dryer and they’ve shrunk. I thought they’d be okay! I’m really sorry – I’ll buy you another pair.”

The Carnivore has a bit of a history of poor choices with laundry, like the time he put my handknit top in the washing machine and the sleeve unravelled all around the agitator. Or the time he washed a brand-new red T-shirt with the whites, and the “whites” all became “pinks”.

Mind you, I’m not complaining. I have a husband who helps out a lot with housework, which is great. The occasional ruined item of clothing is a small price to pay. I’m merely telling you this to set the scene.

His apologetic guilt was so amusing I was very tempted to let him suffer, but I’m not that heartless.

“It’s all right, honey. Those aren’t mine.”



Drama Duck has a pair of running shorts just like mine – only a lot smaller!

He was one relieved husband.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

5 ways running is like writing

As I shuffled down the road this morning, breathing so hard I sounded like an obscene phone call, it occurred to me that running has a lot in common with writing.

1.      I’d much rather stay in bed where it’s warm than get up and do it.

2.      I look at how far there is to go and feel certain I’ll never make it all the way to the end.

3.      Doing it is painful, but I want to keep going because the virtuous glow of achievement I get afterwards brightens my whole day.

4.      Doing it is painful – except for those rare moments that make it all worthwhile, when I feel like I’m flying and it’s so effortless I think I could go on forever. (In running, these are the downhill bits. In writing it’s generally the last few scenes as you race to the end of the book.)

5.      I know that if I persist I’ll gradually improve, so that there’ll be more flying and less painful staggering. At least I hope so!

At the moment my running prowess would probably get me a part as a zombie extra in a movie. Anyone got any good running tips for me? (Other than: don’t.)

Friday, 2 May 2014

Drama Duck gets the chop

Hair is a big deal for a teenage girl. They spend a lot of time fiddling with it, twirling it, styling it, colouring it, sucking the ends of it – and the longer the better. I think they all have a secret longing to be Rapunzel.

When Drama Duck was in Year 7 and she brought home her school photos, she had pictures of 210 girls in her year. Only one of them had short hair. It really brought home to me what a huge part of their self-image long hair is for most girls.

So when Drama Duck announced her intention to shave her beautiful hair off in support of the Leukaemia Foundation as part of the World’s Greatest Shave this year, I was a little alarmed. I’d watched her spend fifteen minutes in the bathroom every morning styling it just so. I knew how long (how very long!) it had taken her to achieve its current length. And you can’t exactly change your mind if you don’t like how it looks once you’ve shaved it off.

She had such pretty hair too!


I asked her so many times if she was really sure she wanted to do it she thought I didn’t approve. It wasn’t that at all. It’s a great cause, and if she really wanted to do it, well, it’s her hair, right? Who am I to say no? But I wanted her to be absolutely certain before taking such a big step. I was worried she’d regret it. Like any mother, I was trying to protect my baby from pain.

Well – as so often happens – I was worrying for nothing. She loves her new short hair, and it really suits her. She has such a pretty, delicate-featured face, which really shines now that mass of hair is no longer overshadowing it. Before, her hair was her defining feature; now you can really see her.


As for the fundraising? She did a great job – over $1200 raised for the Leukaemia Foundation.

And that makes her short hair even more beautiful.


Thursday, 1 May 2014

E is for Elantris: Review of Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

Today in my book review series A Fantasy Alphabet I’m looking at Elantris, the debut novel from prolific writer Brandon Sanderson.


It’s hard to believe this book was only published in 2005. Brandon Sanderson has become a huge name in the sff world since then, deservedly so in my opinion, and he has more books out than many authors who started years before him. It feels like he’s been around forever.

And some of those suckers are big – his latest, Words of Radiance, comes in at a whopping 400,000 words. So he’s certainly worked hard to get to where he is today at the top of the sff heap.

Elantris is a lot smaller than that, though still fairly meaty for a first novel, and it shows the great flair for worldbuilding that has been a large part of his success. Not that he’s not good at everything else – his plots are interesting, his characters well-realised – but it’s his worldbuilding that really stands out for me. You always know you’re going to get a really cool magic system or society in a Sanderson world, and Elantris is no exception.

The city of Elantris was once a place of wonder, inhabited by silver-skinned, god-like people. These people had once been ordinary folk, but they’d all been blessed by a random transformation that came upon them in the night. New Elantrians gave up their old life and moved to Elantris to live in bliss for eternity.

But ten years ago something went wrong, and the transformation became a sickly curse, and the power of Elantris was lost. At the beginning of the novel, Raoden, the crown prince of the neighbouring city, suddenly becomes an Elantrian, and is hurled into what is now the nightmare world of Elantris, where people exist in eternal suffering and eventually go mad.

Talk about bad timing – his fiancee, a foreign princess who he’s never met but is kind of half in love with already from their correspondence, arrives for their wedding a few days later. Poor Sarene is met with the news that her fiancee is dead, but the betrothal is nevertheless binding, so now she’s a widow in a strange city.

And it is a strange city – Raoden’s father’s only been on the throne ten years, since the revolution when Elantris fell. No one’s happy, especially not with a neighbouring country threatening war or at the least forcible conversion to their dark god. The priest Hrathen arrives to try to convert the city, and at first he seems the stereotypical “evil priest” bad guy, but there’s a lot more to him than that.

These three characters – Raoden, Sarene and Hrathen –  share the narration, and the way their stories wind around each other and ultimately collide is very well done. There’s a lot of depth to the characters, particularly Hrathen, who is the most nuanced antagonist I’ve seen in a long time. He’s not really a “bad guy” at all, just a person with a different agenda to the two protagonists.

Raoden seeks answers to his personal problems and those of his country in researching the ancient magic system of Elantris. In the process he discovers what caused the problem ten years ago and how to fix it, in a race-against-time climax that occurs as his country is invaded. The answer is very clever.

There’s a lot happening in this book – magic, romance, human relationships and their dilemmas, humour, drama and mystery – and it makes for a satisfying read. It’s like a whole three-volume fantasy saga packed into one exciting volume. If you haven’t read Sanderson before, this is a good place to start. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Sugar-free Easter egg hunt

If you were an alien observing Western culture, you could be forgiven for thinking Easter is a celebration of chocolate. I guess the chocoholics among us could argue that good chocolate is like a religious experience, but wow – does there have to be quite so much of it? My kids are inundated with enough to last for months by family members eager to spoil them.

You may recall a few years ago I decided to give up sugar. (Sadly a lot has crept back into my diet, but that’s another story.) When Easter rolled around, this posed a troubling dilemma – since they were little, I’d always done an egg hunt with them on Easter Sunday morning. They used to make and decorate their own baskets for collecting eggs, and look forward to it for weeks.

But now it felt like offering them poison – yet I loved the egg hunts as much as they did, and didn’t want to give it up. There’s something so fun about finding tricky places to hide little treasures and watching the kids run around like headless chooks looking for them.

What to do?


Enter plastic eggs from the $2 shop: a little more challenging to organise, but even more fun for the egg hunters, because they get lots of little surprises.

Buy the biggest ones you can find! These are plastic eggs Mark II; the first year I had much smaller ones, and it was a struggle to find anything small enough to fit inside them.



The other good thing about plastic eggs is you can customise each child’s little gifts by assigning them their own colour eggs to hunt for, so your son doesn’t accidentally pick up the necklace meant for your daughter, for example.


These are a good size, and it’s surprising what you can fit in them: mini torches, novelty erasers, jewellery:



A Lego minifigure! (See if you can guess which duckling that was for …)



Loom bands for Demon Duck’s latest craze:


Even a $2 coin (even the big kids like to get money).




So it does cost more than just chucking a bunch of chocolate eggs around the yard. But hey, they don’t melt in the sun, and you don’t have to try to stop the dog eating them before the hunt starts!


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

D is for Divergent: Review of Divergent by Veronica Roth

Before we begin, I have a confession to make: despite knowing full well the difference between fantasy (Magic! Wizards! Mythical beasts! Cool stuff!) and science fiction (Strange futures! Aliens! Space! Scientific cool stuff!), I seem to have stuffed up.

A Fantasy Alphabet, despite being only four books long so far, includes two books (Arclight and Divergent) which aren’t actually fantasy. They’re both dystopian sci fi. What can I say? My brain went on holidays and never came back, apparently.

However, since “A Fantasy Alphabet Which Occasionally Includes Books That Are Really Science Fiction” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, I’m sticking with “A Fantasy Alphabet”. I was so keen to read Divergent that I don’t care.

So.

Today in my book review series A Fantasy Alphabet, I’m looking at Divergent by Veronica Roth. WARNING: May Contain Traces of Science Fiction. Ahem.


Divergent is the story of sixteen-year-old Tris, who is about to face the big rite of passage of her society. The people of her world live segregated into five factions with very different outlooks on life: Abnegation, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity and Candor. At sixteen, you must choose which faction you will live with for the rest of your life, and if it’s not the same as that of the family you grew up in, then bye-bye family.

So when Tris leaves her Abnegation family for Dauntless, that seems like a big enough wrench. But her new life is complicated by the fact that she doesn’t actually fit Dauntless either. In fact her test results showed she is Divergent, ie not fitting in any one faction, but showing traits of all of them. But that’s a secret she mustn’t reveal, because people who are Divergent tend to wind up dead.

Only something strange seems to be going on over at Dauntless, and maybe Tris isn’t the only one in danger. The whole society is teetering on the brink of disaster, and Tris may be the only one who can save it …

I could see right away why they would want to make a movie of this novel. I mean, apart from the whole let’s cash in on the latest YA blockbuster thing. It has great visuals – the five factions, who all dress and behave differently, the shattered city they live in, the many stunts the Dauntless daredevils pull – scenes of ziplining off the top of skyscrapers, or climbing giant ferris wheels. Plus the many virtual reality scenes where the Dauntless initiates have to face their fears. It’ll be great fun to watch.

It was fun to read too. Like Arclight – it seems to be the fashion for this type of novel – it’s written in first person present tense, so it has that sense of immediacy and urgency about it. The reader is riding on Tris’s shoulder, experiencing everything as she does.

And of course that “everything” includes a first kiss, with a dark and brooding hero named Four. And – wonder of wonders! – only Four. There is no love triangle, which is not only a refreshing change for YA, but a much more satisfying relationship as far as I’m concerned.

It’s an interesting world, with the different factions and their political manoeuvring. Though if I was going to quibble, I’d have to say the idea of people slotted into rigid factions is the least convincing thing about the book. It makes for a great story, and provides a good way to separate the young heroine from any parental support, and I was perfectly happy to go along with it for the sake of being entertained – but it doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.

People just don’t fit into such neat boxes in reality. No one is all one thing or another. The idea that there must be something weird or “divergent” about someone who can be friendly and brave and clever and truthful and self-sacrificing instead of just one of them doesn’t jibe with what humans are really like.

Roth takes a couple of other liberties with reality too – Tris seems to grow new muscles after only a week of training, and learns to fight pretty quickly too. The baddies are pretty much unremittingly evil, in a rather over-the-top way. But Tris and Four are well-drawn, and their romance, with all its teenage uncertainties and complications, is nicely realistic.

Overall, it’s a satisfying story. I can certainly see the attraction for the teenaged market – a fascinating world, a gutsy heroine trying to save it, and an appealing romance. And you certainly don’t have to be a teenager to enjoy those things! Just don’t look too closely at the premise of the worldbuilding and go along for the ride, and you’ll be rewarded with some entertaining storytelling.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Developing a sense of humour


I came upstairs to use my computer one day and found someone was there before me. This little Ender Man obviously had a burning desire to play Minecraft. Either that or Baby Duck has a very silly sense of humour.

I didn’t say anything, just moved the Ender Man. I set him up in front of the TV, remote control in hand and 3D glasses on (do you know how hard it is to put a pair of glasses on something that has no ears or nose??). When Baby Duck came to see what I thought of his surprise he was highly amused.

That kid makes me laugh. He has quite a dry wit. Watching kids grow and develop is fascinating in many ways, and the development of a sense of humour is one of them. When they’re little they often make you laugh, but at that stage it’s unintentional (and often at their expense). By the time they start school they’re trying very hard to get a handle on how jokes work, and often failing in hilarious ways.

Demon Duck’s first attempt to make up a joke was:

Q: Why did the chicken knit a scarf?
A: To keep her eggs warm.

We still laugh about that one. The poor baby couldn’t understand why her joke wasn’t funny. By age 7 or 8 they understand what makes a joke funny, and can retell ones they’ve heard, but it’s not till about 9 or 10 that they start to come up with original situational humour.

One recent Saturday morning, Drama Duck, who is not a morning person, was flopping around on a couch resisting all efforts to get her moving. I asked her several times to get up and have breakfast, but groans were my only reply.

Her brother gave her a withering look.

“Have breakfast,” he advised. “It’s brain food. You need it.”


Friday, 28 February 2014

Of love and ransom notes

Before February slips away completely, I want to point you towards this hugely funny post by Joshilyn Jackson on Valentines Day disasters. I swear that woman writes the funniest blog on the internet.

She asked people to chime in with their own funny Valentines Day stories in the comments, which sent me on a little trip down memory lane, way waaay back, before there were any ducklings, before the Carnivore and I were even married.

To show you just how long ago this was, there were no emails. Not even – gasp! – any mobile phones. We were engaged, and the Carnivore was working in a country town a long way away. To communicate we had to write actual paper letters, and at night, after he’d finished work, he’d drive into the one tiny main street and stand in the public telephone box and chat to me.

So while he was there Valentines Day rolled around, and me being the romantic type (well, I was back then!) and missing him terribly, I bought the cutest little white bear. Between its cuddly paws it held a tiny red box covered with love hearts. I filled the box with Smarties (one of his favourites) and sent the bear.

A few days later, I got this in the mail:


 You can see why I love him. Ridiculous man. He was so proud of himself.

Don’t worry, no cute white bears were harmed in the making of this extortion attempt. He took the bear to a local craft shop and asked the lady behind the counter to make him a matching ear. When he explained why, she was so amused she added blood stains and didn’t even charge him.

Certainly a memorable Valentines Day, if a trifle … unorthodox. My husband – the last of the true romantics.

What about you? Do you have any good Valentines Day stories to share?

Thursday, 27 February 2014

C is for Chosen: Review of Chosen by Benedict Jacka

Today it’s time for the letter C in my book review series “A Fantasy Alphabet”, and the book I’ve chosen is, well, Chosen, by Benedict Jacka.


Chosen is the fourth in the Alex Verus series, about a mage living in modern London trying – and usually failing – to keep out of trouble. People always seem to be trying to kill Alex, often through no fault of his own, though there was that apprenticeship with a Dark mage that earned him a few enemies …

Now, in the fourth book, we learn much more about that long-ago apprenticeship, as the motive for the current attempts on his life are directly tied to his actions as an apprentice, despite his years of (relatively) clean living since. Alex has always been a bit of a flawed hero, and now we find out exactly how flawed.

Alex is a great character – something of an everyman, if you can overlook the fact that most regular guys can’t see the future. He’s done some bad things in his past, and now he tries to do good to balance it out, but he’s not perfect, and his good intentions are often hampered by a lack of trust from other magic users. This is the first book where he even has more than one friend, having always been a bit of an outcast.

And he’s no superman. He can’t throw fire or do anything flashy. His one power is the ability to see possible futures, which often allows for clever solutions to problems. And he needs every ounce of cleverness, as once the attacks start they keep on coming with barely a chance to catch his breath. The plot unreels at almost thriller-pace as it careers towards a surprise ending that promises a world of pain for Alex in the next novel.

The world of Chosen takes the “urban” part of “urban fantasy” seriously. London is so richly described it feels almost like another character. I love the sense of place in these novels. It feels like travelling without ever leaving home.

If you’re a fan of Ben Aaronovitch or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, you’ll love the Alex Verus novels. Chosen is a fast-paced addition to what is becoming a favourite series.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

If three wells make a river, what do three wases make?

Ah, revision – guaranteed to bring a writer’s ego crashing back to earth.

Dean Wesley Smith, a multi-published author, advises never to revise. He writes his first draft, checks for typos and publishes.

Maybe when I’ve written as many books as he has I’ll be able to do the same, but for now I think my readers (and my reputation as a writer) will be better served by removing some of the first-draft suckitude from my manuscript. And even the second-draft suckitude.

I was still finding gems on the second revision pass. The prize for most uses of one word in the same short sentence goes to:

“The worst part was, he was probably right, but I was out of options.”

That’s three occurrences of the word “was” in a total fourteen words, or 21%. Not bad, eh?

“Was” is a particular problem child of mine. I’m aware that when I’m writing first draft, creating the story, I tend to overuse basic sentence structures like “there was a something-or-other”. That’s fine. First draft isn’t meant to be about crafting beautiful prose. First draft is when I’m discovering the story, dealing with plot and characters and “big picture” issues, and I don’t want to break the creative flow by considering syntax too much.

But it means I end up with a lot of sentences like: “There was a lot of junk in the drawer.” That’s a grammatically correct sentence that conveys the necessary information, but it’s passive and dull. Too many of those suck the life out of your story. A better sentence would be something like: “The drawer bulged with junk”, which brings a picture to life in the reader’s mind.

Which is where revision comes in!

In revision “he was much taller than me” becomes “he towered over me”. “I should know what this little piece of rock was” becomes “I should recognise this little piece of rock”.

Cool, isn’t it? Swap out “was” for a more active verb, and the writing automatically improves.

After I’d finished two major revision passes through the novel I went hunting specific words. “Was” occurred 1467 times. Eek! Obviously a lot of those had to stay, but the tired old “there was a something” ones came out. I managed to kill off almost 300 of those suckers.

“Just” is another one I can’t seem to resist. There were 240 of those. That shows up a lot! The Find function commented jauntily. Rude piece of software. Bet it had a conniption when it counted the “wases”.

Actually I was expecting a lot more “justs”, though I did nuke what felt like a thousand of them on the second revision, so that might explain it.

The manuscript is just about ready (see? those pesky “justs” sneak in everywhere) to show to my beta readers. I’m pleased but frankly astonished to have made it this far – a real live almost-finished book! One small step for man, one giant leap for procrastinators.

Fingers crossed they don’t want me to rewrite the whole thing. Or add any wases.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

B is for Blackbirds: Review of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Today, somewhat belatedly, we arrive at the letter B in my review series “A Fantasy Alphabet”, with Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig.


First up, don’t you love that cover? A clever and intriguing piece of artwork, with the title popping out as the only touch of colour. Very eye-catching.

It’s a clever premise too, and one that had me itching to read this book: whenever Miriam Black touches another person’s skin she experiences a vision of their death. She knows the cause, the date and time down to the minute, but not the place. She’s also learned, from bitter experience, that she can’t do anything to save anyone.

Naturally this has left her rather antisocial, to put it mildly. She’s damaged and embittered, living the life of a drifter, never getting close to anyone. She battles her misery with alcohol and a biting dark humour that brings some relief to the relentless gloom of the first-person narrative.

One night she hitches a ride with a truck driver called Louis, who seems like a genuine nice guy. Only problem is, when she touches his hand and sees his imminent gruesome murder, he’s calling her name as he dies. And then she meets other people, and begins to see how she might be involved, and realises Louis’ death scene might be her own too, if she doesn’t somehow save him.

This is a real and gritty adventure through the seamier side of life. If swearing in books bothers you, you won’t like Miriam. Of course, you may not like Miriam much anyway – she’s prickly and difficult to like, even though you can see her prickliness is a shield, and you certainly feel for the terrible situation she’s in.

Her great redeeming feature is her sense of humour, which often made me laugh. Chapter 10, for instance, is titled “The sun can go fuck itself”. Chapter 11 is “The Sunshine CafĂ© can go fuck itself equally”. Though the humour is dark, without it I don’t know whether I could have finished the book. The pace is relentless, and seems to be racing Miriam and the reader to a terrible inevitable ending. As a person who usually reads lighter fare, the sense of impending doom hanging over the story filled me with dread.

That’s not a criticism, of course – when a book makes you feel something so strongly, the writer’s done a good job. And a reasonable person wouldn’t expect a read full of sunshine and roses from a story about someone surrounded by constant death.

It was a relief, though, to find some light at the end of the tunnel after all, and a ray of hope for Miriam, whose basic decency finally manages to claw its way free from her hard shell and arrest the story’s terrible downward spiral. Certainly not a Happily Ever After, which wouldn’t have suited the tone of the book at all, but a hint of redemption that raises interesting possibilities for the next book in the series.

“Grimdark” is a subgenre of fantasy that’s big at the moment, due to the popularity of authors like Joe Abercrombie and George RR Martin, but usually appears in epic fantasy, in medieval-type secondary worlds. I haven’t seen it used in urban fantasy like this before. (It may have, of course – I’m not claiming to be familiar with the entirety of the urban fantasy genre – but it was a new experience for me.)

If you like your fantasy grim and edgy but you’re tired of the swords-and-sorcery flavour, Blackbirds could be a good choice for you. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a well-written, immersive experience.
  

Next up in “A Fantasy Alphabet”: C is for Chosen.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Focused writing demons



This is the first sentence of my still-nameless Dragon novel. This is about the fourth first sentence I’ve tried, and doubtless won’t be the last.

So, yeah – hi! This is me waving to you from the wilds of Revisionland. How’s it all going, you ask? Not too foul, if you can overlook the whole but we still don’t have a name for the damned book thing. I finally made it all the way through the first pass of revision, which is a new achievement for me. I usually give up long before this stage. See? Progress!

Now I’m doing a second pass, adding in setting details (since I always forget to put those in) and generally smoothing things over, making the writing prettiful, ensuring people’s eyes don’t mysteriously change colour halfway through, things like that.

I’ve written up a very Serious and Responsible Writing Schedule for the year, according to which I will have this revision finished by the end of next week. I must have been feeling very energetic the day I wrote that schedule! It says I’m going to write four novels this year.

Maybe I was temporarily possessed? If so, I hope that highly focused writing-machine-demon intends to come back and finish the job. I’m not sure I can manage it on my own.

Still, I find that even if your plans are a tad, shall we say? – optimistic – you generally get a lot more done when you have a plan than when you just mosey along without one, even if you don’t achieve everything you hoped to.

So that’s the … er …. plan. Finish this round of revisions by the end of next week and get this nameless sucker out to some beta readers.

Or else the Demons of Intense Writing Focus will steal my soul.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Joining the ebook revolution: confessions of a former Kindlephobe

Or maybe that should be evolution? It’s not as if people are barricading the streets and firing e-readers at each other. Ebooks are just another means to deliver story, no scarier than listening to audiobooks.

And yet, I was scared.

I received a Kindle for Christmas. Not this Christmas just past – the one before. For reasons I don’t really understand, I left that Kindle sitting in its box for a whole year. I was scared to open it.

I know it sounds ridiculous. It does to me too. I’m a normal competent human being. I quite enjoy learning new things and I’m not scared of computers. Somehow it just seemed too daunting. I’d have to create an Amazon account, and probably give them all this personal information that I hate giving out. (Amazing, I know. I must be one of the few people left in the western world who didn’t already have an account with Amazon.) I’d have to figure out how to drive the stupid thing, and there were sure to be technical hiccups and besides I had so many books to read I didn’t need ebooks as well …

Halfway through the year Demon Duck asked if she could at least open the box and look at it, but I wouldn’t let her, as if it were some bomb that would go off if handled. And all year, every time I walked past and noticed the thing, still sitting where I’d left it when I unwrapped it on Christmas day (I couldn’t even move it – how weird is that??), I felt guilty that this generous present was sitting there unused.

And yes, I’m aware of the irony that this person scared of the big bad e-reader is the same person who wants to publish her writing as ebooks.

Finally, when Christmas had come and gone again, I forced myself to Open the Damn Box Already and set up the Kindle. If this is going to be the year I start publishing, then first I have to at least see what an ebook looks like! And yes, there were technical hiccups, but no, the world didn’t end when I downloaded my first ebook.

In fact, I started to enjoy myself.

I’ve always had a bit of a weakness for instant gratification. And it doesn’t come any more instant than this – decide on a book you’d like to read, click the button and abracadabra! Within seconds it appears on your e-reader, ready to enjoy.

It’s magic.

I got such a childish thrill out of it that I changed the name of my Kindle. Now, whenever I acquire a new book, I get the even more childish amusement of Amazon solemnly informing me that it is sending my purchase to “Marina’s Magic Book Box”. It makes me smile every time.

At the moment the Magic Book Box has about ten books loaded on to it. The first one I read was Lindsay Buroker’s The Emperor’s Edge, which is self-published. It’s a great read, but I can see why traditional publishing might have been reluctant to take it on. It’s a fantasy where the protagonist uses economic means rather than military or magical might to combat the bad guys. I was expecting the typical quest and swordplay, and it caught me by surprise. Refreshingly different, with good characters and snappy dialogue. You can try it for free, and there’s plenty more in the series if you like it. I’ve already bought the second one.

So I guess I’m a convert. I still love paper books, but there’s no need to choose. It’s not an either/or scenario. Paper, audio, ebooks, whatever they come up with in the future – they’re all just the delivery system.

It’s the story that counts.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

A is for Arclight: Review of Arclight by Josin L McQuein

Welcome to my new book review project: A Fantasy Alphabet. Note that that is “A” Fantasy Alphabet, not “The” Fantasy Alphabet. I’m not suggesting some definitive list of fantasy books here, merely wending my way through the alphabet choosing, in the main, current fantasy novels that I’m eager to read. (Though I’m not promising they’ll all be new. A few old favourites may sneak in, particularly with some of the more difficult letters!)

To kick off the series we have Arclight by Josin L McQuein, a Young Adult dystopian fantasy. Dystopia is big in YA at the moment, maybe because of the success of The Hunger Games, or perhaps just catching the mood of the times.



Reading the back cover copy, this one sounds almost more like horror:

“The first rule of Arclight: Light is safety. Light is life. The second: Never go outside alone. The third: No one ever comes back from the dark. But Marina did …”

Score!! How could I put it back on the shelf? You know how many books I’ve read where the main character shared my name? Out of all the tens of thousands I must have read in my lifetime? That’s right. None. The Jacks of the world have got it good. Every second damn thriller is about them. But us Marinas? We are a sadly neglected lot.

Look, I’m not a complete dag (quiet, you in the back row!). The book sounded interesting and I would have bought it anyway. I promise you will still enjoy this book even if you are not lucky enough to be named Marina. But it did kind of sweeten the deal for me.

Marina narrates her story in first person present tense (now it sounds like I’m talking about myself …). Sometimes this comes across as a little over the top, as in the opening paragraph:

“Someone’s attention shouldn’t have physical weight, but it does. Hate’s a heavy burden: hope is worse. It’s a mix of the two that beats against my skin as my classmates condemn me …”

But most of the time it has the effect of keeping us firmly with the character, feeling that we are experiencing her story with her as it happens.

And the story is a cracker, with some really juicy twists to it. Even better, Marina has amnesia, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know how much I love stories where the main character has forgotten their life. They always discover such terrible secrets lurking in their lost memories, and Arclight is no exception.

There’s also a love triangle, with Marina torn between two romantic possibilities, which is a popular trope in YA fiction. Normally I find them annoying. No one would really want to be in such a terrible situation, knowing that whoever they choose, someone else they love will be hurt. Yet so many books make it seem desirable.

However, in Arclight, there is a good logical reason for the situation, not just an indecisive teen trying to decide between two hot boys, and it makes the situation especially poignant. Apparently there is a sequel coming. I’ll be interested to see where McQuein takes the story, but this book is complete in itself (unlike some other YA titles which have simply stopped partway through the story and left you hanging until the next book – something that makes me a Very Cranky Reader).

So: where did Marina come from? How did she survive the Dark? Read Arclight by Josin L McQuein and enjoy uncovering the answers. But remember: “No one is safe when the lights go out.”

Next up in A Fantasy Alphabet: B is for Blackbirds.