Friday, 10 October 2014

3 ways to liven up your next dinner conversation

We are big believers in sitting down every night together for dinner and chatting. The ducklings are old enough now to be amusing dinner companions, and we have some good conversations, despite Baby Duck’s occasional derailments into Minecraft or Lego territory.

However, Baby Duck can sometimes take a loooooong time to eat dinner, and even the best conversations tend to trail off, leaving us all staring resentfully at him, waiting for him to finish. When that happens we have to get a little creative, and we have three tried-and-true methods for getting the party started.

Charades


An oldie but a goodie. Maybe it’s corny, but it sure can be fun and even quite young kids can join in. I have rarely laughed so much as watching the Carnivore try to get us to guess “The Bourne Identity”. What he was doing looked illegal in at least forty-three states.

“Three True Things”


I don’t know what this is really called, but I call it “three true things”. Everyone has to take it in turns to say three things that happened to them that day. Two of them must be true and one should be a lie. Everyone else then picks which thing they think is the lie.

The kids love this one! The trick is to make the lie believable enough that no one identifies it – or else pick a true thing that seems outrageous. The family gets quite creative trying to outsmart each other, but it’s also a good way to get some details of your children’s days, particularly if they’re the sort that says “all right” when you ask how school was.

The Sentence Game


I read about this on Joshilyn Jackson's blog recently. You need a sheet of paper and a pen. The first player writes a sentence at the top of the page – the more oddball the better. Then they fold that sentence out of sight and pass the paper to the next player, who reads it then attempts to draw a picture representing the sentence. This gets passed to the next player, who can only see the drawing, not the original sentence. They then have to write a sentence that represents the drawing, and pass it to the next player who draws their sentence and so on.

So with our family of five, we get sentence-drawing-sentence-drawing-sentence. Depending on whose turn it is to draw, the final sentence can closely resemble the first one, or have nothing at all to do with it.

Let me give you an example.

Demon Duck wrote: “The Neanderthal came alive out of the painting” and passed it to Baby Duck.

He did a real cracker of a drawing, with lots of careful details:



So the sentence I wrote was quite close to the original: “The caveman jumped out of the painting and came to life.”

Then we came unstuck. It was the Carnivore’s turn to draw:


 Not too bad, but he lost Drama Duck completely. Her sentence?

“The cave painting of the goat and the sheep(?) and the early human sent an arrow of super powers to the caveman nearby.”

Okay, now it’s your turn. Baby Duck gave me a sentence and this is what I drew. What sentence would you write to describe this drawing?


Thursday, 18 September 2014

3 great writing tips from Baby Duck

Baby Duck and I were chatting about writing on the walk to school this morning. I said I was hoping to get a fair bit done on book 3 of the Twiceborn trilogy today, since yesterday was the first day I’d worked on it since Friday, and I only got about 1100 words done.

“So are you going to start writing as soon as you get home?” he asked.

Low blow! This kid knows me too well.

“You should do that instead of spending all your time reading random websites on the internet, you know.”

Yes, I do know. In fact I tell myself so many times every day. I thought about telling him I was building up my presence on social media, but I knew he wouldn’t accept any such namby-pamby excuse. Writers write!

Except, you know, when they don’t …

“Sometimes it’s not so easy to just sit down and write,” I said. “You have to know what you’re going to write first, and I’m not too sure yet where the story is going.”

“Then why didn’t you spend time on the days you didn’t write thinking about the plot?” he asked.

This is why Baby Duck will probably be a better writer than me one day. This kid is organised. I mean, scary organised. He comes home every day and sits straight down and does his homework without being told. He starts his assignments weeks in advance. Weeks! It’s not natural!

I flailed around a bit more, put on the spot by my eleven-year-old son.

“Well, I know what’s going to happen in a general way. But it’s hard to plan, at the really detailed level you need for scene-writing, exactly what’s going to happen. Whenever I start thinking about it I usually get distracted by a million other things.”

“You should start at the end and work backwards,” he said. “Then you’ll know where you have to end up.”

So there you have it, straight from the mouth of my tiny writing guru:

  1.        Resist the temptation to goof off on the internet. When it’s time to write, write.
  2.        In between writing sessions, plan what to write next.
  3.        If you get stuck with plotting forwards, work backwards from the end instead.


I should hire the kid out to writers’ conferences.

What about you? Do you have any good writing tips? Anything that works for you as motivation, or to get you past a blockage? Struggling writer wants to know!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The bathroom: most creative room in the house














I was going to say it was the “most productive” room in the house, but I didn’t want anyone leaping to the wrong conclusion.

Baby Duck came in as I started writing this post.

“Why is it the most creative room in the house? Oh, I guess because you spend so much time sitting there.” Then the most evil grin spread across his face. “Or should I say …”

I quickly cut him off. “Sitting is fine.”

Cheeky kid.

“Where do you get your ideas?” is a question writers hear a lot. My number one answer in general is “in the bath”. When I’m drafting a novel I hop into the bath nearly every night. Something about the relaxation of it – or maybe the sheer boredom of sitting there with nothing to do or look at – prompts the ideas to flow. I can almost always rely on a nice long bath to give me a breakthrough when I don’t know where the story is going next.

But that’s in general. Today I want to tell you about the time when a bathroom gave me a very specific idea, which became the genesis of my forthcoming novel Twiceborn.

It was on a visit to a Gold Class cinema. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re a very swish movie-going experience. There are only about forty seats in the whole theatre, and they’re big reclining armchairs grouped in pairs with a table between them. There’s a separate bar area where you can order meals and drinks to be brought to you during the movie. Obviously it’s more expensive than a regular trip to the cinema, but it’s a nice luxury for the occasional treat.

They also have separate toilets, which are a lot more upmarket than the ones for general movie-goers. Spacious and gleaming, they feature beautiful tiles, automatic taps – and the ones at our local Gold Class have the most enormous stalls. The first time I visited one I remember thinking, wow, these are like personal change rooms. You could do anything in here!

Which of course started the wheels in my little writer’s brain turning over. I pictured a pregnant woman entering such a stall, then stripping off her clothes to reveal the pregnancy was only a prosthesis, which she then removed. Then she dressed in a new outfit, complete with wig, and walked out of the bathroom a completely different woman to the one who walked in, deceiving the people who were watching for her.

Who was this woman? Who was following her and why? I knew she was in danger, but not what form the threat took.

I needed a lot more ideas to make a book, but that’s how books grow. You start with one little glimmering of an idea, then you hurl a whole bunch of other ideas at it, till something new and sparkly results from the collision.

That scene in the bathroom became part of the first scene of Twiceborn. A whole 90,000- word novel resulted from one moment of marvelling at the size of the Gold Class bathroom stalls.

Best bathroom visit ever.

Where do you do your best thinking? Ever had a great idea in a really odd place?


Friday, 29 August 2014

"Cheese that's whipped excites me" and other misheard song lyrics

When I was young, one of my brother’s favourite albums was “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings. My dad happily sang along to the title track “Sand on the Rug”.

Of course, being the annoying person that he was, he continued to sing this just to be irritating even after it was pointed out to him that he’d misheard the lyrics.

Everyone’s probably done this at some stage (misheard song lyrics, that is, not intentionally set out to annoy their offspring). After all, pop singers don’t always have the best diction, even when they’re not purposely mangling words to fit a rhyme or rhythm. Yes, I’m looking at you, Mr Elton Extra-Syllable John. “No Sac-ar-i-fice” indeed!

I was guilty of it myself only this week. The girls and I were discussing current songs and “All About That Bass” came up. I’m busy singing “I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, no trouble” when Drama Duck gives me a pitying look.

“You know it’s actually ‘no treble’, don’t you?” she says.

Hey, that makes so much more sense!! But honestly, have you heard that song? It still sounds like “trouble” to me!

It wouldn’t be the first time. I have a long history, dating back to my preschool days, of blithely singing something that’s completely wrong.

There used to be a show called “Romper Room” on TV back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Every day they did the same activities, sang the same songs, and I happily followed along. One song they sang began: “Bend and stretch, reach for the stars”, and I always sang the next line “Here comes Juicily, there goes Lars”. Despite my mother’s best efforts, she could never convince me that the words were actually “Here comes Jupiter, there goes Mars”.

Demon Duck cracked me up recently by confessing she’d made a mistake with the lyrics of Rihanna’s song S&M. There’s a line that goes “sticks and stones may break my bones but chains and whips excite me”. One of her friends had heard her singing it and pointed out that Rihanna is not, in fact, excited by “cheese that’s whipped”, as she had thought.

What about you? Any misheard lyrics you’d like to ’fess up to? Don’t tell me it’s just my family!

Monday, 25 August 2014

Dr Who and the Disappointing Dinosaur

Well, the new season of Dr Who premiered last night, complete with new Doctor Peter Capaldi. The verdict at our house? Overall, a resounding “meh”.

Baby Duck thought it was great, but his logic works like this: I love Dr Who. This was Dr Who. Therefore I loved it.

The Carnivore, about halfway through the episode, said: “If this was my first ever episode of Dr Who, I’d never watch it again.” Ouch.

I’m keeping an open mind about Peter Capaldi. He spent a lot of this first episode dazed and demented from his regeneration, so we don’t have a clear handle yet on how he’s going to play the role. There were some amusing one-liners and a great rant that give me hope I may one day come to accept the loss of Matt Smith (sob).

But the writers did him no favours, with a pretty ho-hum episode. It started off quite promising, with the Tardis arriving in Victorian London inside a time-travelling T-rex, which then chucked it up into the Thames.

Cool! You can’t get a much more dramatic entry than that. Plus, what’s not to love about a dinosaur in Victorian London? I was intrigued to see where they were going with this.

Sadly, the answer was “nowhere”. The dinosaur played no more part in a story that dragged its way through many not-very-exciting conversations to arrive at last at a mildly interesting cyborg plot.

The whole dinosaur thing reminded me very much of how the advice to “start your story with action” is sometimes misinterpreted by beginning writers. It can’t just be action for its own sake, and it mustn’t be action that has nothing to do with the bulk of the story which follows. No high speed car chases that turn out to be dreams, or murder scenes which are actually something being watched on TV by the main character.

No dinosaurs which have nothing to do with the rest of the plot.

The writers of Dr Who are definitely not beginners, which makes it all the more surprising. Let’s hope the rest of the season only has surprises of the good kind.

Did you watch it? What did you think?

Friday, 22 August 2014

Even dragons have to cut their toenails


This is the very first dragon I ever bought myself, in those long-ago days BC (Before Children), so I guess you could say this little guy kicked off the collection. We were on a romantic weekend away at a very swish hotel in the Blue Mountains. It must have been winter, because it was snowing when we arrived late on Friday night, which is something we Sydney-siders rarely get to see, and a huge log fire burned in the massive fireplace in the foyer.

The Blue Mountains are only about an hour’s drive from where we live, but they feel like another world. They’re much higher and colder than Sydney, so they get the occasional snowfall in winter. They also feel about fifty years behind the rest of the world in terms of architecture and the pace of life there. Little towns are scattered among thousands of hectares of largely untouched bushland. There are no Macdonalds anywhere in the Blue Mountains, a fact of which the residents are very proud.

It was all very atmospheric, but so f-f-freezing outside that we spent nearly the whole weekend in the hotel. Browsing in the gift shop, we found some quirky little dragon statues. There’s a  big artist community in the Blue Mountains, so I’ve always assumed they were made by some talented local, though I don’t know for sure.

I couldn’t resist the absurdity of this one, sitting there cutting his toenails with such a look of concentration on his face. I guess dragons can’t spend all their lives terrorising castles and kidnapping princesses. At the end of the day, someone still has to do all those domestic duties, like cleaning the lair, bathing the baby dragons, and attending to matters of personal grooming.

This one looks so comical he always makes me smile. He also reminds me of a time when romantic weekend getaways for two were still an option.

The Blue Mountains feature in my forthcoming novel, Twiceborn – complete with dragon. Not the cute kind that sits around cutting its toenails, though! The beautiful Mountains take quite a beating – all that bushland plus dragonfire ... not a good combination.

But if you think that’s bad, wait till you see what happens to the Sydney Harbour Bridge!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Dragons of New Motherhood and Sleep Deprivation

I’ve been a big fan of dragons for as long as I can remember. Sure, I wouldn’t want to meet one in a dark alley, but in books, movies and art I find these overgrown lizards endlessly fascinating. Years ago I started collecting dragon statues. I thought I might share a few with you, and the stories behind them.

First up, meet the dragons of New Motherhood and Sleep Deprivation.



These were a gift from the Carnivore, our first Christmas as new parents. Drama Duck was about eight weeks old at the time, and we’d just spent probably the longest six weeks of our lives coming to grips with this new little person in our lives.

This new little person who categorically refused to sleep.

It turned out the poor little mite had silent reflux, so every time we laid her down to sleep her gastric juices rose up and burned her oesophagus. But because there were no outward signs (hence the “silent” part of silent reflux) we had no idea and were at our wits’ end. The Carnivore spent hours every night rocking with her in the rocking chair and reciting accounting principles in the hope of boring her to sleep. (She now says this is the root of her dislike of maths!)

I remember one horrendous day when she cried for nearly twelve hours straight, only stopping for feeds. I was beside myself. My mother-in-law arrived after a teary phone call to find me sobbing on my bed. She took the baby so I could eat and reassured me that things would get better.

I found it hard to believe at the time! But at the six-week check-up with the paediatrician, he diagnosed the problem and things rapidly improved.

But I’ll never forget that feeling: hormones running rampant, consumed with worry and overwhelmed by being responsible for a helpless beloved baby – and trying to function on about three hours’ (broken) sleep a night. New motherhood can certainly be challenging, particularly with your first. You have no idea what you’re doing, and can hardly believe they let such an unqualified person leave the hospital with this precious but perplexing little creature.

But by the time Christmas rolled around we’d started to get the hang of this whole parenting thing, and I was thrilled to receive this gorgeous dragon mum and her new hatchling. They came from a glass blower in The Rocks in Sydney, so they’re one of a kind, and a lovely reminder of a special time in our lives. Becoming a mother for the first time is a shock no amount of preparation can ready you for – but it also brings a joy you could never imagine.

I don’t know how dragons feel about it, but that mum looks pretty pleased with her little one. Maybe baby dragons are good sleepers?

What about you? Do you collect anything? Stamps, buttons, tea cups? Anything unusual? (You can tell me, I promise to keep it a secret!)

Or do you have any “new baby” stories to share? If you’re a new mum, congratulations … and I hope your little one is a good sleeper!

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Elsewhere, on the glorious Internet ...

Haven’t done one of these posts for a while! Baby Duck doesn’t like too many linktastic posts, and since he’s my main audience I like to keep him happy! But I’ve come across some interesting tidbits in my travels across the glorious Internet this week, so I thought I’d share them with you.

First some exciting news for Baby Duck and the legions of Dr Who fans out there: the new series starts in Australia on Sunday 24th August! I have a worrying suspicion that I won’t like Peter Capaldi as much as Matt Smith, but I’m keeping an open mind. The BBC has some photos from the first feature-length episode “Deep Breath” here.

Next, something that would have rocked my teenage self to the core: the dragonriders of Pern may be coming to the big screen! Warner Bros has optioned the whole series. Admittedly, movie options come and go all the time, and don’t necessarily lead to a movie, but still! I think it was the Pern books more than anything else that fostered my lifelong obsession with dragons. One day not too far away there will be a new dragon book in the world, written by yours truly, and Anne MacCaffrey’s marvellous series is partly to blame.

And speaking of writing: Tansy Rayner Roberts does a great interview with writer Foz Meadows as part of the ongoing “Snapshots” series. Foz voices her disquiet with the idea that everything about your life pre-baby should cease to matter once you become a mother. “You can love your children without being ready or willing to sacrifice the most integral parts of yourself on the altar of motherhood.”

This really resonated with me. My children are the focus of my life, but even so I was hanging out for Baby Duck to start school so I could start writing again. In the end I couldn’t wait that long, and snatched writing time while he was at preschool or watching TV. It’s so important to have some identity other than “mother”. I think it’s good for the kids too, to see that mum is a real person with goals and dreams that don’t revolve around them.
  
Real people – even grown-up people – should have a little fun in their lives too. Author Kristen Lamb discusses the lack of "play time" in the lives of adults and is very wise on how our modern “all work and no play” culture is bad for creativity.

But luckily, creativity isn’t dead! For a beautiful burst of colour, check out Faith’s gorgeous quilt. It’s a fresh modern take on the old faithful “flying geese” pattern. Love it!

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.